Back in 1906, when he was 15, Benny Swartzberg could not have foreseen that, a century later, his growing collection of postcards would provide the raw material for an online store managed by his grandson.
But today, Swartzberg’s grandson Steven Weiss has turned that collection into an unusual shop, selling such merchandise as journals covered with images of philosopher Baruch Spinoza ($12.49) and T-shirts bearing a picture of Yiddish writer Sholem Yankev Abramovitch ($19.99). The shop — located at www.cafepress.com/bennyspostcards — isn’t a major source of income for Weiss, 40, who works at a group home near Chicago assisting adults living with developmental disabilities. But the small bit of income the shop generates does help Weiss recoup expenses he incurs maintaining his other, related Web site: Benny’s Postcards: Art Postcards Collected by My Grandfather (located at http://members.screenz.com/bennypostcards).
Benny’s Postcards is an online gallery showing about one-third of Weiss’s grandfather’s collection, which totals 435 postcards that Swartzberg accumulated from 1906 to 1918. Weiss divides them into categories: art cards; cards of Yiddish and Hebrew writers, artists and Zionists; Russian, European and American writers and philosophers; artists and musicians; composers, and period revolutionaries (such as anarchists, socialists, Marxists and nihilists). Most of the postcards were printed in Germany, Russia or Poland and then sold, Weiss believes, by Yiddish publisher and bookstore owner Max Maisel on New York City’s Lower East Side. Most were never mailed. Weiss keeps the originals in a set of photo albums on a bookshelf at home. Before he started archiving them, back when he was a teenager, Weiss recalls that his mother, Arlene, stored them in a shoebox. “We looked at them all the time,” he said. “We’ve always been fascinated with the cards. She would look at them on rainy days when she was a child.”
Swartzberg’s collecting coincided with what historians call the golden age of postcards, from 1898 through 1918. A popular craze for picture postcards was sweeping across Europe and America in those years, as millions were produced, mailed and collected. (Incidentally, the printer of the very first postcard, in 1861, was a Philadelphia Jew named Hyman L. Lipman.) The heyday of Yiddish postcards in particular extended from 1906 or 1907 through the 1920s. Postcards served as a form of publicity or promotion for the Yiddish theater, Jewish professional wrestlers and Yiddish writers, according to Eddy Portnoy, a historian of Jewish popular culture and a doctoral candidate at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary. Of Swartzberg’s postcards, Portnoy said: “This is a large collection. It represents his mania for collecting, and his interest in Yiddish, Yiddish writers and Jewish politics from a certain period. Part of this is who he was and where his head was at the time.”
Given his obvious enthusiasm for Yiddish writers, it must have been a real coup for Swartzberg when he found portraits of five favorites — Sholem Asch, Simon Frug, Abraham Reisen, Morris Rosenfeld and David Pinski — majestically arranged on a single card. Postcards of revolutionaries represent the day’s political convulsions that seized Swartzberg’s imagination and shaped the course of his life and the lives of millions of others. Some postcards are frankly violent, like the one with the blind tsar walking in a river of blood, or the gathering of Turkish men admiring their collection of human heads. Still others suggest Swartzberg’s softer side: “Love Letter” by Polish artist and lithographer Haym Goldberg exudes warmth, bearing a printed Yiddish message: “Your loved one sends you this letter, and wishes you thereby your entire life should be an eternally beautiful May.” And the art nouveau “Old Age,” by Jewish Austrian illustrator and printmaker E.M. Lilien, gently frames an elderly Jewish man dressed in an overcoat and carrying a sack of fallen leaves.
Benny’s Postcards are graced with a scrappy immediacy. Unlike postcard exhibitions that are vetted by curators and displayed for thematic impact — see, for example, Past Perfect: The Jewish Experience in Early 20th Century Postcards (www.jtsa.edu/library/exhib/pcard/index.shtml), Swartzberg’s collection is free of professional intervention. It’s the personal nature of Benny’s Postcards that gives the collection its charm.
Weiss never discussed the collection with his grandfather. “I lived in Israel as a child and moved to the United States in 1976,” Weiss said. “He lived in a Jewish home for the aged in Fairfield, Conn.; I would visit him once a week when I was 10 and 11 years old. I never thought of asking him about where he was born or about his life. I moved to Chicago when I was 12.” Swartzberg died in 1985 when he was 94; Weiss was 19. “Ten years later, I realized I regretted not knowing him better,” Weiss said.
From research, Weiss now knows that Swartzberg was born in 1890 in what is today Panemunelis, Lithuania (also known as Panimunok in Yiddish). He lived in Whitman, Mass., probably working in the shoe factories of Brockton, and visited his sister in New York, where he purchased the cards. He served in the U.S. Army in Siberia in 1918 after the Russian Revolution. His postcard-collecting days ended in 1920, when he married. “He was 45 when my mom was born in 1930. My mom knew him only as a morose man; especially after the Holocaust, he was extremely depressed,” Weiss said. “It seems like he was a happier person when he was collecting postcards. That was a side of him my mom didn’t know.”
The collection continues to attract attention: Chicago’s Spertus Museum included portions of it in a 2000 exhibit, and Weiss regularly receives reproduction requests from all over the world; however, he worries about what will happen to the collection after he is gone. “That’s a very sad question for me,” he said. “I don’t have any family that would be interested in it.” He has a mental list of organizations to which he might donate it, but he wants to keep the collection together and is concerned that a Jewish institution won’t want the non-Jewish cards, while a non-Jewish institution won’t want the Jewish cards. Perhaps the home that Weiss one day chooses for Benny’s Postcards will see that this collection is special for many reasons, not the least of which being a grandson’s appreciation for the way his grandfather saw his world when he was a very young man, a long time ago.