Rose Library highlights Southern Jewish collections and funding of research fellowship

From left, Rabbi Tobias Geffen; Louis Geffen, class of 1923; and Bert Lewyn, Holocaust survivor and memoirist.

The Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University is celebrating its Southern Jewish collections with the opening of three collections.

Rose Library will host a special public event with speakers on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022, from 4 to 5 p.m. in the Jones Room on level 3 of the Woodruff Library on Emory University’s Atlanta campus. Please register here.

The event will also be live streamed via Zoom (Please check back the week of the event for forthcoming link).

The newest fully accessible collections include the Bert and Esther Lewyn papers, Jack Boozer papers, and Morris Abram papers.

Emory President Gregory L. Fenves, who is the son of a Holocaust survivor, will introduce the program. Valeda F. Dent, the new vice provost of libraries and museum, will attend. Melissa Fay Greene, Kirk Distinguished Writer in Residence at Agnes Scott College and author of “The Temple Bombing,” will talk about using the Jacob M. Rothschild papers in the Rose Library archives to write her book.

Special guests will include cousins Rabbi David Geffen and Marc Lewyn, a former Emory Board of Visitors member, who placed their families’ papers with the Rose Library. The two are announcing the combined Geffen and Lewyn Family Southern Jewish Collections Research Fellowship, which funds a fellowship award for research in the Southern Jewish collections.

Research fellowship fund

Geffen said a fund he had started years ago in his parents’ names in tandem with their papers in Rose got a boost when Lewyn contacted him about three years ago and said his family wanted to make a large donation to the fund in honor of Geffen’s parents. Recently, the two cousins worked with Rose Library director Jennifer Gunter King to dedicate the fund to a Southern Jewish collections fellowship in the two families’ names.

“The Geffen and Lewyn families’ generous support has greatly expanded access to critically important archives that support research into topics as diverse as the 1958 temple bombing in Atlanta to the certification of kosher Coca-Cola as truly kosher,” said King. “The Jewish collections entrusted to the Rose Library offer a portal to the past and document the lives and experiences of families who have helped to define Southern Jewish life.”

Lewyn’s father, Bert, survived the Holocaust by hiding in various places in Berlin and staying on the move before he emigrated to Atlanta. Geffen’s family, who emigrated to America in 1904 and settled in Atlanta in 1910, has multiple generations of Emory graduates.

Geffen said he is proud to play a part in encouraging research in the archives, especially into Jewish history.

“After close deliberation during the COVID-19 years with the head of the Rose, Jennifer Gunter King, we decided the fund would be, most appropriately, for the study of Southern Jewish history,” Geffen said. “Marc and I are proud the fund now exists, especially because 11 members of the Geffen and Lewyn families hold 15 degrees, both undergraduate and graduate.”

“It’s our hope that students and other researchers will have better access to the human experiences of historically significant people, which will lead to a better understanding of the society,” Lewyn said. “We will all benefit from new generations of scholars’ take on these lives.”

Geffen and Lewyn collections

Born in Berlin in 1923, Bert Lewyn (Bert and Esther Lewyn family papers) grew up during the rise of the Nazi Party and escaped the Holocaust, eventually emigrating to Atlanta. He later wrote his memoir, “On the Run in Nazi Berlin” (2001), detailing how he avoided capture for most of the war, living on the Berlin streets and hiding out in different locations until he was caught and imprisoned. He then broke out of prison with several others and went on the run, and he continued hiding in abandoned buildings or staying with sympathetic citizens until he could safely leave Germany. His great aunt and uncle – David Geffen’s grandparents – took him in when he arrived in America.

The Louis and Anna Geffen family papers collection (1898-2010) centers on Rabbi David Geffen’s parents but includes material dating back to Louis’ father, Rabbi Tobias Geffen (1898-1970), who emigrated with his wife, Sara, and their two young children to America from Lithuania in 1903. They eventually settled in Atlanta, where Tobias became rabbi of the Congregation Shearith Israel.

Marc Lewyn said among the many intriguing items in the Lewyn collection is a letter written by his grandfather.

“In 1923, Leopold Lewin (Bert Lewyn’s father and my grandfather) wrote (in Yiddish) to his uncle – Rabbi Tobias Geffen of Atlanta (David Geffen’s grandfather) – bewailing the 10,000 percent increase in the cost of bread in Weimar, Germany,” he said. “It’s fascinating to hear the impact on Leopold, his business and his baby boy (my father, Bert Lewyn), and on German politics.”

“The union of two related families is a blessing,” Geffen said. “My grandparents, Rabbi and Mrs. Geffen, natives of Atlanta from 1910 on, thanked God they could bring to their home in 1949 their great nephew, the late Bert Lewyn, who had survived the Holocaust alone in Berlin.”

Research use of the Southern Jewish collections

The Southern Jewish collections at the Rose Library continue to be a rich resource that allows students and researchers to explore different aspects of Jewish history and draw comparisons with modern Jewish issues and community life. The collections include the American Jewish Committee Atlanta oral history interviews, David R. Blumenthal papers, Isaac Don Levine papers, Jacob M. Rothschild papers, and playwright Alfred Uhry’s papers documenting works including the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Driving Miss Daisy” and the Tony award-winning musical, “Parade,” about the trial of Leo Frank.

Andrew Harrison Baker, a history lecturer at Clemson University and a researcher focused on politics, economic development, and Southern cities in the post-World War II South, was the Rose Library’s 2022 Southern Jewish History collections fellow.

He conducted research this summer on Max Moses Heller, an Austrian Holocaust survivor who later became a successful businessman, politician, and civic leader in Greenville, South Carolina, where Heller’s papers are located at Furman University. Baker’s goal was to compare Heller’s career with Jewish business, political, and religious leaders in the Atlanta area, tapping the papers of Elliot Levitas, Alfred Wolf, Richard H. Rich, and Jacob M. Rothschild, all held by the Rose Library. “This also broadens the comparative perspective of the project by allowing for stronger comparisons between Greenville’s small Jewish community and Atlanta’s larger community,” Baker said in his application for the Rose Library fellowship.

“The collections are excellent, and I would love to do further research,” Baker said in an email recently. “Every collection I worked with helped to offer comparative perspective between my subject and Atlanta’s Jewish community. In particular, the Levitas papers confirmed some of the patterns that I saw in Max Heller’s political career and also demonstrated the differences between the electorate in Atlanta and Greenville.”

“I was also able to compare how Richard H. Rich and Max Heller handled desegregation in their respective companies,” Baker added. “Reading through the letters and sermons of Rabbi Rothschild is in itself an education in Southern Jewish history and gave me new perspective on the South during the civil rights movement.”

Working with the Rose Library’s collections in Southern Jewish history has sparked his interest in future research projects, Baker said.

“I remain interested in doing more work on Jewish politicians in the South and Elliot Levitas would be part of this. He served during a time period when the Republican party began to ascend in the South and ultimately lost his congressional seat to a Republican challenger. It would be interesting to consider how (US Sen. for Georgia) Jon Ossoff’s experience compares to Max Heller, Levitas, and others.”

For more information on using the Rose Library’s collections, visit the library website.


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