Bringing a forgotten book about a murdered community to life

Bringing a forgotten book about a murdered community to life

Mahwah man contributed a translation

Jacob Solomon Berger of Mahwah – aka Jack S. Berger – was one of the translators of Rafael Rajzner’s book now available as “The Stories Our Parents Found Too Painful to Tell.”

Calling Dr. Henry Lew, the driving force behind the translation, “clearly a kindred spirit,” he has translated a number of what have come to be known as Yizkor books – Holocaust memorial books. Yiddish was his first spoken language, and he is fluent as well in Hebrew and English.

“My principal interest, going back almost 30 years,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Jewish Standard, “was to document what we knew of our family genealogy. As luck would have it, a Yizkor book of the shtetl of my maternal ancestors (Zelva in Belarus) appeared in 1984 (rather late in the scheme of things, actually), and after reading it, I felt moved to translate it from Hebrew into English, for my children and others of our American posterity, with limited or no facility in Hebrew.

Jacob (Jack) Berger feels that translating Yizkor books is “an obligation to Jewish posterity.” Courtesy Jacob Berger

“Because of this endeavor,” he continued, “a landsman subsequently encouraged me to read a second such book (the shtetl of Dereczin, not far from Zelva). The Dereczin Yizkor book was written in Yiddish, and … I was so taken by the resonance of its idiom (it sounded like ‘my people’), that I was moved to translate it as well. In the course of doing this, I had an ‘epiphany’ of sorts, and decided to address the larger issue of what to do about a 1,273-volume archive of Holocaust memorial books, of which 432 volumes were written in Yiddish, a language,” he noted, “gone moribund as a result of the tragedy of the Holocaust.”

Realizing that translating all those books was not a one-man job, he wrote what he called a “White Paper” – borrowing the title given to government reports on policy – on the importance of translating such material.

He presented the “paper” as guest speaker at a 2003 symposium at Oxford University called “Yiddish 60 Years After the Holocaust,” and has repeated the presentation to various groups. (His Oxford talk was called “The Imperative for Translation of a History Entombed Behind a Language Barrier.”)

“Its essence,” he told the Standard, “has been published in the weekly ‘Mendele’ newsletter that is distributed online to those with an interest in the Yiddish language.”

In the White Paper he wrote that “[m]ost of these [Yizkor] books relate the history of the destroyed Jewish community (being documented), often reaching back to the early medieval history of how the town, in which the community resided, came into being.

“They tell stories about prominent and ordinary people, anecdotes about daily life and relationships, political and economic matters, and of the diverse ways in which Judaism was lived and practiced as a way of life.

“Most books also contain eye-witness accounts of the devastation wrought by the Nazis during their occupation, and the implementation of their Final Solution. There will usually also 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.”

Unless his services are specifically contracted for, he told the Standard, he provides them pro bono. “I solicit a group of ‘supporters,'” he explained, “to help defray printing and distribution costs.” At present, he is working on a translation about the city of Baranovich, which is in Belarus today but moved between Poland and Russia during the turbulent times that affected Eastern Europe. He’s also under contract to translate the Zambrow (Poland) Yizkor book.

Translating these books, he wrote in his White Paper, “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….

“It strengthens the capacity of all civilization to never forget the unfortunate human capacity to descend into an abyss of barbarism.”

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