Preserving Jewish history challenges Historic Columbia’s leader

Robin Waites giving speech.

What do you do when you want to preserve Columbia’s Jewish history, but it means coordinating six groups while realizing that without quick action, key memories could be lost? You turn to Historic Columbia’s Robin Waites.

By Anthony Scannella
Dec. 2, 2015

Things get a little complicated when, like Robin Waites, you take on the job of preserving the history of Columbia’s Jewish community.

For more than a year, Historic Columbia’s executive director has had to balance the desires of six organizations, juggle print and online media, and respond to the urgency that an entire generation of Holocaust survivors is dying – all while ensuring that history is recorded properly and accurately.

The result is the Columbia Jewish Heritage Initiative, a partnership between multiple organizations that seeks to highlight that history through walking tours, oral histories and preservation of historical documents.

The plan is to make the historical material available online at the College of Charleston’s Jewish Heritage Collection and at the Richland Library.

Robin Waites and community members.
As coordinator of Columbia’s Jewish oral history project, Historic Columbia’s Robin Waites, left, says she’s learned Columbia has a history of being very accepting of Jewish people, and that many people are dedicated to telling their stories. Here she meets with members of the Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina at its fall meeting in early November.

“It’s tough to be the pivot for the entire partnership. She has to juggle a lot of balls in her basket,” said Barry Abels, executive director of Columbia’s Jewish Community Center.

Waites said she found the right people and fit them in the right positions.

Abels said Waites already knew a lot of key people from past projects and worked hard to make sure everyone got a say.

But it’s a race against time. The Holocaust Survivors Assistance Act of 2011 estimated that fewer than 127,000 survivors remain in the United States. The Columbia Holocaust Education Commission lists 87 people as having moved to South Carolina but does not estimate how many may still be living.

Waites has managed the recording of oral histories from Columbia’s Holocaust‑era Jewish immigrants and from other community members to submit to the Jewish Heritage Collection at the College of Charleston. The eventual goal is to make them available online as other organizations have, such as the University of Pittsburgh’s site for that city’s section of the National Coalition of Jewish Women.

Columbia Voice sat down with Waites to talk about the Columbia Jewish Heritage Initiative and the challenges associated with being at its forefront. This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.

(Listen to the entire podcast. Read more about the Columbia Jewish Heritage Initiative.)

So when you were approached in April of last year what made you want to accept this program and actually move forward with it?

We were excited about working on the Columbia Jewish Heritage Initiative because it really fit well into a model of the collection of information and sharing stories that we’d established several years ago with the connecting communities through history project. We’d done that significantly in a number of historic neighborhoods. We’d done one thematic tour, and really knew that, I think, the story of the Jewish community was largely untold in Columbia and yet very significant to the founding of the area as well as to the success that Columbia has realized to date. …


How do you ensure that you are being thorough and you’re also being representative of telling every possible story you can? I know there’s been some concern about the need to, kind of, preserve oral histories of Holocaust survivors and people from that time and the concern that … as the years go by, more and more of them are dying. … Do you feel a pressure that there is a time element going on?

We have a long list of interviewees, folks who we have identified as targets or prospects for oral histories and prioritized those based on age, based on experience or potential story that they have to share. And there definitely is some urgency there because we’ve lost a couple of people in the process of this, one of whom we did get to interview and one of whom we did not. And that really, I think, just pushes us to understand that we’ve got to get this done or we’re going to not capture these stories. In terms of ensuring that we’re being thorough or representative of the community, my hope is that as more folks learn about what we are doing that they will be willing to share their stories with us. …

What’s interesting also in this community is that because it’s relatively small, it seems like everybody knows each other, so when we sit down to interview, our list only grows …

So what do you think is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in getting this program off the ground and how did you deal with it?

The biggest challenge probably is that there’s so much information and there’s so many people who are willing to share their stories. It’s just having the time to sit down and conduct the interviews and to be able to put that into a format that can be accessible as quickly as possible. We’ve had incredible support in the community both from a volunteer perspective but also from a funding perspective. So the resources are coming in. … So the challenge is having the time to collect and distribute what we’ve got. …

Jewish merchants tour.
A member of the Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina leads November’s first tour highlighting the history of Columbia’s Jewish merchants along Main Street. The tours are scheduled to be available to the public in May.

A lot of people I spoke to like Barry Abels, they have a lot of positive things to say about you and your work ethic. Why do you feel that you’re, basically, you’re right for the job? …

So I’m really interested in collecting stories from people who haven’t had the opportunity to tell their stories. I’m interested in providing the community with a much more democratic approach to history.

So for a long time, the history that we have been told is a predominately white male history, and I think particularly in the South and particularly at this time it’s important to recognize that there is quite a diverse population that has contributed to the success of Columbia, and the failures of Columbia as well. So I come to public history from a kind of social justice perspective – which projects like this really provide the opportunity to get other voices out there. …

So have you learned anything about the Jewish community during your time working on this, or about yourself, perhaps?

I’ve learned a lot about the Jewish community and it ranges from, you know, we’ve been working a lot on a story on merchants on Main Street and Assembly Streets. I’ve learned really the impact of Jewish residents from the time of Columbia’s founding. …

It’s been really great to learn that Columbia was a place that was very accepting of Jews, and not just from the 1700s, but again during a time that Jews were being persecuted in the 20th century and other places in the world, that Columbia and South Carolina has always been a place of refuge for these folks. …

And then I guess, finally just that there is an incredibly strong group of people who are Jewish in Columbia who are really excited about telling their story and are willing to put in a ton of work to see it, kind of, come to fruition. So that’s been really enlightening for me to know that there is this group of folks out there who really want to see this come to pass.

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