Debbie Rose is deeply involved in a unique project that brings the past to life. Knee-deep, in fact, in boxes and boxes of letters, letters her great-great-uncle received from hundreds of writers from all over the world. Only one problem. Debbie can’t read them, as they are all written in Yiddish.
The letters’ mystery and promise spur Debbie to find the key to unlocking the treasure hidden in them. The Toronto woman is passionate about the project that kind of found her, and is working to have them translated, organized and collated into an accessible database.
How did Debbie find the thousand or so letters, from an unknown relative?How did Debbie find the thousand or so letters, from an unknown relative? About three years ago, Debbie got involved in researching her own family. Genealogy has been an exploding avocation, with the internet making networking and accessing remote historical information so much more accessible.
Debbie started out researching her mother’s family. “I had a few names on my mom’s side. My parents came to Kingston, Ontario, from Eastern Europe in 1923. In the ’30s, correspondence with the relatives left behind stopped. I first found a ship manifest for a great-uncle. On the manifest was the name of his uncle, who was his contact in New York: B. Bass. I found the accompanying address in a U.S. census, and then found a whole branch of the tree that we had known nothing about.
“My mother knew about her uncle who went to New York, but that was it. It seems my grandmother had uncles and aunts that she never told my mother about. I found the grandson of one of those uncles, Leon Malmed, who told me about these boxes containing over a thousand letters that had been sitting in a basement for decades.” An additional 450 letters, postcards and telegrams were donated some years ago to the Schlesinger Library at Harvard. The National Yiddish Book Center of Amherst, Mass., is “very enthusiastic” about the project.
Debbie is working assiduously to have the letters translated and archived. She’d like to create a database so that others can access them as well. She realizes that this treasure trove she is working with is most likely the veritable tip of an iceberg. “I’m sure there are many such boxes of letters stashed all over the place, that people don’t know what to do with. We’d like to extend the project to other families’ letters as well.”
Letters are personal, they get into the real details of day-to-day life, and Debbie finds them a fascinating way of bringing history truly to life. Historians can get from them a sense of the time, the food, the surroundings, the diseases, just the way people lived and coped. For example, one of letters in her collection is from a relative stationed in San Antonio, Texas, in 1898, during the Spanish-American War. His descriptions make the scenery, the living conditions, the diseases, the war much more real; one can see how they affected real people.
I know the power of simple words of everyday people to bring that world to lifeLife in the shtetlach, the poor Eastern European villages that so many Eastern Europeans lived in, has become very real for Debbie. “I never really realized just how much people were struggling, how much poverty there was,” she says.
I know the power of simple words of everyday people to bring that world to life. In my family, we were fortunate to have my bubby (grandmother) write up vignettes of her growing up in Toperey, a typical shtetl. I used to look at her and be totally amazed that we were sitting together in the same room—the world of her childhood was so vastly different from mine.
“I had some interest in genealogical research,” Debbie recalls, “but I never imagined what was possible. I started with JewishGen, and then went on ancestry.com. I filled in a little green leaf with the bit of information I had, I clicked, and within a minute my grandfather’s death certificate popped up. I was blown away. What else can I find on my grandparents, I wondered.
“That was it. I was hooked.”
Debbie now regrets not having asked more questions and learned much more about her family when her grandparents were alive. “I didn’t know his family was so large. It just didn’t interest me back then, when I was young. Now I could kick myself—I never picked their brains.”
She finds herself linked with former strangers, newly found relatives, all over the world. “It’s been an amazing journey discovering my roots. I’ve called people all over the U.S. and Israel. I’ve become close with a second cousin.”
Debbie’s interests in education, in Jewish tradition and continuity, and in family and community have all come together to fuel this exciting undertaking. “Family and community have always meant a tremendous amount to me. I grew up without either extended community or family, and always felt that loss as a child. This, in a sense, finally fills that need for me.
“I feel passionate about each new name that comes up. I’m trying to help that person live in a sense, so they won’t be forgotten. Especially after the Holocaust, when so many were lost. Whether or not our personal families were affected, we all are affected. Each new name, each new link that I can bring to life, is important to me, is like my family.”
Remembering so many of our people, recreating their stories, legacies and lessons for us, helps strengthen our connection to these links on the unbreakable chain of Jewish life.