Inquiries to the Collections and Exhibitions department take many forms, with many coming from families who want to donate Holocaust-era artifacts, documents or photographs, or items and photographs documenting aspects of Jewish heritage from around the world, from the late 19th century through much of the 20th century.
Sometimes there is an inquiry from a family member asking about previously donated items. That was the case in late February when the following question threw me headlong into the collection:
“I was advised that the museum has in its archives some of the pieces of iron that were bent by The Mighty Atom and other artifacts. Is there any way that I can see them via the internet?”
I never expected that a search of our catalog would pull up a poster or a handbill that said, “Greatest Sensational Attraction of this Century!” and “World’s Strongest Man”, especially when accompanied by “Baruch Haba’ah” and a full Yiddish translation; or a photograph of a “metal horseshoe [459.90] twisted out of shape by Joseph Greenstein, the Jewish strongman known as The Mighty Atom”.
I maintained a lively correspondence with the gentleman who began the inquiry, Jerry, the youngest and last surviving son of The Mighty Atom, and have since learned a bit about the unique group of more than 50 photographs, printed advertisements and 3-dimensional objects in our collection, donated to the Museum by the family of The Mighty Atom in 1990.
The objects include announcement posters, leaflets and programs for appearances by The Mighty Atom, in English and in Yiddish, as well as promotional photographs of The Mighty Atom in performance costumes.
The Mighty Atom was born Joseph Greenstein in Suvalk [Suwalki], Poland in 1893. His family was poor, Joseph was sickly and weak, and his father died of tuberculosis when Joseph was a teenager. He ran away to join a traveling circus and learned from the strong man how to become healthy and strong by following an exercise regimen and through the study of Eastern meditation and mind control techniques learned while traveling with the circus through India. 18 months later he returned to Poland, married his wife Leah, started a family, and emigrated to the United States via Galveston, Texas in 1911. Joseph continued demonstrating his strength in fairs and at special events, and supplemented his income by marketing his own line of health remedies. His family grew to include ten children. He performed up until his death in 1976 at the age of 84.
The Mighty Atom’s legacy continued – watch his son Mike below on the TV show “America’s Got Talent.”
For more information about The Mighty Atom, you may be able to find a copy of the book The Mighty Atom: The Life and Times of Joseph L. Greenstein, by Ed Spielman, published by Viking in 1979 at your public library, or on bookfinder.com. An annotation from the catalog record for this book at the New York Public Library states that the book “describes the career of the incredible vaudeville strongman who, by studying Asian techniques of concentration and Jewish mystical writings, unlearned the subconscious mechanism that forces humans to stop when they think they have reached their physical limits”. Or watch the documentary The Mighty Atom on Amazon or iTunes. The trailer is linked here.
The scope of the collection at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – a Living Memory to the Holocaust includes a surprising range of items that help illustrate the diversity of the scattered Jewish tribe. Although this collection of items from The Mighty Atom is surprising and unique to his story, they also contribute to the greater story of Jewish immigrants arriving in America at the beginning of the 20th century, who made a living as best they could, and left varied and unexpected legacies their families were proud of and chose to share widely.
See more photos of The Mighty Atom in our slideshow below.