From a collection of small items, European Jewish identity emerges

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For Cumberland resident Stuart Freiman, collecting Judaica is both a passion and a deeply personal pursuit. His books of Jewish ephemera – those not-meant-to-be-kept items such as official forms, letters and stamps – form a visual time capsule that shines a light on Jewish identity in Europe during the first half of the 20th century.

Freiman, 61, says it all started with stamps.

“My dad was a stamp collector, and I was a stamp collector as a child. I didn’t do anything with it for a very long time, and then my daughter was born, and as she got older, we were looking for something to do together. Stamp collecting was kind of a thing that we did together. That’s kind of where it started from,” he said.

Freiman’s specific interest in period-specific Jewish ephemera was piqued in 1998, when he was searching eBay for Israeli stamps, and came across a Nazi-stamped registration form filled out by a Polish Jew.

“I had no idea that stuff like this was available for sale,” he said. “I bought it. I just had to have it, and I was like, ‘What am I going to do with this?’ I didn’t tell anybody about it for six months.” But, he added, “You start really thinking about the person who had to stand there and fill this out and register, and how scared they were, and not knowing what their life was going to be like.”

Freiman said that the registration form “started me, and from there I ended up finding all of this material on eBay and in other places.”

Part of his collection is a vast amount of mail, which Freiman says he began collecting due to his background in philately.

“It started with the stamps, but I’m really fascinated with the propaganda. I think it’s one of the single biggest enemies of the Jews during that era … it’s so extensive and in-your-face.”

In 2009, Freiman chose items from his collection for display at the Cumberland Public Library.

“It was such a risky, crazy thing. If I’d thought about doing it, I probably wouldn’t have, but it was just one of those things,” he said. “It took me a while to synthesize it, but I pursued the thread of Jewish identity in Europe in the 20th century, with the idea that I wasn’t just collecting Holocaust materials – I was collecting Judaic material in Europe. A lot of it is positive. There’s a whole life that existed that you can see in the material, and then it starts to get very negative.

“You can see where the Germans came in, and you can see all of the stuff that they started to do. It starts showing up in the postal material and the documents, and there was a lot of anti-Semitic propaganda. You can see this flow of identity from a positive, flourishing Jewish life to a lot of people dying because they were Jewish.”

As a case in point, Freiman spoke about his exhibition souvenir from the 1940 propaganda film “Der Evige Jude (The Wandering Jew),” saying, “Hitler needed an excuse to do what he wanted to do, and he put together this exhibit. It showed throughout Europe, in various museums and exhibition halls, and it brought people in from all walks of life. It was part of the propaganda machine.”

Freiman also spoke about how his collection created an opportunity for him to discuss his family background with his mother.

“My mother was a Holocaust survivor,” he said. “She came through one of the more unusual paths. Her background was that she was in the eastern part of Poland when the Soviets invaded. [Her family] would not give in to becoming Soviet citizens, and they were sent to Siberia. Some set of Polish Jews – the number’s supposed to be around 100,000, it’s not a gigantic number – survived the war because they ended up in Soviet labor camps as opposed to concentration camps.”

Among the items in Freiman’s collection is a ship’s manifest from the vessel that brought his mother to the United States from Le Havre, France, in 1952.

“The point of all of this is evidence. Every single one of these pieces tells a story, and there’s a lot here,” he said.

Following his exhibit at the Cumberland library, Freiman made presentations for several local organizations, including one at Congregation Agudas Achim, in Attleboro, Massachusetts, and two at the Alliance’s Dwares Jewish Community Center, in Providence. Freiman has also spoken of plans to write a book about the items in his collection, so that its lessons might reach a greater audience.

Freiman works for the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency. He is a member of Congregation Agudas Achim, where he was the president from 2011 to 2015, and he previously taught eighth-graders at Temple Chayai Shalom, in Easton, Massachusetts. Freiman and his wife, Judy, who celebrated their 36th anniversary in early June, have lived in Rhode Island since 2004. They have two adult children, Danielle and Adam.

MICHAEL SCHEMAILLE is a Cumberland-based freelance writer and editor. Reach him at mbschemaille@gmail.com.