Of letters and their readers

As my transcription project progresses, I thought I would write on a ‘document of the month’ to keep readers updated on what happens in my engagement with archive of Dorrith Sim.

The past month has been dedicated to the transcription of correspondence of the 1930s. Dorrith’s uncle, Ernst Oppenheim, had the foresight to set up an independent existence in Canada by extending his stay in 1936 to found a wood import business. As his business thrived and showed promise to add exports from Canada to Europe, he gained permission to remain and by 1938 was settled in Toronto. In November 1938, following the pogroms of 9 and 10 November across Germany, he applied for his parents, Julius and Alma Oppenheim, to join him permanently as his dependents. The Canadian authorities granted this, providing that no other members of his family sought to come to Canada as well. While sorting the Canadian side of the immigration process for his parents, Ernst applied for his brother Hans and his family (wife Trude, and daughter Dorrith), and his sister Alice, to immigrate to the United States. To do so, Ernst travelled across the American East Coast to secure affidavits, putting his savings for a business trip to Europe into the quest to save his family.

In November and December of 1938 a flurry of correspondence flies across the Atlantic, by letter and telegram, explaining, pleading, making plans, exploring options. It appears that the family in Kassel  – that is Ernst’s parents and siblings – made a concrete decision to emigrate following the November pogroms. While they may have talked about the possibility beforehand, actual steps towards emigration were taken only from mid-November 1938, including Hans’ application to the American Consul General in Stuttgart for a visa to the United States for himself, his wife and daughter. Accordingly, the place on the waiting list for their case to be heard was low, their number projected to be called only in summer 1940. Ernst is able to conclude all Canadian processes for immigration of his parents by the end of December 1938. Then it was up to his parents and siblings to complete the necessary steps towards emigration from Germany.

What strikes me about the correspondence of 1938, which I am about to conclude transcribing, is the difference in perception of the situation on both sides of the Atlantic. Ernst is coming across as very energetic, driven by his understanding of the urgency of enabling his parents to flee and helping his siblings to exit Germany. He has acculturated to North America, a point he repeatedly makes, and is accordingly ‘pushy’ and direct in dealing with authorities, recommending that Hans just goes and sees the Consul General, or at least gets a phone appointment with him, or otherwise directly, and in no uncertain terms, makes his needs known. The worst that can happen is that you get a ‘no’, is Ernst’s advice. Ernst’s letters to Hans and Julius, in particular, show a sense of disbelief at what he perceives to be his brother’s and father’s laid back attitude. He suggests that he feels they are too ‘cosy’ in Kassel, and that they lack a sense of urgency. Julius writes that his medical practice is now very busy, much more so than it was throughout the majority of his career, seeing that now the Jewish community is giving him the honour of frequenting his surgery. The antisemitic laws were of momentary benefit in Julius’ eyes, giving him a sense of value within the Jewish community he had apparently not experienced before. Ernst, on the other hand, chides his father via his brother, saying that the increased workload as a GP is simply delaying his flight and that his father needs to go now. The letter sounds at least like raised voices. Ernst sees Hans not being energetic enough in seeking temporary alternative destinations, relying on the United States only. He suggests that Hans needs to talk his way to the Consul General, not write, as that is the ‘American way’, and that personal representation is better than very polite and reticent correspondence. Ernst interprets Hans’ insistence on German etiquette and the need to see a visa document in his hands before taking practical steps to leave as foolish given the imminent danger he sees his sibling exposed to. He goes as far as advising Hans and Trude simply to leave for a third country in which to wait for admission to the United States; throwing all financial caution to the wind Ernst encourages Hans not to worry about money, but to get out and everything else will sort itself out. Here Ernst is explicitly relying on the expectation that in early 1939 the United States would decide to admit all at once the quotas allocated to refugees from Germany for the following three years, and that therefore, Hans’ number would be pulled long before mid-1940.

In the letter exchanges the tension Ernst experiences is palpable, while Hans’ and Julius’ voices are a lot more restrained. We read much about the documentation of the affidavits and small mistakes therein as to birthdays and the spelling of names (all of which Ernst dismisses as trivial and of no consequence), but nothing of the worsening social situation for Jews in Germany. On 24 December 1938 Ernst writes a strongly worded letter to Hans, saying that he has done all he can do from Canada, has pulled out all the stops and now it is up to Hans and Julius to take action and make their move, at least Hans has to get Julius and Alma to leave as soon as possible, now that all necessary Canadian documentation is in place. If they don’t, Ernst writes, he can do no more.

Reading these letters eighty years after they were written is not only a painful process because of the knowledge that Hans and Trude were, in the end, not able to get out of Germany and were murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is also a profound insight into the various interpretations of a situation of intense persecution and its consequences as events unfolded. We see perceptions in Toronto and Kassel conditioned by the location of the writer, news sources available and relied on, personal disposition and character, letter-writing conventions, relationships and dependencies, all of which came together to influence the decision-making process of Julius and Alma, and Hans and Trude Oppenheim in Kassel, and Ernst’s efforts on the other side of the Atlantic. And at the same time, the politicians in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom took decisions that closed a number of possible avenues for emigration of German Jews.

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.

A project milestone

Now that the conclusion has been written, my monograph is complete and has been submitted to the critical eye of anonymous reviewers. It is time to breathe and reflect on this milestone in the Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces project.

I promised a monograph as one of the main ways of bringing the research results of Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces to scholarly and public attention. My contribution to the project, as initially conceived, was first and foremost in the area of religious history, and I had already identified Rabbi Salis Daiches as a person needing scholarly attention. Digging in the archives, it became clear that Salis Daiches’ biography would be a helpful conduit for a reflection on the impact of migration on religious communities. And thus my research resulted in a thematic biography which places Salis Daiches’ life in the context of the wider debates about religious leadership exercising the Orthodox Jewish communities in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century.

My book seeks to contribute to a better understanding of what migrants who came to Britain between 1880-1914 brought to the Jewish religious landscape of Britain. Research on related themes in the earlier parts of the nineteenth century has been initiated and carried out by Abigail Green and Adam Mendelsohn, and Tobias Brinkmann and David Feldman have contributed to the discussion on migration in the early twentieth century. The important work of Green on Moses Montefiore and the ‘Jewish International’, and Mendelsohn on transnationalism in the Anglophone Jewish world, has alerted us to a scholarly neglect of the international networks Jews, particularly Jewish migrants, were part of through travel, correspondence and through their own successive migrations across the world. Brinkmann’s work on transmigrants sheds light on the points of departure and the staging posts of migration in continental Europe, while David Feldman’s recent article in East European Jewish Affairs challenges the dominant perception of the relationships between resident and immigrant Jews through a case study of London’s East End.

My own work applies and extends the insights of these scholars by placing them in the context of the so-called ‘Jewish periphery’ in the northernmost nation of the United Kingdom, Scotland. The biography of Salis Daiches who migrated from Lithuania via Germany to Britain provides a focal point for my narrative. In essence, I hope to show that immigrant rabbis who served in the ‘provinces’ had their own religious ideological agendas which they brought to bear on their work, and that these were shaped through their education, experience of migration, and the international community of Jewish religious functionaries they were part of. Far from ‘provincial’, Jewish leaders in cities significant to British history – such as Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds – are also important to the historiography of British Jewry, seeing that they actively promoted particular ways of being Jewish and saw their local field of influence as significant to the Jewish world as well as in regard to Jewish/non-Jewish relations.

No January (or February) blues

As mentioned in Phil’s latest post, for the project team, 2018 started with a conference at the British Library, where we shared our research and listened to the fruits of the AHRC Project directed by Stephen Muir at the University of Leeds Performing the Jewish Archive. Interdisciplinary conferences can be as disorienting as they can be rewarding. And so, for the first day, I felt like a fish out of water and enchanted at the same time. The Leeds project centres on musicology, theatre studies, and performance, combining the excavation of music and drama from the archives with staging and filming the resulting performances. The project is not only interdisciplinary itself, it also brought together researchers at institutions in the UK, the US and Australia, thus making it very international. Papers presented addressed the findings in archives, the processes of staging the works in different locations across the world while engaging performers and audiences with their historical context of their creation and first production. Indeed, audience research through a combination of questionnaires and filming were a new and experimental part of the project. Another aspect of the Leeds project, which permeated the three packed days of the conference, was research through experimental performance, bringing together a diverse group of artists and researchers to document their encounter with new materials. A fascinating record of performance-related research and a growing resource for researchers and teachers is the online archive https://jewishmusicandtheatre.org/.

You might ask, what we were doing there? Well, our project also works with archives whose holdings have hardly been explored. We are discovering, recovering, and producing archival materials. As cultural historians, musicologists, and scholars of literature, the three of us are engaged in a related endeavour. In November we organised a Mitchell Library in Glasgow to talk about what we found in the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre about the first ever Jewish Book Week in the UK, held in Glasgow in 1937. Naturally, these discoveries talked about performance, and to bring them to life and explore their meanings, we engaged in performance ourselves, the live audience being a crucial part of our work.

In London, we gave papers on the collections we are working with: Mia talked about survivor testimony and the editing processes from a survivor narrating, and writing their life story to its eventual publication by a dedicated publisher. Survivor and their narratives are the archive which then become another archive when they are collected as published works. Phil’s research on cantors who migrated to Scotland in the early twentieth century generated much discussion about Jewish liturgical music and was the paper most directly linked to the research of the Leeds project. I shared my thoughts on the Dorrith Sim Collection, raising questions about the different stake-holders relevant in assembling, archiving, and interpreting the collection: the family, the archive, and the researcher.We left London enriched by engaging scholarship, new contacts made, and new directions for our own work on Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces.

Jewish Edinburgh on Foot goes online

It has been awhile since the last walking tour about Edinburgh’s Jewish history took place in mid-September. Since then I have been busy preparing the tour for two further presentations:

  1. an app version of a self-guided tour, and
  2. a companion website.

As I send the files for the app version to our friends at Curious Edinburgh for technical work, I thought our readers might like to take a look at the companion website: https://jewishstudies.div.ed.ac.uk/edinburgh-jewish-walks/.

So, as you perambulate across Edinburgh on your various wintry errands, stop and pause at the unassuming locations detailed on the companion site and think yourself back in time, to 50, 100, or even 200 years ago. I hope you enjoy this little seasonal gift from Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces and the Edinburgh Jewish Literary Society!

Celebrate Glasgow’s Jewish Book Week with us: 30 November, 5:30pm, Mitchell Library Glasgow

Book Week event eflyerMusic

Abi gezunt (as long as you’re healthy)
music Abe Ellstein, words Molly Picon

Afn pripetchik (by the fireside)
music and words Mark Warshawsky

Bay mir bistu sheyn (to me you’re beautiful)
words and music Sholem Secunda

Chicken soup freylekhs
words and music Stephanie Brickman

Di blayene platn fun roms drukeray (the lead plates of Romm’s Printing House) words Avrom Sutzkever, music Stephanie Brickman

Di Fidlroyz (the Fiddle Rose)
words Avrom Sutzkever, music Stephanie Brickman & Phil Alexander

Luftloshn (Skywriting)
words Ellen Galford, music Stephanie Brickman & Phil Alexander

1937 Book Week

Based on research conducted as part of the AHRC-funded Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces project, Hannah Holtschneider and Mia Spiro talk about some of the history behind the UK’s first ever Jewish Book Week, and the remarkable role of Glasgow Jewish women in creating this landmark event.

Mitchell Library Yiddish Book Collection

The Mitchell Library has a collection of over 400 Yiddish books, most of which had previously been located in the Gorbals Public Library in Glasgow. In recent years a small group of Yiddishists has created a usable database of its contents. Heather Valencia gives a brief introduction to the collection, touching on problems encountered in attempting to create this bibliography, the range of literature represented and the interesting insights it affords into the lives and reading habits of the Jewish immigrant population of the Gorbals in the first half of the 20th century.


Jeffrey Robinson reads from his book Amenia: A Memoir (2002) – poetry and prose re-creations of a childhood idyll with grandparents in upstate New York, far away from but with precarious reverberations to Holocaust and war. He then discusses an extraordinary anthology of poems and visions of the Jews from Tribal Times to the 1970s: A Big Jewish Book, ed. Jerome Rothenberg (1978). ‘Unlike previous anthologies of Jewish poetry, this collection reaches into areas that have been viewed as “sinister and dangerous”, to explore a tradition rich in powers and contradictions.’

Scottish Jewish Archives Centre

SJAC Director Harvey Kaplan gives a brief introduction to the work of the archive and some of the uses to which its collections have been put. Also on display are books and exhibition materials created and published by the Archives Centre.


Phil Alexander is Research Associate on the Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces project. His PhD focussed on klezmer and Yiddish music in today’s Berlin, and he is currently researching Scottish cantors of the early 20th century. He is also a busy jazz and world musician, leading the klezmer band Moishe’s Bagel and playing and recording with a large number of UK musicians.

Stephanie Brickman started out singing folk music as a child progressing to singing in all sorts of bands as an adult. It was only in her thirties that an interest in singing jazz led to some training. Discovering Yiddish music brought many threads in her life together as singing in Yiddish makes it possible to sing folk, jazz, musical theatre and tango in the same gig. In 2005 she and Phil Alexander formed the Yiddish Song Project and played many gigs for Jewish and non-Jewish audiences all over the UK performing well known favourites and also new compositions in Yiddish.

Hannah Holtschneider is Senior Lecturer in Jewish Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She is the author of German Protestants Remember the Holocaust (2001), and History and Memory in the Museum (2011), as well as numerous articles. As PI on Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces she is currently working on a monograph on early twentieth century migration history and the impact of continental rabbis on the relationship between the Chief Rabbi, the London Beth Din and the ‘provinces’.

Harvey L. Kaplan graduated MA in History at the University of Glasgow and is director and co-founder (1987) of the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre. He has contributed numerous articles on Scottish Jewish history and genealogy to journals and magazines, and has lectured nationally and internationally. He contributed a chapter on Scotland to the Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy (2004). His booklet The Gorbals Jewish Community in 1901 was published in 2006 by the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre. In 2013, Harvey was one of the 3-man team who produced Jewish Glasgow – An Illustrated History.

Jeffrey C. Robinson’s most recent work includes: Wordsworth Day by Day: Reading His Work into Poetry Now (2005), a paperback edition of The Walk: Notes on a Romantic Image (2006), Unfettering Poetry: The Fancy in British Romanticism (2006), Poems for the Millennium, Volume Three: The University of California Book of Romantic and Postromantic Poetry co-edited with Jerome Rothenberg (2009, winner American Book Award 2010), Untam’d Wing: Riffs on Romantic Poetry (poems) (2010) and Active Romanticism: Essays on the Continuum of Innovative Poetry from the Late-Eighteenth Century to the Present, co-edited with Julie Carr (2015). He has completed a book on late-Wordsworth poetics seen through his manuscripts. Professor Emeritus at the University of Colorado, he is currently Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow.

Mia Spiro is Lecturer in Jewish Studies at the School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow, and Co-I of Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces. She is the author of Anti-Nazi Modernism: The Challenges of Resistance in 1930s Fiction (Northwestern UP, 2013) and has published several articles on Jewish representation in literature and film in the period leading up to WWII and the Holocaust. She is currently working on a project, entitled Monsters and Migration: Golems, Vampires, and the Ghosts of War, which examines how elements of the supernatural have been used by modern writers and artists to grapple with oppression, migration, and antisemitism in the first half of the twentieth century.

Heather Valencia is a retired lecturer in German (Stirling University). She has been researching and translating modern Yiddish literature since the 1980s, and teaches Yiddish in Edinburgh. Among other publications she has produced a book of literary texts for students of Yiddish, and her bilingual edition of the poetry of Avrom Sutzkever is due to appear in early December.

JLSS at Book Week Scotland!

As we conclude the first quarter of the third year of our project, we reach another milestone in engaging with the wider public. On St Andrew’s Day we are contributing an event to Book Week Scotland 2017. JLSS and the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre have teamed up with the Mitchell Library, and asked knowledgeable friends and colleagues to participate in a celebration of Glasgow’s Jewish Book Week (of 1937!) in poetry, story and song: http://scottishbooktrust.com/about/events/celebrating-glasgows-jewish-book-week-in-poetry-story-and-song

As you can see at the above link, it is a drop-in event, so no need to book a place. Please come along and discover the amazing story of Britain’s first Jewish Book Week, explore the treasures of the Yiddish book collection in the Mitchell Library with Dr Heather Valencia, enjoy original poetry with Professor Jeffrey Robinson, listen to new Yiddish music by Stephanie Brickman and Phil Alexander, and feast your eyes on the display of unique items from the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre.

The Ernst Levin Collection at NHS Lothian Archives

This summer an EmployEd internship at the Centre for Research Collections in the University Library enabled student Kimyana Scherer to help archivist Louise Williams gain greater insight into the personal archive donated by neurologist Dr Ernst Levin along with his extensive medical archive. Ernst Levin came to Scotland as a refugee from Nazi Germany and established a successful career in Edinburgh.

Thus far hardly any work has been carried out on this personal archive, but Louise and Kimyana’s wonderful work demonstrates that there is scope for further investigation. The personal archive of Ernst Levin sits alongside other large private archives which are coming to light in recent years. Scholarship on these archives expands not only our historical knowledge about the lives of ordinary individuals in different parts of Europe during the the 1930s and 1940s, but it also suggests important new research avenues. The Levin archive – like the Dorrith Sim Collection I am working on – expands backwards into the nineteenth century and forwards far into the post-war decades. What we find in these collections can be narrated in many different ways, not all of which directly speak to what is currently conceived as Holocaust history and memory. Rather, it seems to me, these archives ask historians to rethink current categories of historiography in relation to the Holocaust, to Holocaust remembrance, to the histories of everyday life, as well as to biography and family history. Private lives which become part of public history have the ability to allow readers to come close to the depths of the ordinary. Here the items an individual chose to collect, preserve, and take on their flight from persecution and genocide, and what they amassed thereafter become the subject of inquiry, allowing historians to enter very personal and private spaces. What fascinates is the refraction of world historical events through such private lives, the decision-making processes which lead individuals and families to take one course of action, rather than another, the limitations of knowledge at the time, and the – often devastating – consequences for their lives. We may not gain insights from such archives which change our understanding of the big historical narratives, but we will expand our ability to view historical events through the eyes of those who were directly affected by them. It is an exciting time to work in this field, and a great privilege to be able to access such rich and varied collections.

Kimyana has blogged about her work here: http://libraryblogs.is.ed.ac.uk/levin/