Dear Diary: Back in Time

By Joshua Yaffa

Published May 04, 2007, issue of May 04, 2007.
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In the early hours before sunrise on February 24, 1924, Harry Scheurman sat awake in his tenement apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He had returned earlier that night from a reunion ball for émigrés from his Eastern European hometown, and he took out his diary in the hope of preserving the excitement of the evening. “Perhaps in the pursuit of action, yesterday’s dream will be forgotten before the day is over,” he wrote.

The particular emotions of that Sunday in 1924 may indeed be lost to the chaotic bustle of immigrant life in early-20th-century New York City. But thanks to his grandson, the diary Scheurman kept that year is now enjoying a thoroughly modern renaissance.

Since January 1, 2007, Matt Unger, a 40-year-old Web producer and sometime filmmaker, has been posting his grandfather’s daily journal entries from 1924 on the blog Papa’s Diary Project (papasdiary.blogspot.com). In addition to transcribing each of the entries from the diary, Unger adds another section containing his own historical research and personal reaction.

“We’re both daydreamers,” Unger said, suggesting he sees a lot of himself in his grandfather, who died when Unger was 4 years old. “We cast moments in our life in dramatic terms, imagining the way things could be and the way things should be.”

In 1924, Scheurman was a 29-year-old garment worker with an apartment on Attorney Street. His journal, which begins on January 1 of that year and ends on December 31, suggests a man of dueling passions: one, for strengthening the nascent Zionist movement in America, and two, for the curious and sometimes melancholic task of adjusting to life in the big city.

In an entry from February 14, 1924, Papa, as Unger refers to his grandfather, told of an “epoch making affair” at a meeting of the labor organization United Hebrew Trades, a gathering that raised a then-unprecedented $150,000 for the Zionist cause. Scheurman was also involved in other early Zionist groups such as Zeire Zion and B’nai Zion. “May their efforts be crowned with success,” he wrote at the close of that day’s entry.

But his joy was often tempered by the lonely sting of life in an adopted homeland. In an entry from March, he wrote of a Purim service in New York where the worshippers moved “mechanically, without any enthusiasm.” He longed for the “sweet memories” of celebrating the holiday as a child, when “everybody seems so happy as if they would live with Esther in her adventure.”

Scheurman came to America in 1913 at the age of 18, leaving behind his parents and six siblings in Snyatin, a Jewish hamlet in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now modern-day Ukraine. One of his sisters arrived some years later, but the rest of his family was killed by the Nazis during World War II.

Unger first discovered the diary as an elementary school student, when his mother showed him the worn, brown-leather volume. “I always had it in the back of my mind,” he said, perhaps as the basis for a historical novel or screenplay.

Over Thanksgiving, Unger found himself thinking again of the diary and asked his mother if he could have another look. Within a few days, he had transcribed a whole year’s worth of entries. “I missed it the moment I was done with it,” he said. He quickly seized on the idea of a Web site, imagining a collaborative space where others could contribute knowledge, as well.

While the journal is peppered with weighty topics such as his grandfather’s devout spirituality and the evolution of 1920s labor politics, Unger is most fascinated with what he calls the “texture of life.” When Papa, for example, talks in one February entry of listening to an address by President Calvin Coolidge on the radio, Unger posted excerpts from the speech and analyzed the political climate at the time. And when his grandfather goes to the movies or to the opera, Unger tracks down archived reviews of the shows.

For now, Unger is keeping what happens in his grandfather’s life a surprise, only admitting that the diary takes “an emotional turn” in May. As for his own plans for the site come the new year, he isn’t yet sure. “What I do know,” he said, “is that I’ve become awakened to the idea that I owe his legacy a little something more.”

Joshua Yaffa is a writer in New York.


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