- In Memoriam:Saul Viener, 1921-2006
On February 21, 1954, a distinguished group of scholars and laypeople gathered at Dropsie College in downtown Philadelphia for the fifty-second annual meeting of the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS). As luminaries such as Salo W. Baron and Jacob Rader Marcus sat listening, a young speaker named Saul Viener delivered a paper on "The Political Career of Isidor Straus," distilled from a Master's thesis he completed seven years earlier at the University of West Virginia.1 Few of the people in the room could have imagined the important role that relatively unknown speaker would come to play over the next half century in their organization and in the study and preservation of the American Jewish past. By the time of Saul Viener's death in Atlanta on July 25, 2006, he had not only become one of the major figures in the history of the AJHS, but was also considered the founding father of its daughter organization, the Southern Jewish Historical Society.
Saul Viener was born on March 2, 1921, in Charles Town, West Virginia, where his Lithuanian immigrant parents were engaged in the scrap metal business. His hometown, where George Washington's brother had lived and where abolitionist John Brown had been tried for treason, provided a setting that encouraged Viener's early fascination with American history. At the same time, the rigors of maintaining Jewish customs and social ties in a small community like Charles Town impressed upon him the importance of preserving his Jewish heritage.2
Viener received his B.A. from Shepherd State College in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, where he majored in education. From 1942 to 1945, he served the U.S. Navy as a staff communications officer in Brisbane, Australia, where he married Jaqueline Wolman, the daughter of the local rabbi. After returning with his wife to the United States and finishing his military service in Florida, Viener continued his education, entering a graduate program in American history at the University of West Virginia. His faculty adviser, political historian Festus P. Summers, encouraged him to work on a Jewish topic, suggesting that he write his thesis about Isidor Straus, the U.S. Congressman and Macy's department [End Page 85] store co-owner who later died in the Titanic disaster. Summers helped him gain access to the Straus family papers, which at that time were kept in a private archive in New York City. Viener completed the thesis and graduated with an M.A. degree in 1947.3
After completing his education, Viener joined the Richmond, Virginia, branch of his family's business, Hyman Viener and Sons, which had grown into a major manufacturer of metal alloys. Meanwhile, he became extremely active as a Jewish communal leader in his adopted city, eventually serving as president of the Jewish Community Council, the Jewish Community Center, and Congregation Beth Ahabah. His greatest passion, however, remained historical research and teaching. Intrigued by the history of Richmond's Jewish community, which dated from the eighteenth century, he began to acquaint himself with members of old Jewish families who shared with him stories and treasures from their attics. Based on what he learned, Viener wrote a commemorative history of Congregation Beth Ahabah and also published two articles on figures from Richmond's Jewish history in the journal of the AJHS.4 From his earliest years in Richmond, Viener taught American Jewish history in the Beth Ahabah religious school, and later served as an instructor of U.S. history in the extension school of the University of Virginia at Fort Lee. He also chaired the Richmond celebration of the American Jewish Tercentenary, which included an exhibition of original documents and artifacts relating to local Jewish history, an historical pageant, and a series of lectures by distinguished guest speakers.
The excitement generated by the Tercentenary celebration led Viener to wonder if it might be possible to create a lasting framework for the exploration of Jewish history in Richmond and in the South more broadly. The idea percolated until 1958, when he and his wife hosted a program sponsored by Richmond's Jewish Welfare Board in honor of American Jewish History...