I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of time capsules, the notion of packing up the specific things that most potently and meaningfully symbolize the culture of some specific place and time and sending them off to the future either by actually shipping them out—like the so-called “golden record” packed into both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 to bring evidence of the earth’s culture to whatever alien civilizations they encounter when for the first time they come within a couple of light-years of a star around which revolve at least some earth-like planets in about 40,000 years—or merely by burying it in the ground for future generations to unearth and enjoy, like the one manufactured by Westinghouse and buried on the site of the World’s Fair in in 1939 with the intention that it remain sealed for five thousand years and then opened in 6939. What 70th century residents of Queens will actually do with a Sears Roebuck catalogue, of course, remains to be seen. Maybe they’ll order some thing from Sears!
There are a lot of these things, actually. Some are huge. The “Crypt of Civilization” time capsule created between 1937 and 1940 at Oglethorpe University in Brookhaven, Georgia, for example, is actually a large room crammed full of things (including a set of Lincoln Logs, a bottle of Budweiser beer, an adding machine, some Artie Shaw records, and a baby’s pacifier, among thousands of other things including about 650,000 pages of microfilmed books and other documents), and is scheduled—if that is the right word, since there’s obviously no one to schedule it with—to be opened only on May 28, 8113. (The date was chosen because it was as far into the future as written historical records were believed at the time to bring us back into the past.) Others, of course, are much smaller. But all were created intentionally for the purpose of communicating through the transmission of specific things with people in the distant future.
And then there are accidental time capsules, rooms or boxes of things that were not set aside to communicate with the future…but which somehow managed to remain intact over centuries and thus successfully to offer people of a different time and place a glimpse into a world that would otherwise be lost to them almost entirely.
The Cairo Genizah would be the best example of such an inadvertent time capsule. Constituted of more than 300,000 documents that were stored haphazardly in a back room of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Old Cairo, the Genizah was neither hidden from view nor intentionally preserved for future readers…but ended up nonetheless providing a bird’s eye view into Jewish life from the ninth through the nineteenth centuries. Of particular interest were documents that provided a sense of what life was like for Jewish communities in North Africa and in the Mediterranean basin from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries. The richness of the documents cannot be overstated: countless Jewish communities that were presumed to have left nothing at all behind emerged from the Genizah in all of their variegated richness. Personal letters, bills, contracts, k’tubbot, communal records, religious tracts, court records, children’s notebooks, prayerbooks—scholars whose names will forever be linked to the Genizah like Solomon Schechter or Shlomo Dov Goitein managed to rescue entire communities from oblivion merely by reading their literary detritus, much of it the kind of thing we routinely discard today either by burying it or just by pitching it in the trash once it’s been digitized. (To learn more, I suggest reading Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole’s book, Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Genizah, published by Schocken in 2011 and very enjoyable and interesting.)
About five years ago, the world learned of a second such treasure trove, the so-called Afghan Genizah, a storehouse of thousands of Jewish documents and manuscripts, some of them more than a thousand years old, that were found in caves that the Taliban had been using as hide-outs. (Click here to see the article on the find published in 2013 in the Daily Mail in the U.K.) How exactly the cache of documents was found and by whom, and how they were brought out of the country remains unknown—and not only to me personally. Some choice documents were purchased—although it was not made public from whom—by the National Library of Israel. (Click here for a very interesting CBS News account of the library’s coup in acquiring these documents, which also fails to say how exactly they bought them and from whom.) But this “Afghan Genizah” is another example of an inadvertent time capsule, one that somehow managed to do what “real” time capsules are meant to do—convey the physical evidence of a thriving, rich, vibrant civilization now vanished almost entirely without a trace to people living long afterwards who would otherwise have known nothing at all about it.
And now I come to the real topic of this week’s letter: the treasure trove of documents unearthed just a few months ago in a church basement in Vilnius, Lithuania. What’s actually going on is hard to say. In 1991, a similar trove of documents was found in the same church basement…and now, 26 years later, they’ve found even more. (You have to wonder how big that basement is exactly. The new cache is made up about 170,000 pages of material, not exactly something you could overlook in a box in some corner!) But, whatever, the material has been announced…and its story is both arresting and horrific at the same time. The Nazis, as is well known, were planning to create some sort of ghoulish museum and research center in Frankfurt relating to the Jewish people once they finally finished exterminating them and, to that future end, an effort was made to gather together a trove of Jewish documents, artifacts, books, religious appurtenances, and manuscripts for use in this future archive. More weirdly still, a team of about forty Jewish scholars was appointed to gather this material in Vilnius—and kept safe from deportation to the camps until their work was done. (One, at least—the great Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever—actually survived the war and went on to a career as a well-known poet in Israel, where he died in 2010 at age 96.)
That much was known all along. But what was not known was that these same scholars used the limited time they had been given to spirit away hundreds of thousands of documents that they hid wherever they could in the city, mostly in underground bunkers and in remote attics. Even in the context of the Shoah, the fate of the Jews of Vilna is horrific: at least 90% of the pre-war Jewish population of 160,000 souls was murdered by the Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators. The rest of the story is also fascinating. When the Red Army liberated Vilnius, some of the material was sent to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, whereupon a Lithuanian librarian named Antanas Ulpis started scouring Vilnius for more hidden Jewish documents, which he then gathered in the basement of the Church of St. George, where they remained for decades. The archive seems then to have been totally forgotten so that, when Lithuania became an independent country after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a quarter of a million pages of material were “discovered” in the church’s basement and transferred to the National Library of Lithuania. That was enough of a miracle…but now, all these years later, still more documents have been “discovered.” That’s a lot of “discovering” for hundreds of thousands of documents that weren’t hidden in the first place! But whatever the real story turns out to be, the bottom line is that the entire archive—all 420,000 pages of it—will now be housed in the National Library of Lithuania, where they will be digitized for use by scholars and general readers all over the world.
And what do we see when we peer through the looking-glass at a city that was once one of the most vibrant of all Jewish cities, the city that Napoleon (of all people) once referenced as “the Jerusalem of Lithuania”? It will take decades before anyone wades through all of this material, but some treasures have already been announced. A postcard written by Chagall. Five different notebooks of poems by Chaim Grade, perhaps the greatest of all twentieth-century Jewish authors. Some unknown letters by Sholom Aleichem. And the autobiography of Bebe Epshtein, a fifth grader writing in 1933. She must have been about ten years old then, which makes it unlikely she survived to adulthood. (She would be 94 if she were alive. I suppose she could be! But she hasn’t come forward. And the chances of her having survived are very slight.) What is chilling about her book—which will surely eventually be published in its entirety—is its ability to remind us, yet again, that the communities destroyed by the Nazis were populated not by professional martyrs but by regular people, by families whose daughters attended the fifth grade in the Yiddish School on Makove Street that Bebe attended and who fully expected to live long enough to enjoy seeing their children grow to adulthood and produce their own families.
Judging from the media coverage, the world is—at least so far—mostly interested in the recovered artifacts that relate one way or the other to famous people like Sholom Aleichem. But far more interesting to me personally is the material that relates to regular people, to parents and children, to teachers and pupils, to shopkeepers and their customers. In the same way that the greatness of the Cairo Genizah does not rest in the blockbuster finds that made it famous—the handwritten letters by Maimonides, for example—but rather in the portrait the huge number of documents relating to non-famous people creates of a vibrant, rich society existing in its time and place, this second trove of documents in Vilnius is going to be primarily important for the portrait it will offer of a culturally rich and dynamic community that was utterly destroyed in a tidal wave of violence and destructive zeal the likes of which the world hadn’t ever seen before and will, I hope, never see again.
I’ve occasionally asked myself what I would put in my own personal time capsule if I wanted to leave some trace of myself for my descendants in the thirty-first or forty-first century to ponder. My answer so far: a thumb drive with everything I’ve ever written on it, another with all our family’s photographs, my grandparents’ naturalization certificates, a video clip of me performing “A Rabbi Who’s Conservative”…and a sample of my DNA. That should do it!