Digging through the archive

Having dispatched the book manuscript on Salis Daiches for external review, I am now turning my research attention fully to the Dorrith Sim Collection (DMSC). Already at the end of December I begun systematically to transcribe parts of this collection. This is, of course, to assist me in understanding the archive and making connections between its different parts, and the wider context in which the collection acquires meaning. To this end, I am feeding my transcriptions into a database, so I can search for keywords, annotate the documents and establish networks of connections. I developed a workflow from the photograph of document via a spreadsheet with a short description to an rtf file with the full text of the photograph. The spreadsheet will assist the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre (SJAC) in fully cataloguing the DMSC.

Transcription strikes me as a meditative process. Alone with the text, the words on the page give rise to my imagination about the production of these documents, their assembly, storage, care, and eventual deposit in the SJAC, and me and others accessing them. The documents I transcribed at the end of last week were lists of household items and valuables of Alma and Julius Oppenheim, Dorrith’s grandparents, assembled in late 1938 – early 1939 in preparation for their emigration to Canada. Thus a household is laid bare, every item inventarised as it is packed into boxes for shipping, or is taken to the pawnbroker to raise funds for the passage and setting up a new existence on the other side of the Atlantic. There is an intimacy to the lists: I learn all the details of tableware and linen accumulated across what feels generations – how many different kinds of napkin are there? Towels ‘in use’ and ‘new’, are meticulously listed, as are varieties of curtains. There is a comparative modesty about the number of undergarments and pyjamas packed in relation to the quantities of table and bed-linen. The lists of silver and gold items are of an intimacy of a different kind. We see here not only cutlery and serving platters, but family traditions and heirlooms being handed over: each of Alma and Julius’ children received their own children’s cutlery set and beaker, engraved with their names. Jewellery was modest, but certainly meaningful and precious: wedding bands are handed over to gain permission to leave.

These lists were, of course, part of the cruel and dehumanising ritual Jews emigrating from Nazi Germany after 1938 had to conform to in order to receive permission to emigrate. They are testimony to the actions of the regime in pushing Jews out of society and holding Jews accountable for leaving Germany. As Marion Kaplan writes in her seminal study Between Dignity and Despair:

To emigrate with one’s belongings, one had to receive a permit from the Finance Department. This permit was obtainable only after preparing lists of all the items one wished to take. Lisa Brauer spent an entire week writing ‘endless lists, in five copies each … every item entered, every list neatly typed, and in the end I could only speak and breathe and think in shoes, towels, scissors, soap and scarves.’ (133)

I wonder, however, whether these lists are not also witnessing something else: it may just be that listing every single household item to be taken overseas, was also an act of resistance, or, indeed, multiple acts of resistance. It was possible perhaps, it seems to me, in these vast, itemised lists, to hide possessions one would not be permitted to take, such as valuables. And even if no attempt at hiding precious items was made, the simple act of listing everything from tattered cleaning rags to silk pyjamas, and to take all of it into a new life abroad can, I think, be read as an act which preserved dignity: taking away with oneself every last scrap of one’s existence from the country that so clearly did not want Jews present in its society, and claiming threadbare linen, mended multiple times, as one’s own exposed the absurdity of these lists, and also may have functioned as a final ironic salute to the German authorities who had invented these.