Ten years ago I travelled with my Dad to America for a family visit. It was the first time I had met most of his first cousins – and it turned out to be the last time I saw his sister, my dear aunt Lil, who died a few years later. One of Dad’s relatives, irrepressible and wonderful cousin Betty, is a psychic and clairvoyant. Betty is much on my mind at the moment as wildfires rage around Los Angeles, forcing her to evacuate her home.
“I know you are a writer, but have you ever thought about doing documentaries?” she asked me back in 2008.
“I’d love to make documentaries!” I replied.
“Well, you will.”
And today, ten years on, the first documentary I have been involved in is being broadcast on the BBC's World Service radio station. It’s a ten-minute piece about the lost Jewish world of the Eastern European shtetl, using anecdotes recounted by my grandmother about her early life back in Ukraine – then part of the Russian Empire.
Mostly when I give talks about my work, I focus primarily on the dramatic major events that affected Russia’s Jewish community at the time – pogroms, World War I, the Russian Revolution and civil war. But the documentary concentrates on more mundane aspects of day-to-day life, such as Sabbath rituals in my grandmother’s house, relations with the local Ukrainian population, the Rabbi’s court where members of my family lived and worked, and a crazy and somewhat comical incident that landed my great-great grandmother in jail, to the horror and embarrassment of the whole family.
The documentary is based on snippets of recordings made by my father back in the 1970s of my grandmother telling stories about her early life in Russia. They are recorded in Yiddish, the language of the Jews of Eastern Europe. It is a language once spoken by around 12 million people that transcended national boundaries, but which was almost wiped out by the holocaust. The vast majority of the Jews killed in the Nazi death camps would have spoken Yiddish as their mother tongue.
Today the language is undergoing something of a revival, in the US in particular. Surprisingly there are still up to two million Yiddish speakers in the world. You can sign up to Yiddish evening classes, watch Yiddish theatre performances and attend Yiddish dance parties. In 2017, the Yiddish Arts and Academics Association of North America was born, with a mission to promote Yiddish language and culture through academic and artistic events and through Yiddish food. “The goal,” says founder Jana Mazurkiewicz Meisarosh, “is to make Yiddish culture hip, modern and interesting.”
In the US, “Yiddish has been trapped within two discrete, hermetic spheres: the ultra-Orthodox sphere, which engages the religious aspects of Yiddishkeit, and the academic sphere, which tends to study secular Yiddishkeit of the past. As a result, Yiddish language and culture … is often viewed as a relic of the past, and fails to find resonance in daily life and modern culture,” she says.
It’s a fascinating and worthy goal, to bring back to life a language that came close to extinction. The culture of the shtetl is unlikely to be reborn outside of the most restrictive Jewish communities, but if it can gain further resonance in today’s world, this is surely something to celebrate.
Listen to the documentary here: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3cswsp3
I was in London last week to record a radio documentary for the BBC. The programme, Witness, describes events in history using the voices of people who lived through them. The producer was interested in my grandmother’s stories of the lost Jewish world, as recorded by my father in the 1970s.
At that time, Dad was a social historian working at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, and Grandma was a tiny, frail old lady in her late 70s, living in Los Angeles. Dad had grown up with his mother’s stories of her early life in Russia and, as an adult and an academic, he wanted to probe deeper into the Jewish community in which she had lived.
Over the course of the years that followed, some of the audio tapes Dad recorded became distorted, broken, lost or accidentally re-recorded with pop music (my brother and I were teenagers, we wholeheartedly apologise), but enough remained to ensure that my grandmother’s stories were not lost.
Until about 15 years ago I had never listened to these cassettes. They were recorded in Yiddish, a language I don’t understand, and as a youngster I was never sufficiently interested to ask my father to translate them. I had no idea what a rich and fascinating history they would reveal. Even Dad had not revisited the tapes for years.
When my father reached his 70s, I began to fear that the stories would be lost. It was a labour of love for the two of us to listen to the cassettes one by one and piece together a story. Hour after hour Dad translated while I typed. These transcripts eventually became the basis for my book, A Forgotten Land.
After we had finished translating and transcribing the recordings, Dad put the cassettes away and I did not see them again until I came across them tucked away in a drawer when we cleared Dad’s flat after he died in 2012. I brought them home and put them away in a box with some other items of Dad’s that I kept – some photos, newspaper clippings and the family Kiddush cups. And there they stayed for the next six years.
Before my trip to London, I needed to identify the sections of the recordings that would go out on air. First I had to borrow an old tape recorder, and cross my fingers that it didn’t chew up the audio tape. I spent several days listening to the cassettes, digitising them and trying to work out which story was which, listening out for names and places (Bolsheviki, Kerensky, Kiev, Libau), family members, familiar Russian words and anything in Yiddish that my rudimentary knowledge of German was able to pick up. Thankfully I found some of my early transcripts, which were a great help. But as Dad didn’t number the tapes as he recorded or replayed them, everything was utterly jumbled.
Eventually I managed to pick out the four short segments that the radio producer wanted to use. At the recording studio, I talked around these stories, filling in background and adding details. When I had finished, an actress arrived to record voice-over translations. She began talking with a theatrical flourish and a mild Russian accent. “No, no,” the producer said. “This is a very simple woman, an uneducated woman, recounting events to her family. Tone it down!”
The final result will be broadcast on the BBC World Service in the coming weeks. I wait with bated breath!
I recently came across a surprisingly interesting series of articles about Jewish surnames from the Russian Empire. It turns out that there’s much more to this dry-sounding subject than meets the eye.
In Eastern Europe, Jews acquired their last names between the end of the 18th century and the middle of the 19th, following a series of laws forcing them to adopt hereditary names. Before that, the only Jews with surnames were those belonging to certain rabbinical dynasties. For the rest of us, our ancestors would have been known by their name and patronymic, their father’s name, as in Abraham ben Moses or Nathan ben Israel.
Surnames across the Russian Empire have their roots in several different sources. Those derived from towns or cities in western Germany, such as Auerbach, Epstein, Ginzburg, Halpern, Landau and Schapiro were particularly prestigious, passed down through rabbinical families living in western Germany during the 15th and 16th centuries before they or their descendants migrated eastwards.
The high frequency of the name Epstein, for example, results from its old age; the earliest reference, from Frankfurt, dates from 1392, and the migration of a rabbi bearing this name to Eastern Europe. It is testimony to the prestige of his lineage rather than a large number of migrants from the town of Eppstein.
Unusually, many were derived from women’s first names, such Belkin, Dvorkin, Malkin, and Rivkin – derived from Belka (Beyle), Dvorka (Deborah), Malka, and Rivka – far more than prevailed outside the Russian Empire. This may be partly because it was often Jewish women who were outwardly facing in areas like commerce and the marketplace, while their menfolk studied in Yeshiva or worked from the home as craftsmen. Many women would have been better known to the inhabitants of a locality than their husbands.
Additionally, a tradition already existed in Eastern Europe before the 19th century of giving men ‘nicknames’ based on female first names, for example, the famous Polish rabbis Samuel Eidels (1555-1631) and Joel Sirkes (1561-1640), both ending in the Yiddish possessive suffix -s. Numerous names of the community leaders in Lviv found in Polish documents from the 1740s–1770s belong to the same category: Bonis, Cymeles, Daches, Fayglis, Menkes, Minceles, Mizes, and Nechles. This naming tradition could have had a direct influence on the names adopted at the turn of the 18th-19th centuries in the same area, as well as in southern Ukraine and Bessarabia.
Just how common these matronymic names were once Jews were required by law to adopt surnames varies from place to place. Surnames based on female names were particularly common in the Mogilev province in eastern Belorussia, where they covered 30-40 percent of the Jewish population. Almost all of them were created by using the East Slavic possessive suffix –in. In many other areas the percentage is only in single figures.
The naming process was administered by the Jewish administration, the Kahal, and it is likely that local Kahal authorities were largely responsible for choosing a model for the distribution of surnames, some choosing to follow matronymic lines, others opting for other patterns.
In the Novogrudok district of Minsk province, one third of Jews received names derived from male given names and for another third surnames were drawn from local place names by adding the suffix -sky. In a number of districts of Volhynia and Podolia, artificial surnames with attractive meanings like Goldberg ‘gold mountain’, Rosenthal ‘valley of roses’, and Silberstein ‘silver stone’ covered about one third of all names, while one quarter of names indicated the occupations of their first bearers. In the area southeast to Kiev, two thirds of Jews received names ending in -sky based on local towns.
Less likely to be true, according to Alexander Beider, a linguist and expert on the subject of Jewish names, is the common perception that Jews paid money for the best names – the attractive ones like the above-mentioned Goldstein, Rosenthal or Silberberg. The widespread nature of attractive-sounding names, and the relative scarcity of derogatory ones supposedly assigned to those too poor to pay a bribe, would appear to debunk this myth. In addition, Beider says, the existence of a list of names and their bribe price across a wide area covering different jurisdictions is simply not feasible.
This post is based on a series of articles in The Forward by Alexander Beider, a linguist and the author of reference books about Jewish names and the history of Yiddish.
For more see: https://forward.com/opinion/395078/why-do-so-many-jewish-last-names-come-from-women/d.com/opinion/395078/why-do-so-many-jewish-last-names-come-from-women/
A few years ago, a hoard of songs written by Jewish men, women and children killed in World War II came to light in Kiev. The songs, in Yiddish, are haunting, raw and emotional testimonies by ordinary people experiencing terrible events. They are grassroots accounts of German atrocities against the Jews, with subjects that include the massacres at Babi Yar and elsewhere, wartime experiences of Red Army soldiers, and those of concentration camp victims and survivors.
One song was written by a 10-year old orphan who lost his family in the Tulchin ghetto in Ukraine, another by a teenage prisoner at the Pechora concentration camp in Russia’s far north. The songs convey a range of emotions, from hope and humour to despair, resistance, and revenge.
The project to collect these songs is as remarkable as the music itself. It began when a group of Soviet scholars from the Kiev cabinet for Jewish culture, led by the ethnomusicologist Moisei Beregovsky (1892-1961), made it their mission to preserve Jewish culture in the 1940s. They recorded hundreds of Yiddish songs written by Jews serving in the Red Army during the war; victims and survivors of Ukrainian ghettoes and death camps; and Jews displaced to Central Asia, the Urals and Siberia.
Beregovsky and his colleagues hoped to publish an anthology of the songs. But after the war, the scholars were arrested during Stalin’s anti-Jewish purge and their work confiscated. The story could so easily have ended there; indeed the researchers went to their graves assuming their work had been destroyed.
Miraculously the songs survived and were discovered half a century later. They were discovered in unnamed sealed boxes by librarians at Ukraine’s national library in the 1990s and catalogued. Then in the early 2000s Professor Anna Shternshis of the University of Toronto heard about them on a visit to Kiev and brought them to light. Some were typed, but most handwritten, on paper that was fast deteriorating. Most consisted just of lyrics, although some were accompanied by melodies.
The songs were performed for the first time since the 1940s at a concert in Toronto in January 2016, and are shortly to be released by record label Six Degrees. Artist Psoy Korolenko created or adapted music to fit the lyrics, while producer Dan Rosenberg brought together a group of soloists, including vocalist Sophie Milman and Russia’s best known Roma violinist Sergei Eredenko, to create this miraculous recording.
“Yiddish Glory gives voice to Jewish children, women, refugees whose lives were shattered by the horrific violence of World War II. The songs come to us from people whose perspectives are rarely heard in reconstructing history, none of them professional poets or musicians, but all at the centre of the most important historical event of the 20th century, and making sense of it through music,” Shternshis says.
Yiddish Glory: The lost songs of World War II will be released on 23 February.
For more information see: https://www.sixdegreesrecords.com/yiddishglory/
Earlier this year, a trove of Jewish documents that was smuggled into the Vilna ghetto in present-day Vilnius, Lithuania, during the Nazi occupation came to light. Containing writings by leading figures in Yiddish culture, the collection has been described as the most important Jewish discovery since that of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research was one of several Jewish social, religious and cultural organisations in Vilnius prior to World War II. It was founded in 1925 to study Jewish life in Eastern Europe and its library contained memoirs, books and folklore gathered by scholars and volunteers.
Shortly after the German invasion in June 1941, the Nazis started looking into Jewish material found in the YIVO library. They wanted to preserve material for a museum in Frankfurt, which would explain how the Nazis addressed ‘the Jewish question’ and their reasoning behind the Final Solution.
Several books and documents from the YIVO headquarters had already been destroyed by the Luftwaffe, which was using the building as a barracks. A Reich department charged with collecting and preserving Jewish literature hired a group of 40 Jewish scholars from the ghetto to examine the archive. They were ordered to find the most valuable manuscripts, which would be preserved at the proposed Frankfurt museum. They were only allowed to keep 30% of the material, the remainder would be pulped.
But members of this so-called ‘paper brigade’ smuggled books out under their clothing and hid them either inside the ghetto or amongst gentiles elsewhere in the city and managed to save much of the collection. Some members of the brigade were also involved in armed resistance and used the opportunity to sneak weapons into the ghetto.
After the war, Antanas Ulpis, a Lithuanian librarian, hid much of what remained of the material in the basement of a local church to save it from the Soviet authorities. From 1989-1991, some 250,000 pages were discovered in St George’s church. Some of the documents were moved to Lithuania’s national library, while others ended up in the state archive.
But a separate stash wasn’t uncovered until this year, when all the documents and manuscripts were transferred to the national library. In May, an additional 170,000 pages saved by the paper brigade were made available in the library. These are being examined, catalogued and restored by archivists at the library, in collaboration with YIVO, which now has its headquarters in New York. The find is the most important collection of Jewish archives since the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947, according to David E Fishman of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
“It’s miraculous that the materials were found, dusty and dirty, but in good condition. Symbolically, everything is stained with blood, but their existence is a testimony to martyrdom,” he says.
The documents shed light on Jewish life and culture before the war and include writings by famous Yiddish cultural figures, including letters by the author Sholem Aleichem (creator of Fiddler on the Roof), a post card from artist Marc Chagall and poems written by the poet Avrom Sutzkever inside the ghetto. The archive also contains letters, hundreds of photographs and testimonies from those who witnessed the pogroms in Ukraine in 1919, during the Russian Civil War – a particular interest of mine.
The Nazis killed 90-95% of Lithuania’s Jewish population, including 34 of the 40 members of the paper brigade. Sutzkever was one of the six who survived. Below is part of a poem he wrote from the ghetto to his brother Moshe, who had fled to Palestine before the war. Sutzkever’s newborn son and mother had both been executed in a nearby forest when he wrote this poem.
“And do not search for my songs,
Or for the remnants of my limbs.
But wherever you are, one and only brother,
Taste a handful of desert sand.
And every single grain,
Will send you greetings from down under,
Where an unredeemed wonder
Binds the well-spring of my lieder.”
The Ukrainian city of Kharkiv recently played host to an art exhibition based on a novella by the Yiddish writer Kalman Zingman (1889-1929). Published in 1918, In Edenia, a City of the Future, imagines a utopian vision of Kharkov projected 25 years into the future – to 1943. Edenia is a city where Jews, Ukrainians and other communities live side by side in peace and harmony, free to establish their own laws. Material needs are provided for with no need for money. The city is serviced by ‘airbuses’ and has fountains that keep the temperature at an ambient level year round. Children celebrate Jewish holidays in lush public gardens.
The theme of utopia was a common one among Russian writers and artists of the early 20th century, in a Futurist movement drawn towards the dynamism of modern technology and urbanisation. But it is an unusual topic for Yiddish literature, which more commonly focuses on the past or present.
Photo: Kharkiv, circa 1900.
Zingman’s projection of a utopian vision to the 1940s conflicts terribly with the reality of that time – the Nazi invasion and the murder of an estimated one million Jews in Ukraine. The book was written during Ukraine’s brief flirtation with independence following the Russian Revolution. The Ukrainian People’s Republic of 1917-1921 was the first modern state to have a Ministry for Jewish Affairs, and Yiddish became a state language.
But despite this, the era, and particularly the year 1919 – the year after Zingman’s work was published – was marked by the most devastating pogroms, in which tens of thousands of Jews were slaughtered across Ukraine. Some put the number of deaths as high as 100,000.
And today the Jewish population of the region has been torn apart by the horrific war in eastern Ukraine, with a new diaspora fleeing the region for other parts of the country or abroad, many departing for Israel.
Nearly 100 years on from the publication of Zingman’s novella, an international group of contemporary artists came together to create works of art for a museum in his imaginary city. The exhibition presents the artists’ work as an invitation to view our dreams from various angles. In the story, the protagonist Zalman Kindishman returns to his native city from Palestine and visits the art gallery. “He…looked at the figure sculptures of Kritsenshteyn, Lisitski and Roza Fayngold, then he went to the top level. The door closed behind him, and he looked for a very long time, thought for a long time, and got lost in his ruminations.”
At a time when Ukrainians are divided in their views of their Soviet past, of nationalist ‘heroes’, and of their country’s present and future allegiance with Europe or with Russia, the exhibition’s curators see it as an invitation to examine the country’s multicultural history and its early Soviet dreams or nightmares in the light of today’s political challenges.
With thanks to the Calvert Journal for some of the content of this article www.calvertjournal.com
I was surprised to learn this week that there are still up to two million Yiddish speakers in the world. The language of the Ashkenazi Jews, Yiddish was dealt an almighty blow during the Holocaust, as the communities, both secular and religious, that used the language were destroyed. Around 12 million people are estimated to have spoken Yiddish before World War II. Some five million of this total were killed by the Nazis, accounting for around 85 percent of all Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Assimilation reduced the number of Yiddish speakers further after the war.
The Yiddish language traces its origins back to the ninth century and is based on Germanic vernacular vocabulary combined with elements of Hebrew and Aramaic. It is written in Hebrew script. Jews referred to Yiddish as ‘mame-loshn’, or mother tongue, as opposed to ‘loshn-koydesh’, or holy tongue, meaning Hebrew.
“This language developed as truly a ‘folk’ language and was for many years disparaged as ‘jargon’, with no codified rules of grammar or spelling and little or no written literature. Yet it emerged as a vessel holding the cultural outpourings of the Jews of primarily Poland and the Russian empire, as a manifestation of their national and cultural identity in the latter half of the nineteenth century”.
So wrote Miriam Hartman Flacks in her introduction to Children of a Vanished World, a book that brings together photographs of Jewish children in Eastern Europe taken between 1935 and 1938 by her father, Roman Vishniac, and combines them with a collection of Yiddish nursery rhymes that these children would have sung.
A body of Yiddish literature did emerge in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which includes the work of Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer and of the creator of Fiddler on the Roof, Sholem Aleichem – himself a distant relative of mine.
Yiddish was the ‘mame-loshn’ of my grandmother, Pearl, and all her family, living in Pavolitch, near Kiev, in the early twentieth century. This area of present-day Ukraine was then part of the Russian empire.
“When I was growing up, it was as if the country were split in two: the Pale [the area in which Jews were forced to live], where everything was familiar, people spoke Yiddish and we could travel freely to visit our numerous relatives who were scattered across different towns and villages; and the rest of Russia, which was an unknown world of cities we knew only by name, written in an alphabet that few of us could read, and where we knew nobody.” [from A Forgotten Land]
Even after she had lived in America for 30 years, my grandmother still had not mastered the Latin alphabet, and birthday cards would sometimes take months to arrive because she had written the address incorrectly. The cards themselves were written in what, to me, looked like mysterious squiggles that my Dad had to translate.
One hundred years ago
2017 marked the centenary of the Russian Revolution, an event that heralded the country's 1918-21 Civil War and a period of terrible suffering for my family and others who lived through it. This blog began as an investigation of current events affecting Jews in Ukraine today and comparing them with historical events from a century ago. It is broadening to include personal experiences and my exploration into Ukrainian history as my research for a new book, set in the country, develops.