By Michele Statz
As a scholar of migration and global youth, I came to the Immigration History Research Center (IHRC) woefully late. Only last September did I first visit it, let alone hear of it, for the “Migration across Global Regimes of Childhood Symposium.” In December I returned, this time to learn about the Immigration History Research Center Archives and the Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, and all they offer you, our readers.
Part of the University’s Migration and Social Services Collections, the Immigration History Research Center Archives and the Upper Midwest Jewish Archives work closely with the IHRC, the oldest and largest interdisciplinary center devoted to documenting and understanding im/migrant and refugee life in North America. The Center and all of the University’s Archives and Special Collections are located in the Anderson Library.
I’m proud of the work we showcase on this site, and as a co-editor it challenges and fuels me in all the right ways. Accordingly, when I met with the archivists in the Migration and Social Services Collections in December, it was with very pragmatic questions: What are you doing here? What is it like to work here? How can our readers use this resource? How can this inform my own work? I had described some ongoing research projects ahead of time, and when I arrived the archivists set me down with a cart of boxes they had selected from the general archive and the Upper Midwest Jewish Archives. They were informative, patient, and, above all, experts.
Still: I didn’t know where to start, or how to start. Frankly, I knew very little. And perhaps most important: I did not know that this would be restorative.
I began working my way through so many file folders in the quiet reading room and was quickly absorbed. Hours passed as I filtered through meeting minutes and newspaper pages, family photos and immigration documents, letters, church bulletins, colorful pins. Truthfully, I had no idea what I was looking for.
One file titled “Friedman, Newton. Naturalization papers, ports of entry, Duluth Jews, address book. 1913-1948” held a pages-long list of Jewish arrivals to Duluth, Minnesota, where I now live.
The list included:
#16843 Siegbert Wollstein, bookbinder, not married. Roll 28 v. 36
#16846 Alex Feuer res. 420 N. 3rd Av.E. Student. 18 yrs. Born Aug.1 1929. Stu-Mare, Rumania. Last foreign address Munich Germany. Came thru Breman to NY on SS Marine Flasher Oct 2 1947. Decl.Intent.Mar1 1947. Roll 28…
#16847 Israel Alfred Zyroff res.312 E.8th laborer. Born Jan 24 1920 Zablotow, Russia. 28 yrs. Stateless.
#16830 Peter Semanovic RES.705 W.Sup.laborer. born June 16 1871 Tazuni, Wilno, Poland. “Shrapnel scars on top of head” Widower. Son born 1903 in Tszuni. “Not known if alive.”
Max Kleinman… tailor. B. June 29, 1922 Czestochowa Poland. Tatoo on left arm concentration camp. #1553. Stateless.
Along with the papers and some narrow yellow forms there was a small, chestnut-colored notebook. I picked it up and quickly paged through it, then stopped.
It was clearly a day planner, not much different than the one I still use. Someone had filled in the spaces with to-do lists and names and addresses in careful, if now somewhat illegible, penmanship. The pages were soft and worn. And in the very center of it, sometime on or long after December 12th, 1915, a small person had scribbled in the days’ spaces with what I suspect was a great deal of focus and intention.
I suspect this because my day planner, and indeed, most of my research notebooks, feature something quite similar:
I sat very still for a moment, realizing that this was the thing I needed to find.
I don’t know anything about the owner of this planner other than that she or he was an immigrant and more specifically, gauging from the rest of the material in this file, a Jewish refugee. Perhaps this person was one of the individuals listed. He could have been the tailor, or the bookbinder. He might have had the shrapnel scars on his head or a number tattooed on his body.
When I read the descriptions on that list it was with sadness, and with a kind of tired anger. It’s fairly safe to think that anyone who lives or studies mobility, displacement, and the frenetic, violent, brazen disenfranchisement of im/migrants and refugees right now is generally pretty angry. Stunned. Tired. Mobilized. Overwhelmed. Committed. Still angry. And of course, anyone paying attention was probably feeling this way long before Trump.
But when I opened up that day planner, I felt something else. It has taken me months to sit down and write this post, largely because that feeling was in some ways more vulnerable than my (or our) oft-default sadness and anger. I held that day planner and ran my finger along the thoughtfully-scribbled page, and for a moment experienced a marked and almost sacred absence of spatiotemporality, a deep sense of knowing that made me ask: Why is this not under glass? I couldn’t believe I could actually touch something so precious, something that transcended its 100+ age and felt so profoundly familiar. Because after all: Who among us with a small child in her or his life hasn’t done the same? Who hasn’t scrounged in a pocket or bag for some paper, a pen, a phone, a stick of gum—anything to keep little bodies and minds busy—while waiting in line or trying to speak with another adult? Or trying to conduct research?
Without expecting it, it was at the Immigrant History Research Center that I found a different kind of fuel. Rather than urgency or responsibility, those scribbles surfaced an abiding and sweet, absurd sense of desperation that I totally understood. It was not so much a call to action as it was a quiet affinity, a tiny break that I wish for everyone here.
So: Maybe start at the archives.
Michele Statz is an anthropologist of law and Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Biobehavioral Health at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth. Her work explores global youth and public interest immigration advocacy; rural access to justice; and reproductive health rights. She is the co-editor and co-curator of Youth Circulations.