November 14, 2018

Jewish history in the archives

It might be the irregular lingering smell that sweeps up to your nostrils, or the odd looks you get from the caretakers, and archivists who coincidentally might be thinking the same thing as you: there might be just too many documents to look through in a day. Still the feeling of being surrounded by mildew wrapped neatly in stacks of papers, is made more pleasing by the ever-present bureaucratic tinge of every file. It might not be fully pleasant, but nothing is quite like finding that one document, that tells the story of more than just a community of people, but actual individuals themselves.

The archives, for any historian, is the one playground where anything seems possible, but at times it can also be where you dreams are crushed. Where what you thought might have been the case, was in fact not the case based one one line in one letter. Luckily I did not come across anything quite substantial that destroyed by initial hypothesis, yet the lingering feeling of that possibility never escapes one's minds, while at the same time one hopes for it as to change not only one's perspective, but also one's expectations. That is indeed history.

The Jewish communities of Romania, long in their histories, and rich in their diversity have had the luck to be categorized through countless files, and documents that remained stacked neatly in the Romanian state and municipal archives. This is an aspect of Jewish history that remains at the core of any historian’s work: one must sweep through countless files until something of relevance is found.

The history of Jews in Romania of course dates from Roman times, although the farthest that their documented presence has gone is the 17th century in the letters of Moldavian princes, or those of foreign emissaries. It is of course, as is the fact with any period, that the most well documented period was the early 20th century, including the Shoah, but also the post-war period, albeit not to the same extent.

The entire amalgamated view of Jewish history in Romania of course cannot be found solely just in in the state archives, nor in the community ones, but also in the stories of people that are still alive. Now, with the recent passing of Elie Wiesel, it remains and in fact it is even more important to collect and hold on to the memories of people that lived before us for the benefit of posterity. 

As I sit down to write my thesis, I fully know that I am adding to a rich scholarship, yet I am telling the story of people who have not yet had the benefit of their stories to be told to the world. The history of Jews not only in Romania, but the Balkans is one where has been given much less attention, which is something that undeniably needs to change.

Milad Doroudian is a graduate student at Simon Fraser University, and is curently writing his thesis.