Historical narratives are built around artifacts—preserved and frail relics from past epochs. Mythology erupts in the absence of such relics, and it is the sort of absence that doesn’t let one alone. Celebrating its first centennial this year, the Jewish Archive at the Vernadsky Library in Kiev is, perhaps, one of the oddest crossroads of history and mythology: It is filled with incredible artifacts of the Eastern European Jewish past, and yet, it hangs suspended within a cognitive void, in the absence of the community that engendered these artifacts. Growing up in Ukraine, the notion that there may exist a Jewish archive never once crossed my mind, for I simply knew nothing about the material culture such an archive might contain.

The original filing system of the archive, containing records and descriptions of its holdings, was demolished by the KGB, and its demise, in a way, mirrored the demise of access to knowledge of Judaism for people like me. Even today, there are only a limited number of scholars privy to the collection’s riches. The library has thus become a Borgesian establishment, the sort that engenders, or even necessitates, myth.

I set out to visit the library to learn more about its musical archive—a huge set of Jewish vocal and instrumental recordings from the early decades of the 20th century. It is mind-boggling that long before any serious recording technology was invented, without much funding or publicity, groups of ambitious scholars set out on ethnographic expeditions into the heartland of the Ukrainian shtetl world, aiming to capture the community’s folklore, and amassed a treasure trove of material. In recent years, these fragile, virtually unknown recordings were digitized and released in CD format. There are currently nine volumes of music out, with the three latest volumes released just within the past year. These most recent discs included the 1930s recordings of “Jewish Agricultural Colonies of the Southern Ukraine” and, oddly, a 1913 collection of fieldwork conducted in the Jewish communities of Palestine.

Kiev changed a great deal since my last visit, over a decade ago. One can feel the weight of the bloody civil unrest that still continues in the East. There are new monuments and banners, including the ubiquitous: “Ukraine is Europe!” And indeed, clean streets, fancy department stores, flashing advertising signs, cute coffee shops teeming with chattering, colorful crowds seem far more Western than anything I have ever seen in Ukraine.

Dr. Iryna Sergieieva holding a wax cylinder once used in recording. (Photo: Jake Marmer)

The Vernadsky Library, however, is something of a throwback. Dr. Iryna Sergieieva, head of the Judaica Department within the National Library’s Manuscript Institute, and one of the scholars involved in the production of the digitized audio materials, warmly greeted me on the library’s steps. As I went through lengthy loops of paperwork that would allow me to cross the library’s threshold, Sergieieva ironically referred to the establishment as a konvserva: a witty play on words, which at once implies a conservatively-administered place, but also means canned fish—a wonderful way to describe an archive. Stout and dour female guards, who would do well in a dramatization of anything written by Kafka, sized me up as I produced documentation and solicited help in filling out the forms.

The library was built just before World War I. Smirking, Sergieieva explained that if there ever were renovations done to the building, they probably occurred around the time of the Soviet Revolution. Certainly, not much by way of upkeep has occurred since. The building breathes out a certain decaying chic, familiar to every dweller of the large, older cities across the former Soviet Union: gorgeous architectural detail, tall ceilings, intricate statuettes at the top of the staircase—and at the same time, peeling walls and cracked flooring. The mind goes in three directions at once: imagining the lost world that produced the beauty; taking in the accumulation of squalor; admiring the people, like Sergieieva, who, despite it all, keep the place going.

As I walked upward and proceeded through a series of musty hallways, dark despite the afternoon sun outside, something clicked in my mind. The audio recordings, released by the archive, are oddly similar to this very building: They are magnificent, but to experience that magnificence the mind needs to leap past the façade, past the crackling noise of poor recording technology, filling the gaps with one’s own imagination. “Knowing is nothing at all,” wrote Anatole France, “but imagining is everything.”

For someone spoiled by immaculate 21st-century audio recordings, listening to century-old fieldwork is no easy feat. These recordings are not entertaining: You can’t put them on as a backdrop while you cook dinner, or drive to the beach with friends. Instead, one needs a bit of solitude and a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Also, a little light—just enough to follow the meticulous liner notes, culled from the original manuscripts of scholars, who collected the material. These notes indicate the year and location of the recording, name of the performer, performer’s vocation, and even, at times, the music’s source—whether it was learned from a music teacher, or a rabbi, or a relative.

The first 10 or 15 minutes of every listening period felt very bumpy, but once I plowed through, something started to shift. It didn’t matter that I don’t understand Yiddish, and that my Ukrainian has gotten rusty. These voices offered a portal into the immensity of a vanished world, which suddenly became real to me. As I listened further, it started to gnaw at me, to descend on me with heaviness and emotion. It was a world, vastly different from ours—technologically, spiritually, socially—and yet, somehow very recognizable and familiar. It is a world of voices—cheerful and mournful, pious and indignant, skillful and amateurish—that belonged to Ashkenazi Jews who, as they sang, were headed toward the decades of pogroms, Stalin’s repressions, war and extermination, followed by more repression, and finally by the absence of nearly everything that came before.

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The Jewish Archive was started back in 1918, and in those early days, Sergieieva told me, many of the early “acquisitions” that came in were the konfiskat—i.e., items confiscated from the wealthy, along with other private property that changed hands in the course of the post-Revolutionary activity. And then there were also the “library babushkas”: older folks who watched out for abandoned private libraries of those escaping the Soviet regime, or for the closing down of synagogues and study houses. They would quickly drag the items over to the library to prevent looting—at times, endangering themselves in the process.

The archive’s holdings expanded dramatically in the 1930s, when it received a large shipment from Saint Petersburg’s Jewish Museum—a shipment that includes materials assembled by the legendary writer-anthropologist, S. Ansky, most famous as the author of The Dybbuk, perhaps the most successful Yiddish play ever produced. Written during an expedition into Ukrainian shtetls, the play incorporates a wild diversity of forms from within the Jewish discourse—references to the Bible, Talmud, and Hasidic lore; songs and niggunim; jokes and tall tales. At the center of the play is a love story gone wrong, and a supernatural tale of possession of the female protagonist by the disembodied spirit (the dybbuk) of her beloved, who died before his time.

Ansky, like other anthropologists of the early 20th century, used wax cylinders for the recording. The cylinders work in a manner similar to vinyl discs, with a needle moving in a groove to produce sound. The recorder was an unthinkably sophisticated piece of machinery in those days. The image of the dybbuk is wrought with symbolism—the haunting disembodied voice is also the voice of the past, of history and testimony, of anger and injustice. One can’t help but wonder if the inspiration for the play’s central motif came from Ansky’s experience of being surrounded by the disembodied voices of his newly made recordings.

These recorded voices are all the more haunting today. After hearing, in the privacy of one’s own headphones, someone from 100 years ago—enthusiasm, resignation, fervor—it is hard not to mythologize the whole person the voice belonged to. And if you do that, don’t you somehow allow that person, that lost memory into your psyche? It is utterly unlike listening to any other sort of music: Hearing the singers’ voices I felt that I owe them something—though I have a hard time articulating just what that something might be.

After listening to a few of the discs, I found myself coming back to one particular niggun, a wordless chant, sung by Meir Wiener, described in the liner notes as a “literary critic, 40 years old.” The notes also indicated that Meir, who lived in Kiev at the time of the recording, “adopted this song from his older uncle in Krakow.” It is a beautiful, dark and slow niggun, sung in a deep, pleasant baritone.

Undoubtedly, my interest in the track had something to do with the fact that I myself also happen to be a 40-year-old Eastern European-born literary critic. But it is also true that Meir could carry a tune better than any literary critic I know. For a while, I tried to picture this character in my mind—this literary scholar, who also enjoyed mystical chanting. What sorts of aesthetics did he lean toward? What made him leave Krakow? Did the mystical chanting impact his readings of literary texts?

On a whim, I googled the name. To my surprise, I learned that Meir Wiener left a substantial body of work that goes beyond this single recording. YIVO Archive has a dedicated page for him, and he is also the subject of a whole scholarly edition, From Kabbalah to Class Struggle: Expressionism, Marxism, and Yiddish Literature in the Life and Work of Meir Wiener. I also learned that Wiener perished in battle in 1941, not long after he enlisted as part of the Moscow Writers Battalion.

Wiener’s niggun is one of many tracks collected by the musicologist Moyshe Beregovsky in the 1920s and ’30s. His recordings are the gem of the collection, offering stunning democratic diversity—you get to hear voices of the elderly and children, intelligentsia and street beggars, teachers in the deep provinces, and imprisoned criminals in an Odessa jail. Beregovsky’s careful annotations are also incredible in their level of detail and precision.

Among over 150,000 items in Kiev’s Jewish Archive, there is a total of 1,017 audio cylinders. And there probably would have been a great deal more—but the archive was shut down by the KGB in the early 1950s as part of the attempt to get rid of “rootless cosmopolitans” through a thinly veiled government-sponsored anti-Semitic initiative aimed at erasing any trace of Jewish ethnocultural or political particularity.

I innocently asked Sergieieva why the KGB went after the Jews and their archive. She retorted with familiar sarcasm: “Because Jews were bad! Whose fault is it—always and for everything?” It was then that the KGB destroyed the filing system that contained the descriptions of the archive’s holdings. The holdings themselves, however, were saved—even the books, which were decreed destruction-worthy. Sergieieva told me that by pure chance (or was it guile?) Jewish books were stored along with unwanted backlist publications of Communist propaganda, which functioned perhaps as a kind of camouflage.

Occasionally, another fervent KGB commission would decide to destroy the archive’s books. And then, Sergieieva tells me, “these library babushkas—they were not necessarily Jewish, even—simply library folk, would block the way and threaten to report to higher authorities. They simply wouldn’t allow a book to be destroyed, not for anything. They would tell the KGB: ‘Are you trying to destroy the works of Marx, stashed here?’ And KGB would go away.”

When Ukraine became an independent nation in the 1990s, the archive was finally reopened. As a historian, Sergieieva was interested in reconstructing not only the archive itself, but also the list of individuals, who were involved with it—but she couldn’t locate any relevant records. She told me: “I went through everything, all of the documents, but there was not a single last name there. And then, among a random stack of papers, a little scrap … and a wondrous find. It said: ‘The list of employees of the Department of Jewish Literature … who received soap.’ That’s how I found it. God bless the soap, and its absence in the Soviet times.”

If there is a definition of ultimate cosmic irony, it probably has something to do with signing on to receive the government’s allotment of soap, and being remembered, in history, through this one act.

In 1997, Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine’s president of the time, was planning a visit to Israel—the first such official visit of a Ukrainian leader. The government asked the newly reopened archive to help provide a thoughtful gift. It was then that the first batch of cylinders was digitized, with the help of complex technology, invented from scratch just for this occasion. Since then, CDs have been released at a steady pace.

The very latest disc published by the archive is an outlier: It was recorded in Palestine, rather than in Ukraine. And although the disc is labeled “Hasidic Songs and Cantilations Recorded by Isaac Luria in Palestine (1913),” it most certainly is not a collection of Hasidic Songs—instead they are religious melodies of Sephardi immigrants from Yemen, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, among others. It strikes a particularly wonderful contrast with the two preceding discs of Beregovsky’s recordings of fiery 1930s Communist songs from the “Jewish agricultural colonies of Southern Ukraine.”

In the past decades, a number of musicologists and contemporary klezmer musicians mined the archives for inspiration. Michael Alpert, who recently received the NEA lifetime achievement award for his massive contribution to the worldwide renaissance of klezmer, wrote to me in an email: “Working with those remarkable materials has formed a major part of my artistic and scholarly life. For all of us researching and performing Yiddish traditional music, the Vernadsky collections are a time capsule, a window into Yiddish folk musical creativity as a living heritage in pre-WWII Eastern Europe.”

Not all of the contemporary klezmer players are quite as effusive as Alpert, though. Once digitized, the cylinders are no longer played, and when it comes to lending the materials to the outside public, the rules are strict. Joshua Horowitz, klezmer virtuoso, and one of the co-founders of a superb neoklezmer outfit Veretski Pass, was teaching in Kiev back in the early 2000s. In an email to me, he recalled “feeling excited at finally being able to hear some of the rare cylinder recordings made by the leading light of Ukrainian Jewish musicology under Stalin, Moyshe Beregovsky. But after I entered the archive, my excitement soon turned to frustration at not being able to hear anything that hadn’t already been digitized on the one CD that they had issued at the time.” Apparently, Horowitz was invited to view the handwritten transcriptions, but was barred from accessing the actual sound recordings—which, to a performing musician would be far more relevant than note sheets. As he put it, “The feeling of pride by the archivists at being the stewards of such valuable cultural treasures was tempered by their bashfulness in being forced to admit that they couldn’t offer more due to a policy over which they had no control. It wasn’t their fault. The sound recordings were housed in a different location, carefully sheltered from nonemployee human beings. We all understood the irony of an institution calling itself a library when it vehemently insulates its property from human perusal, but were still asking, ‘Nu, so who is it for, then?’”

It should be no surprise that after the decades-long weight of bureaucracy and secrecy, the archive has a ways to go in becoming an all-welcoming, full-access establishment. One can remain enthusiastic, knowing that terrific scholars continue to oversee the materials, and as it is, the release of the audio recordings in the digitized format feels somewhat miraculous. And yet that question—who is it all for?—is one that I continue to ponder.

I would like to say that these recordings exist for those mythic dybbuks, whose voices are captured on the recordings.

May their memory be a blessing.

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