Edward Serotta: A Book's Inscription and Jewish Tragedy





[Edward Serotta directs the Jewish historical institute Centropa in Vienna (centropa.org).]

During a trip to Israel earlier this month, I stopped in Stein's secondhand bookshop on King George Street in Jerusalem....

A visit to Stein's always provides a glimpse of another era. It was while perusing the books there a couple of weeks ago that I came upon a volume of essays by Leo Baeck, who was Germany's most famous reform rabbi during the early 20th century.

Opening the book, I found this handwritten inscription: "To my darling Richard on his bar mitzvah, 11 September 1926, Papa."

Because Jewish boys are bar mitzvahed at 13, this Richard must have been born somewhere in Germany in 1913, the year before World War I began. The kaiser ruled the land then, and men like Albert Einstein, Paul Ehrlich, James Franck and Fritz Haber were doing the scientific research that had brought them, or would bring them, Nobel prizes in Germany's name. All of them were Jewish. All would be disowned by the Nazis or have their biographies rewritten.

It is quite possible that, like a great many of Germany's Jews, Richard didn't make it out until 1939, the year German emigration to Palestine reached its peak. Richard would have been 26 years old by then....

For the past 10 years, the Jewish historical project I direct has been involved in an oral history project with Holocaust survivors. Unlike the many excellent projects that use video to record the horror stories of what people went through during the war, we have set ourselves a different task. We are interested in how people lived before and after the horrors.

Our subjects have allowed us to scan their old family pictures and documents, which they then go through with our researchers and talk about. So far, we have archived more than 22,000 snapshots, school report cards, wedding portraits and vacation pictures, and we've collected an array of stories to accompany them. We have memorabilia, but unlike with the book I found in Stein's, we also have context, the complete stories of what a book or photograph or document meant to those who preserved it....


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