Documents of great historic value

Finkelman was presented with a sheaf of documents, which he says gives him a reason to get up in the morning.

 FROM LEFT, Yitzchack Gila, Yoel Finkelman and Rob Lehrer examine historic documents. (photo credit: ROB LEHRER)
FROM LEFT, Yitzchack Gila, Yoel Finkelman and Rob Lehrer examine historic documents.
(photo credit: ROB LEHRER)

One of the worst nightmares for Yoel Finkelman, the curator of Judaica collections at the National Library of Israel, is for someone clearing out a deceased estate or downsizing the residence of a senior relative, is to come across a shoe box containing a pile of letters and other documents, and throw the contents into a trash bin.

“No-one knows how many historical treasures are lost that way,” he says.

But recently, Finkelman was presented with a sheaf of documents, which he says gives him a reason to get up in the morning. The carefully preserved letters and other documents did not come out of a shoe box, but out of the back of a writing desk, where they had been bundled and tied together.

The donor was Rob Lehrer, an Australian businessman from Melbourne, who realized their value and wanted them to be safeguarded for posterity. He decided, after a series of consultations, to donate them to the National Library, where they will eventually be digitized and available online to scholars and anyone else who may be interested.

Although Lehrer who always had an interest in history in general and family history in particular was aware that there were important documents in his parents’ possession, it was not until his father died in 2017, that he began to develop a passion for ensuring that the documents would not be discarded and destroyed.

His mother, from whose side of the family the documents were collected, had come across them after she became widowed. Not wanting to remain alone in the large family home, she was sorting out what to keep and take with her to her new abode. She, too, was interested in history and since childhood had known that there were documents written by famous rabbis in the family’s possession, some of whom were her ancestors. There was also a family tree to corroborate quite an illustrious pedigree that stretched across Europe.

When clearing out the old writing desk, she rediscovered the documents, written mostly in Hebrew and Yiddish. She discussed them with her children, two of whom were mildly curious, but did not share the passion of their brother Rob, who was given the responsibility for deciding what to do with them.

FIRST, HE had them translated, then he went to speak to the director of the Holocaust Museum in Melbourne and the two agreed that this might not be the ideal final repository for them. Coincidentally, Michael Berenbaum, the American scholar, writer and filmmaker, who served as deputy director of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust and later as project direct of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, was visiting Melbourne, and when approached by Lehrer, suggested that the National Library of Israel would be the best place to guarantee the safety and preservation of the documents.

Accordingly, Lehrer contacted Finkelman, and after a lot of back and forth via email, Lehrer brought the first installment of the documents to Israel.

“I didn’t want to send them by FEDEX,” he said. “”I thought it was important to deliver them personally.”

So, what do these documents contain? Mostly notes and letters.

While Lehrer’s branch of the family is Orthodox in name, but less so in practice, he is descended on all sides of his mother’s family, from generations of rabbis who made their mark in Jewish communities in Slovakia, Hungary, Moravia, Austria, Germany and Poland.

Many of his more distant relatives who remained ultra-Orthodox are members of Hassidic groups, such as Satmar, Skver and Lelov, and live mostly in the US.

On a heritage trip, Lehrer visited Lelov in Poland, where nothing is left of the Jewish community that once flourished there, a factor which makes any Jewish documents from Lelov all the more valuable.

One of Lehrer’s great-grandfathers was Rabbi Daniel Prossnitzm, who was head of the Beit Din (Rabbinical Court) in Pressburg, Slovakia.

Prossnitz was on very close terms with the Chatam Sofer, whose actual name was Moshe Sofer, but who was known by his signature works. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, but headquartered in Pressburg, the Chatam Sofer had a profound effect on Jewish communities all over Europe and was considered one of the greatest of Torah authorities.

Documents bearing his signature and those of other great rabbis fetch thousands of dollars at auction. They are what Finkelman refers to as trophy signatures. The buyers are often disinterested in the contents of the document. What they want is the signature, which has in many cases proved to be a good investment for the future. Documents signed by the Chatam Sofer are among those which Lehrer has presented to the National Library.

Lehrer has refrained for the most part from donating very personal family documents, such as birth certificates, death notices and marriage contracts, but he has made the occasional exception, such as a Tenaim agreement (conditions of marriage) between Rabbi Ascher Singer and Feigl Spitzer. The document signed by a number of famous rabbis is more than 200 years old.

LEHRER’S GREAT-grandfather, Dr. Martin (Meir) Singer, was part of the more secularly enlightened branch of the family, and it was him together with Lehrer’s grandfather, Kurt Singer, who brought the documents to Australia, just before the Second World War.

As far as Lehrer is aware, Martin Singer was probably the last member of the secular side of his mother’s family, who could read and translate all the documents that were written in either Yiddish or Hebrew.

Martin had a Phd in industrial chemistry, and he and his brother, Dr. Leopold Singer, held many industrial patents, ran an oil refinery in Romania and were deeply involved in early Zionism in Vienna.

After moving to Australia, Martin lectured, wrote on many subjects, and became one of the founders and the first president of the North Shore Synagogue in Sydney.

Acutely conscious of the dangers of antisemitism, he befriended a large number of political figures in order to get the message across. Among these was Dr. Herbert Evatt, a former High Court judge, Attorney General, Minister of External Affairs and head of the Australian delegation to the nascent United Nations, in which he actively campaigned for the partition of Palestine, for which Australia cast the first “yes” vote, 75 years ago, that led to the adoption of UN Resolution 181.

In translating and verifying the documents, and using them to piece together family history, Lehrer has developed a keen interest in genealogy. It was not an easy task, given the number of rabbis who studied and worked in various European towns and cities, mostly in Slovakia and Hungary. Like so many rabbinical families, there were many siblings and cousins with identical or similar names to a great-grandparent or grandparent, and sorting them out was sometimes puzzling.

Lehrer still has other documents that he will eventually give to the National Library of Israel, but he wants to hang on to them a while longer.

When he came to Israel a few weeks ago, and sat with Finkelman and expert researcher Yitzchack Gila, who was excited to see letters signed by the Chatam Sofer, and did on the spot translations of other documents written in Hebrew and Yiddish, one could almost feel the electricity in the air. Just as people working in the excavation of antiquities are thrilled to discover ancient artifacts or coins, those working in libraries and museums are elated when they come across ancient documents that shed more light on human history.

The moral of the story is, if you find a box of old letters, receipts and other documents, don’t dismiss them as unimportant. Take them to the National Library and allow experts to assess whether you have found a treasure.