Digging In To The Collections: Dora Buckstein

Posted on July 30th, 2018 by

Exhibit research can be an opportunity to look more closely at some of the lesser-viewed pieces in our collections. Sometimes, this is an immediately fruitful process, with “aha” moments of connections to other materials and convenient stories just waiting to be discovered… more often, though, it’s less satisfying and more frustrating. When those new connections can’t be made, however, even the simple addition of some biographical facts from civic records can add context, provide new layers, and rediscover stories that might otherwise be forgotten.  

Take, for example, this reproduced photograph in our image collection. Though the people are identified, and the era can be guessed at, there are still questions. 

Moses P. and Charne Silberman, with their niece Dora Silberman Buckstein Levy, circa 1900. Gift of Ida and Sol Levy. JMM 1976.14.2

The photo shows an older couple seated in front of an elaborately painted studio backdrop, meant to resemble a castle; standing above them, in a ‘window’ cut out of the backdrop, is a younger woman.  All three are well-dressed, befitting the occasion of having their likenesses preserved in a photographic portrait.  

The donors provided this description: “Mr. and Mrs. Morris (Moshe Pinchas Silverman) and their niece (subsequently adopted daughter), Dora (Devorah) Levy (earlier – first marriage – Buckstein).”  This information gives us enough of the picture that finding new pieces – that is, making sure that we were finding the right pieces – was relatively simple, thanks to the Wonders of the Internet™. Census records, marriage license applications, City directories, and a few articles in the Baltimore Sun help to flesh out the Silbermans’ story. 

 The info in our files names the elder gentleman as Morris P. Silverman, but evidence in the written record eventually piled up and told me that he was Moses P. Silberman (d. 1908), a commercial printer with a shop at 908 E. Baltimore Street.  (Because we have a well-reproduced photographic copy, not the original photo, we don’t know where this image was taken, but there were many photography studios in East Baltimore at the time… including one at 906 E. Baltimore, right next door.) 

Once I’d confirmed that this was the same gentleman (thanks to this article in the Sun about whether Dora would inherit his life insurance), other pieces began to fall into place.

In the 1900 census, widowed Dora Buckstein is living at 908 E. Baltimore with Moses and Charne; in the 1910 census, she is alone at 908, listed as “manager, printing shop.”  The City directory for that year shows that the shop was still listed under Mr. Silberman’s name, however. 

“Printers – Book & Job” listings in the 1909-1910 Baltimore Business Directory, published by R.L. Polk & Co. of Baltimore. Gift of Peppy Zulver. JMM 1990.168.2

Dora came to the United States from Poland in 1891, five years after her aunt and uncle. Marriage license records at the State Archives show that she married Max Buckstein in 1894; he died before 1900, and the census that year tells us that though Dora had given birth to one child, she had no children living.  Charne died in 1906, and Moses two years later, leaving Dora – at least as far as the civic records go – alone in the world. (She did have a cousin, Abraham Silberman, but since he’s the one who tried to prevent her from receiving Moses’s life insurance money, it’s not clear how much good that relationship did her.)   

Looking back to the marriage records, we see that Dora married widower Max Levy on February 12, 1914; they were married by Rabbi Schwartz, of Shomrei Mishmeres.  Max was the father of two children, Sol and Ida – the donors of this photo – who shared their stepmother’s photo and story with us in the mid-1970s. Dora died in 1963, and is buried at Mikro Kodesh, along with her aunt and uncle. 

We have no other photos of Dora, and I’ve found, so far, no photos of the print shop on E. Baltimore.  (Today, that block is taken up by a building that now houses the new National Aquarium Animal Care and Rescue Center; the original storefronts are long gone.)  More digging is required to learn more about Dora’s life, and some elements – such as how she handled taking over her uncle’s printing business – may never be known. But even these few extra facts give the photo just a little more depth. 

 

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Finding MY Stories at JMM

Posted on July 18th, 2018 by

By collections/exhibits intern Cara Bennet. To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.

When I first started my internship at the JMM I noticed that a large portion of the museum’s collections and stories focus on the greater Baltimore area. As someone who grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. I kept asking myself how I fit into this museum. I’m a Jew. I grew up in Maryland. Where’s my story? It took a little more digging but in the past few weeks I’ve stumbled across several objects, places, and stories that have made me think “Oh I know this! This is familiar to me! This is relevant to my life and my history.”

One of these illuminating moments happened a few weeks ago as I was updating the exhibition script for Just Married! Wedding Stories from Jewish Maryland. I’m currently working on turning the physical exhibit which was on view at the JMM last summer into an online exhibit. As I was reviewing the script, I stumbled across a label about Claire Dratch Bridal Salon, which is located in Bethesda, MD (where I grew up) and happens to be where my mom bought her wedding dress. I had grown up hearing the name Claire Dratch and had vague memories of passing the salon in downtown Bethesda but had never realized its cultural and historical significance. I had no idea that Clare Bacharach Dratch was Jewish, had escaped Nazi Germany, and went on to start a successful business, outfitting generations of local brides (including my mom).

My parents on their wedding day.

Another enlightening moment happened the other day as I was browsing a list of Maryland synagogues in PastPerfect. Most of the synagogues were unfamiliar to me because I grew up just outside of Washington, D.C. Most of my Jewish friends belonged to synagogues in D.C. and my family continued to attend Temple Sinai (also in DC) even after we moved to Maryland. Since my dad also grew up in Maryland I was curious if he had belonged to any of the synagogues on the list. He told me that while he never belonged to one synagogue (his family jumped around for high holidays and Hebrew school) he and my uncle both had their Bar Mitzvahs at Temple Beth-El in Bethesda. I found another family connection!

My Dad and Uncle’s Bar Mitzvah invitations.

I love that the JMM’s exhibits focus mainly on the stories of individuals not just famous or influential figures. While it is certainly important for museums to highlight significant historic figures whenever possible, it is equally important to shed light on the stories of everyday people and communities. These stories are much more relatable and relevant and allow visitors to see their own stories and family histories within the exhibits. The JMM’s exhibits do a great job of highlighting the voices and stories of Maryland’s Jewish community and making them relatable and accessible to a wide audience.

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Coincidence?

Posted on July 12th, 2018 by

A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. You can read more posts by Marvin here

From the beginning the Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini exhibit has been full of coincidences and surprises and  the surprises didn’t end on opening day.  Here is an amazing story from last week:

We held a member/donor preview of the exhibit on June 21.  In addition to our members and project donors we (as is customary) invited a select group of public officials to the event.  Among these was Maryland’s Secretary of State, John Wobensmith, who had been kind enough to participate in our opening for Yad Vashem’s Beyond Duty exhibit last February.

Secretary Wobensmith showed up for the Houdini preview carrying a folio.  He said “my grandfather was Harry Houdini’s patent attorney and I brought with some correspondence between them.”  I admit that this seemed like such a strange coincidence that I barely knew what to say.  Given the evening’s busy schedule, I did not have time to peruse the folio, but the Secretary invited me to his office in Annapolis to take a closer look.

Last Thursday I was able to make a visit and what I found was astonishing.  The Secretary had inherited not one small folio but at least three binders of material related to his grandfather’s work.  Moreover, James Chambers Wobensmith (1879-1973) was much more than Houdini’s patent attorney, he was a magician in his own right.  He founded the Philadelphia chapter of the Society of American Magicians and in 1930 was elected national president of the Society, immediately succeeding Houdini’s brother (Theo) Hardeen.  He was ultimately elected to the Society’s Hall of Fame.

It also turns out that Wobensmith wasn’t just Houdini’s patent attorney, but the leading patent attorney for magicians in his time (including patenting tricks of the famous magician Thurston). For the most part, Houdini avoided patenting his magic (he didn’t want to expose how his tricks were done).  His work with Wobensmith was focused on more pragmatic technologies, such as his “easy escape” diving suit, featured in our exhibit, or film development processes (from the days when Houdini ran his own movie studio).

Wobensmith was also a confederate in Houdini’s third act – his crusade against phoney mediums.  Wobensmith gave Houdini legal advice and even participated on stage in Houdini’s exposure of a particularly prominent Philadelphia Spiritualist.  Remarkably, Wobensmith’s work on the project did not end with Houdini’s death in 1926.  Mrs. Houdini (Bess) had offered a substantial reward to anyone who could bring her a message from her husband from the great beyond.  Wobensmith stepped in to protect the estate from unscrupulous frauds like “the Mysterious Raymond” who tried to trick a grieving widow into awarding them the cash.

But the most amazing thing I saw last Thursday was not a document with Houdini’s signature or a patent drawing.  It was one of several newspaper clippings about the Houdinis that Wobensmith had collected.  In January 1933, Bess Houdini gave an extensive interview to the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin (at one time America’s largest circulation evening daily).  Just two passages from the article will reveal just how interesting it was:

“I can’t give up the idea of someday hearing definitely from him [Harry}.  I suppose it is my early Catholic upbringing that makes me think perhaps the delay [in receiving a posthumous message from Harry] is penance for some act done long ago.

I never make any decision without calling on Harry for help – I get an answer, maybe from my subconscious mind, which knows from long associations how he would act under certain conditions.

Harry was religious.  He believed in the Jewish religion and in an afterlife where we would all be together.  He did not believe in spirit messages though he had an open mind and was willing to believe, as I am if he could be given real proof”

And later in the article –

They played many amusing games together [Bess and Houdini], which they never told for he was afraid of being thought sentimental.

They had no children, so Houdini created a dream child, a son named after his own father Mayer Samuel.  In their large New York home, he occupied the fourth floor, while his wife’s quarters were on the third.  He sent her many letters by the maid about how the son was getting on.  The letters only stopped when the son became President of the United States.

I closed the binder, thanked the Secretary of State, and as I exited I thought “how improbable was this encounter?” to learn something about the mind of Harry Houdini in a government office in Annapolis… it seemed about as likely as running into a Jewish magician at Artscape and deciding to create an exhibit!

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