This is about the smallness of the Jewish world. It is about how you begin learning and reading about a stranger, but by the end, he is no longer a stranger. You feel, by reading his papers, that you know him and you know his story. Not only that, but he is connected to you and to your family, and to your husband’s family, and to this newspaper.
It is also about the value of testimony.
I am a collections manager at the Kleinman Family Holocaust Education Center (KFHEC). This does not mean that I collect overdue bills. It means I work with the museum’s collection of artifacts and archives relating to the Holocaust, pre-war Jewish life and post-war rebuilding. I catalog, preserve and sometimes research and authenticate artifacts and I inventory, arrange and explain archives.
This summer, my very first project at KFHEC was in the archives: the Avigdor papers. When someone donates personal papers to the center, he or she entrusts us with something valuable, meaningful and incredibly personal. It is an awesome vote of confidence and it means that the donor or the donor family believes we will preserve the story of the Holocaust victim or survivor, and that we will disseminate the story so that others know what happened to that person before, during, and after the war.
People often ask me why do we need another Holocaust center? The story of Isaac Avigdor is the answer. Rabbi Yitzchak Avigdor, a Belzer chassid born in Sanz, Poland in 1920, was a deeply religious man. He was religious before the war and remained so after the war. While another institution might be able to translate his papers, even his Yiddish, Hebrew and German documents into English, would they be sensitive to and ensure preservation of his religious dedication and beliefs?
KFHEC is dedicated to accurately portraying the religious experiences of those who went through the Holocaust – those who survived and those who tragically did not.
The Avigdor archives opens with a photograph, a black and white photo of two young boys formally dressed. Next, there is a shana tova card, wishing a happy Jewish new year from Rabbi Avigdor to a friend. These were among the few pre-war items that survived the terror. There is a certificate of movement, allowing Rabbi Avigdor to walk around freely, signed by the local Jewish Council, the Judenrat, and stamped with a swastika. The Nazis have come to power. The next item is a group of handwritten papers, journal entries. Rabbi Avigdor was sent to Mathausen, the Austrian concentration camp.
Upon liberation on May 5, 1945, Rabbi Avigdor wrote a poem. He documented the feeling of being freed after being imprisoned in one of the worst places on earth. Later I learned about how Rabbi Avigdor hid his most precious documents and a ner tamid, an eternal light, in a wooden box and was miraculously able to return the latter to his synagogue. But by then, all was gone.
I was intrigued and curious. What happened to Rabbi Avigdor after liberation? I found a second certificate of movement, this one from Luxembourg dated March 25, 1946, allowing Rabbi Avigdor to stay in Luxembourg for six days, as well as a certificate addressed from Italy, from a place called Abbiate Guazzone. I supposed Rabbi Avigdor went to Italy. He must have been a broken man. I would later learn that he had lost his mother and that he did not know the whereabouts of his father. In truth, barely a year after liberation, Rabbi Avigdor had established a kibbutz for orphans and survivors named Kibbutz Torah V’Avodah.
All of a sudden, the tone of the letters changes. They become dry reports of annual profits from a synagogue in New Jersey. Next, there is a letter offering employment to Rabbi Avigdor from the Sons of Israel Congregation in New Jersey. Hooray! Rabbi Avigdor will emigrate to the United States and have a job and so there is a letter to the consul at the United States Visa Department. Following this is a flurry of letters testifying to Rabbi Avigdor as a student and as a rabbi.
No matter how aware I am of the sheer terror, the evil, the awfulness of the Nazis and the Holocaust, I sometimes find myself bowled over by the most seemingly mundane details, and to borrow from Hannah Arendt, by the banality of evil. I realize that Jews who were taken from their homes, who lost family members, prized family possessions and their freedom, also lost identity papers. These are the papers that we keep locked in a safe. The papers that are our passports, our social security cards, our marriage certificates, and our diplomas – these are the papers that testify and that assert our identities. Rabbi Avigdor, among countless others I am sure, had to rebuild his life. He also had to rebuild his identity by slowly and meticulously writing to all the places he had been to in his previous, pre-Nazi life and asking them to testify for him.
The most heartrending example is Rabbi Avigdor’s efforts to obtain membership to the Rabbinical Council of America. By 1953, Rabbi Avigdor was a shul rabbi in Hartford, Conn. and he wanted to join the council. The correspondent at the RCA is sympathetic and quite apologetic but states that he’s sorry but policy dictates that Rabbi Avigdor must present not one but two certificates of semicha, rabbinic ordination. He realizes, he says, that Rabbi Avigdor lost everything in the war and he suggests that Rabbi Avigdor write to one or two rabbi friends and have them write letters testifying that he has received rabbinic ordination. As I follow this exchange, the years between 2013 and the decades following the war melt away. What will happen? Will Rabbi Avigdor receive his letters and then membership? I sit on the edge of my seat.
There is a letter by Rabbi Nathan Manuel and another by Rabbi Aaron Pechenik and yes, Rabbi Avigdor has achieved membership. A few documents in and I am almost at the end of the Avigdor file. I see an article written in honor of his fortieth wedding anniversary and later, sadly, his obituaries.
Now it is time for me to fill in the details, to move on to secondary sources. I learn about his weekly, long running, beloved column in The Jewish Press. I read his books. From Prison to Pulpit, published in 1975, contains a collection of his weekly derashot, sermons. A Survivor’s Thanksgiving (Shehecheyanu), published in 2003, recounts life before the war. He recounts his history in still another and I learn that Rabbi Avigdor was reunited with his father, Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Avigdor, who later became the chief rabbi of Mexico. I learn that Rabbi Avigdor moved to the Lower East Side with his father and became the executive director of the Shlomo Kluger Yeshiva despite not speaking English. He got married and was blessed with four sons. Rabbi Avigdor, who passed away in 2010, lived until he was 90.
Last, I look at the haskamot, the approbations at the beginning of one of his books. I find a letter from my great uncle testifying for the value of the book and I find a letter from my husband’s grandfather writing the same testimony. And I humbly accept my own part of the story, and I testify to Rabbi Avigdor’s inner strength, to his greatness and to the truth of what befell Rabbi Avigdor and six million others not so long ago.
If you wish to donate artifacts or personal papers that tell the story of your family’s experience during the Holocaust, the KFHEC will make sure your personal items are properly preserved and protected. To learn more, visit kfhec.org, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 718-759-6200.
About the Author: Shoshana Batya Greenwald recently received a master's degree in decorative arts, material culture and design history from Bard Graduate Center. She is the collections manager at Kleinman Family Holocaust Educational Center (KFHEC) and a freelance writer.
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