Beba’s Story Tells of Jewish Life Before the Nazis

Beba’s Story Tells of Jewish Life Before the Nazis


Three years ago, a large cache of artifacts, including poems, letters and notebooks by some of the greatest Yiddish writers of the first half of the 20th century, was discovered in the basement of a church in Vilnius, Lithuania. In scouring through them and other artifacts that had been rescued from Nazi efforts to destroy all traces of Jewish culture, researchers discovered a more humble document: the writing of a fifth-grade girl telling of her daily life in Vilnius in the 1930s.

Now that girl, whose name was Americanized to Beba Epstein, is the central character of a YIVO Institute for Jewish Research exhibition that went up online recently. The exhibition aims to explore Jewish life in Eastern Europe before World War II. By scrolling through Beba’s story, a visitor will learn that the first movie she saw was “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and that her grandfather tried to squelch her mischievous side.

“My grandfather used to tell me that I had to behave like a good religious girl,” wrote Beba, who was born in 1922, in what she called her autobiography. “If not, God would spank me with iron rods — so I hid from God.”

There are photographs of Beba and her sister Esye among their schoolmates, and stories of swimming and running in summer.

But at many points visitors can, with the click of a mouse, learn about Vilnius itself; its schools; and the summertime places Jews preferred, like Otwock and Zakpopona in Poland whose crisp air was believed to aid in curing tuberculosis and other diseases. Over 200 artifacts — photographs, film clips, maps, school notebooks — are featured in the exhibition.

“Beba Epstein: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Girl” is the first installment in what YIVO officials said would be a series of such portraits that are used to illuminate European Jewish life before the Nazis killed six million Jews.

The online “museum” was established through a $3 million gift from the investor Bruce Slovin in memory of his wife, Francesca Cernia Slovin. Jonathan Brent, YIVO’s executive director, said the museum allows YIVO to make its materials available to a global audience. Karolina Ziukoski, a designer of interactive web exhibitions, was the curator of “Beba Epstein.”

When Beba’s autobiography was discovered in Vilnius, YIVO curators assumed Ms. Epstein had perished in the Holocaust. But her son, Michael Leventhal, read about the find and let YIVO know that Beba was his mother, and that she had survived three concentration and labor camps, moved to America and had a career as a social worker for Jewish Family Services, helping settle Soviet-Jewish immigrants in California. She died in 2012.



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