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Unsung Historians

The grand legacy of Yizkor books

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cover of a Yizkor book

A Yizkor book titled One Thousand Years of Pinsk
CREDIT: Image courtesy of the Dorot Jewish Division of The New York Public Library.

This year saw the publication of a vital work: the English translation of Mordechai Nadav’s 1973 classic of Jewish communal history, The Jews of Pinsk: 1506 to 1880. Nadav’s book—a scholarly companion to Pinsk’s massive 1966 Yizkor book—opens a wide window onto a remarkable place, a centuries-old citadel of rabbinical learning, Hasidic piety, Hebrew and Yiddish literature, theater, journalism, grand cantorial music, Zionism, and Jewish Socialism. It is a reminder that Pinsk deserves to be known as much more than the shopworn punch line for “Minsk and Pinsk” gags.

Of even greater significance, however, is the literary phenomenon to which the genesis of Nadav’s book (originally written in Hebrew) should now call its English readers’ attention: that vast, rich, and heartbreaking library—consisting of some 750 volumes, many easily exceeding 500 pages, studded with thousands of unique memoirs and rare photographs—known as Yizker-bikher, or memorial books. Some mistakenly believe Yizkor books to be only those little pamphlets distributed just before Yizkor services on Yom Kippur, containing a few memorial prayers in English transliteration along with a list of the deceased relatives of dues-paying congregation members. While almost all of the Yizker-bikher do indeed conclude with the above elements—the Yizkor and El Maleh Rachamim prayers, followed by necrologies listing the names of the townsfolk who perished during the Holocaust—these usually account for about a dozen of the many hundreds of pages of history, personal memoir, biographical sketches, maps, and photographs in these books, each of which constitutes a magnificent literary monument to a lost world. In fact, the very quality that has led some historians to look down on the Yizkor books—their non-scholarly authorship—is what gives them their power as historical tools. The unprofessional editing and frequently uneven arrangement, I would argue, is precisely what provides readers with a sense of the confusion and exhilaration that characterized the chaotic cauldron that was Jewish life in

Which makes the inaccessibility that has marked them all the more heartbreaking. In many of the Yizkor-book introductions, there are accounts of stormy debates among editors over which of the Jewish languages, Yiddish or Hebrew, to use for the texts. In scores of them, a decision was made to produce bilingual books, divided into two sections: Hebrew, for the survivors in Israel and their Israeli children, and Yiddish for the Americans and their children. But in the large majority the language oscillates between the two, and in no apparent order. And so, for American Jews—the large majority of whom have neither of the Jewish languages of the Yizker-bikher—they have been consigned to oblivion.

* * *

Jews have been writing memorial books for destroyed cities since Jeremiah is said to have composed the biblical book of Lamentations after witnessing the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. In the Middle Ages, many European communities maintained memor-bucher, books that memorialized deceased rabbis and leaders and briefly chronicled the region’s history. After every series of major Ukrainian pogroms—from the Chmielnitski massacres of 1648 and 1649 to the Petlura massacres of 1919—pamphlets describing the atrocities and necrologies were produced by survivors. But none of this literature even begins to approach the library of post-Holocaust Yizkor-bikher in its vastness and richness. It is a tragic irony that the Jewish civilization most devastated in the entire course of history is, thanks to these books, also the most assiduously documented.

The story of the latest Pinsk scholarship begins with the editor of its English translation, Mark Mirsky, the Boston-born son of a proud Pinsker father who regaled his child with tales of the old country. In his preface, Mirksy describes the impact of discovering Pinsk’s multiple Yizkor volumes: “In these books I found a lost family that was mine, its joys, its sadness, its memories.” When Mirsky shared his “discovery” of these books with Harvard University’s campus rabbi, Ben Zion Gold, his friend and mentor, Gold told him: “You have a duty to perform. You must bring these books into English. They show what was lost in the Holocaust. Not one generation of Jews, but a whole world, four and a half centuries of Jewish culture, torn out of the heart of Europe.” Mirsky set out to produce English versions of the three books considered part of the Pinsk Yizkor-book compendium.

As it turns out, the same emotional motivation that led Mirsky to commission the translation of Nadav’s work (masterfully executed by Bar Ilan University historian Moshe Rosman) was what originally inspired thousands of survivors from hundreds of predominantly Jewish cities, towns, and villages from across Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, and Rumania to form editorial committees, raise nickels and dimes from fellow survivors around the world to produce what would become the richest trove of information about any era of Jewish history in existence. Each of these memorial books was the fruit of an uncommon and conflicted love for the destroyed shtetls, mostly published in the immediate decades after World War I by motley groups of amateur editors—almost none of whom were professional historians, and many of whose high-school educations were in fact interrupted by the Nazis.

As the introductions to many of the Yizker-bikher relate, a call was sent out by these committees—most of which were based either in New York or Tel Aviv—to their exiled landslayt, the few surviving remnants of their towns who ended up scattered from Montreal to Montevideo, Atlanta to Auckland, to write and send in their memories of any aspect of their pre-war shtetl experiences: biographical sketches of parents, siblings, and teachers; kheder-yard brawls; conversions from Hasidism to Communism; singing in the town’s synagogue choir, acting on its Yiddish or Hebrew stage, playing for its Maccabee football team, attending Zionist summer camps; vignettes about the town’s saints and scholars, her matrons and madmen.

Most Yizkor books contain the same set of elements: a town map, almost always hand-drawn from survivors’ memories; a general overview of the town’s history, in many cases written by an Israeli or American Jewish historian commissioned by the editors; descriptions of the town’s Jewish educational, social, cultural, and charitable institutions; a hodgepodge of memoirs; and harrowing descriptions of the destruction of Jewish life and lives by both the Nazis and the Soviet Communists. Most also include hundreds of rare photographs illustrating all of these themes.

Despite this unofficial general format, no two Yizker-bikher are really quite the same. The preface to the Horodenka book, for example, a 450-page monument to a community of some 3,000 souls, tells a tale not only of the spirit behind these books’ origins, but also reveals much about the character of their content. The call for contributions beseeched their recipients not to desist from writing their memoirs:

Do not hesitate to send us your memoirs and writings. Even if you never finished school, and even if you have never before in your life written a single line. For this book, a gravestone for the perished souls of our loved ones, must be crafted by Horodenker hands, and animated by Horodenker hearts and tears. Only thus will it become a natural, authentic, and characteristic expression of Horodenka.

They were right.

* * *

Pinsk was one of the more distinguished among the hundreds of minor urban microcosms of Yiddishkeit, a place whose collective experience encompasses virtually every aspect of the more than half-millennium-old grand, and entirely vanished, Jewish civilization of East European Jews. Pinsk, together with its twin-town, Karlin, and surrounding shtetls—despite having a population not much larger than that of Wasilla, Alaska (to take an example), and having long suffered the image of a primitive backwater in the shadow of the Belorussian capital, Minsk—was a hotbed of Jewish culture. It was also the birthplace of many Jewish religious and political luminaries: from the patriarch of Lithuanian Hasidism, Rebbe Aharon ha-Gadol (the Great One) of Karlin, to Israel’s first president, Chaim Weitzman; from one of the past century’s preeminent Talmudic scholars, Rabbi Saul Lieberman, to Israel’s first female prime minister, Golda Meir.

Nadav’s book is actually one of two compendium tomes, the second of which—Azriel Shochat’s even more massive The Jews of Pinsk: 1881–1941—is set to be released in translation shortly. The original histories were published in Israel in the 1970s under the editorship of the great historian of Hasidism Wolf Rabinowitsch; all three men were Pinskers. The Pinsk book’s committee was partially motivated to commission the scholarly histories by Nadav and Shochet by the cold criticisms, on the part of “professional” Jewish writers and scholars, of the historical unreliability, uneven organization, and literary amateurishness of some of the earliest published Yizkor books.

Their contribution is a great one. Taken together, Nadav and Shochat have produced a masterful, thorough, and comprehensive history of more than half a millennium of life in Jewish Pinsk. Nothing marks Yizker-bikher so much as the seamlessness with which the reader encounters the rabbis and revolutionaries, Zionists and socialists, competing Hebrew and Yiddish schools and youth organizations, and ideologically opposing papers and magazines, all of which inhabit their pages in no determined order, with none enjoying any preference or suffering any evident bias on the part of the almost exclusively secular editors. Perusing these volumes is the closest one can ever get to strolling through the streets of the towns they memorialize. One stumbles through a dizzying and complex world, one whose physical smallness is belied by the magnitude of its cultural and political ferment. A rapturous description of Friday night in the Rebbe’s court might be immediately followed by a scandalous recollection of the sexual freedom rampant in the community Zionist youth movement’s weekend confabs. Saints and sinners, rebbes and revolutionaries, Mensheviks and madmen live side by side on the pages.

The Pinsk book, for example, includes a short, mournful article about the September 1939 completion of the new building for Novarodoker Mussar school. The edifice’s consecrationwas immediately followed, of course, by the outbreak of World War II, which was itself followed by the Soviet occupation of the city and repression of religious life. Not a single class was ever held within its walls. Written in mellifluous rabbinic-style Hebrew, it begins with a loving appreciation: “There is not a single person from Pinsk who, during the days of Elul, has passed by the Yeshiva of Karlin and failed to stop by its window to hearken to the sweet sound of Torah study by the Musserniks, a study that oftentimes resembled the chirping of a dove, at other times the brave loud roar of a lion, but most often the still small voice of repentance.”

The author of this article? A highly placed officer of the Jewish section of the Pinsk Communist party, the very organ responsible for the shuttering of synagogues and yeshivas throughout the town.

And Pinsk was not unique, at least not in this sense. Hundreds of other small towns—like Bobroisk, Horodenka, Lida, and Zvil, to name just a few—were claustrophobically Jewish, in the very best sense. Unlike the contemporary American Jewish community, sprawled across cities and suburbs—with Reform Jews rarely rubbing shoulders with Hasidim, who themselves can spend a lifetime in isolation from Mitnagdimc—these shtetl Jews lived almost literally on top of one another. Moreover, particularly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they were in a state of feverish religious and ideological flux. It was far from uncommon for a communist son and a secular Zionist daughter to live under the same roof as their Hasidic parents. This multifaceted yet unified Jewish existence is captured brilliantly in the Yizker-bikher.

The 450-page Yizkor book for the town of Lida, whose Jewish population reached 6,500 just before the Holocaust, contains a preponderance of materials—classroom memoirs, curricular descriptions, and Talmudic-pedagogical analyses about its uniquely “modern” Zionist Yeshiva, along with several essays and memoirs about its dean, Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines, who was also the founder of the Religious Zionist Mizrachi movement and the town’s most illustrious son. The Yizkor book for tiny Zvil (the Yiddish name for the Russian town of Novograd-Volynsk) highlights the achievements of its most illustrious son, the secular Hebrew short-story writer and essayist Mordecai Zev Feierberg, in a host of essays by his surviving colleagues, students, and admiring readers. Among the contributors is Shin Zetser, a major Hebrew literary figure in his own right; his essay about his stormy relationship with Feierberg offers unique insight into his tumultuous life and literary legacy.

In an article on Jewish publishing in the Bobroisk Yizker-bukh, there are back-to-back reproductions of two publications that could not possibly be more antithetical. One is the first (and only) issue of the newspaper of Bobroisk’s Apikorsim-Farband (Heretics Club), Der Apikores (The Heretic), whose masthead is flanked by two famous Jewish aphorisms: “Proletariat of the world, unite!” and “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” The other is the title page of the last Jewish prayer book published in Soviet controlled Bobroisk, the 1927 Hasidic Siddur Sefas Emes, “including all the necessary prayers and requests that every man of Israel should say these prayers to his God, day in and day out”—an unusual battle cry for the frontispiece of a liturgical book that reflects the sense of embattlement experienced by the town’s religious Jews, besieged from one side by the Soviets, and from the other by the aforementioned Apikorsim.

* * *

Although some Yizkor books have brief English prefaces, almost none have before been translated into English. A fine—though by necessity highly selective—anthology from the Yizkor books of Poland can be found in Jack Kuglemass and Jonathan Boyarin’s From a Ruined Garden: The Memorial Books of Polish Jewry, which contains selections from seventy-seven Yizkor books along with Zachary Baker’s exhaustive bibliography of the books memorializing Polish towns. Yaffa Eliach’s masterful There Once Was a World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok represents a unique English version of a Yizkor book produced by a single scholar. And there is Eva Hoffman’s beautiful, elegiac Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews, which is largely based on the Polish translation of the Bransk Yizkor book.

But the most significant contribution to the future of Yizkor-book accessibility may be one that does not engage in translation, per se. In a heroic feat, the New York Public Library has ensured the physical preservation of this literary treasure by digitizing some 700 Yizkor books, all of which are now available online. But though the future of these repositories of memory will not be lost to history, they are still locked inside their original languages. Let us hope someone soon offers a key, because to delve into their pages is the closest one can come to experiencing the maddeningly complex civilization that was so tragically lost.

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Unsung Historians

The grand legacy of Yizkor books

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