A new book, “Flagstaff Jewish Lives During and After the Holocaust and World War II,” offers a look at the city’s Jewish community from the 1930s to the 1950s. The book was researched and written by Bjorn Krondorfer, director of the Martin-Springer Institute at Northern Arizona University (NAU), and a group of NAU students turned historical sleuths. The book was released on May 11 at a launch party at Flagstaff’s Bright Side Bookstore. Jewish News spoke to Krondofer about the difficulties and surprises he and his team experienced as they pieced together this history of Flagstaff’s Jewish community. -Janet Perez
How did this project begin?
The initial impulse came from the Cline Library at NAU, when the head of the special archives consulted with me and a history faculty member on how to go about finding materials on Jewish life in Flagstaff. There is no record yet of this history, though we knew that a few Jewish people settled here as early as the 1890s. Since the Martin-Springer Institute engages the legacy of the Holocaust in light of contemporary society, we thought we could make a contribution by focusing on the period between the 1930s and 1950s.
What was the writing and researching process?
In May 2016, we gathered a group of seven interested students, including an NAU alumni with a master’s degree in public history. Students, on their own, did some preliminary research during the summer months, but we did not start in earnest until the 2016 fall semester. By December, we had enough materials to determine that we could turn this into a publication. With a reduced group of five students, we worked from January to May on the publication.
What were the challenges?
All currently available local histories have nothing to say about Jewish lives in Flagstaff, and we wanted to fill this lacuna. Many leads we followed turned out to yield little information. For our students, who came from a variety of disciplines, it was a fantastic experience to do primary research: visiting the local cemetery, trying to get access to the archives of the local Masons, interviewing Flagstaff Jewish residents (from the organized Jewish community to children of Holocaust survivors), methodically going through the town’s newspaper and the student newspaper of the Arizona State Teachers College (now NAU), or reaching out to the Arizona Jewish Historical Society and other archives.
How receptive was the Flagstaff Jewish community to this project?
Flagstaff’s Jewish residents were intrigued, surprised, supportive. Because organized Jewish life did not begin until the 1970s (today, we have both Congregation Lev Shalom and Chabad in town), the religious community has no materials directly relevant to our time period. But individuals helped us with advice, connections and ideas.
What was the most surprising thing you learned?
We discovered two prominent Jewish families in town. The Herman family has roots going back to the early decades of Flagstaff (1890s) and the Fine family that came to town in the 1940s. We assume that more Jewish individuals came through town and lived in town, at least temporarily, but there are no traces in the archival and oral histories. Hence, we talk about an absent presence. We looked at Jewish immigration patterns ... noticing a fluctuation of Jewish presence in southern Arizona and the Phoenix and Prescott areas.
What was a crucial a moment in your research?
The Herman family responded to the desperate pleas of two Jewish family members who were being prevented from escaping Nazi Germany. U.S. immigration policy made it extremely difficult to get any Jews out of Europe during the Holocaust. The Herman family tried as hard as it could to get the two brothers affidavits, but to no avail. The affidavit letters are still preserved. Through a contact at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., we got additional documents from the now opened archives of the International Tracing Service. Thus, we learned the fate of the brothers – their trace gets lost in Auschwitz. This was the most direct connection we could make between the Shoah and Jewish residents in Flagstaff in the 1940s. It was a sad realization.
“Flagstaff Jewish Lives During and After the Holocaust and World War II” is available for $7.50 at the Martin-Springer Institute.