Finding Nemo in the Archives

By: Karen Gritz

My first date with James Grover McDonald took place on a Thursday morning on the sixth floor of Butler Library at Columbia University. It was my first time in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and I lament the fact that my winter face was photographed and filed away forever in the room’s records of researchers.

McDonald was the first U.S. ambassador to Israel. He died in 1964, but his personal papers live on in Columbia’s principal repository for primary sources. Much of the material ―donated by his wife and daughters in 1973― documents his diplomatic career and contains series of drafts of his books Palestine and the Middle East and My Mission to Israel. Hence, I immersed myself in some of those 27,000 items looking for hints that would help me to better understand the relationship between the Vatican and the Latin American countries regarding the issue of Jerusalem.

The files were ready upon my arrival and were brought to table 7 by two archivists pushing a metal cart. Start with this one,” they told me after reciting the rules in a low voice. I borrowed a pencil as indicated, washed my hands and prepared to dust off the papers with the feeling of being at an office party, where everyone knows how it starts but not how it ends.

Packet 24 contained some speeches related to the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan for Palestine and manuscripts on the missions of McDonald as U.S. ambassador to Israel from 1949 to 1951. The pages were typed, filled with studs and scribbles on the edges that showed how busy (or boring) life can be between calls and diplomatic assemblies. They also had a smell that got impregnated in my fingers and reminded me of my grandparents―as if the past had its own perfume.

The first documents I went through confirmed the thesis that the Vatican intended to exercise all of its influence to have the 1947 partition resolution’s provision on the internationalization of Jerusalem reaffirmed by the United Nations in 1949. Small sections in McDonald’s notes show that prior to the Jerusalem debate at the 1949 autumn General Assembly session, the Catholic press throughout the world launched an anti-Israel campaign asserting, for example that the clergy of Jerusalem had been expelled from the monastery of Ein Karem or even that they were under arrest. Apparently, the campaign lost its momentum shortly afterward, partly because American correspondents investigated these charges and their publications highlighted the Israeli government’s refutation.

When I got to packet number 25, I realized that the documents inserted there were not about James G. McDonald as ambassador, but about McDonald as author. It is full of correspondence between editors, outlines, notes on sources, paper samples and first proofs of the book My Mission to Israel. To my surprise, I found a person with great journalistic aspirations, whose main concern was to make sure his texts would see the light after his resignation from public office.

I wonder who Bobby is, as he (or she) is the only lucky one who received the “many thanks” and “best love” in this set of McDonald’s letters. Like me, Bobby was struck by unresolved events in the manuscripts: One such case was a phone call between McDonald and the Pope who, apparently, was quite annoyed at the fact that the United States had granted recognition to the State of Israel while its relations with the Vatican continued only through a personal representative from the president. The conversation ends with McDonald suggesting a meeting between Pius XII and Israeli President Chaim Weizmann, but there are no clues as to the answer he got.

Going through the archives is like finding Nemo without knowing who Nemo is: You know you are looking for something, but you do not know what until you find yourself reading about a party in Jerusalem given by the widow of George Antonius―one of the first historians of Arab nationalism―and about the costs of dictating services that McDonald incurred (exactly 20 cents per sheet). These papers helped me to know my character: They let me know he spilled coffee drops on the pages, that his favorite ink color was blue and that he resented the incompetence of the maids of his friends.

I wonder if the people who wrote letters like these ever imagined that they would be passed on to posterity, just like my horrid photo at the entrance to the library. The answer, perhaps, is no ―but this is the magic of the archives: We have access to people who made history without knowing that they were doing so. From here, the notion of time changes as you spend whole days reading about a single meeting in 1949 and, like your character, you cannot wait for it to end.  


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