Oral History: Connecting through time

Posted on June 24th, 2016 by

Through recorded oral histories, we preserve information that is not found in data tables, census records, or even preserved media. During the Great Depression, my great-grandfather actually attended and graduated high school twice, but this is not recorded by the government. His younger brother had found a job to help support the family, but was still required by law to finish his schooling. Jobs were hard to find and important to keep so for the sake of his family, my great-grandfather went back to finish high school for his brother. This story is an oral history passed down through my family. It is a story that would be lost without word of mouth and is not in any official record. If you were to look for a graduation record for Raymond Haber, you would only find one.

Familial oral history has preserved Ray Haber and his brother to my family, but if this story is not recorded it can be lost to humanity. This little anecdote is potentially a handy tool to understanding the dynamic that held families together during the Great Depression, but if I do not tell the story it will fall to the wind and be lost to future generations.  Oral histories once recorded and transcribed take on solid form and are better preserved for the future. Recording these histories through an organization like the museum gives more people access to the stories that have shaped generations.

The Jewish Museum of Maryland, its employees, and volunteers have compiled around 800 oral histories since they started in 1963. The first oral history in our archives is an interview with Jacob Edelman. Edelman and his interviewer, Dr. Isaac Fein, met on 6 February 1963 to talk about the garment industry in Baltimore.

As they spoke, their voices were recorded with a reel to reel recording device.

As they spoke, their voices were recorded with a reel to reel recording device.

These days we use equipment that creates immediate digital copies that can be accessed easily on a computer. While the recording technology has changed significantly since 1963, the basic idea of collecting oral histories remains the same. Our purpose is to preserve not only the voices of our interviewees, but more importantly their stories, insights, and overall humanity.

Our first oral history participant, Jacob Edelman, arrived in Baltimore on 2 February 1912. JMM 2000.97.2

Our first oral history participant, Jacob Edelman, arrived in Baltimore on 2 February 1912. JMM 2000.97.2

He was a boy of 15½ with no marketable skills, whose Russian and German were better than his Yiddish and had no English fluency whatsoever. The Hebrew Immigrant Agency & Sheltering Society helped him when he arrived and told him that the garment industry was the best place for him to find work, so that’s where he went. From this position, Edelman was privy to the strikes and unionization of the industry. He himself was a striker. He claimed that the strikebreakers were Europeans and that they were “broken by importations of scared, strikebreakers and many innocent, well-intentioned people that just got off the boat because boats were coming in every day… they didn’t know any better” (Jacob Edelman, OH0001: Jewish Museum of Maryland, 1963). His sympathy and explanation for the strikebreakers is a humanity best seen through oral history.

Edelman’s oral history is but a snapshot of his life and his involvement in the Baltimore area. From 1939 to 1971, he sat on the Baltimore City Council, first for district four and then for district five. He came from humble beginnings as an immigrant with no family or connections. He lived through the unionization of the garment industry and increased his personal status from an immigrant with nothing to a politician with family.

Here he shakes hands with Baltimore Mayor Tommy D’Alesandro.  Photo by Jerry Esterson, JMM 1996.026.273.

Here he shakes hands with Baltimore Mayor Tommy D’Alesandro. Photo by Jerry Esterson, JMM 1996.026.273.

 Even though it is a brief recording, Edelman’s oral history keeps his memories alive. He is here at the museum, preserved in the words he spoke on 6 February 1963, explaining the Baltimore garment industry of the 1910s.

Becky MillerBlog post by Public History Intern Rebecca Miller. To read  more posts by and about interns click HERE.

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Safety First

Posted on June 24th, 2016 by

June is National Safety Month, sponsored since 1996 by the National Safety Council (NSC). The NSC, founded in 1913 and granted a Congressional Charter in 1953, developed the Green Cross for Safety logo (later modified into the present-day NSC logo) in the late 1940s. The Green Cross was used for fundraising, on awareness campaigns, and as an award for safe workplaces.  (The NSC still gives out yearly Green Cross for Safety prizes.)

One of the early forms of the award was a large white flag with the Green Cross in the center. It’s not clear how recipients were chosen – did you submit your team for the prize? Was it based on a certain amount of accident-free work time? – but getting the flag seems to have been regarded as an honor worth commemorating. Here, for example, are Louisiana Shell Oil employees “with flag won for safety” in 1949. Closer to home, the staff at the Perkins Homes public housing estate posed with their flag in 1953.

JMM 1972.36.1.36

A Green Cross for Safety Flag was presented to the staff of the Perkins Homes, Baltimore, April 2, 1953. Gift of the Jacob Fisher estate. JMM 1972.36.1.36  Pictured, left to right: Horace Gwaltney, who was not featured in the “Chatter”; Anderson Washington, Laborer; Philip Di Seta, Laborer; Edward Stockett, Janitor; Nathaniel Burns, Laborer; Charles Eberlein, Maintenance Mechanic; Jacob Fisher, Housing Manager; Lucille Frampton, Junior Management Aide; Lorraine Krall, Cashier-Clerk; Andrew Wassil, Maintenance Aide; Marion Roberts, Typist-Cashier; John Keehner, Maintenance Clerk; Archie Tindal, Laborer; Washington Triechok, Maintenance Boss; William Lutsche, Maintenance Aide.

Jacob Fisher (1910-1971) worked as a Housing Manager for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC), providing assistance for families living in housing complexes, such as Perkins Homes, Latrobe Homes, and O’Donnell Heights.  As a Housing Manager, he was also involved with the Southeastern Community Council and very active among the city’s public schools. Mr. Fisher’s heirs donated his scrapbooks, detailing both his army and civilian careers, to the JMM. These books are a fascinating window into the work culture of the HABC, the communal culture of the public housing estates, and the conflicts and cooperation between the City bureaucracy, its employees, and the residents for whom they worked.  They also contain a variety of photos, including this one, which looks like it was taken before the safety flag was raised up the Perkins Homes’ flagpole.

On the back of the photo, Mr. Fisher noted the names of the individuals shown.  Although I found nothing else about this event in the scrapbooks, I did find the May-June issue of the HABC newsletter, “Chatter,” in which the staff at Perkins Homes was asked, “What’s the most exciting or interesting thing that ever happened to you?”  (“Winning a safety flag” was not an answer.)  Thanks to this document, I was able to confirm name spellings, and identify each person’s job.

From Jacob Fisher’s scrapbooks of his years working with the HABC.  Gift of the Jacob Fisher estate. JMM 1972.36.1

From Jacob Fisher’s scrapbooks of his years working with the HABC.  Gift of the Jacob Fisher estate. JMM 1972.36.1

Workplace safety posters of the early-mid 20th century are a fun collectible today; try an internet image search, and you’ll find lots of shops that want to sell you reprints of carefully-designed dire warnings directed at preventing falls, spills, broken backs, accidental deaths, and the like, from the WPA era through WWII and beyond. The Green Cross was used on many of post-war examples, such as this mildly threatening poster in the Wisconsin Historical Society collections:

From the collections of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

From the collections of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Yes, the posters can be entertaining to modern eyes, and I’m certainly guilty of sending some amusing examples to my coworkers this week while preparing today’s blog. (Here is my favorite, from the Royal Society of the Prevention of Accidents.)  But it’s important to remember that these signs were in deadly (if you’ll excuse the pun) earnest. A lot of the safety measures and regulations that we take for granted today were not in place in decades past, and in some cases are more recent than you might expect.  (The NSC has a timeline of some of these regulations, if you’re interested.)  So here’s to a safe and secure summer for all of our readers, and remember to keep both hands free to grip the ladder!

JoannaA blog post by Collections Manager Joanna Church. To read more posts by Joanna click HERE.

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Intern Thoughts: A Weekly Response

Posted on June 23rd, 2016 by

Every week we’re asking our summer interns to share some thoughts and responses to various experiences and readings. This week we asked them to report on the work they’ve been doing thus far.

Digging in to Collections

As an exhibitions intern, I have been doing background reading and research for the new core exhibit. Doing this work over the past two weeks has taught me two very striking lessons. First, I learned that PastPerfect, the software we use to search the collection, is incredibly useful! Sometimes I find myself messing around with different searches just to see what the collection has (There are forty-eight results for the keyword ‘cat’)! We’ve been using it to take stock of possible objects to use for the new exhibit. It has been very useful to see how JMM organizes and accesses their collections.

This needlepoint sampler is one of the many cat-related objects in the collection!

This needlepoint sampler is one of the many cat-related objects in the collection!

Second, I have started to learn how to match objects to stories. This may seem like a simple task, but it is very challenging when you find a great story but don’t have the objects to represent it! With the variety of the JMM collection, there are a myriad of stories to tell. One that I find very interesting is a letter written to Dr. and Mrs. Robert Hecht signed by thirty-five neighbors, stating, “You have had an offer to take the lot off your hands without any loss to yourselves. We respectfully, but urgently, request you to accept.” This is such an evocative example of the practice of redlining, which excluded Jews from upper-class neighborhoods, in Baltimore real estate. It will be interesting to see what Emilia (the other exhibitions intern) and I will find in the coming weeks!

~Alice Wynd

A Little Time in the Shop

 These last few weeks at the Jewish Museum have been fantastic. I meet with my supervisors in the morning to decide our itinerary for the day. Everyday around noon all eleven interns meet for lunch and we discuss what we are working on that day.

I am working directly with three other interns; Rachel, Anna and David. The three of us are working on several projects in the education office with Trillion Attwood and Ilene Dackman. I have mostly been searching for people to sit on a panel discussion this Fall on various topics regarding bioethics. The research has been fun and I am very much looking forward to the event itself.

In addition to the panel I attended our workshop on the Memory Reconstruction Project. It is a very exciting project by Lori Shocket that the museum is working on.

Some of the beautiful necklaces available in the shop!

Some of the beautiful necklaces available in the shop!

Rachel and I also had the pleasure of taking inventory in the museum’s gift shop on Monday. The store is filled with beautiful jewelry and some very interesting books, I highly recommend visitors take a look.

Looking forward to the rest of the Summer!

~Ben Snyder


 Delving into Oral Histories

I’ve been interning with JMM for almost three weeks now, and although every day has had a new challenge, overall I’ve been working on just one enormous project—sifting through the museum’s entire database of oral histories for research on the upcoming weddings exhibit.  There are over seven hundred of them! Luckily, previous JMM employees have set up an easy to use spreadsheet giving some information on the histories and many have been digitized.  However, I still have to go through each and every one to look for weddings.  Each oral history has its own charms: stories told by pillars of the Baltimore Jewish community, tales of small-town life from around Maryland, dramas and comedies and tragedies…and even, occasionally, a wedding!

Honestly, part of the reason I’ve spent over a week and a half on this project already is because I keep getting sucked into reading the whole transcript, forgetting that I’m supposed to be skimming for information on weddings and just losing myself in the wonderful stories told by so many different and yet connected people.  For instance, the other day I looked through the transcript of Darrell Friedman’s oral history, which was such a cool insight into how the Associated worked and fundraised in the late twentieth century that I found myself reading the whole transcript all the way through, and not a word about weddings or marriage that I could use!  Although on the outset this project looks tedious, being able to look through all of these significant lives and amazing people has been a gift for the history nerd that I ultimately am.

~Gina Crosby


Making Lists Makes Exhibits

 One of the biggest takeaways from my first three weeks as an Exhibitions Intern is learning that museums are built on lists. To-do lists, accession lists, item lists, exhibit theme lists; listing all of the various kinds of lists this place is built on would be a giant list in and of itself!

The lists I’ve been adding to are all related to the new core exhibit. Even though its installation is three years away, the new exhibit requires such research and preparation. It might seem excessive, but it allows time for grants to be applied to, and objects the collections lack to be acquired. At the beginning of our internship, Alice and I received a list of themes conceived by Marvin, the executive director of the JMM. We divided up chapters of the yet-unpublished book On Middle Ground, which gives a detailed history of Jewish life in Baltimore. We took a long list of notes (51 pages of a Google Doc, to be precise!) and from there, compiled a new list of our favorite stories. The next few days had us digging through PastPerfect, the digital collections database, for objects which would help us tell those stories- which we copied down to create, indeed, yet another list!

A list of items related to traveling mohels (ritual circumcisers) of Maryland.

A list of items related to traveling mohels (ritual circumcisers) of Maryland.

Now that all of this research has been taken care of, we get to create a very fun and important list. This will be a list of the best of the best stories and objects we’ve found, organized by which themes they fit, which we will present to Marvin in a meeting tomorrow.

Perhaps all of these lists sound redundant to you, but to me they represent all of the time and energy that goes into the creation of a single exhibit. Before I started becoming a list-compiler myself, I took for granted how much organization and forethought is behind the museum exhibits I’ve admired in past experiences. Exhibits represent years of communication, between museum staff members, between museums, between curators and individuals. When you first walk into, for example, Beyond Chicken Soup, the placard introducing the exhibit also includes a sidebar of all the people who have contributed to the creation of the exhibit, in some way or another. Now, as one of the many list-makers behind the new core exhibit, I look forward to coming back in 2019 and seeing my name on such a placard (listed, of course, at the very bottom with the other interns!)

~Emilia Halvorsen


 A Look Into Collections Inventory

Every object has several histories from what lead to its creation, how it was used, and how it ended up in the shelves of a small Jewish museum. As I go through the collections room doing inventory I try to tell some of these stories, knowing I won’t be able to find them all. I am inventorying the framed collections, containing photos, artwork, awards, signs plaques, and other mementos that someone felt were frame worthy. I check to make sure the object is where it is supposed to be, in stable condition, and that there is enough information in the database that it can be easily searched for various research projects. Some of the objects have a wealth of information, telling where and when they were created and for what occasion. There was a photo of a synagogue singing group that had on the back a letter from one of the former members detailing when and where the group met, where they sang, who the director was, and details about why the organization disbanded. Several of the frames have information about who framed them on the back. A surprising number of them were framed at the same locations.  Some of the most interesting items are the framed letters as they can tell you about both the writer and the recipient.

Figure of a Woman, Collage by Mark Shecter

Figure of a Woman, Collage by Mark Shecter

The artwork in the collections is a category all to itself. It ranges from reproductions and prints of works by famous painters to unknown originals by local artists. Some of the originals stun me with the level of craftsman ship they show. Some of the ones that stuck out to me are a beaded Jewish star and a collage made of construction paper and pharmacy slips. I’ve found all kinds of prints, some of scenes from Israel, there are illustrated pages from prayer books, several beautifully illustrated awards, depictions of Jews, and several different depictions of Moses. The most interesting depiction of Moses found so far is one where the lines are actually the fifth book of the Torah in Hebrew and the description under is in several different languages.

Moses drawn from the 5th book

Moses drawn from the 5th book

Sometimes the objects leads me on a bit of a chase, where there is not enough information on the artwork or the inventory sheet for me to determine key information, like what it depicts or when it dates to. That is when I have to do some research. Sometimes a quick google search can fill in some of the gaps, if it is a print of a more well know piece of art. If I have absolutely no clue what I am looking at a trip to the accession records may be needed. Often times I find that the best resource is asking for second opinions and taping into the knowledge of Joanna, the collections manager.

~Tamara Schlossenberg

Annual Meeting Follow Up

One of the best parts of interning at the museum is the variety of projects. I clump these projects into two categories- long-term and short-term. For me, long-term projects usually involve researching and brainstorming, while short-term ones leave me with something physically completed at the end of the day. My favorite short-term project thus far involved learning how to use iMovie. I attended JMM’s annual meeting and heard Dr. Perman, president of University of Maryland, Baltimore, give a great talk about income inequality. The next day, I learned to combine the recording of his speech with his PowerPoint slides to make a presentation for JMM’s website. While the program director, Trillion, worried that the project would bore me, I actually enjoyed closely listening to the talk again and cutting the slides at just the right time for the perfect transition. Plus, now I know how to use iMovie!

Working with slides from the annual meeting.

Working with slides from the annual meeting.

Two of the more long-term tasks I’ve been working on are a self-guided tour of the Lloyd Street Synagogue and many projects featuring Henrietta Szold. Before this internship, I barely recognized Szold’s name. Now, I know all about how she, a Baltimorean woman like myself, not only founded Hadassah but also founded a night school for Russian immigrants as a young adult and helped save thousands of teenagers from the Holocaust as an older woman. It’s hard not to feel inspired by her, and I’m excited to help raise awareness about her to the Baltimore and Jewish community.

I’m also finally receiving costumer service experience: a must for applying to many “college student” jobs. Working at the front desk has proved much more enjoyable than I anticipated. While I experienced a minor heart attack the first time the phone rang, I quickly came to enjoy the ringing, because it means I don’t know what’s about the happen or what the person calling needs – and that keeps things interesting.  Between many other long-term and short-term projects, each day brings something new to learn and experience.

~Anna Balfonz

What Have We Been Up To?

My last blog post was about the intimacy of small work environments and how quirky and involved they are. This translates well into the kind of work being done here. As part of the Education and Programs department it is my job to help come up with program ideas, help with school groups and with tours in general.

Currently I and another intern are working on self-guided tours for the Lloyd Street Synagogue. There will be two versions, one for visitors who are well acquainted with Judaic terminology as well as a more vocabulary based version for those who are less familiar. Additionally, I was given the opportunity to design the brochures so I was thinking something modern with a twist of “cartoon”. It’ll look good, I promise.

Hard at work in the West Wing!

Hard at work in the West Wing!

I am really excited to be working in such a kind community. Learning about the Lloyd Street Synagogue and watching the school groups learn about Jewish history it has showed me the importance of the preservation of history. I love that the Jewish Museum goes above and beyond for their exhibit by hosting so many events, so that everyone who wants can get the most out of it. It is refreshing to see so many people caring about a community and its longevity. 

~Rachel Morin

To read  more posts by and about interns click HERE.

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