Guide to the Papers of Harold Debrest (1883-1982), undated, 1901-1982

Processed by Jason Schechter

American Jewish Historical Society

Center for Jewish History

15 West 16th Street

New York, N.Y. 10011

Phone: (212) 294-6160



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Finding aid was encoded by Deena Schwimmer on August 08, 2005. Description is in English.

Descriptive Summary

Creator: Debrest, Harold
Title: Papers of Harold Debrest
Dates:undated, 1901-1982
Abstract: Harold Debrest (formerly Harold Willinsky) was born in Brest-Litovsk, Russia on November 25, 1883, and immigrated with his father and sister to the United States in 1892, settling in New York City. Debrest attended the Jewish Theological Seminary, and was embarking upon a rabbinic career when he became disenchanted with the rabbinate. He then developed an interest in journalism, becoming a successful writer and editor of various newspapers, including the Modern Review (St. Louis), the Hebrew Standard, the Jewish Tribune, and the New York Post (New York). Debrest also distributed his own news bulletin, Debrest's Special News Service during the 1930s, and is best remembered for his Tribune feature, "Remark-Ables", a weekly column that focused on noteworthy people or events. Debrest was also involved in Jewish organizational life, and was a published poet, remaining active until his death in 1982 at the age of 98.
Languages: The collection is in English.
Quantity: 0.5 linear feet
Identification: P-163
Repository: American Jewish Historical Society
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Biographical Note

From a very young age, Harold Debrest promised his grandfather he would be ordained as a rabbi. He was a member of a rabbinical family. His grandfather was a highly respected Talmudic scholar and his great-great grandfather was the well-known 17th century Rabbi Lipman Heller. However, at the age of 17, after much success at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Debrest failed to be ordained and instead began writing for newspapers - a passion that would influence his life for the next eighty years.

Harold Debrest (formerly Harold Willinsky) was born in Brest-Litovsk, Russia on November 25, 1883 to Joseph and Malka (Terayansky) Willinsky. As a young boy, he was very close to his grandfather who was a lasting inspiration to him to join the rabbinate. In 1892, the nine-year old Harold with his father and sister immigrated to the United States, settling in New York City. He entered the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) at 13 and flourished there. He was so successful that he was ready to be ordained at 17, but due to Jewish custom, a yearlong delay was imposed before his ordination.

It was during this interval that Debrest began to become disenchanted with the rabbinate. In his own words, he saw Judaism and all religions as ritual, "which is merely the shell of religion." Debrest made it his life's work to study all religions.

After leaving JTS, Debrest transferred to Hebrew Union College and after graduation began working at various jobs involving the Jewish community. He was the President of the Jewish Institute of St. Louis in 1903, became the Director of Social Work for the Educational Alliance of New York in 1905, was a founder of the International Jewish Congress in 1907, was an organizer and the first president of the Jewish Big Brother Association in 1908, and in 1910 he became the registrar of the Jewish School of Philosophy of New York.

However, throughout this period of Debrest's life, his interest in journalism grew. A lover of philosophy and literature, Debrest began writing for the Modern Review in St. Louis. Upon returning to New York in 1905, he began writing for the Hebrew Standard. Soon, his journalistic fever reached a pitch. In 1927, Debrest became a feature editor of the Jewish Tribune and in 1932 he became a feature editor of the Jewish Forum. During this time, Debrest also became a member of staff on the New York Post, and distributed his own news bulletin - Debrest's Special News Service. Circulated by subscription only, the weekly news report extensively covered the increasing hardships of Europe's Jews in the 1930s and the ominous rise of the fascist states.

It was while writing for the Tribune that Debrest wrote his weekly column "Remark-Ables" where he wrote about people and events that appeared out of the ordinary. He wrote under the pseudonym - Harold Debrest - taken literally "Harold from Brest" referencing his birthplace Brest-Litovsk. It is for his stories in "Remark-Ables" that Debrest is most remembered.

Debrest was also a published poet, his most famous poem being The White and Blue dedicated to President Harry Truman. Set to music The White and Blue was meant to be an addendum to the Israeli national anthem Hatikvah - an anthem for English speaking Jews. Debrest felt that Truman was essential in the international recognition of the State of Israel.

Debrest wrote for years on Jewish and secular issues. Even until his last years, he continued to write poetry while collating his volumes of work for publication. He died on November 4, 1982 at the age of 98.

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Scope and Contents

The Papers of Harold Debrest reflect the years of Harold Debrest's writing as a journalist, essayist, and poet. Though the collection does not preserve the entire gamut of Debrest's writing, it does serve as a measure of his range of writing styles and capacity in both prose and poetry over time.

The collection is valuable to researchers studying not only the life of Debrest, but also the American Jewish perspective of events in Europe in the late 30s with 1938-1939 issues of Debrest's weekly news bulletin. The collection also includes speeches given by Debrest, Remark-Ables Revisited - a publication of his weekly column, and copies of his poetry.

The collection contains personal correspondence, newspaper clippings, photographs, a scrapbook, two audiotapes, writings and speeches by Debrest, and copies of his news bulletin. The entire collection is in English.

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The collection consists of a single series arranged by topic.

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Access and Use

Access Restrictions

The collection is open to all researchers by permission of the Director of Collections and Engagement of the American Jewish Historical Society, except items that are restricted due to their fragility.

This collection contains audiovisual or electronic media that requires special equipment to access. Please notify reference staff at 24 hours in advance of needing access.

Use Restrictions

Information concerning the literary rights may be obtained from the Executive Director of the American Jewish Historical Society. Users must apply in writing for permission to quote, reproduce or otherwise publish manuscript materials found in this collection. For more information contact:
American Jewish Historical Society, Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street, New York, NY, 10011

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Preferred Citation

Published citations should take the following form:
Identification of item, date (if known); Papers of Harold Debrest; P-163; box number; folder number; American Jewish Historical Society, New York, NY.

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Acquisition Information

The Papers of Harold Debrest were donated by Harold Debrest in 1976, and additional papers were donated by Ida Cohen Selavan in 1980.

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Access Points

This collection is indexed under the following controlled access subject terms.

Click on a subject to search that term in the Center's catalog. Return to the Top of Page

Container List

Click the box in the request column to open the form that allows you to request a box for onsite viewing in the reading room at the Center for Jewish History, New York, NY.


Papers of Harold Debrest, undated, 1901-1982

The collection is in English
0.5 linear feet

The folders are arranged by topic.

Scope and Content:

See the collection Scope and Content note.

11Writings and Speechesundated, 1906, 1930-1931, 1956, 1962request_box
12Correspondence: A-Zundated, 1905-1906, 1931, 1948, 1961-1964, 1968, 1976, 1980request_box
13Biographical Article1976request_box
14Publications - Debrest's Special News Service1938-1939request_box
15Publications - Poemsed. 1976request_box
16Photographsundated, 1942, 1954request_box
17Publications - Remark-Ables (scrapbook)1936-37request_box
18Publications - Remark-Ables Revisitedundatedrequest_box
19Audio Tapes1979request_box
110Memorabiliaundated, 1901-1902, 1924, 1928, 1935, 1950, 1956, 1968, 1973-1974, 1982request_box
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