A Somber Trove of Family Letters

The Leo Baeck Institute’s Milli Frank correspondence (AR 6686) contains dozens of letters and postcards sent to Milli Frank in Brooklyn, New York, between 1937 and 1944, by her parents, aunts and uncles in Germany. Later, some of these relatives wrote to her from the concentration camps of France. None of them appears to have survived the Holocaust.

The LBI archives holds many such collections. Sadly, many older German Jews were unwilling or unable to leave Germany until it was too late, while most younger German Jews were generally able to escape. But rarely do these collections contain the associated outgoing correspondence. While this particular set of letters does not have Milli’s replies to her family’s letters, it does have her sketched notes—he appears to have been in the habit of writing outlines of her replies on the back of the envelope in which the original letter arrived. 

For example, on the envelope above, she notes the items to mention in her response: thanks for letters and postcards, a birthday, business, a person named Mehlinger. She also mentions “the speed of English,” and it’s unclear whether she means how quickly English can be learned, how quickly she learned it, or whether English is spoken quickly by the residents of Brooklyn.

The Molly Picon Story, Part 3: Broadway Comes Calling

We continue Sarah Ganton’s story of Molly Picon, for decades a household name in Yiddish theater and vaudeville, then a Broadway star and performer with the USO, then a radio personality. We’re very fortunate to have a rich record of her life through the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society, one of the five partners of the Center of Jewish History. Join us in celebrating this remarkable, vivacious and endlessly talented woman.

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Molly Picon and Regina Prager in Mamale, 1927. [Credit]

Molly Picon officially opened in New York on December 24, 1923, in Yonkele, a Yiddish play written for her by her husband, Jacob. Noted Second Avenue composer Joseph Rumshinsky rewrote the music and lyrics, and Yonkele went up to huge crowds despite Molly’s status as a relative unknown in New York. When the manager of the theater questioned the huge advance ticket sales, Molly’s future audience told him that they had heard about her from relatives in Europe, who had seen her there and written to America to tell their relatives to see her.[1]

Molly spent the next few years opening many new plays on Second Avenue and touring all across the country, and her notices were nearly always rave reviews. One such reviewer wrote of her, “One cannot say that Miss Picon is good looking as stage standards go and surely her simple and untrained cavorting counts for but a minor asset. As a singer she is damned by the faint praise of ‘adequate,’ and yet this skinny, undersized Jewish girl has developed one of the most valuable theatrical followings in New York through the sheer ability of adapting herself to the medium she wishes to present.”[2]

America loved her. Between 1925 and 1929, Molly would open eight new shows in New York within twenty-four weeks, then take a show on the road for twenty weeks more, all year long. She and Jacob, with their trusted composer Rumshinsky, also took control of the Second Avenue Theater.[3] She even performed for Al Capone in Chicago, and found herself at dinner with the infamous mobster, entertaining the crowd.[4]

With such success, it wasn’t long before Broadway came calling. Molly was offered $2,500 a week to headline at the Palace Theater, an offer that could not be turned down. So off she went, singing her own songs and telling her own stories. What’s more, she recalled, “[I] actually played to my own audience because all of Second Avenue came uptown with me to make sure their girl wouldn’t flop.”[5]

Molly again received wonderful reviews, and confessed to feeling more at home on Broadway than she expected to feel: “I thought Broadway was a scarecrow…Heartless and hard and full of wisecracks. Broadway is just as warm hearted and sentimental as Second Ave.”[6]

Her stage success solidified, Molly began to move into film. One of her earliest and most notable films is titled Yidl Mitn Fidl, or “Yiddle with his Fiddle,” filmed in 1936 in Poland. In it, Molly plays a young girl who dresses as a boy in order to play his violin with his father in the backyards of Poland. It was originally filmed in Yiddish, but when it was re-released in 1947 dubbed in English, it was heralded as “The Greatest Jewish Talkie Ever Produced.”[7] It has also been widely praised for documenting a true representation of life in the Polish shtetl. In fact, Norman Jewison, director of 1971’s Fiddler on the Roof, told Molly that he viewed the film as part of his research in order to absorb the character of the shtetl where he wanted to set his own movie.[8]

Life in the 1930s was very good for Molly, who enjoyed fantastic success. War was on the horizon, however, and it would change Molly’s life drastically.

Sarah Ganton is a former intern at the Center for Jewish History. 


Previously in our series: 

The Molly Picon Story, Part 2: A Star (and a Romance) Is Born

From Vaudeville to “Fiddler”: (Re)introducing Molly Picon, the “Jewish Charlie Chaplin”


[1] Picon, 43-44.

[2] Press Clipping titled VAUDEVILLE, by Norman Krasna, n.d. ca. 1929-1933; Molly Picon, papers; P-38; 61; Scrapbook for 1929-1933, page 1; American Jewish Historical Society, Boston, MA and New York, NY.

[3] Picon, 53.

[4] Press Clipping titled SINGING FOR CAPONE - A Girl Entertains - And Is Rewarded from “The Stroller,” n.d., ca. 1929-1933; Molly Picon, papers; P-38; 61; Scrapbook for 1929-1933, page 3; American Jewish Historical Society, Boston, MA and New York, NY.

[5] Picon, 53. 

[6] Molly Picon, qtd in Press Clipping titled “Broadway is Just Like Second Avenue to Molly Picon, Who KNows Both Now,” NY Telegram, June 25, 1929; Molly Picon, papers; P-38; 61; Scrapbook for 1929-1933, page 10; American Jewish Historical Society, Boston, MA and New York, NY.

[7] Yidl Mitn Fidl Program, Academy Cinema, 1947; Molly Picon, Papers; P-38; 50; 1047; American Jewish Historical Society, Boston, MA and New York, NY.

[8] Picon, 68.

The Molly Picon Story, Part 2: A Star (and a Romance) Is Born

We continue Sarah Ganton’s story of Molly Picon, for decades a household name in Yiddish theater and vaudeville, then a Broadway star and performer with the USO, then a radio personality. We’re very fortunate to have a rich record of her life through the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society, one of the five partners of the Center of Jewish History. Join us in celebrating this remarkable, vivacious, and endlessly talented woman. And in case you missed the series’ first installment, here’s a handy link: “From Vaudeville to ‘Fiddler’ (Re)introducing Molly Picon, the ‘Jewish Charlie Chaplin.’ “

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Molly Picon and Jacob Kalich, Vienna, 1923

We last saw Molly Picon in 1915, as she quit high school to perform in vaudeville full time. Indeed, she spent three years performing as Winter in an act called “The Four Seasons,” which toured with similar vaudeville acts. One such tour circuit landed “The Four Seasons” in Boston in the winter of 1918, at the height of the influenza epidemic.

All the theaters were closed down due to flu, except one—the Grand Opera House, showcasing Yiddish theater on Saturdays and managed by one Jacob Kalich. Molly went to the theater hoping that someone she had known in Philadelphia would know her and lend her some money. But instead she met Jacob. 

Jacob—or Yonkel, as she called him—was seven years Molly’s senior. He was born in Poland and had studied to be a rabbi until he met an acting troupe, lent them his rabbinical attire for a costume and followed that costume (and the troupe) across Europe until he was hooked on theater. He had come to America in 1914 and made his way to Boston, where he met Molly; she was cast in one of his plays, and she stayed in Boston.[1]

The two complemented each other well. Molly could help Jacob learn American ways, and in turn, Jacob could help Molly learn the traditions and classic Yiddish she would need to know in order to succeed in the Yiddish theatre. They quickly fell in love, and married on June 29, 1919, in Molly’s childhood home.[2]

By 1920, it was clear that Molly was a star in Boston, but Jacob had his eyes on a bigger stage—Second Avenue in New York, the Broadway of Yiddish theater. Second Avenue was not yet interested, however, so Jacob formed another plan. He would take Molly to Europe, where she would make her name internationally known and then return triumphantly to America, where Second Avenue would be waiting for her with open arms.[3]

The benefits of Europe were twofold: exposure, and the ability to really hone Molly’s Yiddish. One news clipping Molly saved put it this way: “Kalich carried her off, not to New York, but to Europe, where she could perfect her accent, her acting, and her knowledge of Jewish life at its source.”[4]

And perfect her Yiddish she did. Though she traveled through Paris, Lodz, Vienna, Budapest and countless other European cities with Jacob for years, she remembered later that the duo “never mingled with people outside the Yiddish theater. Yiddish was our center, our link, and I never felt like a complete stranger in Europe because I was always in the midst of a familiar language and heritage—the Yiddish world.”[5]

Her Yiddish did need work, though, and indeed her personal papers include flash cards for phrases such as “The cantor has a splendid voice,” “I don’t know” and “Two poor persons marry,” Molly found a home in the European Yiddish world, and the Yiddish community accepted her gladly.[6]

Molly’s international fame secured, she and Jacob began to look back across the Atlantic to Second Avenue once more. They ultimately returned to the United States in 1923, where we will meet Molly next as she premieres in New York.

Sarah Ganton is a former intern at the Center for Jewish History. 

Previously in our series

From Vaudeville to “Fiddler”: (Re)introducing Molly Picon, the “Jewish Charlie Chaplin”

___________________________________________________________

[1] Picon, 20-24.

[2] Marriage Announcement of Molly Picon and Jacob Kalich, 1919; Molly Picon, papers; P-38; 55; 1089; American Jewish Historical Society, Boston, MA and New York, NY.

[3] Picon, 31.

[4] News Clipping on Jacob Kalich, n.d.; Molly Picon, papers; P-38; 54; 1083; American Jewish Historical Society, Boston, MA and New York, NY.

[5] Picon, 36.

[6] Language flash cards, n.d.; Molly Picon, papers; P-38;  54; 1086; American Jewish Historical Society, Boston, MA and New York, NY. 

Adah Isaacs Menken. Photo: American Jewish Historical Society.
She flew on fake horses above the stage, wore nude bodysuits so audiences would think she was naked, married four men (and divorced three)—and was surrounded by rumors of affairs with dozens of famous writers. Actress Adah Menken (1835-1868) was one of the first international celebrities, due more to her daring exploits and shrewd publicity than her acting talent. Multifaceted to the end, she was also a painter, a highly public poet and a committed Jew.
Born in New Orleans, Adah started out acting in small roles to earn money, but started getting real attention after playing the male lead in a stage version of Mazeppa, modeled on the poem by Lord Byron. At the play’s climax, Adah was tied to a dummy horse, naked but for a nude body sock and whirring above the audience. The spectacle had the desired effect of shocking the audience, and it set off unprecedented hype. Menken suddenly found herself talked about in London and New York, and her image—thanks to the increasing use of photography—was plastered all over the two urban centers of the world. 
Since Adah also wrote poetry, she gradually gained entry into literary circles. That turned out to generate even more publicity, mostly in the form of gossip about the nature of her relationships with writers, the other celebrities of the day. Rumors swirled about her closeness to the likes of Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens, Dante Gabriel Rosetti and the elderly Alexandre Dumas—fueled by photographs of Adah with the men.
Adah seemed to relish the controversy and attention she sparked, and in some ways even encouraged it by defying the social norms of the day: She cut her black hair short, openly smoked cigarettes and went through a series of husbands in the span of seven years. Due to her own conflicting accounts of her early life, it is unknown if she was born Jewish or converted for her first—and only Jewish—husband, Alexander Isaacs Menken, but she appears to have been devoted to Judaism for the remainder of her life. She once explained to a reporter, “Through that pure and simple religion I have found greatest comfort and blessing.”
Indeed, Adah was a frequent poetic contributor to The Israelite, a Cincinnati weekly paper, refused to perform on the Jewish High Holidays and, on her deathbed at the age of 33, was attended to by a rabbi. Dying of tuberculosis at her peak, Adah still seemed to be content with the way her life had played out. In a note to a friend several hours before her death, Adah wrote:

I am lost to art and life. Yet, when all is said and done, have I not at my age tasted more of life than most women who live to be a hundred? It is fair, then, that I should go where old people go.

The AJHS at the Center for Jewish History holds a collection of personal objects and promotional materials related to Adah, including photographs, letters and playbills.

Adah Isaacs Menken. Photo: American Jewish Historical Society.

She flew on fake horses above the stage, wore nude bodysuits so audiences would think she was naked, married four men (and divorced three)—and was surrounded by rumors of affairs with dozens of famous writers. Actress Adah Menken (1835-1868) was one of the first international celebrities, due more to her daring exploits and shrewd publicity than her acting talent. Multifaceted to the end, she was also a painter, a highly public poet and a committed Jew.

Born in New Orleans, Adah started out acting in small roles to earn money, but started getting real attention after playing the male lead in a stage version of Mazeppa, modeled on the poem by Lord Byron. At the play’s climax, Adah was tied to a dummy horse, naked but for a nude body sock and whirring above the audience.

The spectacle had the desired effect of shocking the audience, and it set off unprecedented hype. Menken suddenly found herself talked about in London and New York, and her image—thanks to the increasing use of photography—was plastered all over the two urban centers of the world. 

Since Adah also wrote poetry, she gradually gained entry into literary circles. That turned out to generate even more publicity, mostly in the form of gossip about the nature of her relationships with writers, the other celebrities of the day. Rumors swirled about her closeness to the likes of Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens, Dante Gabriel Rosetti and the elderly Alexandre Dumas—fueled by photographs of Adah with the men.

Adah seemed to relish the controversy and attention she sparked, and in some ways even encouraged it by defying the social norms of the day: She cut her black hair short, openly smoked cigarettes and went through a series of husbands in the span of seven years.

Due to her own conflicting accounts of her early life, it is unknown if she was born Jewish or converted for her first—and only Jewish—husband, Alexander Isaacs Menken, but she appears to have been devoted to Judaism for the remainder of her life. She once explained to a reporter, “Through that pure and simple religion I have found greatest comfort and blessing.”

Indeed, Adah was a frequent poetic contributor to The Israelite, a Cincinnati weekly paper, refused to perform on the Jewish High Holidays and, on her deathbed at the age of 33, was attended to by a rabbi. Dying of tuberculosis at her peak, Adah still seemed to be content with the way her life had played out. In a note to a friend several hours before her death, Adah wrote:

I am lost to art and life. Yet, when all is said and done, have I not at my age tasted more of life than most women who live to be a hundred? It is fair, then, that I should go where old people go.

The AJHS at the Center for Jewish History holds a collection of personal objects and promotional materials related to Adah, including photographs, letters and playbills.

Out of the Archives: Serendipity  by Kevin Schlottmann, Archival Services Manager, Center for Jewish History
Today is International Cat Day. This morning, one of our archival fellows was processing a collection from the Leo Baeck Institute, when she came across a diary/sketchbook. Inside she discovered a small glassine envelope containing little white chips. Upon closer inspection, the chips turned out to be nail (well, claw) clippings from a cat. It turns out that the diary is entirely dedicated to “Kapuziner Benediktiner Schnurrer Frater Kater Wolfgang Caspar Marzipan,” a beloved cat.
Above image: From the Hannelore Daniels Collection, Leo Baeck Institute (AR 25518).

Out of the Archives: Serendipity
by Kevin Schlottmann, Archival Services Manager, Center for Jewish History

Today is International Cat Day. This morning, one of our archival fellows was processing a collection from the Leo Baeck Institute, when she came across a diary/sketchbook. Inside she discovered a small glassine envelope containing little white chips. Upon closer inspection, the chips turned out to be nail (well, claw) clippings from a cat. It turns out that the diary is entirely dedicated to “Kapuziner Benediktiner Schnurrer Frater Kater Wolfgang Caspar Marzipan,” a beloved cat.

Above image: From the Hannelore Daniels Collection, Leo Baeck Institute (AR 25518).

Reagan, Russia and a Jewish March on Washington: Digitizing 75,000+ Objects From the American Soviet Jewry Movement

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Poster from the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews Records: “Mr. Gorbachev, before you talk arms, let’s talk bodies.” For the march and rally for Soviet Jews Pre-Summit, December 6, 1987. American Jewish Historical Society.

Thanks to generous support from the National Historical Publications & Records Commission (NHPRC), the Center for Jewish History began digitizing more than 75,000 objects from the American Jewish Historical Society's Soviet Jewry collections in January of this year.

The Gruss Lipper Digital Lab’s staff of seven photographers and technicians has been working hard in the first six months of the initiative, and expects to create 75,100 images and 500 hours of digital audio files by the end of the Digitizing American Soviet Jewry Movement Collections initiative.

Among the collections’ objects are political posters, photographs, trip reports, ephemera and audiocassettes. Each object goes through a meticulous process of digital capture, quality assurance, post-production, metadata enhancement and ingest into the Center’s Digital Collections OPAC. The lab’s equipment includes Canon DSLR cameras, Epson flatbed scanners, a Tascom audio workstation and a Better Light camera for oversized and fragile materials.

In addition to processing the records of organizations such as the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jewry, the digitization team is processing material from such noted figures as Avital and Natan Sharansky and a wealth of American human rights activists.

The American Soviet Jewry movement emerged from small grassroots groups of students and others outside the establishment in the early 1960s. It evolved into a worldwide phenomenon throughout the early ’90s, and was integral to the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews who had been forbidden to embrace any part of their cultural and religious traditions throughout the Cold War era.

Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky

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Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Sr. and Avital Sharansky in the White House during Natan Sharansky’s imprisonment. Image from the National Conference on Soviet Jewry Records. Photographs: Avital and Natan Sharansky. American Jewish Historical Society.

A definite highlight among the photographs digitized thanks to the NHPRC grant is a cluster of photographs from the National Conference on Soviet Jewry Collection titled “Sharansky, Anatoly (Natan) and Avital with Milgrom, Ida (82 digital images).”

Anatoly (later Natan) Sharansky, a prominent Israeli politician and author, and a former Soviet Jewish Prisoner of Conscience, became an icon of the American Soviet Jewry Movement. During his imprisonment, his wife, Avital, and the American Soviet Jewry movement organizations orchestrated a massive public campaign on his behalf and on the behalf of other Soviet Jewish Prisoners and Refuseniks. 

The photographs in the collection date from the late 1970s and ’80s and feature Sharansky before and shortly after his imprisonment, as well as Sharansky’s mother and Avital during their campaign for his release. The photos also feature many American human rights activists and members of the United States government campaigning for Sharansky’s release, including President Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Sr., Bob Dole, Alan Dershowitz, Bayard Rustin and many others.

The Solidarity Sunday for Soviet Jews

A striking example of the posters collection digitized by NHPRC is the poster pictured at the top of this post, calling for mobilization for one of the pivotal events in the history of the Soviet Jewry movement—the Solidarity Sunday for Soviet Jews. The national march and political rally was held on the eve of the Washington, D.C., summit between the Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and President Reagan.

More than 200,000 participants gathered on the National Mall to demand religious, cultural and emigration rights for Soviet Jews. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency described the event as the “largest Jewish rally ever held in Washington, D.C.” To this day, many see the event as a powerful example of the American Jews of all walks of life coming together for a common cause.

The trip report by Barbara Pfeffer

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The first page of photographer Barbara Pfeffer’s USSR trip report. From the National Conference on Soviet Jewry Records. American Jewish Historical Society.

Barbara Pfefferwas a photojournalist whose pictures appeared in Life, People, Town and Country and other magazines; she was also a documentary filmmaker who explored Jewish themes. In 1985, she traveled to the Soviet Union to meet and photograph dozens of Soviet Jewish Refuseniks in their communities.

Pfeffer’s engaging and vivid trip report reveals details of Jewish life in the major Soviet cities of Leningrad, Vilnius and Kiev; chilling encounters with the KGB agents; and general impressions of an American traveler in USSR in the ’80s.

An unusual aspect of her report is that, besides covering the major cities in the European part of the USSR, it also offers a rare glimpse into the unique culture of the Jewish communities in the former Soviet Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan. In the decades following Pfeffer’s trip, the USSR collapsed, Uzbekistan became an independent country—and the Jews, who had lived there since 4th century CE, were almost completely gone. At the time of Pfeffer’s visit, the Jewish community of Uzbekistan was 100,000. By 2007, fewer than 5,000 Jews, mostly elderly, remained.

Barbara Pfeffer’s trip ended unexpectedly—she was deported by the KGB for visiting the homes of Soviet Jews.

The NHPRC-funded Digitizing American Soviet Jewry Movement Collections initiative runs through May 2015. Visit the CJH Digital Collections, and search AJHS and all partner collections at search.cjh.org.

Great news! The Center for Jewish History now provides full access to the world’s largest online collaborative family tree, Geni.com, free of charge. Courtesy of the Geni Public Access program, users logging in to Geni.com on-site at the Center for Jewish History can take advantage of the website’s Pro features, including full access to their database of family trees and family history projects, enhanced research tools and premium support. (Free registration is required.)

Great news! The Center for Jewish History now provides full access to the world’s largest online collaborative family tree, Geni.com, free of charge. Courtesy of the Geni Public Access program, users logging in to Geni.com on-site at the Center for Jewish History can take advantage of the website’s Pro features, including full access to their database of family trees and family history projects, enhanced research tools and premium support. (Free registration is required.)

yumuseum
Fascinating find. We’ve got a juicy series going about Picon’s incredible career; read more about her here! 
yumuseum:

In the mid-1970s, Sarah Safford, a dancer from New York was driving in Mahopac in Upstate New York when she came upon an abandoned truck in the middle of a field.  In the truck was a trove of eccentric clothes that Safford recognized as stage costumes.  Safford’s theater-knowledgeable mother identified the clothes’ importance and recognized them as belonging to Molly Picon, the Yiddish theater star.  Safford and her mother contacted Picon who said that, as a result of her grief over the death of her husband, had left many mementos and souvenirs in the house that she had shared with him in Mahopac.  Picon also encouraged Safford to keep the clothes and use them for shows.  Safford did later use the clothes in a show inspired by her find called Molly Picon is Alive and Well and Living in Brooklyn.  

Fascinating find. We’ve got a juicy series going about Picon’s incredible career; read more about her here

yumuseum:

In the mid-1970s, Sarah Safford, a dancer from New York was driving in Mahopac in Upstate New York when she came upon an abandoned truck in the middle of a field.  In the truck was a trove of eccentric clothes that Safford recognized as stage costumes.  Safford’s theater-knowledgeable mother identified the clothes’ importance and recognized them as belonging to Molly Picon, the Yiddish theater star.  Safford and her mother contacted Picon who said that, as a result of her grief over the death of her husband, had left many mementos and souvenirs in the house that she had shared with him in Mahopac.  Picon also encouraged Safford to keep the clothes and use them for shows.  Safford did later use the clothes in a show inspired by her find called Molly Picon is Alive and Well and Living in Brooklyn.