I marvel at the resilience of the Jewish people. Their best characteristic is their desire to remember. No other people has such an obsession with memory.
— Elie Wiesel
The focus of the Jewish people has never wavered far from the faithful adherence it has had to its Holy Writ, studied and commented on over a period of nearly three millennia. Yet this very focus sometimes belies the complementary richness that is there to be derived from the extensive history that has accreted to its people over the course of its seemingly endless wanderings through the diaspora. It is perhaps less evident how much the character of our people has been shaped by these several environments, where Jews have lived for centuries — and sometimes nearly a millennium — in their search for a home where they could lead a life free of persecution, and pursue their means without the threat of murderous assault.
Those of us Jewish people fortunate enough to have a life either in the newly re-established homeland of the State of Israel, or in other countries where individual freedoms are protected by the rule of law, as they are in the United States of America, run the risk of losing touch with the often troubled skein of our past travails as we searched for our own place in the sun.
One such trajectory is that of Ashkenazic Jewry in Eastern Europe. We need not dwell on the troubled nature of that experience, but many of us owe it to ourselves and our posterity not to lose sight of that experience for two reasons:
1. The Jewish experience in Eastern Europe extended over a period of nearly 1,000 years.
2. The majority of world Jewry is of Ashkenazic origin, especially in the United States. This remained true despite the cataclysm of the Holocaust.
If we are then to address the perennial question of “Who am I?” and “Where did I come from?” it is important to tap into sources that portray Jewish life in those times, so that — at the very least — we come away with a flavor, if not a deeper understanding, of what life was like for the forbears of many of us.
Histories and fiction are limited in this regard. The historian, of necessity, creates a high-level perspective that gives context to the Jewish experience in the setting of a greater world. Fiction, by its nature, reflects the world through the prism that a particular writer chooses to use. Of greater value and utility are the memoirs of people who actually lived in the times they choose to write about. A memoir gives you the opportunity to enter the mind’s eye of a person recounting the world as he or she lived it.
There is little that can substitute for that sort of a first-hand account.
The horrors of the Holocaust catalyzed the appearance of such memoirs in an unprecedented fashion. In the aftermath of the devastation visited upon the Eastern European Jewish community, during the Second World War, survivors and those who left the old country in earlier years saw a need to document their memories of their origins, in order to leave a record that could serve as a permanent testament to communities that had been eradicated.
They felt this was an imperative, because in most cases there was no trace left of the more than 6,500 Jewish communities that were wiped off the face of the earth.
In the ensuing quarter century, nearly 1,300 books were written and published that came to be known as yizkor books, or Holocaust memorial books. Most of these books relate the history of the destroyed Jewish community, often reaching back to the early medieval history to tell how it came into being. The books tell stories about prominent and ordinary people; they include anecdotes about daily life and relationships, political and economic matters, and the diverse ways in which Judaism was lived and practiced.
Most books also contain eyewitness accounts of the devastation wrought by the Nazis during their occupation, and the implementation of their Final Solution. There usually also will be a necrology, which lists the people murdered during the Holocaust, to the best of the memory of those participating in the preparation of the book.
Of this archive of nearly 1,300 books, approximately one third are written almost exclusively in Yiddish. The Yiddish portion of this archive, represented by the collection of Holocaust Memorial Books, becomes increasingly inaccessible as generations begin to pass from the scene, and Yiddish enters a period of senescence.
At best, we can expect this portion of the archive to remain accessible to a diminished cadre of scholar/specialists, who will make knowledge of Yiddish part of their life’s work. The vast majority of the Jewish population, including Israelis, will become orphaned from their own history, cut off from the rich tapestry of folklore, which will lie entombed behind a linguistic communications barrier.
Such an outcome would seriously impoverish the historical record for future generations of Jewish progeny and other interested parties, who will come to seek some meaningful connection to this dimension of the past.
I grew aware of this challenge well over a quarter century ago. That was a time when scant institutional attention was given to this as a problem. Being gifted with fluency in both Yiddish and Hebrew, I saw a mission for myself to attempt to bring as much of this archive across the language barrier by translating it into English, thereby lifting a seemingly impenetrable veil that hung between the curious reader and the writings of those who lived in that world that no longer exists.
In the nearly thirty years that have elapsed, I have translated and published end-to-end translations of thirteen such yizkor books. I have also been gratified to see an awakening, among Jewish institutions, which have taken an interest in nurturing efforts to get such translations done.
The substantial commitment of money and time that this entails demands justification. It is as much an obligation to Jewish posterity as it is to the memory of a Jewish past that was so cruelly eradicated for no reason. In this sense, it parallels the sentiments of the Shoah Foundation, set up by Steven Spielberg, whose mission is focused on taping the recollections of living Holocaust survivors, and integrating the results into Jewish educational processes.
By doing so, it strengthens the capacity of all civilization to never forget the unfortunate human capacity to descend into an abyss of barbarism.
Dr. Jacob Solomon Berger of Mahwah grew up speaking Yiddish, holds a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, and worked in information technology. His lifelong interest in genealogy led him translate yizkor books; he has completed thirteen so far.