Review of
From a Ruined Garden

By Joyce Field

From a Ruined Garden: the Memorial Books of Polish Jewry, edited and translated by Jack Kugelmass and Jonathan Boyarin; Second , Expanded Edition, with Geographical Index and Bibliography by Zachary M. Baker. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, published in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1998. 353pp. $39.95 (hard cover), $17.95 (paper)

Rarely is a book published that causes an entirely new genre of studies to open up. This, however, was the result of the remarkably fortunate publication by Schocken Books of the first edition in 1983 of From a Ruined Garden . Before 1983, some scholars, librarians, and genealogical researchers certainly knew about yizker bikher in general, but up to that time there had not been a major focus on these books as social, historical, and genealogical sources of firsthand knowledge about destroyed communities, to some extent because of language barriers. But as more lay persons began searching for their "roots" in the late 1970s, with interest building in the 1980s and exploding in the 1990s, they started to tap into these remarkable books. The publication of From a Ruined Garden , containing over 70 translated excerpts from Polish yizkor books, illuminated for many lay persons the lost world depicted in these books from which they had been cut off because they could not read them in their original languages, primarily Yiddish and Hebrew. The first edition has long been out of print but again, in another bit of fortunate timing, a second, expanded edition has been published.

The 1998 edition contains four new chapters and a revised bibliography by Zachary Baker, the head librarian at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Most genealogists researching yizker bikher cut their teeth on earlier versions of this bibliography and will be grateful for the update. This extensive bibliography, along with the geographical index and gazeteer, make this book an indispensable source of information on Eastern European communities.

The introduction, written by Kugelmass and Boyarin, is a judicious, learned, and sensitive analysis of the yizker bukh genre. The editors, both ethnographers, view these books from a unique perspective and perfectly balance analysis with sensitivity. Their insight into the social, cultural, and political organizations of the shtetls adds great depth to their interpretation of life in these now annihilated communities. They convincingly explain the importance of these books as acts of commemorating the dead by the survivors. Their translated selections are "unique historical documents that offer English readers glimpses into a previously locked storehouse of information on the traditions and transformations that marked everyday life in the shtetl."

They vividly describe the role of the landsmanschaftn in settling on the writing of a yizkor book as a way of commemorating the death of their shtetl and the deaths of their friends and landsleit. Not having physical graves, the dead would have paper graves. 1

But while performing a holy duty as "guardians of memory," the editorial committees organizing the writing of these books by the survivors and emigres of the shtetl could not avoid factional disputes. Not shirking from describing the nasty political fights that arose during the planning stages of these books, the editors nevertheless manage to bring some light humor and whimsy into the discussion.

Many of the landsmanschaftn that sponsored memorial books were oriented toward the Zionist and non-Zionist Left. Yet their erstwhile rivals, the towns' anti-Zionist, hasidic groups, or Jewish Communist Party organizations, are seldom banished entirely from the community depicted in the books....[F]or the most part those people who worked together on the books recognized that every religious and political faction, every individual from the town rabbi to the assimilationist lawyer to the ragtag water carrier, had been an essential part of the town's genius. 'Every shtetl had its madman,' readsone account. 'Our town was small, so our meshuganer was only half-crazy.' (p. 23)

It is clear, though, that not all groups are evenly balanced in all the books and the editors point out specific instances where there were unavoidable rifts among factions that could not be healed.

The editors eloquently describe the totemic meaning of yizker bikher and the surprising consistency in the content of hundreds of these books. The memorial books are overwhelmingly written by simple folk who had never written anything before for publication, but their narratives are surprisingly effective because of their sense of immediacy. Nothing in these books is more emotional than the necrology, created by memory, for the most part, by the survivors. Name after name, page after page the names go on. It is impossible not to be moved to tears as one scrolls down the columns of the necrology section. The personal descriptions by the Holocaust survivors of the events in their towns during the Holocaust are also harrowing because these tales are told by untrained writers who are expressing pure emotion without literary artifice or devices.

It must be admitted that factual errors may have crept into these narratives and that "the reality depicted in the memorial books is distorted" by the Holocaust. For me, however, the startling feature of these books is that the writers have remembered so much detail. Their ability to recall vividly their lives in the lost shtetls of eastern Europe is nothing short of amazing. That some errors in dates of events or locations of certain buildings have crept in should be noted, but the purpose of these narratives as testaments should not be obscured by those looking for total factual accuracy.

It is instructive to remember that these books were printed in very small numbers, usually just enough copies for the landsleit who raised money to pay for the printing and perhaps some of their family members. Copies were also frequently donated to Yad Vashem and YIVO and other research libraries, but the audience was usually not the world at large. The survivors never thought the world wanted to hear their stories. But they were compelled to write these books in order to bear witness. "The memorial books are the fruit of the impulse to write a testament for future generations. They constitute an unprecedented, truly popular labor to record in writing as much as possible of a destroyed world."

Carefully selected by the editors, these 77 excerpts reveal this destroyed world. They cover the topics of Our Towns, Townspeople, Lifeways, Events, Legends and Folklore, Holocaust, Return, and The Townspeople Abroad. The descriptions of the shtetls before the Holocaust in the section "Our Towns" --such as "Light and Shadow" (Khelm) and "Girls' Kheyders" (Horodets)-- contrast eerily with the chapters on the Holocaust in the section called "Holocaust." The excerpts "Kol Nidre in Auschwitz" written by Yoysef Vaynberg in the Strizhuv yizkor book, "My Escape from the Ditches of Slaughter" by Mordkhe Vaysman in the Vladimirets yizkor book, and "The Capture of Girls," by Tala Maska-Shults in the Kolo yizkor book are heartbreaking first-person narratives on the horror of the Holocaust, standing in contrast to the descriptions of Jewish life in pre-1939 Polish shtetlach.

Many Jewish genealogists have been drawn to yizker bikher as sources of primary information about their relatives who died in the Holocaust as well as first-person narratives on how their relatives lived. To overcome the language barrier and to make the yizker bikher accessible to all researchers, translations of yizkor books are now being commissioned or being done by volunteer translators. Because of the cost and time involved in translating an entire book, usually only selections --typically the table of contents and the necrology--are translated first (additional sections are translated later as time and money permit) and these are put on the web site of JewishGen, Inc., a group which focuses on genealogical research on the Internet and hosts a Yizkor Book Translation Project. Much of this current recognition of the value of yizkor books and the interest in having the books translated and made accessible to all researchers can be attributed to the efforts Kugelmass and Boyarin in From a Ruined Garden to point people to the function of memorial books in revealing Jewish experience in history.

In writing the [yizkor] book the town's survivors gave it back its Jewish and human name along with the most fitting burial they could think of for an annihilated community. They erected a stone, and on it they wrote all they could remember about a time and place that now exist only in memory. In so doing, they and others fulfilled an solemn obligation....'In a yizker-bukh, a memorial volume! Today we have set up a tombstone in memory of you!' (p. 243)

Joyce Field
Project Manager
JewishGen, Inc. Yizkor Book Project


1 See also Daniel Soyer, Jewish Immigrant Associations and American Identity in New York, 1880-1939 (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1997), pp. 202-203. Return


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