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Bringing Jewish History To Life


Shortly after she became chief archivist at the American Jewish Committee in 2001, Charlotte Bonelli came to believe the material she was discovering should be shared with the world.

“I would pull a box a box off a shelf, open it up, and find inside, for instance, World War II-era pro-democracy comics or scripts of radio broadcasts featuring stars such as James Cagney, William Holden, and Helen Hayes urging unity on the home front,” says Bonelli.

“I also found fascinating documents about the surveillance of pro-Nazi organizations in America during the war and similar efforts with various extremist groups in later years.”

Bonelli, who studied history with the renowned historian of American Jewish history Naomi W. Cohen, called her former teacher in Israel to express her excitement about her discoveries in the AJC archives.

“When I called her, I had on my desk a collection of very dramatic full-page AJC sponsored ads promoting America’s war effort. I was full of enthusiasm and I was pleased that Dr. Cohen thought my excitement entirely justified.”

Cohen’s encouragement served to strengthen Bonelli’s growing commitment to preserving these collections and making them accessible to the world. But the funds simply weren’t available at AJC for such a major project.

Some time passed and Bonelli was unsure how to proceed. Then a call came in to AJC Executive Director David A. Harris. The call was from New York philanthropist George Blumenthal, an avid collector of Jewish historical artifacts, including early Zionist memorabilia, and a man dedicated to making Jewish history as accessible as possible.

A year later, with Blumenthal’s extensive support, ajcarchives.org was born. At the new site, a century of American Jewish history springs vividly to life.

Visitors are just a click away from viewing the WWII-era documents and artifacts that had fired Bonelli’s imagination. They can also read AJC correspondence with Henry Ford; listen to a broadcast of the first Jewish religious service conducted by American GI’s on liberated German soil; and view letters between AJC and David Ben-Gurion, among other seminal figures.

The site opens doors to historic artifacts related to AJC’s many contacts with Catholic leaders as the Church moved toward Vatican II, where the deicide charge against the Jews was finally dropped. And to stirring films of Natan Sharansky, Elie Wiesel, and others addressing the historic Freedom Sunday Rally for Soviet Jewry in Washington in 1987.

“Unlike the vast majority of archival websites, ajcarchives.org provides instant access to much of the archival material itself. It takes a vital step beyond the traditional listing of archival contents,” says Bonelli.

The unusual access the site provides to the material itself is the result of a painstaking digitization process undertaken by Bonelli and her staff.

Through its user-friendly interactive timelines, and its basic and advanced search engines, the website opens to the Internet user an ever-expanding treasure chest of materials.

The site now contains a total of more than 75,000 pages of documents; a rare collection of films, radio and television broadcasts; more than 100 years of the American Jewish Year Book, the acclaimed annual record of events and trends in the Jewish world; and selections from the AJC-sponsored William E. Weiner Oral History Collection, one of the largest oral history collections in the United States.

The oral history excerpts let you listen in on intimate conversations with, among others, Abba Eban, Hank Greenberg, Golda Meir, George Burns, and Molly Picon.

In the Molly Picon interviews, for instance, you’ll hear the legendary Yiddish theater and film star, along with actor Jacob Kalich, tell a heartrending story about performing a concert in Poland for hundreds of children who had survived the Holocaust.

After singing for a few hours on a hastily constructed stage in an outdoor field in Warsaw, it began to rain. Then came an extraordinary downpour – “a tsaluchas,” Picon says, using a Yiddish term. She was forced to announce that, because of the rain, the concert was over.

Suddenly, a small child of no more than five years old standing near the front stood up and yelled out: “No! There is no rain! Sing, sing, sing!”

Film and radio selections available at the site include AJC-produced dramas about the devastating effects of anti-Semitism, prejudice, and hate. Among the famous actors and actresses you’ll see or hear bringing impressive intensity to these productions are Robert Duvall, Colleen Dewhurst, and Melvyn Douglas.

While at many points AJC’s new website touches the heart, it also appeals very powerfully to the mind. Scholars, students, and web users of every age are turning to the site from points across America and around the globe: recent “hits” have come in from Jerusalem, Istanbul, Rabat, Sedova, Moscow, Bonn, Rio, and Taipei.

Web users click their way to the site in search of primary sources that help clarify and uncover the history of American Jewish life and activism.

“Since our founding in 1906,” says Harris, “AJC has been a pioneering advocacy agency, making an impact on issues of utmost concern to the Jewish people and to democratic societies around the world.

“As you explore our new website, you’ll find that the story told in so many dimensions, and through such a wide range of materials, is not by any means simply the story of AJC.

“Instead, it’s very much the story of the evolution of the American Jewish community, and how AJC has positively contributed to shaping American society, as well as international affairs.”

Deborah Dash Moore, director of the Jewish Studies program at the University of Michigan and author of GI Jews: How WWII Changed A Generation, feels that AJC has done an enormous community service in constructing ajcarchives.org and making widely available the organization’s remarkable collection of archival materials.

“For one thing,” she says, “I think it’s simply wonderful to have the American Jewish Year Book online, since it’s an invaluable historical source and record of events. In addition, the interactive timelines, the oral history memoir excerpts, the cartoons, comics, and film clips all convey the complex process of a century of creative Jewish efforts to fight prejudice and anti-Semitism and promote a pluralist society and a peaceful world.”

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More than 140,000 people in the past month have clicked their way to a dramatic YouTube video (www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZihm6VlYjo) about a historic Jewish religious service led by a Brooklyn-born U.S. Army chaplain.

Shortly after she became chief archivist at the American Jewish Committee in 2001, Charlotte Bonelli came to believe the material she was discovering should be shared with the world.

“I would pull a box a box off a shelf, open it up, and find inside, for instance, World War II-era pro-democracy comics or scripts of radio broadcasts featuring stars such as James Cagney, William Holden, and Helen Hayes urging unity on the home front,” says Bonelli.

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