A Time Capsule

By Glenn Dynner
Tuesday, May 7, 2013

“Here you are, your tiny, little scraps of paper,” teased the YIVO archivist on duty as he set down yet another box of petitions (kvitlekh) addressed to the 19th-century miracle worker Rabbi Elijah Guttmacher.  His skepticism about the crumpled petitions he had put before me was understandable.  They certainly do not inspire as much awe as hoary Hebrew tomes or official Polish documents.  But they provide something almost never found in such sources: windows into the struggles and secret anxieties of everyday Jews in Eastern Europe.  Beginning in the 1860s, Jews from nearly every walk of life streamed towards Rabbi Guttmacher’s court in Gratz (Grodzisk Wielkopolski) to obtain his blessings, advice, and remedies.  In the process, they told their stories. 

Rabbi Guttmacher was an unlikely miracle worker.  For one thing, he was not Hasidic.  A prized disciple of the distinguished legal authority Rabbi Akiva Eiger of Poznan, Guttmacher held the official rabbinical post in Gratz.  He was one of the first traditional rabbis to insist that Jews should not simply hope and pray that “suddenly the gates of mercy will open . . . and all will be called from their dwelling places,” but should actively engage in the settlement of Palestine.  Rabbi Guttmacher even begged his thousands of supplicants to stop coming to him, going so far as to post a lengthy appeal to that effect in the Hebrew periodical Ha-maggid.  Yet Jews from Eastern Europe and beyond continued to treat him as if he were a renowned Hasidic rebbe. 

The history of the Guttmacher collection itself is gripping.  Around 1932, amateur ethnographers (zamlers) discovered over 6,000of these Hebrew and Yiddish petitions in an attic in Gratz.  Part of the collection made its way to Jerusalem, but the bulk of it was delivered to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, at that time located in Vilna.  In 1942, the collection did not escape the rapacious eyes of the Nazi Einsatzstab Rosenberg, and was spirited off to the Institute for Exploring the Jewish Question in Frankfurt, a perversely conceived museum for those in the future who might be curious to learn about the now-vanished Jewish people.  In 1945, the U.S. Army stumbled upon the looted collection and returned it to YIVO, by then located in New York.  From that point on, the Guttmacher collection—a veritable East European Jewish time capsule—sat in New York City, where it has gone almost unnoticed. 

These thousands of “tiny, little scraps of paper” illuminate nearly every facet of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.  Candidly and poignantly, petitioners requested Rabbi Guttmacher’s heavenly intervention for ridding them of their diseases, demonic possessions, infertility, and sexual dysfunction; or they sought his counsel in conflicts with neighbors, domestic disputes, matchmaking and, above all, matters affecting their economic livelihood.  Not surprisingly, most petitions convey distress.  Yet they often defy our image of the shtetl as a site of dwindling opportunity and mass pauperization.  Many petitioners found ways of making ends meet, whether through traditional pursuits like crafts, trade, and tavern-keeping or newly emergent industries.  Others had lost vast sums of money through risky investments or loans—but they had  been well-off, at least for a while.  

Traces of past prosperity pervade an anguished petition by an industrialist named Shmuel ben Gitl of Kalisz. Shmuel had once attained an “honorable livelihood that allowed him a free hour to devote to Torah and divine service.”  He had not misspent his profits, but had “spread around much money and gold on behalf of his beloved son, who is currently living with him, to get him a private tutor (melamed).  He gave him chests of money, respectable clothes, and wealth only in order to lead him on the path of Torah and knowledge and good deeds.”  But despite everything he had lavished on his promising son, “the wheel of fortune reversed on me, God forbid, and I declined greatly, God forbid.”  Shmuel had invested most of his fortune in a timber factory, even selling off many of his books, “and all the wine of my spirit was poured on this altar.” Alas, he was finally compelled to form a partnership that entitled him to merely one-sixth of the factory’s profit, and he had to borrow 400 rubles from his new partner “to sustain my household.” 

Shmuel, it seems, was suffering from the ill effects of a modernization process that was having an impact on more and more Jews, particularly in larger towns like Kalisz.  Gradual industrialization created more opportunities but also more competition, some of it quite fierce.  Shmuel complained that “a gentile, may his name be blotted out, has arisen and established a factory next to our town.”  To make matters worse, the gentile had hired a Jewish agent who “pursues me” with the new factory’s profits (Shmuel didn’t specify how).  In this newly cut-throat environment, ethnic solidarity seemed to be falling by the wayside. 

It was not just a matter of supporting his household.  Shmuel had a reputation to sustain: “I also need rubles every week to spread among the people who previously knew me, who surround me and do not know my present condition . . . and also the Festivals are approaching, and I am accustomed to giving a lot of money.”  Most distressingly of all, Shmuel’s children had reached marriageable ages: “The marriage rites are hanging around my neck, and I need to give a suitable dowry to make respectable matches according to my familial status with Torah scholars (talmide hakhamim), especially Torah scholars with distinguished lineage (yihus).”  Shmuel’s social status was in real peril. 

We do not know how Shmuel or most of Guttmacher’s other petitioners fared.  Some likely recovered, some were no doubt reduced to poverty, and some probably joined the growing exodus to America.  But what we do know, beyond a doubt, is that these crumpled slips of paper can provide a wealth of information about the gritty realities of the evolving Jewish experience in Eastern Europe. 

Glenn Dynner is a professor of Jewish Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Yankel’s Tavern: Jews, Liquor, and Life in the Kingdom of Poland, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

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