1Collection of the Center of Documentation and Investigation of the
Ashkenazi Community in Mexico (16th to 20th Century)
Ref N° 2008-11
PART A 1.- SUMMARY
The Center of Documentation and Investigation of the Ashkenazi Community of Mexico keeps, preserves and disseminates the Ashkenazi culture, the culture of the Jewish people that was on the verge of disappearing during the Nazi era. It also safeguards the historic memory of the Jewish minority in Mexico that arrived from Central and Eastern Europe.
From the end of the 19th century the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe decided to emigrate towards America so as to find better living conditions. At that moment, large groups of Jews cut their ties to the lands in which they had developed a way of life, a language (Yiddish) and a manner of being: the Ashkenazi.
Their former life ended violently and forever. At first, because of the pogroms unleashed by the Cossacks and Ukrainians, at the dawn of the 20th century by the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution, but mostly from the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 30s that led to the loss of six million people and thus to the disappearance of the Jewish communities of Central and Eastern Europe.
At that moment, the Ashkenazi culture was threatened with extinction once the study centers and places for creating culture were wiped out during the Second World War. The few survivors of the Holocaust bore upon their shoulders the difficult task of rescuing themselves and their Jewish identity that had been so heavily menaced during the six years of war, the ghettos and the concentration and extermination camps. The responsibility for rescuing that culture fell on the shoulders of the Latin American communities that took over the job of safeguarding the culture of their ancestors.
When the religious and cultural centers disappeared because of the Holocaust, there was only a remnant of material which was rescued by the Allied Army in 1945 in the city of Offenbach, Germany. Thousand of books that had been confiscated by the Nazis had been stored there. Returning them to their original libraries was out of question because their caretakers had all been killed. It was decided to resort to the already established Jewish communities in Latin America and Mexico was one of the depositories that received 1,000 of those books rescued by the Allies which were lodged at the library of the Ashkenazi community.
Immigration to Mexico.
Immigration to the New World had begun from the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. The most important treasures brought by those immigrants were their most valuable books, many of which would later disappear in the ashes of the Holocaust.
The migratory flow swerved towards Latin America due to the quotas that were instituted in the United States beginning in 1921. During the war, the doors into the United States were closed off to refugees, as happened in most of the Latin American countries as well.
Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Venezuela and Costa Rica were among the countries that attracted the first immigrants in the 20th century. People of Ashkenazi origin arrived in these areas looking foremost for a place to survive economically and to continue with their Jewish identity, culture and traditions.
Thus, in the first two decades of the last century, Jews coming from countries such as Russia, Poland, Rumania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, Germany and France settled in Mexico. Their store of knowledge was very important since most of them were familiar with their own culture and with the productions of universal culture.
Foundation of the community.
To retain their identity and continuity for the coming generations, they founded a community very similar in its functions to what they had left behind them in Europe. It was called Nidjei Israel (1922).
The Jews in Mexico separated by sectors, according to their place of origin, such as the Ashkenazi, the Sephardic and the Arabic speakers, that is, Jews arriving from Syria and Lebanon. The latter eventually separated from those originally from Damascus into their Monte Sinaí Community and those from Aleppo into the Maguen David Community. Originally, everybody had been united in one sole community in 1912 which was called Alianza Beneficencia Monte Sinaí. They established a synagogue, a small school and bought land for a cemetery.
The Ashkenazi community was the first one to separate because of differences in praying and traditions. Then they began developing several welfare and assistance institutions such as the Chamber of Commerce, the OSE clinic, the old people’s home in Cuernavaca called Eshel, as well as schools and synagogues. Its members had arrived with diverse ideologies like Zionism, Socialism or Communism and Bundism, which gave way to the creation of several cultural centers and the edition of various magazines and newspapers. Among the most important organizations there was the club called Young Men’s Hebrew Association founded by a group of US Jews who arrived in Mexico fleeing from the military draft in the years of the First World War. This club and its members were the basis for the creation of other institutions in the Ashkenazi sector as the center of community life.
Creation of the Center of Documentation.
Each organization was charged with safeguarding its files, documents and particularly its libraries. However, although the idea of forming a center of documentation had been considered since the 50s, it was only established towards the end of the 20th century. In 1993, beginning with the edition of the seven books that form part of Generaciones Judías en México (Jewish Generations in Mexico), the Ashkenazi Kehillah (1922-1992) decided to create a Center of Documentation and Investigation of the Ashkenazi Community in Mexico.
By that time it was deemed basic to rescue the Ashkenazi culture, its literary, religious, historic production as well as the life of those communities that had vanished. Thus, several libraries of former centers were rescued creating a valuable body in the field of letters and periodicals as well as the rescue of files of various institutions created in the country.
This way two urgent lines of preservation were presented: the first one, of the Ashkenazi culture and the second, of the history of the Jews in Mexico, which just like other non-national minorities that arrived in the country at the beginning of the 20th century are part of the multicultural and pluriethnic history of the country. It was of great importance to stress that this Jewish minority was part of Mexican history and the knowledge of its archives was fundamental to be aware of the local or regional history that contributed an important part to national history.
The Center or CDICA is made up by collections that date back to the 16th up to the 20th century. There is a library where the Fonds for Antique Hebrew Books, the Fonds Mexico and that of Translations into Yiddish and Hebrew are among the most significant, together with a Library of periodicals with the first newspapers edited in Yiddish in the country and an Archive that contains the collections of the various institutions of the Ashkenazi sector. Among these is that of the Comité Central Israelita (Jewish Central Committee) that became the representative organization of the community before the Mexican government along with that of the Chamber of Commerce, a Graphic File with 8000 photographs of the one hundred years of the establishment of the community and an oral history file that includes more than 200 interviews made to immigrants, intellectuals, community leaders, etc.
The CDICA is unique in its type; its collections are priceless because they are unique and irreplaceable; these documents of the cultural, religious or social institutions and organizations are unique because they are original, usually handwritten in Yiddish together with religious books or Yiddish translations of world culture that only flourished during a lapse of time in the 19th and 20th centuries when they were edited in Europe.
The fact that they are part of the history of the country opens a new window of research not only about Mexican history but also towards the history of Jewish life and culture in Latin America.
The CDICA is unique in Mexico and in Latin America because the one in Argentina suffered a terrorist attack and is still in the process of recovery, both the building and its collections. The other Jewish communities in Latin America such as Chile only have a Center of Jewish studies that is located inside the local University; there is another one in Brazil, also at the University, dedicated to the study of crypto Judaism. There are centers of documentation in Europe, one in Paris, France and another one in Warsaw, Poland that is still not catalogued and contains only manuscripts.
The Center of Documentation and Investigation of the Ashkenazi Community of Mexico is part of the specialized educational and research of the immigration of the Ashkenazi Jews to this country that is done at the Universidad Hebraica and the 14 Jewish schools. The library has 16 000 printed books from the XVIth century to the present and all the manuscripts from the Ashkenazi institutions in Mexico. The specialization and theme focus mainly on the humanities; all aspects of jewish studies and cultural history.
The collections are maintained in the Ashkenazi Synagogue Complex in Mexico where they are since the complex was built in 1957. We can assert that these collections are of cultural and social importance to Mexico, as they reflect the cultural and social history of a community that has contributed substantially to the progress of the country.
The national relevance of the Center collections has been recognized by the Mexican government. The European significance of the collections is reflected in their Ashkenazi Jewish scope. The culture of the Ashkenazi Jews in Europe was characterized by an exchange with the other cultures, and the development of great ideas and scientific discoveries, that has to be preserved after the Holocaust.
The Center is open to the educational programme of the community that combines strong Jewish identity and a thorough knowledge of literature, philosophy, history and science, with its non Jewish environment, and has made an important contribution to a society that is pluriethnic and multicultural.
Preservation of the Ashkenazi culture has been the mission of the Center of Documentation and Investigation in Mexico; it is an essential part of the history of the Jewish people that requires documents and books rescued from the Nazi Fascist onslaught. But it also requires the rescue and safekeeping of the historic memory of those Jews who arrived in Mexico in the two most important stages of immigration: after the religious persecutions at the beginning of the century and after the Second World War.
2.- DATA ABOUT THE AUTHOR OF THE PROPOSAL 2.1 Name CENTRO DE DOCUMENTACIÓN E INVESTIGACIÓN DE LA COMUNIDAD ASHKENAZÍ DE MÉXICO. COMUNIDAD ASHKENAZÍ DE MÉXICO, A.C.
2.2 Relationship with the element of proposed documentary patrimony.
Responsible for conserving, safeguarding and disseminating the historic culture and memory of the Ashkenazi Community of Mexico.
2.3 People to contact Dra. Alicia Gojman de Backal.
2.4 Personal Information
Dra. Alicia Gojman de Backal
Centro de Documentación e Investigación de la Comunidad Ashkenazí de México
Comunidad Ashkenazí de México, A.C.
Definitive Titular C Full time Professor FES Acatlán, UNAM.
e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org 3. IDENTITY AND DESCRIPTION OF THE DOCUMENTARY PATRIMONY 3.1 Name and information of the identifying elements of the documentary patrimony proposed for their registry.
Name: Centro de Documentación e Investigación de la Comunidad Ashkenazí de México.
3.2 Description The Center of Documentation and Investigation of the Ashkenazi Community of Mexico includes the following collections:
NAME OF FONDS OR COLLECTION
FIRST AND LAST DATES
NUMBER OF UNITS
1. Antique Hebrew Fonds
2. Mexico Fonds
3. Yiddish Translation Fonds
4. Incorporated Libraries
a. Boris Rosen Collection
b. Alicia and Isaac Backal Collection
c. Bertha Moss Collection
d. José and Eva Gojman Collection
The library keeps and safeguards 16,000 volumes, the greater part of them written in Yiddish and Hebrew, and a few in other languages such as Polish, Lithuanian, Hungarian, Russian and others. It shows the importance of safekeeping the Ashkenazi culture in the world. After the Holocaust and the loss of all the Jewish communities in Europe, the CDICA made the commitment to fight for the rescue of its culture. It holds several fonds that transmit various aspects of this rescue. On the other hand and at the same time, the importance of keeping the historic memory of the Jewish minority of this origin is implicit, because it forms an inseparable part of the contemporary history of Mexico. The main fonds are:
1) ANTIQUE HEBREW FONDS:
It comprises almost 1,400 Hebrew books that were printed between the 16th century and the Second World War. The translations of Hebrew sources, particularly those from the Bible to other languages and to bilingual editions, have been incorporated. Of our 1,400 Hebrew volumes, some 120 deal with profane knowledge such as history, bibliography, geography, general philosophy, linguistics, psychology and belles-lettres. The rest, that is, 92% of the fonds and almost the totality of the oldest section, are religious books. We must stress that in Jewish tradition, a religious book is usually not a devotional text like in Christianity, but rather a work of hermeneutic or juridical erudition. The 83 doctrinal books and the 145 books of liturgy occupy only 6% and 10% of the fonds respectively, while 75% deal with the exegesis of the sacred texts. 463 volumes refer to the Bible in the form of editions, commentaries and homiletic explorations; 265 volumes contain texts and explanations of the Talmud and 368 are devoted to the compilation of medieval and modern codes of rabbinic jurisprudence as well as its interpretation and practical application.
Most of these books were edited in the four centers of Polish Judaism of that time: Krakow and Lvov (Lemberg) in the Austro Hungarian Empire where modern Hebrew typography had its origin and Warsaw and Vilnius in the Tsarist empire. The volumes edited before 1850 are 102: one in the second half of the 16th century; two in the first half of the 17th century; five in the second half of the same century; 22 in the first half of the 18th century; 29 in the second half of the same century and 43 in the first half of the 20th century.
The collection is of special interest for two reasons: the first, because it is the only one of its kind in Mexico and the second, because of the extraordinary historic saga that brought it here.
Our Hebrew volumes from Frankfort or Warsaw evoke, in the words of Michel Foucalt, a strong “heterotopic” element, because they set in motion the ambiguous relationship of the Mexicans towards the deeply religious faraway world of old Europe. The beauty of the historic Hebrew books may be a precise result of the richness of its intercultural references.
The fonds is divided into nine sections:
Order and mode of celebrating divine services. When we refer to Jewish religious practices, we call the prayers and acts in the synagogue service: liturgy. When worship ceased at the Jerusalem Temple, liturgy was based, in the first place, in reading the Torah (Bible) and in second place on the prayers. The Talmud only considers the morning and afternoon prayers as obligatory serving as a substitute for the daily sacrifices performed in olden days.
Name of a collection of documents kept from the time when the Jewish people were independent and that were part of their national literature. It was later canonized and under the name of Holy Scriptures is the basis of their religion, as well as that of the Christian and Moslem religions.
Nevi´im Rishonim, Earlier prophets (Books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings), with commentaries. Volume 2 of the Rabbinic Bible. Venice. Printing press of Juan de Gara, 1568, in folio. Specimen from an unknown European collection, donated by the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Organization.
There are religious books for women in Yiddish: “Tsena Urena” and its commentaries. Paraphrase of the Pentateuch in Yiddish, with material from the Midrash and antique comments integrated; there is one written by Jacob b. Issac Ashkenazi of Janow (circa 1590) with reproductions of wood carvings of the 17th century editions.
c) EXEGESIS AND HOMILETICS:
Interpretation of the Bible as the Holy Scriptures. It accepts the authority of the Bible as divine revelation and tolerates neither changes in the text nor any doubts about its authors and only tries to find the exact meaning of its words and to derive moral teachings from them. Bible Exegesis has been an intellectual effort of the greatest magnitude for the Jewish people in exile, particularly during the thousand years that followed the grouping and canonization of the books of the Bible. Primitive exegetic tasks originally began by translating the text to Aramaic that had become the popular language in Palestine.
Name of the two encyclopedic works compiled in Babylon and in Eretz Israel that contain the summary of Jewish tradition, composed as interpretation of the Mishna. The word Talmud is used as teaching, knowledge, study, etc. In the case of this particular work, it is the interpretative vision of the Bible, through the compendium of the Mishna, tannaitic text edited in the 2nd century of the Common Era. by R. Judah the Prince. The consignation of the Babylonian Talmud was fixed approximately in the year 500 of the Common Era; that of the Palestinian Talmud in 400 C.E. However, the beginning of the cultural tradition that gave way to both works must be fixed at the time of the end of the canon, that is, in the 2nd century Before the Common Era.
The word comes from the Hebrew “holech” which means “to walk” and is applied to the set of legal and religious rulings. We could say that the Halacha is a group of legal norms that do not derive directly from the Bible, but that also include the customs, rabbinic decrees, rules, derived hermeneutic rules and, sometimes, rules that are not exactly of religious character, but rather refer to the usual customs of the country.
It designs a set of non legal literary elements from the Talmud and rabbinic literature. In it we find stories and legends about Bible characters and from historic episodes. The Haggada pursues a didactic goal through its stories, parables, proverbs, allegories and even metaphysics and natural science.
Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), More Nevujim, “Guide of the Perplexed” about the philosophic foundations of Judaism. Vilnius: Printing press of Shraga-Feivel Garber for the bookshop of Isaac Funk, 1904. Specimen of the Bet-Midrash “Nidjei Israel”.
Tel Aviv City Hall, “Legislation of Construction and Industry”: Ordinances and decrees referring to matters of construction and urbanism, land and roads, work and industry with a map of urban areas. Preface by Meir Dizengoff, Mayor of Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv; printing press of A. Strud and sons, 1934.
LANGUAGE AND BELLES LETTRES
The title of each book of this collection in the catalogue is in Spanish. For the public that reads no Hebrew, we made a summary of the contents, identifying authors, printers, and owners locating them chronologically and geographically. The complex historic saga that brought these books from Europe to Mexico is amply documented. Each book has a characteristic mark: binding peculiarities, physical deterioration, seals and inscriptions.
The books arrived in various ways: the first ones were sent because Samuel Eliezer Donchik (first rabbi of the institution) requested them from some New York Jewish organizations and he received several Talmudic books; these can be recognized because Rabbi Donchik marked each volume in his handwriting. Apparently, there were some other donations from abroad, because among the Hebrew books we have discovered a number of seals from religious Jewish libraries in the United States. It is common to find books printed in Germany, sold in Russia, taken by some immigrant to the United Status and finally sent to Mexico. However, the most precious part of the Hebrew fonds comes from the library of the Mexican Jewish Central Committee. Those books have seals from more than forty European Jewish libraries such as Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Baltic countries, Hungary and Greece. Among the most frequently seen seals are those from the three rabbinic seminaries that existed in Germany before the war: the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, the Superior School for the Science of Judaism and the Rabbinic Seminary for Orthodox Judaism. There are seals of four great community libraries such as Berlin, Frankfort, Karlsruhe and Koenigsberg.
After the 1945 victory, the Allied armies discovered Jewish book hide-outs in the German countryside, in warehouses, factories, castles, mines and even railroad wagons. The deposits that were in the area of US occupation were gathered in an industrial building in Offenbach, where an incredible effort of restitution was carried out. The Central Committee* took steps to request that part of those books be sent to Mexico to form the basis of a Jewish public library; a few months later, one thousand books arrived in our country.