Between 1881 and 1917, more than 2 million Jews fleeing persecution or just seeking a better life emigrated from the Russian empire. One of them was a cantor named Josef Druss. In June 1910, he traveled by rail to the German port city of Bremen and boarded a ship, the S.S. Frankfurt, for the United States.
His passage was unlike what many people imagine when they think of Jewish immigrants crossing from Eastern or Central Europe to the New World. He did not land at Ellis Island, or spend his first years in America in a tenement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Instead, he disembarked in Galveston, Texas. From there, he hitched a ride to a town in Oklahoma, where a frontier congregation had a job waiting for him.
Jay Howard Geller grew up hearing stories about this man, whom his mother and aunt remembered as Papa Joe; he was their grandfather. And on his father’s side, relatives still spoke of their patriarch, Jacob Geller, a rabbi who had settled in Galveston in 1892 to serve its growing Jewish community.
Later, applying his skills as a historian, Geller documented as much of his family’s past as he could. He checked ship records to verify the date of Druss’s voyage, for instance. But when he recounts his great-grandfather’s early adventures in the American Southwest, his only source is the account that was handed down to him.
“So he gets to Oklahoma,” Geller says, “and he encounters Native Americans. He had heard all these stereotypical stories about American Indians, and he’s scared to death when he realizes that he’s going to be a cantor in Indian Territory. He takes the next train back down to Galveston and wants to get on the next boat back to Russia. But he finds out that there’s no boat for one month. Rather than travel to the East Coast to find a ship, he waits the one month in Galveston. The month goes by, and he decides that he actually likes the New World and does not want to go back. So he gives up his profession as a cantor and becomes a merchant.”
Geller thinks this story is essentially accurate, though he offers one correction: “Oklahoma became a state in 1906, so by the time my great-grandfather got there, it was no longer Indian Territory.” Still, he knows that family lore can be as inventive as a folktale, and that later generations can’t always distinguish between what is imagined or misremembered and what is true. He makes this point to students when they share their own family stories. And it helps explain why he became a scholar of Jewish history.
“The actuality of any people’s history is far more complex than the version related to children or presented to the outside world,” Geller says. “I think I was drawn to the idea of getting closer to what really happened.”
Last January, Geller joined the College of Arts and Sciences as the first Samuel Rosenthal Professor of Judaic Studies, with a faculty appointment in the Department of History. An expert on German Jewry during the past two centuries, he also teaches courses in urban history and modern European history. His first book, Jews in Post-Holocaust Germany, 1945-1953, examines the reestablishment of organized Jewish life in both West and East Germany and the relationships between Jewish institutions and German political leaders in the immediate postwar era.
“Jay’s work is very meticulous, and it’s based on exhaustive archival research,” says Jonathan Sadowsky, the Theodore J. Castele Professor and chair of the history department. “One of the challenges when he wrote his first book is that there is no centralized archive that contains all the relevant documents. He had to synthesize materials from many disparate places.”
Although the Rosenthal professorship is the college’s newest endowed chair, a long history of philanthropy lies behind it. Samuel Rosenthal was a prominent local businessman and community leader; among other contributions, he is remembered as a founder of Park Synagogue and the American Association of Jewish Education. In 1995, his children, Charlotte Rosenthal Kramer (FSM ‘41) and the late Leighton Rosenthal, established an endowment for Judaic Studies in the college, supporting public lectures, conferences, visits by Israeli scholars and the creation of an undergraduate Judaic Studies Program. Now, the endowment will sustain the professorship and fund student exchanges between Case Western Reserve and Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Peter J. Haas, the Abba Hillel Silver Professor of Jewish Studies and chair of the religious studies department, took part in the faculty search for the Rosenthal professor, which attracted candidates from a variety of humanities and social science disciplines. “Jay rose to the top because of the kinds of work he was doing,” says Haas, who directs the Judaic Studies Program. “It seemed to complement our work, both in Judaic Studies and in history. And when we invited him to campus, we liked his presentation. It was very sophisticated, and yet he explained his research in an accessible way.” That skill will be of particular value as Geller pursues one of his goals for the professorship: sharing his knowledge with audiences beyond the university.
Before he decided to become a historian, Geller considered joining the Foreign Service. As a Princeton undergraduate, he majored in history and European cultural studies, fields that would have helped him prepare for a diplomatic career. Ultimately, though, he was drawn to teaching and scholarship. He admired his history professors’ ability to take events already known to him and present them in a new light, and he found that he enjoyed searching for historical evidence and explanations. As he likes to say, “Historians are essentially detectives of the past.”
Beyond this, Geller adds, “I was drawn to the contemplative nature of the historian’s craft. While historians often like to claim that their work sheds light on contemporary events, they rarely claim that they have the solutions to contemporary problems. They offer background, and even suggestions, but there’s something more reflective and nuanced, if not tentative, about their speculations regarding the contemporary world.”
Fortunately, a part of the world that especially intrigued him was suddenly open to scholarly investigation. “I started college just as the Cold War was ending,” Geller recalls. “Until then, Eastern Europe had been terra incognita, both for scholars and for tourists. But by the early 1990s, I was able to study and to travel through Eastern Europe. It was very exciting.”
Geller spent part of his junior year at the University of Leipzig, in the former East Germany, and visited other countries that had belonged to the Soviet bloc. “I was the first American that many people had ever met,” he says. “That would almost certainly not be the case any longer, but it was still possible in 1993.”
After completing his bachelor’s degree, Geller went on to Yale University. By 1998, he was back in Germany, carrying out his doctoral research. He was one of the first scholars granted access to the archives of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the umbrella organization for West Germany’s Jewish community. And he was among the first to study the archives of the East German government to find out what Jews experienced under that regime.
Before returning to the United States, Geller retraced a portion of his family’s history. He boarded an eastbound train in Berlin and arrived, 27 hours later, in Lviv, the largest city in western Ukraine. A second train and a rented car got him to Podhajce, where Jacob Geller had lived before coming to America. During the 19th century, Podhajce was an ethnically Polish and Jewish city in the Austrian province of Galicia. But by the end of World War II, those populations had been displaced or destroyed, and now the province belonged to Ukraine.
Geller took pictures of the town’s ruined synagogue. “You can see that it has medieval architectural elements— arched windows, buttresses,” he says, a photo album open on his desk. “But it was probably built in the 17th century.” He visited the neglected Jewish cemetery. Near Podhajce, he walked the dirt roads of Jacob Geller’s birthplace, Zavalov, which looked very much as it must have looked a hundred years ago.
“This is an environment that would have been known to my great-great-grandfather,”
Geller says. “This was his world; this was his entire world. I can’t imagine what he thought when he came to America. And his America was going to be 19th-century Texas.”
A year after completing his doctorate, Geller began teaching at the University of Tulsa, in the very state that Josef Druss had abandoned a century before. As a member of the history faculty, he developed a Judaic Studies program and engaged in educational outreach to local synagogues and other faith-based groups. He also completed much of the research for his next book. Its subject is a German Jewish family, the Scholems, who settled in Berlin in the late 19th century and flourished in the printing trade.
Like many Western European Jews, the Scholems traced their origins to a small Polish town. “They made their way to the big city, hoping to achieve economic security,” Geller says. “As they made the journey from working class to middle class, they also underwent a process of acculturation to Western European norms and a diminution in religious practice. It’s a typical story, but one that’s not often illustrated through archival documentation.”
By the fourth generation, Geller notes, “this ordinary family began to have truly
extraordinary members.” The most famous, Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), embraced his Jewish heritage and left Germany for Palestine after completing his university education in 1923. Eventually, he became one of the leading Jewish intellectuals of the 20th century. His older brother, Werner, met a starkly different fate. Once the second-most important figure in the German Communist Party, he was purged from its ranks and later deported to the labor camp at Buchenwald, where he died in 1940.
“Those two brothers are quite well known, but the story of the other two brothers is also very interesting,” Geller says. “They both fought in World War I, and one of them even became an officer. After the war, they were politically active on behalf of centrist, liberal parties, they ran a family business, they strove to find a way to reconcile their German identity and their Jewish identity, and they were crushed when that was no longer possible. In 1938, they fled to Australia. And they brought their mother to Sydney the next year, literally only months before World War II began.”
Geller sees the Scholems as a representative family, whose story illuminates the experience of Jews in Germany over the course of 150 years. For his project, he has interviewed several of their descendants in New York, Berlin, Jerusalem and Sydney. “Not all of them are interested in the family history—it’s too difficult a subject,” Geller says. But others have shared not only their memories, but also letters, photographs and the finely engraved invitations, menus and song sheets produced for family celebrations by S. Scholem Printers.
Among these artifacts, Geller points to a photo, circa 1900, of an elegant stone building near the center of Berlin (see cover). By 1890, members of the Scholem family were living in an apartment here, conveniently located above a printer’s supply store. A few doors away, a proprietor stands at the entrance to a shop selling Colonialwaren, foods imported from outside Europe. The crown-like ornaments at the portal of the building are royal warrants, identifying a merchant who provided goods to the Prussian court.
“This is notable because royal purveyors were not located in low-rent districts,” Geller says. “Even the building itself is impressive looking. The Scholems, who had lived in very modest circumstances 30 years earlier, had made it. They were now living in a well-to-do section of Berlin.”
By consulting address books, maps and other historical documents, and by visiting neighborhoods where various branches of the family settled, Geller is patiently reconstructing the Scholems’ world. In the process, he often encounters “the effects of time and war.” Sebastianstrasse, the fashionable street in the photograph, was destroyed by Allied bombs in 1945. During the Cold War, the Berlin Wall cut through this part of the city, and today it has reverted to fields. Yet there are still landmarks—a canal, a park, blocks of original or restored houses—that provide the historian with glimpses of the Berlin that Gershom Scholem knew as a child.
“As I write the book that will come out of this project,” Geller says, “I want to give my readers a sense of what these people’s lives were like—what they encountered on a daily basis, how their lives were shaped by the external environment and how they interacted with the world around them.”
During his first year in Cleveland, Geller has started building connections to local Jewish institutions. This summer, for example, he gave a lecture on the Holocaust for docents-in-training at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage. He sees the museum as a valuable
resource for the Judaic Studies Program.
“It’s a way to enhance the classroom experience, a way to give life to the things that the students are hearing about,” he explains. “That is especially true for students who are new to Jewish history and have never seen Jewish artifacts from different parts of the world.” Both in the college and nationally, two-thirds of the students who enroll in Judaic Studies classes are non-Jews.
Geller has also learned a great deal about the “storied past” of the city’s Jewish community: its successive waves of immigrants from Germany, Hungary and Poland, its rich social and cultural history. And he is delighted that his students have ready access to the Cleveland Jewish Archives at the Western Reserve Historical Society. David Dirisamer (CWR ’11), who took Geller’s course on the Holocaust last spring, visited the archives to learn how the city’s Jewish press covered the Nazi regime.
But museums and archives are not Geller’s only resource as he continues his exploration of local history. On his first visit to Corky & Lenny’s, one of Greater Cleveland’s better-known delicatessens, he noticed that the daily lunch specials generally include a Hungarian dish: chicken or veal paprikash, beef goulash, or green peppers. Such traces of the Jewish community’s immigrant past never fail to capture his attention.