Letters from the Dead

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March 15, 2012
Letters from the Dead

Imagine spying on letters written by other people–young lovers, long-separated families, runaway teenagers. Sounds vaguely intrusive and stalkerish, right?

Now, imagine you’re reading letters written 70 years in the past–from tourists, refugees, World War II soldiers and their families. It’s less like a stalker, more like a historian.

The Blavatnik Archive lets us all be researchers. It’s an online collection of “ephemera and captured memories” from 19th and early 20th-century Jewish life. The website was created by Len Blavatnik, an industrialist and philanthropist, to let these memories tell the story of the Jewish experience. Its collection spans the Jewish diaspora, with a focus on Russia and Eastern Central Europe. The content is a potpourri of video interviews, memorabilia from theatre and other cultural events, pictures, and letters and postcards.

Some relate national or international news. Others include snapshots that allude to greater stories (“May this photo remind you of the time we spent together in our beloved city,” a young man writes–a brother? a lover?). A gallery of then/now pictures of former servicemen is especially poignant: the young soldiers’ grim expressions in their young pictures often contrasts sharply with their older, often happier selves.

Each of these artifacts tells us an incomplete story. But sometimes, the hints are all we need.

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Matthue Roth's newest book is Automatic. He is also the author of three novels and the memoir Yom Kippur a Go-Go, and is an associate editor at MyJewishLearning.com. His screenplay 1/20 is currently in production as a feature film.

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