Four or five lifetimes of memories.
July 21, 2014 6:49 AM   Subscribe

I just inherited literally a large garbage bag of wartime government documents, newspaper cutouts, photos and other memorabilia from Russia and Ukraine ca. 1910-1970. What do I do with the stuff I don't want, and also how do I fumigate it?

My grandmother died so now I have a treasure trove of family documents, photos, etc. Unfortunately, a bunch of this stuff and features people I have never met and who may as well be perfect strangers (i.e. my grandmother's second husband). It's interesting, but not so interesting I want to keep it, especially the stuff post-WW2.

Also, there are insects among the books. My grandmother was very old when she died, her apartment (in the projects) wasn't in the best of shape so this is to be expected. When my wife discovered the bugs, we quickly wrapped everything in a garbage bag, put another garbage bag on top of it and they're now sitting i na corner as we figure out what to do. I have no idea how to take care of the bug issue: the variety of material is pretty large: old newspapers, leather-bound photo albums, etc. I assume I can't just spray everything down with Raid. I also don't want to spend a lot of money on this. The stuff isn't in the best of shape now and mostly I want to be rid of it in a conscientious way considering the historical value.

My ideal thing to do would be to de-bug everything, sort out the stuff that actually includes people I recognize as family, and donate the rest to ... an archive I guess? I have no idea who would want or take this stuff, but there's a lot of it here and we don't want most of it.

If it helps, we live in NYC, and most of the people in the documents and photos are Russian and Ukranian Jews. There's really no other family I can give this stuff to, unfortunately. There's only one other living relative left in America and the stuff that would have any personal value to her is also stuff I would want to keep (and she would want me to keep.) I'm not even about to start trying to track down any family members in Russia.
posted by griphus to Media & Arts (14 answers total)
Call the Jewish Museum.
posted by Etrigan at 6:54 AM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

In addition to the Jewish Museum idea, you might try calling around to NYU or Columbia (or other NYC universities). The Russian or Jewish studies departments there might be interested, and/or the library might want to put them in some sort archives. They might also have people on hand who can advise you on how to properly de-bug everything.
posted by litera scripta manet at 7:04 AM on July 21, 2014

Another university to consider would be Brandeis University. They're in the Boston area so some sort of transport would have to be worked out, but they do have a focus on both Jewish and Russian studies.

Here's a link to their library's archives and special collections page.
posted by litera scripta manet at 7:11 AM on July 21, 2014

Some info. on insect problems with paper and books.
posted by gudrun at 7:11 AM on July 21, 2014

Taking a whole bunch of old papers from one country to another, and I know there was cockroaches, mice, silver fish and god knows what else in the cupboard where I found them, I did put them in a suitcase and spray each layer of stuff with Raid and leave the suitcase closed overnight. No problems, and I assume the stuff in envelopes ie photographs got a healthy dose of poison just like everything else. Obviously don't get photographs wet or sticky.

As long as the papers are enclosed in something it gives time for insecticide to percolate everywhere, I guess.

If you're worried put some of the least interesting papers in a bag and give them a good old spray to see what happens.
posted by glasseyes at 7:20 AM on July 21, 2014

Mind you I completely defer to what the proper librarians say.
posted by glasseyes at 7:21 AM on July 21, 2014

I just sent you contact info for someone who might be able to assist via memail.
posted by zarq at 7:33 AM on July 21, 2014

The Jewish Museum mostly deals with art. Try the Center for Jewish History. They might not want it themselves, but they should have some ideas about what to do with it.
posted by neroli at 7:33 AM on July 21, 2014

The Wende Museum in Los Angeles might be interested. meMail me if you want a curator's email or phone.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:33 AM on July 21, 2014

How active is your family online? There's a very active Facebook group on my wife's father's side of the family, with people posting photos online and other people chiming in to fill in the gaps of who's who. It's pretty neat to see as an outsider.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:42 AM on July 21, 2014

The Yiddish Book Center would also be people I'd call. Even if your stuff isn't in Yiddish, they know where the people are who take old books of this vintage and aren't quite as busy as some of the other archives/museums. Here is one list of resources for book pests from the University of Hawaii, there are others online.

You might also consider sorting the stuff out by type, unless it's in scrapbooks or something. So photos with photos, books with books, clippings with clippings. And then look through to see if there are people you know etc.
posted by jessamyn at 7:49 AM on July 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am very sorry about your grandmother.

For the insects, can you put the bag in a freezer for a few days?
posted by overhauser at 8:07 AM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

For freezing insects, you need a chest freezer, not a standard refrigerator freezer, FYI.
posted by PussKillian at 9:15 AM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

We have a hilarious number of life similarities and tbh I kind of just washed my hands of this situation and I recommend you do the same. Most of what you have is likely not collectible or valuable to anyone outside your family. And while it's kind of a hard thing to do and to deal with, you can really just throw away stuff you don't want without feeling any kind of existential jewish guilt over being the last person in line.

That said, the stuff that you may have of scholarly value to others might include:

- official soviet documents, esp if there is anything on them relating to judaism and the government treatment thereof
- ketubahs, gets, any kind of official marriage documents and whatnot
- old prayer books in good condition
- intact jewish newspaper or periodical materials, ideally not just clippings, in hebrew or yiddish
- immigration documents
- photos of weddings or bar mitzvahs in country of origin (or stuff in the US i guess assuming it's not your own in the 90s)
- letters between family members who have emigrated and family members still in country of origin
- old community circulars/pamphlets distributed by synagogues with birth/death/wedding announcements, plans for synagogue activities, etc
- diaries/journals of daily jewish life

However since you said it's not in the best shape that will likely lower the relative value of it tremendously. (I'm not talking about monetary value, I mean whether or not an archive or library would want it.) If you have something of particular value that is in bad shape, though, CJH has a very skilled preservation and restoration department, but it's to preserve and restore items they will add to their collection, not items you want to fix and then keep.

Of all the institutions affiliated with the Center for Jewish History, Leo Baeck is the most restrictive/selective in the material donations they will accept. The most liberal I think would be YIVO, and AJHS is somewhere in the middle.

As for the bugs situation I would go online to the CJH website's Ask A Librarian portal and ask them where to direct inquiries about how to mitigate bug infestation of a poorly preserved private collection.
posted by elizardbits at 9:37 AM on July 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

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