Kirschner brothers donate Holocaust-era, immigration correspondence to Libraries

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Penn State University Libraries’ Eberly Family Special Collections Library has received a rare and important primary source collection documenting several aspects of early 20th-century life. The Kirschner Family Holocaust-Era Letter Collection, a gift from brothers and Penn State alumni Michael S. Kirschner, Class of 1966, and Frederick M. Kirschner, Class of 1968, holds multiple sets of correspondence, one a multi-generational account of Russian childhood friends’ immigration to and lives across the Western Hemisphere, another of Holocaust-era appeals for European Jews’ assistance for asylum.

“The Kirschner archive includes a unique resource for scholars and students researching an under-documented area of Holocaust studies: World War II Jewish-American efforts to address the crisis of refugees stemming from Hitler’s attempts to exterminate the Jewish people,” Athena N. Jackson, Dorothy Foehr Huck Chair and Head of Special Collections, said. “The interdisciplinary nature of the collection and its research value — for the study of family history, immigration history and Jewish assimilation and acculturation in America — make this an exceptional collection.”

A highlight of the collection is a set of 60 handwritten and typed letters dating from 1939 to 1941 addressed to Isadore Kirschner, father of Michael and Fred, in the years following the Kirschner family’s resettlement in Philadelphia. The letters encapsulate Isadore’s efforts to aid in the immigration and resettlement of European Jews threatened by the Holocaust. The letters are predominantly appeals for sponsorship to America for themselves or family members. This sponsorship, a legally binding commitment also known as an affidavit of support, requires the sponsor to assume “responsibility for another person, usually a relative, coming to the United States to live permanently,” according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website.

“This collection includes heart-wrenching letters from Jewish refugees or their American families seeking asylum in an attempt to escape capture and avoid being sent to concentration camps. They document the looming crisis and, in some cases, the American government’s blind eye to the Holocaust on the eve of World War II,” James Quigel, the Special Collections Library’s head of historical collections and labor archives, said.

Another set of correspondence, which spans multiple generations, follows the story of Michael S. Kirschner, grandfather of Michael and Fred, and Itzhak Rabinowitz, childhood friends in Bialystok, Russia. As youths, each set out for the Americas, Kirschner to Philadelphia, Rabinowitz to South America, both promising to keep in touch.

Decades later, Isadore Kirschner discovered 1930s-era letters to his father from Rabinowitz, whose family had changed their surname to Harkavi to be exonerated by the Russian Army. In 1973 Kirschner tracked down Rabinowitz/Harkavi descendants in South America and revived the families’ correspondence, learning that Rabinowitz’s son, Itzhak Harkavi, had become Israel’s ambassador to Brazil, by way of Argentina and Israel. The Harkavi family also still had in their possession letters and photos from Michael Kirschner, so the sons sent each other copies of their fathers’ original correspondence. Michael Kirschner’s letters, translated from Yiddish, depict 1930s life in Philadelphia.

The Kirschner Family Holocaust-Era Letter Collection is available upon request in the Special Collections Library, 104 Paterno Library, during its hours of operation. Researchers also can request appointments to access it via the Special Collections Library’s reference email listserv.

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Last Updated February 19, 2018