Keren David

There’s comfort in a catalogue of archivists

A recent conference was an antidote to the feeling that Jews are being ignored and gaslit


File cabinet full of foders. Storage, organization and administration concept. 3d illustration

November 23, 2023 16:30

I have only experienced one “Free Palestine” demo so far and luckily for me it was the most pathetic display possible, one weedy protestor up on the awning above an office entrance, wrapped in a flag and shouting, “We are all Palestinians!” in a distinctly middle-class English accent. He had two or three posh girls shouting with him. The police and security guards looked embarrassed. There was red paint everywhere though, accusing Jews of heinous crimes. I walked past, feeling slightly sick.

I was on my way to an event which turned out to be endearing and encouraging: a gathering of archivists. I’m not sure what the collective noun is for archivists -— a catalogue, maybe — but I’d recommend seeking a few out if you need an antidote to the general feeling that many of us have nowadays that we are being ignored, gaslit, distorted and written out of history.

Some of these archivists were keepers of distinctly Jewish collections, others represented general archives with Jewish material in them. What they all shared was a reverence for the past and a passion for collecting evidence of it — whether oral, written or solid artefact.

The conference was called Hidden Treasures, and it was run by the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe. I was there to represent the JC’s own treasure, our 182-year archive, and for the “share your archive” session I took two things to illustrate its macro and micro nature. From 1896, Theodor Herzl’s article about the future of the Jewish people and his dream of a Jewish homeland could hardly be a bigger bit of history — and hardly more relevant.

From 1922, I found a paragraph listing Miss Goldie Freedman’s achievement in gaining a teaching diploma (distinction in Geography). As it happens I have the certificate in question: Goldie was my grandmother. But the JC archive gave me the exact address where she lived with her family in the little village of Ynyshir, in the Rhonda valley, and I Google-mapped the house itself.

It was fascinating to see the items that others had brought and to hear the stories of their triumphs and setbacks. Jewish archives are challenging due to the many languages that Jews speak, and often people don’t realise the value of the documents that they merrily chuck out. Harvey Kaplan of the Scottish Jewish archive described a process where communities age and dwindle down to a few members, the paperwork disappears into a cardboard box under the bed or in the attic of an old person and is thrown out when they go into a home or die.
Professor David Latchman entertained the room by showing us the items he’d rescued from skips. Gabor Kadar of the Yerusha Foundation, which catalogues Jewish material in archives across Europe, spoke of the difficulty they had in gaining the trust of people, who guard family photographs with fearful pride.

The last session was about how to engage the public with archives — how to grab the imagination. We heard about a scheme to get young people in Europe to tell their stories, mirroring a collection made in the 1930s. The archivist of the Holocaust North centre at the University of Huddersfield told us about the students and their families who wander into their exhibits, never having heard of the Holocaust before. And the historian and performer Vivi Lachs sang Yiddish songs to us and explained how their universal messages — some socialist, some silly — spoke to young people from a multitude of backgrounds.

My favourite part of the working week is finding the extract from the JC archive that sits next to our leading article. I try and find something that speaks to the news of today — and display the breadth of the JC’s coverage, with a feeling for the voices that populated it. In the last month I’ve been thinking so much of the JC reporters and editors who had to report on the war and the Shoah. Did they find it as difficult as we have found the last weeks? Surely they did.

Jewish history is hardly taught in British schools. My own education was very much focused on the Tudor period and, for O-level, the nineteenth century. My education in modern Jewish history has come largely from the pages of the Jewish Chronicle. When you read graphic reports of pogroms from all over the world, and you realise that the journalists included the names of victims, because their readers might be familiar with the families named, then you realise why Jews needed —- and still need — a homeland.

One of the most interesting manuscripts I saw at the conference was from the National Archive — a list of the taxes collected from the Jews, back in the 12th century. There are the names of the Jews and the amounts demanded from them: “astronomical” said the archivist. A few years later the Jews were expelled from England. It feels miraculous that we came back and thrived, however fearful we may currently feel.

And as I walked home, I was happy to see that the red paint had already been scrubbed away.

November 23, 2023 16:30

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive