As a major project to digitise the papers of Abraham Nahum Stencl (1897-1983) draws to a close, we take a closer look at the collection and the work involved in increasing accessibility to this important Yiddish language resource.
The papers of Abraham Nahum Stencl (PP MS 44) have been at SOAS since they were donated by his great niece in 1983. These include original writings by Stencl, as well as correspondence with contemporary writers, poets and playwrights and documents and proofs relating to his work as editor of the journal ‘Loshn un leben’.
Stencl was born in Poland and raised in a religious Jewish family. He studied at the yeshiva in Sosnowiec (where his brother was rabbi) before leaving home in 1917. Attracted by agricultural work, he initially joined a Zionist community, the HeHalutz group, despite not sharing their Zionist views, but left the group and Poland in late 1918 after being served conscription papers by the Russian Army. He travelled to the Netherlands in 1919 to work in the steel industry before emigrating to Berlin in 1921. He was to flourish in the bohemian lifestyle that Germany offered, frequenting the Romanisches Café and meeting like-minded writers and intellectuals. He began writing and publishing Yiddish poetry in a pioneering modernist style and established a Polish-Yiddish literary group. Stencl stayed in Berlin until 1936 when he was tortured by the Gestapo. He eventually settled in London’s Whitechapel, where he published the journal, Loshn und Lebn, from 1946 to 1981. Stencl made it his life’s work to keep the Yiddish language alive and became known to many as ‘The Poet of Whitechapel’.
The Rediscovering Stencl project led by SOAS Library aims to improve access to the collection in three main ways: by enriching the existing catalogue to the collection (and incorporating previously uncatalogued material); digitising key materials from the collection and making these available online; producing a bi-lingual Yiddish/English finding aid to the collection.
The project start was delayed due to lockdown restrictions imposed as a result of the COVID pandemic. Work began on digitising material in the summer of 2020. In addition to Stencl’s writings which had previously been catalogued, a further 1018 uncatalogued original writings were digitised, as well as a substantial run of issues of Loshn und leben (1940-1981) bringing the total number of digitised images from the collection to 24947. These are all available to search online here.
Cataloguing and translation work commenced in October 2020. Despite subsequent further lockdown restrictions, access to the digitised material meant that these aspects of the project could continue offsite and progress remained steady. The original catalogue to the collection has been reviewed and enriched through the addition of metadata to meet modern day cataloguing standards. Previously unlisted material has now been incorporated into the updated catalogue. This required close collaboration with the project translator as the vast majority of material is in Yiddish. A key aim project aim was to produce a bi-lingual English / Yiddish catalogue. Trying to accommodate both languages while following the guidance set out in cataloguing standards such as DCRM(MSS) within the restrictions of our CALM cataloguing system proved unsatisfactory and so it was decided to produce a separate Yiddish language catalogue which will sit alongside the English language catalogue. A total of 1742 records have now been catalogued and will be available online in both English and Yiddish when the catalogues are published at the end of this year.
Some of the papers, particularly those which were not catalogued, were in quite poor condition so the papers are being conserved by Graeme Gardiner of Preservation Solutions. They will be cleaned, flattened where necessary and repackaged into four flap folders which will improve ease of access and reduce further damage.
To celebrate our work digitising the A.N. Stencl literary manuscripts, we commissioned Georgie Pope (SOAS World Music) and Polina Shepherd and Band to set some of Stencl’s poetry to music. An online concert, ‘Singing Stencl – Polina Shepherd and Band’ was aired on September 24th and featured a rich programme of traditional Yiddish songs, set to piano, clarinet, bass and violin, as well as premiere performances of compositions based on Stencl’s poetry. You can watch the online concert here.