BOSTON – It’s a century-old scrapbook, with a modest, mottled black-and-white cover and yellowed interior pages, the kind of common family keepsake that might attract curious flea market shoppers or history buffs.
But the letters and news clippings that are carefully preserved in the scrapbook of Abraham C. Ratshesky (1864-1943), reveal the anything but ordinary story of how Ratshesky, a prominent Jewish Bostonian, became a courageous and beloved hero to the people of Halifax, Nova Scotia.
In December 1917, immediately following the tragic explosion in Halifax that took the lives of some 2,000 people, Massachusetts Governor Samuel McCall appointed Ratshesky as commissioner for the Halifax Relief Effort and dispatched him to travel by train to Nova Scotia’s capital, along with a team of doctors, nurses, and others to provide aid to its northern neighbors.
Today, Greater Bostonians look forward to the majestic Christmas tree that the city of Halifax sends to Boston as a measure of gratitude for its assistance over a century ago. But few are familiar with the pivotal role played by Ratshesky, who was active in Boston’s Jewish community and later served as ambassador to Czechoslovakia.
The scrapbook is part of the Abraham C. Ratshesky collection, a trove of diaries, photographs, correspondence, and other material held by the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center, which is marking its decade-long affiliation with the New England Historical Genealogical Society, the country’s oldest and largest genealogical society.
When the American Jewish Historical Society relocated from the Boston area to New York City in 2000, Justin Wyner, a longtime board member and past president of the AJHS, along with his late wife Genevieve, spearheaded the effort to retain the New England archives here in Boston.
On Tuesday, Oct. 26, Klapper, who is a history professor and director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, will share her discoveries about Ella Davis Isaacs and others like her in “At Home in the World: American Jewish Women Abroad, 1865-1940,” a virtual talk presented by the Wyner Center.
Today, the center, which boasts more than 2 million records in its archive, is housed in the New England Historical Genealogical Society’s Back Bay headquarters on Newbury Street, a stately early 20th century former bank with a stunning rotunda at its entrance.
“What began as a strategic collaboration is today even greater than the sum of its parts,” said Rachel King, the Wyner center’s executive director.
“One of the wonderful advantages of the collaboration is that we can tell a larger story and we can showcase the Jewish contributions to that story,” she told the Journal, citing a NEHGS exhibit on World War I that included several items from the Jewish archives.
Among the other gems in the center’s collection are a slim Civil War diary by Adolphus Strassman, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant from Fall River, and a pair of glamorous high heels made in one of Lynn’s shoe factories that employed immigrant Jewish workers.
Recently, the center was given a collection of 19 remarkable letters written by Mary Antin – the early 20th century Jewish immigrant writer and immigration rights activist – to Alfred Seelye Rowe, a Boston educational reformer.
The letters from Antin, an iconic heroine in American Jewish history, date back to 1898 and are a significant addition to the center, King said.
“This is an example of her early thinking and writing” before she published her seminal work, “The Promised Land,” an autobiography of her early life in Russia and her immigration to the United States in 1894, King observed. The digitized letters are accessible to the public on the center’s website, jewishheritagecenter.org, along with the Ratshesky collection and many others.
Of particular note to Journal readers is the collection of the Jewish Heritage Center of the North Shore.
A Jewish burial society booklet for the Maplewood Cemetery – the 1851 Hebrew Charitable Burial Ground in Malden – sheds light on the Sephardic Jewish experience on the North Shore, according to Stephanie Call, the associate director of the center and education.
A pair of tools from around 1906, used by Samuel Tanzer, a Jewish immigrant who lived in Peabody, is an example of another element of Jewish life here, Call said.
From more recent times, the archives hold the marketing and other business records of Building 19, including the Jewish humor-inflected circulars of the beloved discount store that attracted Greater Boston shoppers from all walks of life.
The historical records of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston open a window into how the relations between Boston’s Jewish and Catholic communities improved over decades, according to Brandeis University professor Jonathan Sarna, who serves on the Jewish Heritage Center’s advisory council. It’s a subject ripe for scholarly research, he pointed out.
Sarna credits Justin Wyner for his vision to keep the New England Jewish archives local. “My hope is that it will be a place younger students come to learn about their past in Boston,” he said.
As the center emerges from the pandemic, it looks forward to resuming more in-person public programs, including its popular Archive Shabbat, mingling Friday night dinner with a speaker and an up-close encounter with related objects from the archive.
“The idea is to make these materials available in a way that resonates with people,” Call said.
“We want to advance the understanding and knowledge of Jewish history, and this very particular Jewish history,” King said.
“We want to send a message that it is their history. It is our history. It’s not behind a gate. Here it is, and come see more.”