In the 1990s, librarians at the Vernadsky Library in Kiev discovered a cache of unmarked containers. Once opened, they disclosed an archive of Jewish folk music from the early-20th century, including not only song lyrics and sheet music but also recordings that would not be studied systematically for another decade. Jake Marmer tells the archive’s story:
[L]ong before any serious recording technology was invented, without much funding or publicity, groups of ambitious scholars set out on ethnographic expeditions into the heartland of the Ukrainian shtetl world, aiming to capture the community’s folklore, and amassed a treasure trove of material. In recent years, these fragile, virtually unknown recordings were digitized and released in CD format. There are currently nine volumes of music out, with the three latest volumes released just within the past year. These most recent discs included the 1930s recordings of “Jewish Agricultural Colonies of the Southern Ukraine” and . . . a 1913 collection of fieldwork conducted in the Jewish communities of Palestine. . . .
The Jewish archive was started back in 1918, and in those early days . . . many of the early “acquisitions” that came in were the konfiskat—i.e., items confiscated from the wealthy, along with other private property that changed hands in the wake of the 1917 revolution. And then there were also the “library babushkas”: older folks who watched out for abandoned private libraries of those escaping the Soviet regime, or for the closing down of synagogues and study houses. They would quickly drag the items over to the library to prevent looting—at times, endangering themselves in the process.
The archive’s holdings expanded dramatically in the 1930s, when it received a large shipment from Saint Petersburg’s Jewish Museum—a shipment that included materials assembled by the legendary writer-anthropologist S. An-Sky [né Shloyme Zaynvl Rappaport], most famous as the author of The Dybbuk, perhaps the most successful Yiddish play ever produced. . . . An-Sky, like other anthropologists of the early-20th century, used wax cylinders for his recordings. The cylinders work in a manner similar to vinyl discs, with a needle moving in a groove to produce sound. . . .
It was then that the KGB destroyed the filing system that contained the descriptions of the archive’s holdings. . . . When Ukraine became an independent nation in the 1990s, the archive was finally reopened. I innocently asked [the librarian] why the KGB [repressed and nearly destroyed the] archive. She retorted with familiar sarcasm: “Because Jews were bad! Whose fault is it—always and for everything?”