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 delving into Ukrainian history as my research for a new book, set in the country, develops.