In YIVO’s first digital exhibition, the story of Vilna’s Jews — through the eyes of one girl
“People say I was a naughty child,” 11-year-old Beba Epstein wrote in 1933.
She bumped into her parents’ china cabinet, shattering plates. She tore up her cousin Freydke’s best-in-class geography paper. On summer vacation in a resort town, she would run in the streets, and was once nearly hit by a car.
We know the facts of Epstein’s early life in Vilna, Poland — now Vilnius, Lithuania — because she recorded them in an autobiography written while she was in the fifth grade. The book’s survival to today is as serendipitous as its author’s journey.
The autobiography was smuggled away from the Nazis by the famous “paper brigade,” a group of Jews in the Vilna Ghetto who risked their lives to rescue Jewish books and documents during the Holocaust. After the war, a Lithuanian librarian, Antanas Ulpis, hid Epstein’s memoir in a church basement in Vilnius along with almost 200,000 other artifacts belonging to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research during a Soviet campaign against religious materials. It was rediscovered in 2017.
Now, the yellowed paper volume with Epstein’s picture on the cover — currently in the holdings of the Martyna Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania — forms the basis for YIVO’s first digital native exhibition, “Beba Epstein: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Girl.” In launching the exhibition on August 13, YIVO, which was originally headquartered in Vilna and moved to New York during World War II, took a significant step forward in its decades-long pursuit of sharing Eastern European Jewish culture with as many people as possible: The exhibition and online museum are the institution’s first major effort to present its expansive holdings in a format geared toward those who don’t know Yiddish and don’t have much — or any — prior knowledge of European Jewry. Epstein’s story is now more widely available than she might have ever imagined, providing a window into the richness of Europe’s Yiddish tradition right before it was disrupted forever.
Epstein, who after her marriage took the name Beba Leventhal, died in 2012. But in YIVO’s exhibit, she’s alive on the screen in a charming, storybook-style animation. 3D renderings let viewers explore the Vilna building where her family lived and her old school building. They experience her favorite summer activities through simple video games. Epstein shares her tale of survival under Nazi occupation and in work camps through video testimony she recorded in the 1980s for the Los Angeles Holocaust Testimonies Project, while archival materials from YIVO track her immigration to the United States after World War II.
YIVO hopes that the exhibition will attract a more diverse audience to the organization, which has long been largely the domain of scholars. The challenges to increasing YIVO’s reach are significant: Of the approximately 23 million documents and artifacts in the institute’s archive, the vast majority are in Yiddish or other Eastern European languages, limiting their accessibility for a diaspora community.
Jonathan Brent, YIVO’s CEO and executive director, came to a new understanding of the problem in 2015, when the institute was digitizing its Vilna collection. The collection, the result of an international effort to preserve pre-war YIVO documents held in New York and Vilnius, was a major breakthrough for the institution’s online presence, reuniting the materials in both locations in one online portal. But it left something to be desired. While the artifacts were now just a click away and could be viewed by anyone, their greater significance was still unclear for many.
“It was very obvious to me that the majority of Jewish people around the world were shut off from their own heritage,” Brent said. “Why? Physical access. Language barriers. Assimilation. Lack of context. Most of the Jewish people I know, in my family and others, they derive their understanding of who they are as a people largely from anecdotes around the kitchen table.”
Brent began thinking of how to present YIVO’s artifacts in a way that made sense for that audience, landing on the idea for a virtual exhibition space — the now-realized YIVO Bruce and Francesca Cernia Slovin Online Museum — where documents are displayed in their original language and in English translation. The Slovin Museum’s chief curator, Karolina Ziulkoski, settled on the idea of telling an individual person’s story through the institution’s holdings, with new exhibitions planned to debut every year or year and a half. The next exhibition, already in development, will focus on the life of Chaim Zhitlowsky, a Russian revolutionary, Yiddishist and advocate of socialist agricultural settlements.
Ziulkoski picked Epstein as the subject for the first exhibition because she grew up embedded in a world of Yiddish culture, but was also an approachable figure for school children, who YIVO hopes will explore the website during their units on the Holocaust. “When you study historical moments you tend to focus on the bigger picture and there’s this disassociation as to what was happening in individual lives,” Ziulkoski said. “With Beba telling her story we immediately connect it to a historical context.”
In an animated video about her paternal grandparents, Epstein recounts her grandpa’s travels abroad; below the clip, a clickable “historical context” window provides information on the travel restrictions imposed on Jews. Epstein’s stay at Medem Sanitorium, a Bund-operated camp focused on culture and healthcare, offers an opportunity to investigate the thriving culture of Jewish summer camps in Poland. Memories of her school days are supplemented by Yiddish-language school books and stories that have been translated for the exhibit.
But while Epstein proved a charismatic personality on which to center the Slovin Museum’s first exhibition, when YIVO first recovered her autobiography they didn’t know much about her. Brent even assumed that she, like so many others, had likely died during the Holocaust.
In October 2017, Michael Leventhal, Epstein’s son, heard from the grandson of one of his mother’s friends that the autobiography of a fifth-grader identified as “Bebe Epshtein” had been featured in The New York Times. He called YIVO to let them know it was his mother’s story that they’d found. Leventhal filled in some of the blanks in her biography, sharing details of his mother’s life after World War II. YIVO returned the favor by providing him with her own account of her childhood.
“I’m from a small family,” Leventhal, an attorney in Los Angeles, said. “Both of my parents passed in 2012, within seven weeks of each other. All of the questions that [I] never thought to ask — there’s nobody to answer them anymore. The idea that five years later this autobiography falls from the heavens and can provide me with information and insights to my mom that I never had was completely unexpected, and an incredible gift.”
Leventhal, who had a friend of his mother translate the autobiography, suddenly had access to the person his mother was as as an 11-year-old girl, and gleaned information about his grandparents, aunt and uncles, all of whom perished during the Holocaust. His mother had rarely spoken to him about her siblings.
Leventhal hopes the YIVO exhibit will resonate for viewers today. In particular, he cited the story of Epstein’s immigration to the United States, an effort that took her through a byzantine process that only ended well after her uncle leveraged a wealthy connection to secure her passage to New York.
“It’s a story about intolerance and it’s very, very relevant to the world today,” Leventhal said. “What’s happening in the United States right now, in terms of our unwillingness to be open to taking in refugees, it’s exactly what happened to her and what happened to her family. The ability of my mother’s story to teach something about history and about social consciousness now is really kind of an amazing thing.”
At times the Slovin exhibition makes parallels to today explicit. Describing the Pale of Settlement, for instance, Epstein wrote that it was the only place Jews were allowed to live after being accused of stealing work.“I wonder if some group will always be blamed because they are different,” she mused. The quote is delivered in a video as a contemporary photo of refugees crowded into a raft appears on screen.
The exhibition, Brent said, strives to show what made the Jewish experience and the Holocaust unique. But, he said, “it has, unfortunately, universal meaning.”
Reyzl Zylberman, director of Jewish Studies at Sholem Aleichem College in Melbourne, a secular Yiddish day school, hopes to stress these contemporary parallels while sharing the exhibition with the school’s sixth-graders.
“There’s a terrible asylum-seeker system in Australia,” Zylberman said. “It helps them to see the humanity in that situation — that this happened to Jews too.”
In non-Jewish schools, like the Girls Academic Leadership Academy (GALA) in Los Angeles, teachers hope that Epstein’s story will spur respectful curiosity about other cultures. In light of the pandemic, seventh-grade English teacher Rachel Knopfler believes that Epstein’s experience living in the Vilna Ghetto and surviving the Stutthof work camp will help to engage remote students and help them relativize the current moment.
“I know they had a hard time last year when we went virtual,” Knopfler, whose grandmother survived Auschwitz, said. “It was a massive transition and their entire lives changed overnight. But reading about past struggles and history gives one a sense of perspective, which I think is more important now than ever.”
While YIVO’s goal is to push Eastern European Jewish history to as wide an audience as possible, for some, the exhibition strikes a more personal chord.
Myra Mniewski, who translated Epstein’s autobiography as well as some letters and a Soviet-era children’s book for the exhibition, found the work particularly meaningful given her family history.
Epstein’s “language reminded me of my mother,” said Mniewski, whose mother was a Vilna native. “The sense of humor within the family was really something I could identify with.” (Mniewski is married to the Forward’s archivist, Chana Pollack.)
When it came to channeling Epstein, Mniewski grappled with developing a style that fit the girl’s personality. “Since it was a child’s voice, it made sense to put it into really simple sentences,” she said, noting that the autobiography had no punctuation — a common feature of Yiddish writing in the 1930s.
For Leventhal, there was no mistaking his mother’s character in her younger self. Discovering her as an 11-year-old, he found that features of her temperament clicked into place, like her streak of hypochondria, which, he said, was her way of getting attention.
“We all kinda chalked it up to the Holocaust and all the damage that had been done,” Leventhal said. But then he read a section in his mother’s autobiography in which she wrote “I am very loved at home, but they don’t spoil me — only when I’m sick — then I get special privileges.”
“I was like ‘Holy shit.’ This didn’t happen in the Holocaust, this is who she is,” said Leventhal.
For families like Leventhal’s, who lost family in the Holocaust, YIVO, even in this new iteration, is not just an educational resource but an anchor to a personal past. When Leventhal visited the New York headquarters, staff even showed him letters exchanged between his mother and father, Lee, during their courtship.
“That’s where so much of my family history has been preserved,” Leventhal said. “So many things that normal families can look back on we don’t have, so to have this organization that has done what they can to preserve what they can, is really a blessing.”
Update August 26, 2020, 5:30 PM: An earlier version of this article stated that Beba Epstein’s autobiography was written for a YIVO contest. New research suggests that this may not be the case.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]