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A treasure trove of Jewish history is sitting in a North York basement

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David Birnbaum examines some of his family’s extensive archives. (Photo by Ron Csillag)

One normally wouldn’t consider North York a place where riches lie beneath the ground, but David Birnbaum’s basement tells another story.

Neatly arrayed, floor-to-ceiling, in crammed bookcases, filing cabinets, metal shelves, bankers boxes, document cases and bulging manila envelopes is a veritable treasure trove that libraries around the world would love to get their hands on.

There’s an Indiana Jones-ish vibe to pulling a dusty tome from a shelf, its leather binding cracked and decaying, or peering at fragments of a centuries-old Hebrew manuscript in a dim light.

It’s hard – and seems crass – to put a dollar value on a collection this remarkable. “It’s worth millions,” Birnbaum told The CJN. “We’re looking for a good home where it will be properly catalogued and digitized.”

That’s easier said than done given the collection’s sheer size. But of late, two local scholars have embarked on a campaign to convince the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library to acquire the storied Birnbaum Archives.

The collection centres almost wholly on two giants of 20th century Jewish thought and scholarship: Nathan Birnbaum (David’s grandfather), a hugely influential figure in European Jewry who died in 1937, and Solomon Birnbaum (Nathan’s son and David’s father), a world-renowned scholar of Yiddish and Hebrew who died in 1989 in Toronto at age 98.

The archives also hold the writings and artworks of two more of Nathan Birnbaum’s sons: Menachem, an artist who was murdered at Auschwitz in 1944, and Uriel, a writer and artist who died in 1956.

A stone’s throw from David Birnbaum’s house lie the papers and vast writings of his late brother Eleazar Birnbaum, an expert in Arabic, Persian and Turkish who taught at the University of Toronto and died last October at the age of 89.

There’s more: Eleazar’s and David’s brother, Jacob, was a key founder of the movement struggling on behalf of Soviet Jewry in the 1960s.

By any measure, this was a productive family.

“Yes, they were all very prolific,” understated David, who trained as an architect and worked as an environmental planner for the Ontario government. He’s curated the archives for 31 years, and now, at age 86, agrees it’s time for a permanent home where their contents could be preserved and studied.

Asked the size of the archive, which is spread out on two floors of his unassuming house, David sits back in his kitchen chair and thinks. It amounts, he said, to 5,200 letters, between 50,000 and 60,000 papers, documents and manuscripts, and some 3,000 books, which have been meticulously catalogued by whether they are by Nathan, Solomon, Uriel or Menachem, about them, or mention them.

A further 2,000 scholarly books, some of them rare, are in Solomon’s library.

Among the letters are 18 carefully preserved, handwritten missives from Theodor Herzl to Nathan Birnbaum (the two would have a falling out), and an invitation to speak co-signed by Albert Einstein. The correspondence alone represents a who’s who of 20th century Jewish history: Letters to Birnbaum from Sholem Aleichem, Chaim Nachman Bialik, Max Nordau, Martin Buber, and I.L. Peretz, to name a few.

Scribblings, photographs, newspaper clippings, poems, personal notes, it’s all here.

The material would interest scholars “for years to come,” wrote Prof. Naomi Seidman, of U of T’s religion department, to the Fisher Library recently. “We would love to see the Birnbaum Archive housed on the University of Toronto campus, not only for our own research, but also for the opportunities it presents to showcase the remarkable lives of this singular family.”

Remarkable barely begins to describe Nathan Birnbaum. Born in Vienna in 1864, he “championed a spectrum of radically opposed movements,” according to Kalman Weiser, a professor of Modern Jewish Studies at York University.

Birnbaum’s life was a series of progressions – some might say a trajectory – first, as a leading figure in the Zionist movement well before Herzl (Birnbaum is credited with coining the term “Zionism”), then as an architect of Yiddish-based cultural autonomy for Eastern European Jews (he organized the landmark 1908 Yiddish language conference in Czernowitz, modern day Chernivtsi, now in Ukraine), and finally, as a leader in the staunchly anti-secular, anti-Zionist Agudath Israel party. He died in Holland.

A letter to Nathan Birnbaum from Theodor Herzl.

Nathan Birnbaum was “a pivotal figure in Jewish nationalist thought and Orthodoxy,” whose chameleon-like transformations mirrored European Jewry’s responses to the challenges posed by post-Enlightenment forces, noted Weiser.

“His whole life consisted of what a Jew was,” David Birnbaum said.

Solomon Birnbaum was also a maverick intellectual: An Orthodox Jew who authored the first modern grammar of Yiddish, written in the trenches of the First World War, and who devised an ingenious Yiddish spelling system that was introduced in Orthodox schools in Poland in the 1930s.

After fleeing to England in 1933, he became an expert in Hebrew paleography (the study of ancient writing systems and deciphering historical manuscripts) and epigraphy (the study and interpretation of ancient inscriptions.)

In 1947, he was able to date the Dead Sea Scrolls accurately by studying their scripts – well before radiocarbon dating.

He came to Toronto to join his sons in 1970 and spent his remaining decades continuing his research into the evolution of the Hebrew alphabet, and lesser-known Jewish languages, such as Ladino, Bukharic (spoken in central Asia) and Yevanic (in Greece).

The output of father and son was staggering; it seems as though they saved every scrap of paper in their lives. How it all survived the Holocaust is another conversation.

“The depth and importance of this archive cannot be easily exaggerated,” noted the American scholar Jess Olson in his 2013 biography of Nathan Birnbaum.

The archives are indeed “a big deal,” said Weiser, who also favours their acquisition by U of T’s Fisher Library. “It’s the ideal place.”

But essentially, it all comes down to money. A benefactor is needed to purchase the collection and donate it.

For Birnbaum, the treasure obviously strikes close to home. “Rather than a dry impersonal historical record of well over 100 years of European Jewish history,” he said, the archive “reflects the experiences of those who actually lived that history.”

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