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YIVO librarian embodies history of East European Jewish life

NEW YORK, July 23 (JTA) — Her white hair and tiny frame might make her appear insignificant, but visitors to the YIVO library know that Dina Abramowicz is a fountain of historical data. Brothers Philip Shapiro of Albany, N.Y., and David Shapiro of Baltimore recently came to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research before leaving for Lithuania on a family heritage trip. They were thrilled to receive help from Abramowicz, who could explain the area more clearly and in more detail than any map. “To come across Dina was just wonderful,” said Philip Shapiro. “She has a feel — she was there.” Abramowicz spends her days in the YIVO library, a place that with over 350,000 books and periodicals is a virtual storehouse of Eastern European Jewish history. She herself lived through that history. Born in Vilna, Poland — now Vilnius, Lithuania — the 88-year-old Holocaust survivor is the only person working at YIVO who can remember the original YIVO before its headquarters moved to America in 1940. Although she was never a member of the original YIVO, which was founded in Vilna in 1925, Abramowicz was aware while growing up of YIVO’s importance in the community. Indeed, she read all of the library’s publications when she was young. “The emphasis of YIVO was part of our cultural environment,” she said. More than 4,000 people visit YIVO’s reading room in New York each year. Abramowicz helps these people find what they need in the institute’s vast archives. “Nobody works harder,” said YIVO’s Executive Director Tom Freudenheim of Abramowicz. She answers questions about locating books and documents in the library and can do on-the-spot translations of works in Yiddish, Polish, Russian and German. More important for many visitors is the first-hand knowledge of YIVO’s past and the personal accounts of Eastern European Jewry that she can provide. Before embarking on her 50-year career in the YIVO library, Abramowicz served as librarian of the children’s library in Vilna, the only operating library in the Vilna ghetto. Abramowicz is a living witness to how the interests of YIVO users over the past 72 years have changed. YIVO was founded in Vilna to “bring out the culture of the Yiddish-speaking masses,” she said. Now, the preservation of the books, periodicals, and artifacts of these masses is central to YIVO’s role. Abramowicz recalls its origins as a center for “the Jewish secular intelligentsia” and a place where original manuscripts were published. Local history and folklore were popular subjects. When the headquarters moved to New York after Vilna came under Soviet control and soon before the Nazis invaded the area, Abramowicz said the main focus of YIVO research became the Jewish labor movement in America. Abramowicz, who began her work at YIVO soon after she arrived in America in 1946, was active in “absorbing our heritage record from Europe and facing a new American reality.” Now, the demands on the library are different, especially because there are many more English than Yiddish patrons. In addition to the longstanding interests in Yiddish culture, the Jewish labor movement and Jewish music, current users are also interested in Soviet Jewish culture and history. Many also come to the YIVO library to research their family history. In Europe, people often lived where generations of their family members had resided, so there was less need for people to research their heritage. Abramowicz said she enjoys “helping the American public trace their roots.” Abramowicz herself is in the midst of a project with close family ties. Wayne State University Press will soon publish a collection of her father’s essays on Eastern European Jewish life. Hirsz Abramowicz’s work, “Silhouettes from a Lost World,” will include a biography of the author written by his daughter. His work was published in 1958 in Yiddish, but has never before been published in English. “This is an event which really lights up my old age,” Abramowicz said.