I have always loved vintage postcards and their very often beautiful depictions of places and people both near and far. Since the time when I was a young child I have collected postcards, especially ones with ornate and intricate stamps or unusual photographs. This was quite easy as my mother’s family was disbursed on several continents and there was a constant stream of such correspondence from them.
In today’s world, when the genealogical researcher looks for photographs or pictures of places in their ancestral shtetl or beyond, it often involves a protracted search to find something. Unless, that is, one searches through postcard collections which have safely preserved those hard to find images of the Jewish past.
The postcard phenomenon began in the so-called Postcard Era of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. It was then that a mania to retain a vision of one’s homeland and family emerged amongst emigrants and was matched by tourists’ needs to retain an image of their travels and adventures. This encouraged the collecting of postcards by individuals as well as large institutions. The mania spread and it is now possible to find the residual residue of collecting in a number of diverse venues. A few of these that genealogical researchers should be aware of and make use of are:
There are academic centers which have permanent postcard collections such as the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Collection of the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This collection has an amazing 7,000 plus postcards. Unfortunately, the collection is not online and has to be visited in person.
There are a number of museums which have permanent postcard collections. The Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam obtained a collection of 1,000 postcards from collector Jaap van Velzen that they have on exhibit. One of these postcards is of Chief Rabbi Tobias Tal.
A popular museum in America which has a large holding of postcards is the Judah L. Magnes Museum
In addition, there is the Curt Teich Postcard Archives at the Lake County Discovery Museum in Libertyville, IL, which bills itself as the largest public postcard collection. There are a total of 365,000 postcards that cover the period of 1898 to 1978. The cards are cataloged and include a subject heading specifically relating to Jews and Hebrews.
There are also museums which have temporary exhibitions of postcards. One such was the Jewish Museum in Prague, Czechoslovakia
There are many outstanding private collections and a number of them were created as the collector was interested in the philatelic value only. However, the following were created for their Jewish historical value.
The collection of Steven Lasky, the creator of the online Museum of Family History, contains more than 1,000 postcards which can be searched by either town or family name. This exhibition of family postcards and photographs can be found here.
Countries covered on the site include Azerbaijan, Belarus, Czech Republic, England, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia, Scotland, Slovakia, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. Towns covered, for instance, in Lithuania, are Alytus, Birzai, Druskieniki, Gruzdziai, Kalvarija, Krakes, Lozdzieje, Novy Dvor, Siauliai, Simnas, Ukmerge, Vilkaviskis, and Vilnius.
In Vilnius, the following photo of Yenta and Gerhson Radovsky was found on the site. It was taken by the well-known photographic studio of I. Chonovitz
The above postcard has been identified as the paternal great grandparents of Solly Radowsky. They came originally from Roduka near Merkine and lived in Eisiskis for some years as well as in Vilnius. They had nine children, the sixth of whom was Solly’s grandfather Michel. Solly’s father Gershon (named for his grandfather) married Ethel Sacks whose mother was Sheina Rochel Gordon, who came from my ancestral shtetl of Kupiskis, Lithuania. And that is how I came to find out about the Radovsky family! It is always amazing to make these kinds of matches.
An outstanding site for a private collection of postcards is that created by Stephanie Comfort to provide a home for her magnificent collection of 11,000 or more cards covering the period of 1898 to 1914. The site is located here, and includes a variety of ethnic Jewish cards and synagogues, many of which do not have specific names or dates. One for a synagogue in Lima, Peru, does not provide the name:
Another interesting photograph is that of a Jewish store featuring Singer Sewing Machines in Serbia:
The subject of Singer Sewing Machines was quite popular a topic as there was mass advertising regarding this product throughout Eastern Europe and beyond. Many times Jews were not only salesmen and trainers, but purchasers as well.
There were many, many cards from France of both places and people. Two of the postcards depicted “Juif Errant” or wandering Jews. They looked very much like threadbare peddlers or even beggers. The image was probably quite popular due to the ten volume book by that name published in 1844-1845 by Eugene Sue and the 1852 opera by that name written by Fromental Halevy which was performed by the Paris Opera.
Several postcards from the Ukraine were of interest including one from Czernowitz. The town of Czernowitz, the Austrian capital of the province of Bukovina, was a hotbed of Yiddish culture and language. It certainly provided a welcoming and nurturing place for the development of writers, actors and painters in great numbers.
It was there that the first Conference on the Yiddish Language was held on August 30, 1908 through September 3, 1908. In addition, it was there that Yiddish was declared the national language of the Jews. The Jewish National House was supposed to be the venue for the Conference, but, at the last minute, this was changed to other available sites.
Another postcard from the Ukraine depicts a Mud Bath in Pyatigorsk.
Of note is that Pyatigorsk is located in the Caucasus and was founded in 1780. It was one of the oldest spa resorts in Russia with curative sulphur springs and medicinal mud baths. Not only that, it is the birthplace of Joseph Trumpeldor (1880-1920), the founder of the Zion Mule Corps and early Zionist, whose father Wulf settled there after his service as a cantonist soldier.
A final postcard from this collection is one taken outside a shul in Vilnius, Lithuania, where the women are going in as well as congregating on the steps. There were over 250 synagogues in Vilnius at one time or another, but it appears that this synagogue is the Great Synagogue, built in 1663, which was bombed during World War II and then razed afterwards.
One can just see one of the women going into the shul who is dressed in modern attire with an umbrella and hat. Other women going in are dressed in a reasonably modern fashion, but still adhere to the kerchief on their head. The women on the steps appear terribly old and tired and are dressed in worn clothing with aprons and head scarves, perhaps indicating that they are probably poor and beggars.
Another large private collection is that of Frantisek Banyai
One of the special things about finding such photos is that miraculously sometimes one finds someone who is still alive and remembers those who are pictured in the postcard. In this case, one of the Holocaust survivors from Rokiskis recognized her own father Chona Samet (the third row, fifth from the right) and mother, as well as Sima Shmushkevich, the brother of the famous commander of the Russian Air Force, Yacov Shmuskevich, who was killed by Stalin (just below Chona Samet and leaning to the left). The person who is the seventh from the left is Chona’s nephew Israel Samet and two boys in the second row are Yenoch Kur and Sleima Kagan.
There were a number of other people she remembered as well and this now helps others who are looking for members of their family from Rokiskis. This is why it is so important that these types of visual aides be made available online for identification.
From the town of Rivne, Ukraine, there is a postcard taken in 1933 of an ORT school group who are quite well-dressed and modern in appearance.
It was only eight years later, in 1941, that 28,000 of the Jewish residents of Rivne were liquidated by the Nazis. The people in the photo, so young and eager to start a new and exciting career for themselves; were gone forever, along with their hopes and dreams of a future. They are only to be remembered in postcards such as this one.
A further outstanding private collection is that of Willy Lindwer, who lives outside Amsterdam. His collection was gathered over twenty-five years and amounts to over 6,000 postcards of Jewish content from all over the world. It is not online, although he has published a book, “Classic Jewish Postcards for all Occasions”, publisher: Schocken Books, NY, 1996, which contains information about his collection.
Another venue for locating postcards is a commercial postcard dealer. Many of these are now online and their wares can be seen in advance of sale. Of course, their wares change as they sell and get more items. Major sites such as E-bay and Amazon.com have postcards, but there are other smaller sites which are of interest too.
I have previously referred to Tomas Wisniewski and his Bagnowka site on this Blog
There are numerous commercial dealers, but several which I happened to view and found interesting are the following:
VintagePostcards.com – They have a remarkable selection on offer and many include Sephardic Jews from Tunisia, Morocco and Yemen. Quite a number of these were taken from photographs by German traveler and photographer Hermann Burchardt (1857-1909), who traveled in the Middle East and North Africa from 1893 to 1904. In 1911, his estate gave the Ethnology Museum in Berlin an unrivaled collection of approximately 2,000 negatives as well as glass and celluloid plates.
They also have a variety of synagogues from small places which would ordinarily be mainly unknown and from larger places where the synagogues may no longer exist such as the Park Synagogue in Johannesburg, South Africa, which was demolished in 1912.
Lotsofcards.com – They have a postcard from Czernowitz of the Jewish bank building on the Ringstrasse which was completed in 1899 and was built by “Developer and Master Builder Bochner” As the info on the site states, the Bochner family was one of the first documented Jewish families in Bukovina in which the town of Czernowitz is located. The street signage mentions Jacob Buchbinder, a Jewish banker.
Postcardman.net – This site has a few Sephardic-related postcards. One of which is from the town of Ouijda where a number of cards originated. The town was where many travelers came due to its position as the capital of eastern Morocco and the courts being located there.
This photo typified the focus on Oriental or exotic themes which permeated not only photography, but the written word and design as well at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Centuries. Fortunately, for the researcher, these images have endured into our era.
Oldpostcards.com – This site has a Judaica section which has many cards featuring individuals, synagogues and other items. One of interest is that of Polish Hebrew writer David Frischmann (1859-1922) who was born in Zgierz, Poland, which is north of Lodz.
Frischmann was a noted writer and publisher and was known for imposing standards on written Hebrew. He is one of many prominent Jewish leaders in various fields of endeavor who are documented through postcards on this site.
BOOKS AND OTHER PUBLICATIONS
A final resource for Jewish postcards is books which have been written about various aspects of the cards or their production. One such is “Old Jewish Postcards from Marek Sosenko’s collection: Dawna Pocztowka Zydowska” by Eugeniusz Duda and Marek Sosenko and published by the Museum of Cracow, Poland. Mr. Sosenko is a well-known Krakow antique dealer whose obsession with postcards is amply shown in this lovely book.
Another is “Past Perfect: The Jewish Experience In Early 20th Century Postcards” by the Jewish Theological Seminary. There are also articles in magazines and journals on the topic of postcards such as “Jewish Postcards” by Galit Hasan-Rokem in “Jewish Quarterly Review”.
Many others abound and can be found by “Googling” the word “postcard” on the Internet.
It is clear that collectors of postcards can provide genealogists a vivid window into the world of their ancestors. Collecting has also produced a fascinating adjunct science to historical preservation and proven its mettle for those of us who find these small remnants so enticing and rewarding.