Breakfast to Honor the 350th Anniversary of American Jewish History
Remarks by Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States
September 15, 2005, Washington, DC
Two months ago, I stood at this same podium to welcome special guests—including Senator Robert Byrd, White House Deputy Counsel Bill Kelly, and Office of Personnel Management Director Linda Springer—to a program of ideas prior to this week’s “Constitution Day” observances. Officials from throughout the Federal Government had gathered to listen to Senator Byrd explain his passion for and conception of the U.S. Constitution. My own remarks on that occasion included these personal comments:
In what other country could the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants speak to you this morning as Archivist of his nation? As the late jurist and teacher Felix Frankfurther wrote, “one who belongs to [arguably] the most persecuted minority in history is not or likely to be insensible to the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution.”
You can imagine how I felt on that occasion, and that feeling has been multiplied by my emotions last evening and this morning.
On behalf of the National Archives and Records Administration, I want to welcome all of you to this special tour of our Public Vaults exhibit led by Marvin Pinkert, our able museum and exhibits director. Marvin has organized an impressive tour of Jewish-related exhibits and artifacts.
Let me first tell you a true archivist’s tale which could also honestly be classed as a “Bubba Meisa” since my own grandmother was involved. On a recent trip to New York City, I visited our National Archives’ records center on Varick Street in an unprepossessing government building; we are now working on expanding into more interesting space as an Archives “gateway” and exhibit area. One of the New York City archivists asked: “Didn’t I hear, Professor Weinstein, that your parents came to this country before World War I?” “True,” I responded, “they came as youngsters, my father alone and my mother with her siblings and my grandmother.” He asked what my father’s name was, and after a computer search, it turned out that Samuel Weinstein (much to my surprise) was too common a name to retrieve the Samuel Weinstein quickly. He then asked my mother’s maiden name.
The following day, back in Washington, I received a packet from him—unsolicited—in which I learned for the first time: my mother’s ship arrival information; date and ship’s name; my mother’s actual birthday (she had always used the Rosh Hashanah holiday as her fallback, “I was born on Rosh Hashanah.” “But, Mom” was my hapless retort); and (more amazing still) the name she was registered under (different from the name by which I knew her). All this can be seen on these sheets of paper: arrival information and application for U.S. citizenship.
How many here today know for a fact the information concerning their parents, grandparents, or beyond? I am ashamed to say that until prodded by the New York archivist, I was among that number. I urge you strongly to take your own journey of exploration in our records, wherever applicable. We will help.
Finally, let us never forget, for all of our differences as Americans and as Jews, that our freedoms are as old or older than this new country which sheltered us. Did our first President, George Washington, have to write Newport’s Hebrew congregation in 1790 assuring the Jewish community that its right to religious freedom was guaranteed by a United States government “which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…”?
Of course not, but it was right and just, as just as the need to support in these turbulent and difficult days the civil rights of all Americans, including those of our Islamic and Arabic fellow Americans. After all, the Ninth Archivist of the United States is also the first Semitic Archivist, and I can assure you that I do not take that responsibility lightly.