Stanford archivists dig within for trove of rare Judaica

Anyone familiar with the final scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" — the boxed ark being wheeled into a seemingly infinite government warehouse — can understand the pitfalls of losing items within gargantuan archives.

Stanford's Hoover Institution doesn't expect to find the ark within its own cavernous archive (and if staffers do, they'd be well-advised to refrain from opening it), but an untold treasure trove of Judaica is waiting to be discovered in the 84-year-old collection.

The conservative think tank has kicked off a project to unearth "lost" Jewish-related documents from among its 60 million-item archives.

"Since I've worked in the archives, I've made a mental note of things in out-of-the-way places I've referred people to, but this needs to be put in writing," said activist Elena Danielson of the project, which was made possible by a grant from San Francisco's William J. Lowenberg and his wife, Fern, a Stanford graduate.

"There are really beautiful jewels of Judaica collected from China and other places you might not expect. Obviously, from Central Europe we have a lot of things and we have a Russian collection."

Documents that have already turned up include rare inter-war photographs of Jewish life and architecture in Poland and letters to Herbert Hoover from Jewish schoolchildren in what is today Ukraine or Belarus to whom the president had sent food after World War I.

"Obviously, we lost most of the children whose names we have. Estimates are probably 80 percent of the children were lost" in the Holocaust, said Danielson.

"At least we have their signature, which is something, and we want to transcribe that. Also, some remarkable people managed to survive. One of them is Menachem Begin, who came from an area where schools received aid from Herbert Hoover. So it's very likely his signature is in there."

The early stages of the Judaica project will require combing the archives to unearth Jewish-related documents and create an internal map of their locations. Hebrew and Yiddish scholars will also be required to determine exactly what, in some cases, the institution has on its hands.

In the years to come, Danielson hopes to consolidate much of the Judaica collection, as well as acquire more with the Lowenberg grant.

The search has already uncovered unexpected finds. While poring through a section on Russian Jewish literature, researchers uncovered a book of sketches of 1920s Palestine drawn by Russian artist Leonid Pasternak. The sketches had been filed with the work of Leonid's son, Nobel Prize-winning Jewish author Boris Pasternak, who wrote "Dr. Zhivago."

Lowenberg, a real estate investor and survivor, said the Hoover Institution's Judaica project is consistent with a trend he has been noting for the last several years — an upswing of interest among the non-Jewish community in Jewish life and the Holocaust.

Lowenberg also hoped the material unearthed from the Hoover archive would counter claims emanating largely from the Arab world that Jews exaggerated the extent of the Holocaust in order to usurp Israel from the Palestinians.

"When I see gentiles at Hoover and other places deeply concerned and interested in bringing [the Holocaust and the Jewish communities it destroyed] to the attention of the world, when not only Jews but non-Jews want to know what happened, that interests me," he said.

"There are not that many people alive today to help keep this on track and get it on the map. I'm the youngest survivor you know, and I'm 76 right now."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.