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Collection in Action: the Irving Greenwald Diary

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Photograph of Irving Greenwald. Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/101358.

I often speak about how Veterans History Project (VHP) collections “bring the past to life,” but this phrase took on new meaning during an event that happened here at the Library a few weeks ago, a performance based on the Irving Greenwald collection, donated to VHP in December 2015.

Greenwald, who served with the 308th Infantry Regiment during World War I, kept a detailed diary that is the centerpiece of the collection. The content of the diary is breathtaking (in that I literally gasped the first time I saw it): Greenwald wrote his entries in the tiniest of handwriting, eloquently relating his experiences in training, in combat, and in the hospital after he was wounded in October 1918. While Greenwald’s original script is nearly illegible, the diary was transcribed by his daughter and sister in the late 1930s, and the presence of this transcript makes his detailed and evocative prose accessible to modern readers.

Contemporary photo of hands holding small handwritten diary.
Photograph of original Greenwald diary. Photograph by Shawn Miller.

The diary is currently on display in the Library’s Thomas Jefferson building as part of the exhibition Echoes of the Great War, which is open through January 2019. In developing a program to commemorate Veterans Day, Naomi Coquillon, Program Specialist for the LC’s Interpretive Programs Office, came up with an idea that drew on her background in museum programming: why not create a performance around a WWI veteran’s narrative from the Veterans History Project? She approached actor Douglas Taurel, who had developed a similar project, The American Soldier, a one-man show based on letters from the American Revolution through current conflicts. Taurel was immediately mesmerized by the Greenwald diary, and got to work creating a script, drawing directly from Greenwald’s words.

The result? On November 11, Taurel portrayed Irving Greenwald in “An American Soldier’s Journey Home: The Story of Irving Greenwald” on stage in the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium, not far from the World War I exhibition and the diary on display. Taurel’s one-man show wove together archival images, music, and diary excerpts to narrate Greenwald’s entrance into the service and his experiences in France. Clad in period uniform and using a minimum of props, Taurel vividly conveyed the intensity and terror of trench warfare, the jubilation of the troops following the Armistice, and Greenwald’s love for his family, particularly his wife, Leah.

Man in uniform on stage sits on a chair.
Actor Douglas Taurel portrays Irving Greenwald, November 11, 2017. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Present in the audience were Irving Greenwald’s daughter, Selma Ullman, and a number of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It was Selma Ullman who suggested to her family that Greenwald’s diary be donated to the Veterans History Project, and we were thrilled that she and her family could join us for the performance and to view the diary in the exhibition—in other words, to see the result of their donation.

Man in uniform poses with woman in the audience.
Douglas Taurel and Irving Greenwald’s daughter, Selma Ullman, November 11, 2017. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Taurel’s performance was a moving demonstration of what can happen when families choose to give materials to VHP. We understand that parting with original documents can be a difficult decision for potential donors. Oftentimes, diaries, letters, and photographs are treasured family heirlooms, providing a tangible connection between veterans who have passed away and their descendants. But the act of sharing a veteran’s story with the Veterans History Project can create waves of impact. Far from sitting unnoticed on a dusty shelf, once they are donated to the Library of Congress, collections are utilized in intriguing and compelling ways—from museum exhibits and newspaper articles to PhD dissertations and performances. “An American Soldier’s Journey Home” is just one such example of a VHP collection in action.

“An American Soldier’s Journey Home” was recorded and will be made available on the Library’s website in the coming months. If you are planning to visit the Library of Congress, we encourage you to visit Echoes of the Great War to see Irving Greenwald’s diary in person.


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