The mass migration of Jews to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often meant that families were broken apart for a period of time, a circumstance that led to many emotional and material difficulties. One of the most troubling situations was when a spouse (usually a husband) moved to America in advance of his family and then simply “disappeared.” For any number of reasons, many men used the separation as an opportunity to start over, abandoning their families.
This phenomenon became so widespread that the Forverts published a regular feature dedicated to it: “A Galerie fun Farshvundene Mener,” or “A Gallery of Missing Husbands.” Photographs of the missing men would be posted in the newspaper with descriptions that included information like their age, their place of birth, their job or trade, the date and location of their disappearance, and a list of family members that they left behind. The Teach Great Jewish Books resource kit by Jessica Kirzane on Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, a novella by Abraham Cahan, also explores the phenomenon of “A Gallery of Missing Husbands.” That kit provides a translation for the headline above the photographs that reads, “A galerye fun fershvundene mener - Oyb ihr derkent zey, un veyst vu zey zaynen, lozt visn zeyere froyen durkh’n ‘forverts’” (“A Gallery of Missing Husbands - If you recognize them, and know where they are, let their wives know through the Forverts.”)
In Liana Finck’s graphic novel, A Bintel Brief, there is a separate, stand-alone chapter between chapters eight and nine, titled “Gallery of Missing Husbands.” The chapter includes ten full-page black-and-white etchings, portraits that the artist sketched based on original photographs from the Forverts archive. Each sketch includes the first name and age of the person featured in the image.
Suggested Activity: Ask students to look first at the original newspaper photographs and text alone, and to discuss what they think this feature’s purpose was. Have them carefully examine both the wording and the way the photographs are presented on the page. If they are familiar with A Bintel Brief, ask them what they think the relationship between the two newspaper features (“Gallery of Missing Husbands” and Bintel Brief) might have been. How does this feature speak to the role that the Forverts played at the time in the Jewish community? Is there any newspaper, magazine, website, or other form of media that plays a similar role for immigrants today? Or a comparable role for Jews?
Students should then select one of the photographs and write a Bintel Brief-style letter from the perspective of the missing person. Ask them to think about reasons that the person might be missing—why he may have essentially “ghosted” his wife and family—and whether they feel sympathetic to any of those reasons. If there is time, you might also have them pen an editor’s reply.
Finally, have students compare the photographs in the original Forverts feature with the images from Finck’s graphic novel. What differences are there in looking at the photograph versus the images? Why would Finck have chosen to include illustrations in her graphic novel, instead of the original photographs? Does looking at the drawn images change the way that the students have been thinking about the “missing person” perspective?