I recently found an old newsletter announcing the establishment of the “Jewish Archives” on Nov. 1, 1988. In the 30 years since that announcement, the Jewish Archives became the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives. Its task has remained the same: to care for objects that tell the story of the Jewish people in this one corner of the world.
Alongside the announcement is a photograph of one of those objects. It is a banner for Workmen’s Circle Branch 45. The Workmen’s Circle is a Jewish fraternal order with branches all over the world. The banner is a lovely expression of allegiance by its local members, and it has a charming idiosyncrasy: an “A” is stitched over the “E” in “Workmen’s,” as though members couldn’t decide: Should it be singular or plural?
There are four people in the photograph. To one side of the banner stand Allen and Selma Berkman, whose financial support launched the Jewish Archives. To the other side is Corinne Krause, whose historical research provided an intellectual foundation for the Jewish Archives. Beside her stands Bess Topolsky, who donated the banner to the archive. Topolsky had been secretary of the local Workmen’s Circle and managing editor of the local office of the Forward. More than that she was a great and loyal friend to the Yiddish language and an advocate for the mountain of Jewish culture it represented.
According to the newsletter, the banner was the first object donated to the Jewish Archives. Better depictions exist, but I chose this dim old Polaroid from our internal files because it shows our development. “88.2” is an accession number. Accessioning is the act of recording a collection brought into an archive. This first object in the Jewish archives was the second collection received by the Historical Society in 1988. In the 30 years since “88.2,” the Jewish archive has recorded more than 1,200 accessions, about one every nine days. Each accession number represents a collection of materials given by a Jewish congregation, organization, business, family or person with ties to this region.
Beyond recordkeeping, accessioning also triggers a set of responsibilities. Every collection brought into the possession of an archive must be preserved, arranged, described and cataloged so that anyone who needs the information in those collections — either today or hundreds of years from today — can find it without too much difficulty.
In the folder with this Polaroid was a letter to Topolsky from then-Assistant Director for Library and Archives Donald L. Haggerty.
After telling her about the plans to start a Jewish archive, Haggerty wrote, “It is unfortunate that such actions were not initiated years ago, then someone might have been able to preserve the records of the Workmen’s Circle going back to its founding in 1904. We frequently have people coming to our library seeking the records of ethnic organizations here in the city. They think that if anyone has kept the records then we have. I am sorry to say that generally I have to say that no one from the organization thought to donate the records to us. So, your action is certainly an important step in preserving the history of our group in Pittsburgh.”
A few facts challenge his assertion. The American Jewish Archives opened in Cincinnati in 1947, and the University of Pittsburgh began collecting the records of local ethnic organizations in the 1960s.
Jewish groups from this region had been donating their records to both repositories long before a local Jewish archive existed. So it is not quite true that no one “thought” to donate records. What the Jewish community needed was an invitation, which is what the founding of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives provided back in 1988, continues to provide today and intends to provide going forward.
If the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives were a person, we would mark this anniversary with the blessing ad meah v’esrim shanah, “until 120 years.” That is plenty of life for a person but hardly anything for an archive. An archive aims for a much longer timeline, and so our birthday blessing will instead be ad olam, “until forever.” PJC
Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Sen. John Heinz History Center. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-454-6406.