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Can Archival Work be Thrilling?

Updated: Apr 2

Jews suing Gentiles, Gentiles suing Jews.   Robberies, thefts, a deal in stolen goods, a sudden accidental death and even a murder,

Where? In Wilno (Vilnius) and surrounding villages and shtetls.

When? At the end of the eighteenth century.

How do we know about these events? By studying the hearings of the Wilno City Court preserved as old manuscripts in an Archive.

I was privileged and honored to volunteer in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People located in Giv’at Ram in Jerusalem.

I could have been in my lab in France, I felt so immediately at home.  The exterior premises looked quite familiar to me.  A grayish generic university style building similar to many such University campus facilities.  Inside were old desks, old chairs, old shelves, old cabinets.

But I was surrounded by University academics and scholars from around the world, so absorbed in their work that it seemed superfluous to invest in a modern look or an esthetic appearance. I was welcomed by Yochai, Anastasia and Benyamin, authorities and experts in the Archives and they immediately made me feel comfortable and part of the team. I was shown my desk, my computer, the coffee room.  Within moments of arriving, I sat in front of my screen and I dived into the files.

My job was to decipher old documents hand-written in Polish?  So what did I find so thrilling from this work?

I discovered some curious and fearsome stories.  But what was truly thrilling to me, a Polish Jew who has lived in France for many years, was to discover how tightly the lives of the Jews’ and Poles’ were interconnected and knit together.   True, they were stealing from each other but they were stealing together!!!

Here’s a story uncovered from history that I deciphered:  Around Christmas, two Polish thieves arrived at night to a house of Jews, cobblers by profession.  The thieves sold the Jews their stolen goods which included such items as sheepskin coats, dressing gowns, and pistols. To further complicate the situation, a few hours later a traveling Jew arrived and bargained in Yiddish to purchase these stolen goods.

This series of events is witnessed by a 30 year old woman with a Polish sounding name (Maryanna Zajączkowska), and she testifies in Court about what she witnessed.  She is identified as an illegitimate wife of one Eliasz Lemencew, clearly a Jew. Clearly a Jew? As clearly as one can suppose from their names or by guessing based on the context from the documents.   If a historian wants to establish who is “a 100% Jew”, who is 100% not, and many other aspects of the story according to his/her research interest, she/he will have to go to other archives, civil state archives, Jewish Kahal archives, etc.

Another example I deciphered is that of a Jew who is suing several persons, mainly Gentiles, among them a lady Teofilia Brzestowska born Radziwiłł. Such a fact is exciting when you know that Radziwiłł is the name of Polish aristocrats of the highest rank!  Moreover, in the court files, the Jew is designed as a “merchant and citizen of Wilno.” Therefore we learn that Jews were citizens. This document is from the year 1798. To add historical context to this story, it’s exciting to juxtapose the fact that revolutionary France became the second country of the world to emancipate its Jewish population in September 1791, 500 years after Poland’s Statute of Kalisz was issued by Bolesław the Pious in September 1264.

One more interesting story that I uncovered is that of a 25 year old beggar named Azik Joselowicz. He appeared in the City Court.  As a result of a marital dispute he strangled his wife Sara, who was also a beggar.  Azik admitted his deed.  Such a horrific crime, says the Court, justifies the most severe sentence. The accused was therefore condemned to lifetime work in the hospital of the Kahal (Jewish community), to a burn mark on his body and to 50 lashes. That was the most severe punishment available since capital punishment, the death penalty, was abrogated by Prince Repine, the Lord of the area!

Not all files that I looked at revealed so many of their secrets as the ones I shared above. When trying to decipher these old manuscripts, I attempted mainly to identify the actors, the places, the topic. And there was always a tension: should I dig more into a file to get more information from it or would my time be better spent reading and decoding the next one?

I enjoyed very much my time, albeit too short, at the Archives. Thank you, Marla and Terry of Skilled Volunteers for Israel and thank you Yochai, Anastasia and Benyamin from the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

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