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Mission of Preservation

The Moment to Save Our History is Now

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Portraits in the LBI Art collection

Jews in Germany joined the modern world well prepared. For centuries they had studied Talmud and other sacred texts making the transition to German poetry, philosophy and writing easy. Intellectually curious and eager to participate in the progressive spirit of the 19th and 20th centuries, German-speaking Jews happily took advantage of Emancipation by becoming more and more assimilated.

Emotional bonds

Yet the traditions of family and faith were never entirely lost, nor was the sense of never entirely fitting in. The emotional bonds to Judaism seemed to remain well after the outward manifestations of observance were discarded. The golden age of German Jewry that generated such an extraordinary array of creativity and innovation lives on along with centuries-old traditions. The Nazis could neither obliterate the breakthrough developments that paved the way for modernity nor the vestiges of the faith that sustained us.

The library and archives of Leo Baeck Institute contain some of the most important documents in this history of German-speaking Jewry. From illustrious names to unknown villagers, the record of their lives is preserved for posterity. The birth and death records of every Jew in the city of Frankfurt going back to the 13th century; the first edition of Martin Luther’s scathingly anti-Semitic book, On the Jews and their Lies (Von den Juden und ihren Lügen); official documents granting Jews special favors; memorabilia attesting to Jewish patriotism in the service of their fatherland; dismissal notices to Jewish lawyers, teachers, professors, and doctors when they were no longer permitted to earn a living in Germany.

There is a vast amount of social, religious and cultural history to be learned from the LBI collections that cover five centuries. It is cataloged and accessible to scholars, genealogists, and researchers around the world. Most of it is digitized and online. All of it is rare, fragile and unique. The great German-Jewish novelist Alfred Döblin once said he knew hardly any real Jews, only people who called themselves Jews. “Perhaps they were the remnants of a vanished people who had long ago been absorbed into their surroundings.” When it came to the catastrophic end of German Jewry, it was clear that being absorbed into their surroundings was a myth. Jews were always Jews, at least to others.

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An 18th-century Esther scroll has recently been restored

Preservation as primary goal

As the survivor generation passes on, it is the children and especially the grandchildren who are discovering troves of letters, report cards, photo albums and transatlantic correspondence. At Leo Baeck Institute these priceless documents are properly preserved to become part of the permanent record. The preservation of these materials has been our primary mission for 60 years. But our efforts cannot end at preservation. Rather, the Institute has made, and continues to make, every effort to publicize its ongoing search for artifacts that reveal a decimated world. Readers of Jewish Voice can be enormously important contributors. Everything is relevant in the annals of history. Papers that might seem superficially prosaic – perhaps a memoir describing daily routines of life in a small village – can offer powerful insights into social dynamics. When such papers are lost, authentic eyewitness accounts of history are lost with them.

We must cast a wide net to find and save these papers. When the Jews of Central Europe had to flee their homelands, there were 98 countries of exile. This postwar Diaspora resulted in widely dispersed communities where contact was maintained through letters, photos, memoirs and diaries. Whether in German, Spanish, French or English, the language is always of loss and hope, despair and promise. The last survivors look to Leo Baeck Institute to preserve their stories. When they can no longer speak of the past and how it relates to the present, their voice will still be heard here. We ask you to partner with us in this vital responsibility by sharing our vital mission with anyone you know who might have material for the LBI collections. This may be the last moment to save it.

Jewish texts instruct us in remembrance, Jewish writers teach us the importance of the transmission of knowledge. Leo Baeck Institute has taken this obligation as a mandate to collect and preserve our heritage.


Carol Kahn Strauss is International Director of Leo Baeck Institute, New York

Photo Credit: LBI/Jon Pack (2)

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