April 23, 2024
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YIVO Digital Archives Going Live in May: Grunstein Family Gift Made Project Possible

He’s a Brooklyn kid, a greener’s kid, a 2G (Second Generation), born to Polish Holocaust survivors. He knows how to pay tribute to those left behind in the ashes of the Holocaust and does it by helping YIVO, the Yiddish institute (founded in Vilna in 1925 and shipped to America in 1940), scan and digitize a large number of the 350,000 documents, books, photographs, phonograph records, films—anything dealing with Jewish culture—and putting them online. His name is Leonard Grunstein, a Teaneck resident known for his generosity to the Jewish community, and he and his wife Chanie, in memory of his late father, Morris, along with the Gruss-Lipper Foundation, have brought the project, ten years in the making,  to fruition. Grunstein is also a founder of Project Ezrah and donor to other local tzedakahs.

YIVO, once housed in the Vanderbilt mansion on Fifth Avenue is now part of the Center for Jewish History on West 16th Street and houses the most comprehensive collection on East European Jewish life in the world. The site they are premiering on May 1 and celebrating on Sunday, May 18—Lag B’Omer—will bring together thousands of artifacts from the YIVO Institute into an easily accessible, searchable database.

Grunstein told JLBC that he trembled when he held some of the actual items in his hands while he was on a special tour of YIVO. “Some things are so priceless, digitization cannot do them justice. One day they showed me a bound volume made of wood, created by the children of the Lodz Ghetto. It was a book of Rosh Hashanah greetings they created to give to Chaim Rumkowski, head of the Judenrat. It was signed with between 12-17,000 signatures. It broke my heart, and they are going to show it at the reception that will be held when the archives go online.

“They have so many things, and they have much more to do. They have date books from Auschwitz with lists of names, as well as a Gemara that was handwritten by Anshel Rothschild. They have rare seforim going all the way back, and the archives have to be closely guarded because people covet these things so much, they try to steal them!”

Jews lived in Poland for a thousand years and it was once the home of the largest Jewish community in the world. Until World War II, it was one of the great centers of Jewish political, cultural, and religious life, so there are many different aspects of Jewish life that are covered…from the Hasidic to the secular. Now that story will be available online. On Sunday, May 18, the official reception for the YIVO Digital Archive on Jewish Life in Poland will be held from 5:00-7:00 p.m., with an introduction by YIVO director, Jonathan Brent, and special presentations.

Said Grunstein, “Chanie and I were very excited about the opportunity to help complete YIVO’s new website on the Jews in Poland. Both our moms were born in Poland, as well as my father of blessed memory.  They all experienced life in Poland before World War II and lived through the Holocaust. Chanie’s dad was born in Czechoslovakia; but he, like my father, miraculously survived Auschwitz. I was grateful that the few pictures we have of my father and his parents before the Holocaust were incorporated into the digital collection of photographs on the site. I believe my dad, of blessed memory, would have appreciated the efforts YIVO has made to accurately depict life as it was in pre-war Poland, based on the documents, photos, movies and other records that have been preserved and archived at the institute. There are many lessons that can be learned from Jewish life in Poland, and I applaud YIVO for opening their archives, letting people from all over the world learn about this rich period in the life of the Jewish people. I believe this site will become an indispensible resource for students, families, and researchers alike.”

The YIVO Digital Archive on Jewish Life in Poland website began in 2004 with a grant from the Gruss-Lipper Family Foundation. The goal was to create a website with highlights from YIVO’s archival collections on Polish Jewry before the Holocaust. Since then, YIVO has catalogued and digitized thousands of documents, posters, and photographs from its Polish Jewish collections and created a website to provide public access to them, along with extensive search tools, online exhibitions, and two background essays. The materials featured on the website cover everything from everyday life to reports of pogroms during World War I. They have been drawn from the private collections of families as well as from the records of Jewish communal organizations who bequeathed their organizational history to YIVO.

Visitors to the site will be able to explore the site through special online exhibitions, such as “City Vistas and Country Roads: Where Jews Lived,” “Children Are Our Future: Schools and Education,” and “Redeeming the Soul: Charity and Philanthropy,” or by reading an illustrated essay. In addition, scholars will be able to conduct online research using detailed guides provided by YIVO. Finally, both scholars and general users will be able to explore the extensive digital galleries with either a general search or by searching specific communities. For example, a search on the Polish shtetl Siedlce (Shedlets) brings up a poster advertising the opening of a “People’s University for Hygiene” that was sponsored by a Jewish health organization and a document authorizing its bearer to travel outside the Pale of Settlement, among other artifacts.

To find out more, visit www.yivoinstitute.org and polishjews.yivoarchives.org to see the new archives.

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