The present meets the past: Intern Sara Israel explores the suitcase

Intern Sara Israel looks through Sonia Victor's suitcase with Simon (Yuri) Vedenapin.

As many of our members know, a few years back Nora Gerard, our Director of Public Programming, added a new component to our annual Paper Bridge Summer Arts Festival: a series of workshops entitled Translate Your Memories, in which the public is invited to bring in Yiddish documents, letters, post cards - you name it -- to have them instantly translated by our summer Yiddish faculty and advanced interns.

At one of last summer's workshops, long-time member Arthur Victor showed up with a large suitcase filled with, well, he wasn't entirely sure! “My mother was a Yiddish poet, and everything she ever wrote is in here,” he said, “but I don’t really know Yiddish.” Hmm, I thought, what a great TV reality series we could start: “What’s in the Yiddish Suitcase?” Or, even better, what a great project this would make for one of our summer interns. When Sara Israel showed up at our intern program this year looking for an oral history project, I knew exactly what to give her.

“I did two interviews with Arthur, and I started to look through the suitcase with the help of Yuri (Vedenapin, our beginning Yiddish teacher),” Sara said in her recent presentation. “Hankus sent me in as a reporter for the Discovery Project, trying to learn about Sonia Victor as a cultural figure. But as soon as I spoke to Arthur, I heard an entirely different story, about Sonia as a mother. And then when I started to look into the suitcase, I saw a sad, struggling, opinionated woman, with a sense of humor and all kinds of thoughts about the world.”

Here are the facts as we learned them from Arthur: Sonia Victor was born in Vilna around the turn of the twentieth century. Descended from a family that included many generations of rabbis, she spent her early years taking in Yiddish folklore and literature. She immigrated to New York just before World War I, after losing her mother to cancer and not wanting to stay with her father, who had re-married. Sonia became a seamstress and, later, a union representative in a sweatshop, where she met her husband, a tailor. Soon they moved to Scranton, where she got a job as secretary of the local Workmen’s Circle chapter, raised several children, and became as much of a Yiddish activist as one could become in northeastern Pennsylvania. She began to write in Yiddish, and supplemented her Workmen's Circle income by performing as a Yiddish folksinger and orator. Later, she moved to Brighton Beach, where she became a regular contributor to Chana Mlotek’s column, “Pearls of Yiddish Culture.”

“She was a great source,” Chana related. “People would write in asking about songs or poems, and she would send in all kinds of information.” She also wrote an entry about the history of her family in the Iwie, Lithuania Yizkor book (see page 125). [Yizkor books are commemorative volumes that tell the story of communities destroyed in the Holocaust. Arthur recently hired local Yiddish teacher Henia Lewin to translate his mother’s entry into English.] Sonia passed away in the late 1990s.

December 10, 2009