I have written before about the revival of the Yiddish language, in particular in the US where a hit Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof is currently running in New York.
But many will be surprised to learn that Yiddish lives on in parts of Eastern Europe too, in a few isolated communities that survived the Holocaust and its destruction of a once vibrant Jewish culture.
A group of linguists and historians from Indiana University spent seven years from 2002-2009 interviewing nearly 400 elderly Yiddish speakers across rural Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia and documented their journeys in photographs and video. They named their project AHEYM meaning “homeward” in Yiddish, and doubling up as an acronym for “Archives of Historical and Ethnographic Yiddish Memories.” In subsequent years AHEYM expanded its work into Latvia and Poland.
The project is led by linguist Dov-Ber Kerler and historian Jeffrey Veidlinger and explores Jewish life in Eastern Europe before, during and after World War II. The interviews cover a range of topics, including family and religious life, community structure, cultural activities and recreation, education, health, food and folklore, as well, of course, as harrowing tales of Holocaust survival and life under the Communist regime. They include musical performances, anecdotes, jokes and folk remedies. Some present guided tours of local sites of Jewish memory.
These testimonies bring to life the story of those Jews who stayed behind. The interviewees were mostly born between 1900 and 1930 – they would have grown up in the shtetls of Eastern Europe and not only survived the Holocaust, but rebuilt their lives in the very places where some of the most horrific events of the 20th century occurred.
The majority of Jews who survived the war in Eastern Europe soon abandoned the shtetl and the Yiddish language, following the call of the metropolis or a life abroad, where they lost many of the local customs and practices that had defined Jewish identity in the shtetl.
But a small number of Jews came back to these small communities after the war. Some returned after evacuation – often to a different town from the one they had left, others came out of hiding. Some literally crawled out of mass graves to reclaim their lives.
The AHEYM team has catalogued, annotated, and translated into English nearly 800 hours of videotaped interviews in Yiddish with such survivors. The recordings are preserved at Indiana University’s Archives of Traditional Music and form part of the EVIA Digital Archive Project.
Most of the video clips lack English subtitles, but even as a non-Yiddish speaker I found them addictive. I can’t understand much of the content, but I recognise the accents and the cadence of the language. They recall the recordings I have of my own grandmother telling stories similar to many of those in the AHEYM archive. Some of the videos are funny, some are strange and of course, some are chillingly harrowing.
“When they called us here for work, how could we have imagined that they would murder us?” remembers an old man near Berdichev. “My mother asked me to watch the bread while she went to work. That’s what saved my life and that’s why I bake bread every day, in honour of my mother who kept me alive with her request.”
Visit the AHEYM website for more information: http://www.iu.edu/~aheym/index.php
A selection of the videos is available on the AHEYM Facebook page
And a full list of the recordings can be found here http://eviada.webhost.iu.edu/atm-subcollections.cfm?sID=69&pID=162
I have written before about the revival of the Yiddish language and was interested to read about a Yiddish version of Fiddler on the Roof that has taken New York by storm.
A Fidler afn Dakh, as it is called, opened last year at the Museum of Jewish Heritage before moving to a large, commercial theatre, Stage 42, in February. The Yiddish production comes more than half a century after the musical first opened on Broadway in 1964. It would become the longest-running musical in Broadway history, as well as a blockbuster film.
It is the authenticity of the latest production that has wowed critics and audiences and makes the show so moving. Yiddish is, of course, the language that the fictional dairyman Tevye and his neighbours would have spoken. Fiddler is based on a series of short stories by Sholem Aleichem set in Anatevka, a fictional shtetl near Kiev in present day Ukraine.
My family, too, came from a shtetl near Kiev and in fact my great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother once met the famous Yiddish writer during a holiday at a country dacha. In the course of this meeting, they discovered that they were related. The family name on both sides was Rabinovitch, although I have never actually managed to put my finger on the branch of our family tree that links me to Sholem Aleichem.
Yiddish was once spoken by around 12 million people and transcended national boundaries. But the language was almost wiped out by the holocaust. Almost...but not quite. Jewish immigrants to America brought Yiddish with them and plays in Yiddish were common in New York in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There was even a Yiddish theatre district in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. But you might think that the potential audience for a Yiddish production of Fiddler today would be pretty limited.
The show’s director, Joel Grey, told the Financial Times, “I thought it was kind of crazy, that six people would understand it”. Only six out of a cast of 29 spoke any Yiddish at the outset, three of them being native speakers.
However, anyone already familiar with other stage or screen versions will be able to understand much of the production even without knowing Yiddish, and it has English and Russian surtitles to help the uninitiated.
But for those who grew up surrounded by Yiddish, the production is likely to strike a particularly deep emotional chord. “For me, it’s not just the fusillade of familiar words and phrases: meshuga, geklempt, zay gezunt. It is the sound of my own grandparents and all that they lost in leaving their Anatevkas,” wrote Jesse Green in The New York Times.
Yiddish was the language of the mundane, the every-day. It was the ‘mame-loshn’, or mother tongue, as opposed to ‘loshn-koydesh’, or holy tongue, meaning Hebrew. Grey calls it “the language of the outcast”. Much of the Jewish intelligentsia quickly abandoned the language on arrival in the West in order to assimilate. Yiddish represented the poverty and persecution of the world they had left behind.
Also helping the authenticity of the piece is its simplicity. The big Broadway show style is stripped away in favour of a greater emphasis on the simple human choices and everyday trials and emotions of the struggle to preserve Jewish traditions in an era of ever greater assimilation and persecution. The production “though not without its comic moments, is suffused with a hauntingly melancholic aura that seems to foretell the annihilation of the world depicted on stage,” writes Max McGuinness in the FT.
For more information, the production’s website can be found at http://fiddlernyc.com/#home.
The Financial Times article about it is available here https://www.ft.com/content/f38136ee-cef6-11e9-b018-ca4456540ea6
And The New York Times review here https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/17/theater/review-yiddish-fiddler-on-the-roof.html
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.