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In 1948, Ben Stonehill took his microphone to an Upper West Side hotel, recording the songs of the Jewish refugees who lived there.


In the early years of the 20th century, The Hotel Marseilles at Broadway and 103rd Street was near the height of fashion, a place for bridge parties, “orchid teas” and even a few society scandals. By the 1940s the neighborhood had taken a turn, and with it the hotel: The United Service of New Americans, later folded into HIAS, used the hotel as an absorption center for Jewish refugees from Europe, often the last survivors from their families. The late historian William Helmreich once described the hotel as “a world whose inhabitants were unwilling to shed the cultural baggage of the past even as they hesitantly groped their way toward a new life.”

Luckily, in the summer of 1948, an amateur folklorist showed up at the Marseilles to preserve some of that culture. Ben Stonehill carried a wire recording device and asked the Yiddish-speaking residents to share songs and memories. Eventually he recorded more than 1,000 songs in Yiddish, Polish, Czech and Hebrew. Stonehill died in 1964, but the recordings made their way into the Library of Congress and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, and onto the web through a partnership with the Center for Traditional Music and Dance.

On Thursday, the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust will host an online multimedia program with Yiddish scholar Miriam Isaacs, who taught, studied and translated Yiddish at the University of Maryland College Park and led the effort to curate Stonehill’s archive on the web. Her friend and colleague, musician Vladimir Fridman, will perform songs from the Stonehill archive during the event.

Isaacs spoke to The Jewish Week about Stonehill and how a nearly extinguished culture was preserved one summer on New York’s Upper West Side.

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