Earlier this month, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research launched a landmark online museum, telling the story of Jewish life in Eastern Europe and Russia through YIVO’s extensive archival and library collections.
The YIVO Bruce and Francesca Cernia Slovin Online Museum debuted with an inaugural exhibition called “Beba Epstein: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Girl,” which explores East European Jewish life in the 20th and 21st centuries through the true story of one teenage girl.
Innovative technology showcases rare materials from YIVO’s archive of more than 23 million documents and artifacts. It is free of charge.
The launch “initiates an exciting new chapter in YIVO’s history by dramatically expanding our ability to fulfill YIVO’s historic mission through digital means,” said Jonathan Brent, executive director and CEO.
Here are seven items from the online collection, capturing the true stories of individuals whose lives touched all aspects of Jewish and world history, celebrating the rich cultural and spiritual life of mostly Yiddish-speaking Jews, and remembering what was lost when madness reigned during the Holocaust.
1. The Vilna Gaon’s Synagogue Record Book, (undated)
The pinkas of the kloyz (study house) of Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shelomoh Zalman (1720–1797) is one of the treasures of the YIVO collection. Rescued from the Nazis, it was hidden during the war and later smuggled to YIVO in New York. Known as the Gaon (“genius” or “sage”) of Vilna, the rabbi was the central cultural figure of Lithuanian Jewry. The handwritten Hebrew-language record book records legal and financial transactions of his community, and is an important original source on the history of the Jewish community of Vilna.
2. Beba Epstein’s fifth-grade autobiography, 1933-1934
When the Nazis invaded Vilna, Beba Epstein — the eldest among her siblings — hid alone in the attic of a gentile military officer’s house whose family lived downstairs. Later she was trapped in the ghetto and was ultimately in three concentration camps. Her schoolgirl memoir, written in the 1933-’34 school year when she was in the fifth grade, was found in 2017 hidden in a church in Vilnius. Beba passed away in 2012.
3. Auschwitz Block 8 Logbook, circa 1940s
Concentration camp logbooks, like this one from Auschwitz Block 8, were used to document prisoners who entered the camp. On each page there are entries for each prisoner, including their identification number, ethnicity, name and “departure date” — code for their execution date. The majority of the names on these pages are crossed out, meaning that these prisoners were murdered.
4. Portrait of Nazi Politician, circa 1940s
This painting of Arthur Seyss Inquart, a Nazi politician, was painted on the back of an upside-down Torah scroll. Paintings like this one demonstrate the extreme hatred towards Jews and disregard for Jewish ritual objects.
5. Rosh Hashanah album made by children of the Łódź Ghetto, circa 1941
Children imprisoned with their families in the Łódź ghetto prepared this album in honor of Rosh Hashanah and, on Sept. 23, 1941, presented it to Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the leader of the Judenrat, the controversial Jewish council appointed by the Nazis. The same afternoon the album of signatures, drawings and thank-you cards was given to Rumkowski, he learned that he would have to close the schools due to the increased housing needs of incoming deportees. Of the over 14,000 signatures contained in the album, approximately 200 signers survived.
6. Video of family from Horodok, Poland, circa 1930
Several generations of one family gathering in Gródek, Poland (now Horodok, Belarus) are seen dancing around their patriarch and matriarch in this film clip. A visitor from America kisses the matriarch. This footage was shot by Joseph Shapiro while visiting Gródek with his family. His father, Robert Shapiro, grew up in Gródek before immigrating to the United States.
7. Recording of “Veshomru Bnei Israel,” sung by Gershon Sirota, (1874-1943)
One of the great cantors of Eastern Europe, Sirota is sometimes referred to as “The Jewish Caruso.” He lived in Warsaw and died in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Here he sings part of the Sabbath liturgy.