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Museum Musings

4.25.17: Discovering the Reinsteins

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Curatorial Assistant Lauren Cooper shares a story she discovered while working on the special exhibition, 1917: How One Year Changed the World, on view March 17 – July 16, 2017 at NMAJH.

Boris Reinstein
By the time he was thirty, Boris Reinstein had become involved in a plot to assassinate Czar Alexander III of Russia, served two years in a French prison for making explosives, and fled several European countries for his Socialist activities.

In 1892, Boris followed his wife Anna to Buffalo, NY, where she had moved two years earlier to become the first female gynecologist in western New York. Boris and Anna became US citizens, raised two children, and took active roles in local commerce and politics. But Boris never forgot his homeland or his ideals, and when revolution broke out in 1917, he left his family in New York and returned to Russia, where he quickly rose to prominence in the new Bolshevik government.

I came across the first reference to Boris Reinstein, by chance, while conducting artifact research for our new special exhibition 1917: How One Year Changed the World. The reference appeared in notes from a meeting of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets in Moscow, and identified him only as “Comrade Reinstein,” a representative of the workmen societies of America. The mention of an unfamiliar American with a Jewish name caught my attention in a document filled with speeches by the well-known Russian leaders Leon Trotsky, Vladimir Lenin, and Joseph Stalin.

Another mention of Comrade Reinstein, in a publication of the Socialist Labor Party of America, led me to Boris and Anna. With some online digging I came across a small library outside of Buffalo that houses the Reinstein family’s documents and artifacts—some of which are included in 1917 and are being exhibited to the public for the first time. From there I sifted through official documents from the Reinstein Family Archive and the National Archives, digitized newspaper clippings, and recorded oral histories to piece together as much of their story as possible.

Sources about Boris’ career in Russia are especially difficult to find, but with each new discovery the Reinsteins’ story becomes more and more exciting. I was surprised to learn about the different, sometimes contradictory, paths taken by each family member. For example, after Boris returned to Russia to build a Communist society, his American-born son Victor, a veteran of World War I, invested in real estate, accumulated a fair amount of wealth, and became involved in philanthropy in upstate New York.
1917 install

This is my favorite thing about NMAJH’s exhibition, 1917; it features stories of individuals, like the Reinsteins, who appear in few history books. Many were ordinary Americans, yet all responded to world events—the Bolshevik Revolution, World War I, and the signing of the Balfour Declaration—in extraordinary ways, leaving lasting impressions on their communities and, sometimes, the world.

I hope that as you explore this exhibition—which demonstrates how the events of 100 years ago impacted Americans then and continue to impact us today—you are inspired by these amazing stories of people just like you and me.

Lauren Cooper
Curatorial Assistant
National Museum of American Jewish History

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