The Molly Picon Story, Part 6: “Isn’t She Wonderful?”

With this post, we wrap up Sarah Ganton’s series on 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 Historic 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 Jacob Kalich on their 46th wedding anniversary, 19TK. [Link]

A relaxed life in the country at Chez Schmendrick proved a short-lived idea for Molly and Jacob, as they headed for Korea with yet another USO tour in December 1951. USO Camp Shows billed this one, completed around the Christmas Holiday, as “the most glamorous, talented, socko shows ever assembled…packed into a gayly wrapped package of entertainment goodwill for the US Forces.”

Molly toured Asia with Operation Star-Time, and was transported in a C-54 troop transport plane, issued clothes, utensils, and a steel helmet by the quartermaster—it was indeed a USO tour.

Though Molly wrote in her autobiography that she felt the lineup was skimpy and she worried about having enough material, she was a big hit, and found that “the thunderous applause of the troops, echoed by all America, will be your reward,” as the USO office had promised her when they wrote to invite her on the tour.

As she had on her World War II USO tours, Molly again collected the names and contact information of the families of Jewish soldiers she and Jacob encountered, then called their families when she got home to New York. The gratitude she received from these frazzled family members was immense. Mrs. Anna Friend wrote, “Dear Mollie, I am such a great admirer of yours…Thank you so much for being so nice to my boys, they told me you ate with them and all about you.” Similarly, Mrs. Gussie Insler wrote, “I don’t know how to express my gratitude for what you and all those in show business do to bring a little bit of home to all those lonely boys.”

Molly and Jacob got older, but by no means slower. Though they battled the problems of old age, they soldiered on in the pursuit of entertainment. Molly opened new plays on tour and on Broadway, including A Majority of One in London in 1960 and Milk and Honey in 1961. In both cases, as in many others, the plays got lukewarm reviews but Molly won raves.

She and Yonkel traveled to Israel often, as well as to Poland to shoot Fiddler on the Roof, in which Molly played Yente and Jacob had a small part as well. Molly played Frank Sinatra’s mother in Come Blow Your Horn, and Barbra Streisand’s in For Pete’s Sake. They were two But life inevitably runs its course, and thus the duo was fated to stop their frantic pace at some point.

Molly’s beloved Yonkel died at Chez Schmendrick on March 16, 1975 and Molly died in 1992, but both are remembered in the work that they did, both for the Yiddish theater and for the entertainment world in general. Molly was adored by nearly everyone she met and everyone who saw her perform, and her dedication to Yiddish theater was matched only by her husband. Indeed, Molly had that “ineffable quality which makes an audience sigh ecstatically and say ‘Isn’t she wonderful?’” as Louis Nizer so eloquently put it. We at the Center for Jewish History are lucky to have her papers, and I am lucky to have spent my internship getting to know her.

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

The Molly Picon Story, Part 5: Postwar Europe—and Radio

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 Historic 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 performing for the Maxwell House radio show, December 6, 1938. [Link

As World War II drew to a close, Molly and Jacob began to plan a tour of Europe, especially the Displaced Persons camps in areas that had been occupied by Nazi Germany. They collected necessities and some of life’s little pleasures like lipstick and jewelry to distribute at the camps. Molly and Jacob left New York on May 9, 1946, and were the first entertainers to tour the DP camps since the war had ended.[1]

They began in Paris, where it appeared the city’s soul had been lost. Nevertheless, the French Jews turned up in droves for Molly’s performance. Molly remembers that “everyone came knowing a crucial barrier was about to fall, and it did. Although it took us twenty minutes to do it, we made these tragic Jews laugh and our hearts expanded with joy at the sound.”[2]

They continued to give concerts in France and Belgium until they finally secured visas into Poland after months of standstill. There they saw the Warsaw Ghetto, the prison camps, and the gas chambers. Heavy with emotion, they continued their shows: “We had expected the worst and we had seen it, but we had no time to cry. Yonkel and I put our emotions aside and gave thanks for the sweet balm of music.”[3] They continued in this manner throughout Poland, until their return to the United States at the end of August, 1946.[4]

 Back at home in New York, Molly continued her work on the radio, which she had begun in 1938 with a show sponsored by Maxwell House coffee. Molly opened the show with a “Good shabbos” and kept her program decidedly Yiddish. “As I stand here before the microphone,” she would often begin, “I can see you all seated around your shabbos tables. Some of you are smiling and some of you are leaning close to your radios.”[5] She sometimes included a series called “I give you my life” in which she dramatized her own life story, from her childhood encounter on the streetcar to meeting her Yonkel and beyond.

She also spoke of events in her own life, such as her tour of the DP camps in Europe, and adapted many of her stage shows for the radio, including such major hits as “Yonkele,” “Oy is Dus a Leben” and “Yidl Mitn Fidl.” Yiddish theater was obviously not quite dead yet, as Molly’s radio show with its major sponsor proved. It was getting smaller and smaller, though, and Molly was getting older and older. She and her Yonkel bought a house in Mahopac, New York, christened it Chez Schmendrick after their beloved idiot of a character, and we will catch up with them there in the next post.

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

__________________________________________________________

[1] Picon, 100-104.

[2] Picon, 108.

[3] Picon, 113.

[4] Picon, 118.

[5] Maxwell House Radio Script, January 14, 1938; Molly Picon, papers; P-38; 44; 798; American Jewish Historical Society, Boston, MA and New York, NY. 

Save the Date: “World War I and the Jews” Conference in NYC, Nov. 9-10

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Decorative embroidery by Rose Biegeleisen Axelrod, depicting German ruler and allies during World War I. Translation from the German: “We are united and no power can separate us. Our armies have forced their way, through storm and darkness, to victory.” Source: Center for Jewish History emu

To mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I and to consider the war’s legacies in the present day, the Center for Jewish History is launching the World War I and the Jews Initiative, a series of exciting public programs to explore the way that the war transformed Jewish life around the globe. This includes a conference, a film series, a concert and, as a keystone for the centennial celebration, an evening of performance.

Here’s the full schedule, with details about each program and its participants. The Center is located at 15 West 16th St. in New York City. 

WORLD WAR I AND THE JEWS

An international roster of scholars will discuss the state of scholarship and introduce cutting-edge research on Jews in World War I, examining the war’s importance as a cataclysmic event in Jewish and world history. In shattering empires and creating new states, the war disrupted Jewish ties around the globe and forged new ones, bringing about an entirely new era of ideologies, nation states, and circumstances that have affected Jewish life to the present day.

Sunday, November 9 (public sessions)

Day 1 - The State of Scholarship

  • 9:00am
    COFFEE AND REGISTRATION
  • 9:30am
    WELCOME AND GREETINGS

    Judith C. Siegel, Center for Jewish History
    David Engel, New York University

  • 9:45am - 11:00am
    SESSION 1: KEYNOTE PRESENTATION

    Carole Fink, Ohio State University
    Introductions: David Engel, New York University

  • 11:15am - 12:45pm
    SESSION 2: THE JEWISH WORLD IN 1914 AND 1919: WHAT CHANGED?

    Marsha Rozenblit, University of Maryland
    Introduction: Gennady Estraikh, New York University

  • 12:45pm - 2:00pm
    LUNCH ON YOUR OWN
  • 2:00pm - 3:15pm
    SESSION 3: JEWS IN THE MILITARY

    Derek Penslar, University of Oxford and University of Toronto
    Introduction: Deborah Dash Moore, U of Michigan

  • 3:30pm - 4:45pm
    SESSION 4: POLITICAL AND SOCIAL TRANSFORMATIONS DURING WORLD WAR I

    David Engel, New York University
    Introduction: Marsha Rozenblit

  • 5:00pm - 6:15pm
    SESSION 5: THE WAR AND JEWISH CULTURE

    Emily Bilski, Independent Scholar
    Introduction: Jonathan Karp, Binghamton University

  • 6:30pm
    WINE AND CHEESE RECEPTION

Public interested in attending on Sunday, November 9 may purchase tickets online.

Monday, November 10 (for college faculty and students only)

Day 2 - New Research

  • 8:15am
    COFFEE
  • 8:45am - 10:30am
    SESSION 1: WESTERN AND CENTRAL EUROPE
    CHAIR: JESS OLSON, YESHIVA UNIVERSITY

    Erin Corber, Indiana University/Bloomington
    'How to be an “Exemplary Hero”: Jewish First World War Heroes and the Politics of Sacred Union in Wartime and Interwar France'


    Steven Schouten, Scientific Council for Government Policy, the Netherlands
    “Jews and Kashrut in Wartime Germany”

    Mirjam Zadoff, Indiana University Bloomington
    “Brothers in Arms: WWI & the Case of Werner and GershomScholem”

  • 10:45am - 12:30pm
    SESSION 2: EASTERN AND CENTRAL EUROPE
    CHAIR: GENNADY ESTRAIKH

    Mihaly Kalman, Harvard University
    “The Union of Jewish Soldiers between Ukrainian Nationalism and Soviet Internationism”

    Daniel Rosenthal, University of Toronto
    “Confronting Mss Death: Philanthropy, Public Health, and Jewish Responses to Typhus in Poland, 1914-1921”

    Polly Zavadivker, University of Delaware
    “Rescue and Representation: Jewish Home Front Activists in Russia’s Great War”

    Rebekah Klein-Pejšová, Purdue University
    “Between Refugees and the State: Hungarian Jews and Wartime Hungarian Refugee Policy”

  • 12:30pm - 1:30pm
    LUNCH ON YOUR OWN
  • 1:30pm - 3:15pm
    SESSION 3: OTTOMAN EMPIRE
    CHAIR: SARAH STEIN, UCLA

    Michal ben Yaakov, Efrata College, Jerusalem
    “The Social and Economic Impact of the First World War on Sephardi Women in Palestine”

    Paris Papamichos Chronakis, Brown University
    “Global Conflict, Local Politics: The Jews of Salonica and the First World War”

    Reeva Simon, Columbia University
    “World War I and the Jews of Baghdad

    Devi Mays, Jewish Theological Seminary
    “The 1919 ‘Haggadah dela Gerra’ and the Myth of Ottoman Jewish Loyalty in World War I”

  • 3:30pm - 5:15am
    SESSION 4: NORTH AMERICA
    CHAIR: HASIA DINER, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY

    Jessica Cooperman, Muhlenberg College
    “The US Military in World War I and American Religious Pluralism”

    Jaclyn Granick, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva
    “Organized American Jewish Responses to Child Sufferers of World War I”

    Melissa Klapper, Rowan University
    “American Jewish Women’s Organizations and the Great War”

    Matt Silver
    “Louis Marshall and Transformations in Diaspora Politics during World War I”

    This panel is sponsored by the Goldstein-Goren Institute at NYU

  • 5:30pm - 6:15pm
    SESSION 5: CONCLUDING ROUNDTABLE
    CHAIR: JONATHAN KARP

    David Engel, Marsha Rozenblit, Sarah Stein, Hasia Diner, Emily Bilski

College faculty and students may register for tickets online at www.cjh.org/thegreatwarconference.

Speaker Bios

Michal Ben Ya’akov (Ph.D., Hebrew University in Jerusalem) is an assistant professor in modern history at the Efrata College of Education in Jerusalem and chair of the history department.  She created a unique certification program for Teaching the Holocaust and its Commemoration at the Efrata College for both pre-service and in-service teachers, and has headed the program since 2007. Her academic research centers on 19th and 20th century Eretz-Israel/Palestine/Israel, with special emphasis on North African and Sephardi Jewry, as well on the experiences of North African Jews during both World Wars. In recent years she has focused on Jewish women, particularly, but not exclusively in those communities. 

Emily D. Bilski has published on modernism and on the interface between art, cultural history and Jewish experience, and on contemporary art. She has served as curator and consultant to museums in the United States, Europe and Israel. A graduate of Harvard University, she is the winner of two National Jewish Book Awards, for Berlin Metropolis: Jews and the New Culture: 1898-1918 (University of California, 1999) and The Power of Conversation: Jewish Women and Their Salons (Yale, 2005). She is currently editing the volume of Martin Buber’s writings on art for the complete edition of his works; and writing on the history of Munich’s Thannhauser Gallery. 

Paris Papamichos Chronakis is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Brown University. He received his M.A. in Comparative History from Essex University and his Ph.D. in Modern Greek and European History from the University of Crete. A recipient of numerous grants, he was a Rothschild Foundation Europe post-doctoral teaching fellow at the University of Thessaly and a research fellow at UCLA. He is a historian of Southern Europe and the Mediterranean working on the late Ottoman Empire, the modern Greek state, and Sephardic Jewry and holding a special interest in the interrelated histories of the middle classes, interethnic relations, and the passage from empire to the nation-state.

Jessica Cooperman is Assistant Professor of Religion Studies at Mulenberg College.  She received her Ph.D. from New York University in modern Jewish history.  Her dissertation was entitled,  ”The Jewish Welfare Board and the American Jewish Cititzen: Jewish Chaplains, Soldiers and Welfare Workers in the First World War.”

Erin Corber is a historian of modern France and modern Jewry. She is Visiting Assistant Professor of European History at the University of Maine.  Originally from Montréal, QC, she defended her Ph.D. in November, 2013 in the Department of History  and Borns Jewish Studies Program at Indiana University, Bloomington. In spring 2014 she was a Postdoctoral Visiting Research Scholar and instructor in the Borns Jewish Studies Program at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Hasia Diner is the Paul S. and Sylvia Steinberg Professor of American Jewish History, Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, History, and Director of the Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History at New York University.  She received her Ph.D. from University of Illinois at Chicago, her M.A. from University of Chicago, and her B.A. from University of Wisconsin.

David Engel is an American historian and Professor of Holocaust and Judaic Studies at New York University. Engel holds his Ph.D. from the University of California in Los Angeles, and completed postdoctoral study at Hebrew University’s Division of Holocaust Studies, Institute for Contemporary Jewry in Jerusalem.  He is a Fellow of the Diaspora Research Institute at Tel Aviv University; member of the Carnegie Commission on Ethics and International Affairs and the Commission on Polish-Jewish Relations since 2002. In 1986–87 Engel received Outstanding Lecturer honors at Tel Aviv University; in 1996 he was given the Golden Dozen Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at New York University.

Gennady Estraikh is Clinical Associate Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and Rauch Associate Professor of Yiddish Studies at NYU.  He received his Ph.D. from the University of Oxford.  His research interests include Jewish intellectual history in the 19th and 20th centuries with an accent on Yiddish literary milieus.

Carole Fink, Humanities Distinguished Professor of History Emerita at The Ohio State University, has recently published Cold War: An International History and is the author of two prize-winning books, Defending the Rights of Others: The Great Powers, the Jews, and International Minority Protection, 1878-1938, and The Genoa Conference: European Diplomacy, 1921-1922. She has received fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the German Marshall Fund, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the American Association of University Women.

Jaclyn Granick is working towards finishing her dissertation, “Humanitarian Responses to Jewish Suffering Abroad by American Jewish Organizations, 1914-1929.” She is a Ph.D. candidate in international history at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland and is spending the 2014-2015 academic year as a Graduate Research Fellow here at the Center for Jewish History.

Mihaly Kalman is a Ph.D. candidate in Jewish Studies at Harvard University. He is currently completing his dissertation on Jewish armed self-defense against the pogroms in Russia and Mandatory Palestine, with a special eye to the history of Jewish paramilitarism during the Russian Civil War.

Jonathan Karp is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at Binghamton University.  He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University.  His areas of interest include Jewish cultural and economic history and Jewish-Christian relations.  He served as Executive Director of the American Jewish Historical Society from 2010-2013.

Melissa R. Klapper is Professor of History at Rowan University in Glassboro, NJ.  She is the author of Jewish Girls Coming of Age in America, 1860-1920 (NYU Press, 2005) and Small Strangers:  The Experiences of Immigrant Children in the United States, 1880-1925 (Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 2007).  Her research has been awarded numerous grants and fellowships from such institutions as the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Schlesinger Library on the History of American Women at Harvard University, and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.  Her most recent book, Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace:  American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940 (NYU Press, 2013), won the 2013 National Jewish Book Award in Women’s Studies.

Rebekah Klein-Pejsova is Jewish Studies Assistant Professor of History at Purdue University. She specializes in Modern Jewish and East Central European social history, with research interests focusing on the problem of loyalty in state/society relations in the region of today’s Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czach Republic since the early 20th century. Prof. Klein-Pejsova earnned her Ph.D. from Columbia University, after completing her M.A. at the Central European University in Budapest, and her B.A. at Bard College. She is the Associated Scholar of the Slovak Jewish Heritage Center in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Devi Mays is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Jewish Studies at The Jewish Theological Seminary, where she teaches on the Sephardic Diaspora and Ladino Literature and Culture. She is a historian of modern Jewry whose primary research interests are in transnational Jewish networks and the modern Sephardic world.

Deborah Dash Moore is the Director of the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies and a Frederick G.L. Huetwell Professor of History at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.  Her fields of Study include American Jewish history, 20th century urbanization, migration, and acculturation and community building.  She received her Ph.D. from Columbia University.

Jess Olson is an Assistant Professor of Jewish History and the Associate Director of the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies. Interested in questions of nationalism, religion, and Jewish identity in 19th and 20th century Europe, his areas of research include the Jews of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany, history of Zionism and Jewish nationalism, and the intersection between Jewish Orthodoxy and political engagement.

Derek J. Penslar is the Samuel Zacks Professor of Jewish History.  His research specialties are the history of modern European Jewry, Zionism, and the state of Israel. He is currently writing a biography of Theodor Herzl for Yale University Press’ Jewish Lives series. He is co-editor of two scholarly journals, Jewish Social Studies and of The Journal of Israeli History,and is an elected fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the American Academy for Jewish Research.  He is co-chair of the Academic Advisory Council at the Center for Jewish History.

Daniel Rosenthal received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Toronto in 2014. His doctoral dissertation focused on the ways in which all Jews in Poland, irrespective of religious or political affiliations, refashioned their ideas about death, funerals, and burial in the decades between the World Wars due to new ideas of selfhood, changing forms of social cohesion, and the growing regulation of death by the new Polish republic. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Haifa University through the Israeli Inter-University Academic Partnership in Russian and East European Studies.

Marsha L. Rozenblit (PhD, Columbia University) is a social historian of Jews in Central Europe.  She is the author of The Jews of Vienna, 1867-1914: Assimilation and Identity (1983) andReconstructing a National Identity: The Jews of Habsburg Austria During World War I (2001).  She has been at the University of Maryland since 1978, serving as the Director of the Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies from 1998 to 2003 and currently as the Director of Graduate Studies of the History Department.

Steven Schouten is a Research Fellow at the Scientific Council for Government Policy in the Netherlands. He is a specialist in Modern German-Jewish History, with focus on intellectuals, food and the First World War. He wrote a dissertation on the early life and thought of the German Jewish writer and public intellectual Ernst Toller (1893-1939) (European University Institute, Florence, Italy, 2007) and published, amongst others, ‘Fighting a Kosher War: German Jews and Kashrut in the First World War’, in Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Rachel Duffett and Alain Drouard (eds), Food and War in Twentieth Century Europe (Ashgate, 2011).

Matthew Silver, from the Max Stern College of Emek Yezreel, received his M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern Jewish History from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and has taught as a visiting professor at several universities in North America. His book Louis Marshall and the Rise of Jewish Ethnicity in America was selected as a finalist in American Jewish History in the 2013 National Jewish Book Awards. His latest book, In the Service of the West: A New Look at Modern Jewish History (Hebrew) is being published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad  in September-October 2014.

Reeva Spector Simon is Professor of History at Yeshiva University. She previously served as Associate Director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University and is the author of Iraq between the Two World Wars.  She is co-editor and contributor to The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times (Columbia University Press, 2003).

Sarah Abrevaya Stein is Maurice Amado Endowed Chair in Sephardic Studies at UCLA.  Vice Chair for Undergraduate Affairs of the Department of History, she received her A.B. from Brown University and her doctorate from Stanford University. Her scholarship has ranged across the Yiddish- and Ladino-speaking diasporas and the British and French imperial, Russian, American, Ottoman and wider Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and North African settings.

Mirjam Zadoff holds the Alvin H. Rosenfeld Chair in Jewish Studies and is Associate Professor for History at Indiana University, Bloomington. She has studied at the Universities of Vienna and Munich, and from 2006 to 2014 she was Assistant Professor in Jewish History at Munich University. Among her major publications are most recently “Der rote Hiob. Das Leben des Werner Scholem” (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 2014; in English: Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, in preparation) and “Next Year in Marienbad. The Lost Worlds of Jewish Spa Culture” (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

Polly Zavadivker is Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies at the University of Delaware. She received her Ph.D. in History at the University of California at Santa Cruz in 2013. Her dissertation is entitled “Blood and Ink: Russian and Soviet Jewish Chroniclers of Catastrophe from World War I to World War II.” It explores the Jewish history of war from 1914 to 1945, as recorded by the writers S. An-sky, Simon Dubnov, Isaac Babel, Vasily Grossman, and others. She has published her research on World War I in The Simon Dubnow Institute Yearbook and the forthcoming series Russia’s Great War and Revolution (Slavica).

WWI—JEWISH EXPERIENCE IN THE TRENCHES AND AT THE HOMEFRONT

Monday, September 15

The Fighting 69th is a 1940 Warner Brothers film directed by William Keighley. The film is based upon the actual exploits of New York City’s 69th infantry Regiment during WWI. The plot centers on misfit Jerry Plunkett (James Cagney), a macho and a coward, unable to fit into the Irish brigade. Among the cast of characters is also Mischa Moskowitz (Mike Murphy for his Regiment friends), who speaks Yiddish, prays in Hebrew, but fights like an Irishman.

Discussant: Thomas Doherty, Professor of American Studies, Brandeis University

Monday, October 13

La Grande Illusion (The Grand Illusion) is a 1937 French war film directed by Jean Renoir. The story concerns class relationships among a small group of French officers who are prisoners of war during WWI plotting an escape. The perspective of the film is generously humanistic to its characters of various nationalities, a key character among them is Rosenthal, a wealthy French Jew. It is regarded by critics and film historians as one of the masterpieces of French cinema and among the greatest films ever made.

Discussant: Stuart Liebman, Professor of the History and Theory of Cinema, CUNY Graduate Center

Monday, November 3

A Letter to Mother (1939) is one of the last Yiddish films made in Poland before the Nazi invasion. The plot centers on the story of mother’s persistent efforts to support her family, while her husband moves to America. After her family is pulled apart by severe poverty and the turmoil of WWI, she finally makes her way to New York in hopes for better future. A Letter to Mother was hailed by the New York Times as one of the best Yiddish films to reach America. It was the highest grossing Yiddish film of its time.

Discussant: Dr. Eric Goldman, Adjunct Professor of Cinema, Yeshiva University

Monday, November 10 at 6:30pm

Jews and the Great War: A Reflection at the Centennial
Join us for an evening of performance exploring the Jewish experience during World War I. An esteemed cast of actors will bring to the stage the words of soldiers and civilians, politicians and poets, from home and abroad. Through memoir, music, and imagery these dramatic readings will reflect upon the war that created the modern world.

Admission: $15 general; $10 members, seniors, students

Tuesday, November 18 at 7:30pm

Stravinsky, Ravel, and Prokofiev: Composing in War Time
The Phoenix Chamber Ensemble performing Stravinsky’s Suite de L’histoire du soldat for violin clarinet and piano, Prokofiev’s Sonata in D Major for violin and piano and Ravel’s Piano Trio.

This concert is made possible through the generous support of Mr. & Mrs. Leonard Blavatnik.

Monday, December 1

Commissar was made by Aleksandr Askoldov in 1967, but was banned by Soviet censors for 20 years. The reason is the film’s sympathetic depiction of Jews. Commissar is a heartbreaking story of a Jewish family in backwater Ukrainian shtetl ravaged by war and pogroms. When a female commissar fighting in the Red Army gets pregnant, the Jewish family takes her in, as she is expecting to give birth and to return to the fronts… The film is remarkable for its beautiful cinematography, contrasting the domestic Jewish life with powerful images of the Russian Civil War.

Discussant: Dr. Jonathan Brent, Executive Director, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

The film series is curated and introduced by Olga Gershenson, Professor of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Film screenings will held at 6:30pm. For reservations and ticket information please contact Smarttix at 212 868-4444.

The World War I and the Jews initiative is made possible by funding from The David Berg Foundation and The Brenner Family Foundation. 

Additional funding has been provided by the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies (New York University), the Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History (New York University), American Jewish Historical Society, American Sephardi Federation, and Leo Baeck Institute.

The Molly Picon Story, Part 4: The War, English Songs and the Great White Way

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 Historic 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 performing during a U.S.O. tour of camps in the United States during World War II, March 21, 1945


The early 1940s saw Molly facing two major shakeups. The first was the decline of the Yiddish theater she so loved. Molly recognized with chagrin the fact that fewer and fewer people could speak Yiddish, and the Yiddish theater would not see a new generation. She told a newspaper in 1935 that “Nobody is coming along to carry on the Yiddish theater here…. Now I give all my songs and sketches in English. That seems to be the only language our people understand.”[1] 

Keeping herself ahead of the decline, Molly opened in her first Broadway play in 1940, titled Morning Star and written by Sylvia Regan. Molly still played a Jewish mother, familiar ground for her, but she left the gimmicks and the song and dance routines on Second Avenue and played the role with dignity. Her reviews were favorable, but the reviews of Morning Star itself were less kind.

It was not overtly panned, but reviewers spent more time likening it to traditional, downtown Yiddish plays than they did praising it. “In mood, in technique, and in treatment it is a traditional Yiddish play done in English, for it follows the East Side drama formula of alternating a sob and a laugh,” writes one reviewer. “We cannot recommend it to all theatregoers indiscriminately, but those who like plays depicting Jewish character and plays of a Yiddish theatre pattern may enjoy this production exceedingly.”[2] Molly’s “debut on the Broadway legitimate stage” was not a rousing success, but a success nonetheless.[3]

Having conquered Broadway, Molly returned to Second Avenue and her usual routine, continually attempting to keep the Yiddish theater movement alive. To that end, she and Jacob took one of Jacob’s Yiddish plays, Oy Is Dus A Leben, to Broadway, and in Yiddish no less. Based on Molly’s and Jacob’s own lives, it was Broadway’s first Yiddish play, a critical darling and a smash hit.[4] Oy Is Dus A Leben closed after over three months in January, 1943, a thoroughly respectable run for a Broadway play at that time.

By the time Molly had finished bringing Second Avenue to Broadway, World War II was going strong. Molly went on tour again, this time with the USO. She played in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Camp Wheeler Georgia, Biloxi, Mississippi, Maryland, Norfolk, Virginia, Dayton, Ohio, and countless other bases and dance halls, bringing some Yiddish humor to America’s soldiers. During these tours, Molly and Yonkel began the practice of writing down the addresses of the young soldiers’ mothers, then writing to them to let them know their sons were all right, which they continued for many years.[5] 

The work was rewarding, but more than anything Molly wanted the war over so she could return to Europe: “Every victory meant I was closer to getting back to Europe and performing for my beloved people—whatever was left of them.”[6] Victory would come, and Molly would cross the Atlantic once again, as we will see in the next installment.


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] Molly Picon, qtd in Press Clipping, June 6, 1935; Molly Picon, papers; P-38; 54; 1083; American Jewish Historical Society, Boston, MA, and New York, NY.

[2] Press Clipping: “Pathos and Comedy Blend in Jewish Life Cavacade,” May 20, 1940; Molly Picon, papers; P-38; 65; Scrapbook for 1940-1942, page 4; American Jewish Historical Society, Boston, MA, and New York, NY.

[3] Press Clipping in Tribune, Salt Lake City, n.d. ca 1940; Molly Picon, papers; P-38; 65; Scrapbook for 1940-1942; American Jewish Historical Society, Boston, MA, and New York, NY.

[4] Picon, 93.

[5] Picon, 96-99.

[6] Picon, 100. 

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.