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Papers of Harold Debrest

Identifier: P-163

Scope and Contents

The Papers of Harold Debrest reflect the years of Harold Debrest's career as a journalist, essayist, and poet. Though the collection does not preserve the entirety of his written work, 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 perspectives of events in Europe in the late 30s.

This collection also 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.


  • undated, 1901-1982


Language of Materials

The collection is in English.

Access Restrictions

The collection is open to all researchers, except items that may be restricted due to their fragility, or privacy.

Use Restrictions

No permission is required to quote, reproduce or otherwise publish manuscript materials found in this collection, as long as the usage is scholarly, educational, and non-commercial. For inquiries about other usage, please contact the Director of Collections and Engagement at

For reference questions, please email:

Biographical Note

When he was very young, Harold Debrest promised his grandfather he would be ordained as a rabbi. Born into 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 which would dominate the remainder of his professional life.

Born in Brest-Litovsk, Russia on November 25, 1883 to Joseph and Malka (Terayansky) Willinsky, Harold was very close to his grandfather. In 1892, the nine-year old Harold immigrated to the United States with his father and sister. They settled in New York City. There, he entered the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) at the age of 13, and flourished. He was so successful that he was ready to be ordained at 17, but due to Jewish custom, a year-long 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 instead to study all religions.

After leaving JTS, Debrest transferred to Hebrew Union College. He took various jobs in the Jewish community after graduating, including that of President of the Jewish Institute of St. Louis in 1903, Director of Social Work for the Educational Alliance of New York in 1905, founder of the International Jewish Congress in 1907, organizer and first president of the Jewish Big Brother Association in 1908, and registrar of the Jewish School of Philosophy of New York in 1910.

It was in this period of Debrest's life that his interest in journalism grew. He began writing for the Modern Review in St. Louis. Upon returning to New York in 1905, he began writing for the Hebrew Standard. In 1927, Debrest became a feature editor of the Jewish Tribune, and in 1932. held the same position at 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 rise of fascism.

It was while writing for the Tribune that Debrest began his weekly column "Remark-Ables," in which 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.


0.5 Linear Feet


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. He settled in New York City, and attended the Jewish Theological Seminary. He was working towards a rabbinical 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.


The collection consists of a single series arranged by topic.

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.

Guide to the Papers of Harold Debrest (1883-1982), undated, 1901-1982   P-163
Processed by Jason Schechter
© 2005
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Description is in English.

Revision Statements

  • April, September 2020: EHyman: post-ASpace migration cleanup.

Repository Details

Part of the American Jewish Historical Society Repository

15 West 16th Street
New York NY 10011 United States