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Litvaks and the Founding of Brandeis University

My grandfather and the millionaire
By Steven Weiss, July 2000
In my family album of photographs there is a clipping from the Yiddish Newspaper, the Jewish Daily Forward. This clipping shows a photo of a person with the caption: Meyer Jaffe has donated a quarter of a million dollars toward the building of a Brandeis University library. (By the way, the manner in which the name "Jaffe" was spelled in Yiddish in the newspaper initially caused me some trouble: Daled-Zayin-Shin-Aleph-Fey-Ayin.)

My mother tells me that sometime in the late 1940s when her father read this item in the newspaper, he announced to the family that he had arrived in America on the same boat with Meyer Jaffe. My mother also remembers hearing that Meyer Jaffe became a millionaire in the paper box (cardboard) industry. There is a photograph in our family album of two 16 year old boys newly arrived in America in 1906 -- my grandfather, Benjamin Swartzberg, and Meyer Jaffe!

Newspaper clipping from the 
Forvits Yiddish newspaper

In January 2000, after having heard the story of my grandfather and the millionaire all of my life, I finally decided to contact the Brandeis University Library to learn more about Meyer Jaffe. For those who are not familiar with Brandeis, it is a University founded in 1948 as a Jewish institution of higher learning without the religious component. You can even read further about the history of Brandeis in a 1998 Boston Globe Magazine article (which mentions Meyer Jaffe).

I received an immediate response from the Brandeis University archivist. Meyer Jaffe was one of the seven original trustees on the Brandeis Board of Directors. He indeed was an entrepreneur in the paper box industry. Meyer Jaffe named the business J. & J. Corrugated Paper after himself and his brother, and was based for many years in Fall River, Massachusetts. Meyer Jaffe was also an outstanding philanthropist.

I was referred to a biography of Meyer Jaffe which can be read in the National Cyclopedia of American Biography, volume 52, page 279. The list of Meyer Jaffe’s accomplishments recorded here are extensive. The archivist also informed me that a photo of Meyer Jaffe and a letter written by him as a Brandeis Board member existed and they can be seen below.

Photo from 1906, taken shortly after 
arriving in New York, showing the author’s grandfather, Benjamin Swartzberg on the left and Meyer Jaffe standing behind, both 16 years old. The other person is unidentified.

Even better than all of this information was the fact that the Brandeis Archivist was still in touch with Meyer’s 77 year old son, Edwin, and he was put in contact with me. A few days later I received a phone call from Edwin Jaffe. Though the biography referred to above states that Meyer Jaffe was born in Kovno, in actual fact Kovno Guberniya was meant. Mr. Jaffe told me that Meyer Jaffe was from Panimunok (Panemunelis), the same shtetl as my grandfather was from! Edwin Jaffe was also very interested in seeing the photograph I had of his father with my grandfather as new immigrants.

I have since learned that another original supporter and board member of Brandeis, Abraham Shapiro, was from the tiny village of Radute which adjoins the shtetl of Rakishok and is only a few miles from Panimunok. An amazing photo of a group of early supporters of Brandeis which includes Abraham Shapiro and Albert Einstein can be seen below.

It came as no surprise then, when I discovered that the celebrated historian and original president of Brandeis University, Abram Sachar, was a Litvak. Sachar’s family was from Kupishok, a shtetl not too distant from those mentioned above. It would appear that the Litvaks’ love of learning transferred over to America where the dream of a Jewish institution of learning was realized.


Download JaffeLetter.pdf

about the author
Steven Weiss

In 1997 I read for the first time my maternal grandmother’s handwritten memoir which my mother had urged me to read for years. From this memoir I learned the name of my Great-Grandmother’s ancestral home, Pazelva (Zelva), Lithuania, and thus began my interest in my Litvak ancestry. By finding Linda Cantor of the Rokiskis and Lithuania SIG on the JGFF, I discovered where my maternal grandfather’s family originated. I am continually amazed at what I am learning about my Litvak heritage.

Currently I am researching my grandfather’s antique European and Jewish postcard collection for an upcoming exhibit at the Spertus Institute of Judaica to run from March-August 2001 in Chicago where I live.