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Yizkor Book Insights

Transcribing Necrology Lists – A Sacred Challenge Shalom Bronstein
Yizker Bikher as Preservers of Family and Community History Dr. Ida Selavan Schwarcz
ZACHOR: Yizkor Books as Collective Memory of a Lost World Joyce Field
A 31 Year Odyssey Myrna Brodsky Siegel
The lives of Jews in Europe before and during the Holocaust, as told in Yizkor books Bruce Drake
Bridging the Gap in Our Jewish Family History Joel Alpert
Entering a Lost World Theodore Steinberg


Transcribing Necrology Lists – A Sacred Challenge

Shalom Bronstein

This article first appeared in AVOTAYNU, Vol. XXX, No. 2, Summer 2014
and is posted with the permission of AVOTAYNU


A few years ago, after completing the memorial on display at the Jerusalem headquarters of the JDC [see Bronstein, “Genealogical Methodology…,” AVOTAYNU Summer 2010 and http://archives.jdc.org/exhibits/in-memoriam/] I had a fateful conversation with Yocheved Klausner of Beersheva. Yocheved and I had worked together for more than fifteen years when she edited Sharsheret Hadorot, the bi-lingual quarterly of the Israel Genealogical Society. She told me that one of her projects was to translate the tables of contents of Yizkor books from Hebrew and Yiddish into English. This is a project of JewishGen under the supervision of Lance Ackerfeld to make Yizkor books more accessible to English speaking researchers. I was fascinated by this project and contacted Lance, thus beginning the challenging task of transcribing the Yiddish and Hebrew necrology lists found in the vast majority of Yizkor books. So far I have worked on more than twenty-five books and transcribed lists exceeding 35,000 names.

Even close to seven decades after the Nazi hordes were defeated, it is still impossible to grasp the full impact of the Holocaust. A unique Jewish way of confronting the loss of one-third of our people together with centers of vibrant Jewish culture was to document for posterity details of Jewish life in hundreds of towns throughout Europe before the Nazi onslaught. The first of what we now know as Yizkor books appeared even before the end of World War II in May 1945.

Remarkably, no two books list names in the same way. The methodology varies greatly from book to book and one never knows what to expect. Some are well-organized and easy to follow, while others are quite the opposite. Families, including female married children, may be listed with their parents. This provides us the names of the entire family unit. Other lists are grouped by surname only with no relationships stated. In those one cannot differentiate spouses from children or grandchildren. In some books, the name of the person who provided the information is listed. Indeed, the Yizkor Book of Rudki, formerly in Poland now in Ukraine, lists multiple family members who provided the information. This is especially helpful for those engaged in trying to trace family members who survived. Normally, the full name of the martyr is recorded. However, there are many occasions where the names are not known. We may come across a person whose family name is not known but the recorder knew the names of either the parents or grandparents. Thus, one encounters an entry stating “Gitel, the married granddaughter of Avraham Cohen.” Other times the listing indicates that the names of the children of a couple are not known or that only some are known. There are occasions where instead of the names of the murdered children, we will have the name of a parent with the note “murdered together with nine children.” In some books, family members were responsible for the entries and after the listing we have a note “memorialized by their daughter Genya Levine, Toronto, Canada.” There are Yizkor books that also include a section of photographs of those who did not survive. Blank spaces appear where the family names or personal names are absent. A unique approach is found in the Kurenets, Belarus book. The editor tells us that names are listed according to the houses where the people lived. Thus, while going through the names, the reader will be walking down the streets of the town's former Jewish quarter. He does not give the names of the streets and one assumes that he did not think that the book would be of interest to people other than natives of the town.

One must admire the foresight of those who authored these Yizkor books. We are presented with the story of the town along with a sincere attempt to record information concerning those who did not survive. The New York Public Library has provided us with a wonderful aid in working with Yizkor books. Some ten years ago they completed a project in which they scanned some 650 Yizkor books from the 700 book collection found in their Dorot Jewish Division. They can be accessed at NY Public Library - Yizkor Books or at Google Yizkor Books Online.

Having so many books online enables the researcher to work from home and makes some of the rare books accessible to all. The collection is not complete and not every Yizkor book is scanned. Fortunately, I have the vast collection of the Israel National Library at my fingertips to fill in the gaps.

After completing the Monasteryska, Ukraine, list I was browsing through the book that I had on reserve in the National Library. I was surprised to come across a page titled (in Hebrew) 'Corrections.' I had never noticed such a page in any of the books I had worked on. Most of the changes were corrections of glaring errors in the short English section but I also found corrections in names. From now on, one of the first things I will do is check to see if the book has a list of corrections.


Some Difficulties and Challenges

There are various challenges that one faces when embarking on transcribing the names. Since there is no 'W' in numerous languages (Hebrew, Yiddish, German etc.) the letter V and W are often interchangeable, especially in family names – e.g., Veiner or Weiner. The first determination to make is how the name is pronounced in Hebrew, Yiddish and many other languages. The transcriber must choose between Viner, Veiner or Weiner. My procedure is to go to the translation of the Table of Contents of the Yizkor book on the town and to the JewishGen Family Finder where the name may be listed. Sometimes there are contradictions between the two with the same name appearing twice but spelled differently each time. This reminds us of the limitations in translating or transcribing. I also go to JewishGen's Communities Database and check the names on the list against the JGFF entries. This has proven to be an important aid to help to determine how to spell the family name. Of course, there are often variant spellings, but when I choose a spelling I know that it is one that has been used by this particular family. If the listed JGFF spelling is European, and not the Americanized version, the European spelling prevails. For example, I used Fajnzylber rather than Feinsilver in the listing from the Laskarzew-Sobolew, Poland, Yizkor book. Also, by checking the spellings of family names in the Table of Contents of the Yizkor book, I hope that the researcher will be able to recognize the surname. Yiddish listings are easier to work with as the spelling is phonetic and the differences are clear. The family name spelled in Hebrew ברנר BRNR could be spelled Barner, Bar Ner, Berner or Brenner, with all being correct. Likewise, the names Garber and Gerber have the identical spelling in Hebrew but not in Yiddish. Very often the family name is much more complicated with numerous syllables and the task for the transcriber of becomes far more difficult. Should we spell the name Tzimerman or Zimmerman which is immediately recognizable? In such a case, my choice for the most part is the American spelling as we know it. Exceptions are made if the Polish or Russian spelling is well known. Another question arises in determining how to transcribe a family name if the modern Hebrew pronunciation is different from the way in which the name was pronounced by Ashkenazic Jews. One example would be with the name Margolis. In the Ashkenazi pronunciation it ends with an 's' but in the Sefardic pronunciation of modern Israel it ends with a 't.' Should it be spelled Margolis or Margalit? Since Margolis would be the most common form of that family name in English speaking countries, I opt for Margolis. Another interesting phenomenon is finding Sephardi surnames in Eastern European lists – Charif in Korets, Migdal and Miara in Jadow, Nizar in Bychawa and Tashma in Falenica. Likewise, the Ashkenazi surnames Fine and Moskovits appear in the Thessalonika [Saloniki] list. When working on the Thessalonika list, I contacted a long-time friend and colleague, Mathilde Tagger. We want the names to appear as accurately as possible and I knew that there are distinctive Sefardi spellings of names influenced by Spanish and French. Mathilde took it upon herself to transcribe these names, thus preserving their unique spellings and maintaining our goal of accuracy.

Variant spellings of the same personal name are especially common in Yiddish. There are many examples that can be chosen. The Yiddish name Yenta, which derives from the Sefardic name Gentile (meaning noble or refined) is spelled three different ways in the Tuchin, Volhyn Yizkor Book. Names appearing as diminutives, indicating that they were probably borne by children – Yankele, Sarale and Chanale are to be found in almost every book.

Another challenge with Yizkor books is that many of them lack an index. This makes verifying data extremely difficult. When one comes across a family surname listed only once in the list, it is possible that it indicates that that individual was not a native of the town or that all of that person's family had left. Where there are dozens of listings for the same surname, we see a large family with many branches. In these cases, we often see repetitions of the personal names indicating that they are obviously named for a common, mutual ancestor.

A few books cover the story of two towns that were in close proximity e.g. Laskarzew-Sobolev. The necrology list of one records some professions while the other does not. There are a fair number of surnames that appear in both, indicating familial connections between the two. The book is entirely in Yiddish, printed in Paris and lacks an index.

Many Yizkor Books contain photographs. They may be of the town, of school classes or youth groups, town leaders and families. A few of the Yizkor books that I have worked on indicate in the necrology list whether there is a photo of that person in the book. I would suggest that the researcher carefully go through the Yizkor Book of their ancestral town and read the captions under the pictures. Often many of those appearing are identified.

In the body of the text some books provide us with eyewitness accounts of the various murders carried out by the Germans and their local collaborators. These reports can amplify the oral information the researcher has that was provided by their surviving relations. It also helps us learn more about what happened to our families that did not survive.

There are additional challenges with name transcriptions. We have the Yiddish name Motel which is male and Matel which is female, often spelled the same. In one list I received there were gender errors. The person who copied the list onto the Excel sheet was unfamiliar with the name Shifra and incorrectly listed all of them as males. There is a typographical error in the Miedzyrzecz, Volhyn, Ukraine, book where, under 'Father's Name,' we have Leah. On one of my Shabbat walks with my rabbi and teacher, Professor David Halivni [see Bronstein, Case Study…Professor David Halivni, AVOTAYNU Summer, 2008], I told him that I was working on the list from Slabodka, Lithuania. He mentioned that the Yeshiva did not have many students on the eve of World War II. The list I received had over 500 listings. I also found it curious that many of the students were listed as living in Panevezys, Telz and Kelm. Professor Halivni told me to check the original listing and not to rely only on the Excel sheet. I have a copy of the book and when I checked it, I saw that the person who entered the names on the Excel sheet combined all the names into one list he titled Slabodka when, in reality, there were seven different lists containing names of students from various Yeshivot. Thus, instead of one long list, seven were submitted.

I worked on the list from Ostrog, the birthplace of my paternal grandmother. One of her cousins was recorded as having two children but they were unnamed. From Pages of Testimony submitted by this cousin's brother I was able to fill in the missing names which were added to the list.

Working on list after list is a difficult task, especially from an emotional standpoint. I was startled when on the list from the town of Hoszcza, Volhyn, Ukraine, I came across a Shalom, married to a Fruma (my wife's Yiddish name) whose oldest child's name was Sara (our oldest child's name). The Kurenets list is not alphabetical and there the surname Bronstein was followed by Shulman. Shulman was my mother's maiden name. It certainly hit home. I have seen that, on average, at least one-third or more of those murdered were children. One example is Miedzyrzecz, which has 1,775 names listed of whom more than 815 were children. I have kept a tally for my own records of the other towns I recorded.

In conclusion, I must express my appreciation to both Yocheved Klausner who introduced me to the challenge of transcribing necrology lists and to Lance Ackerfeld who has been a constant source of encouragement and guidance. Without their support I never would have been able to accomplish the transcription of over 35,000 names of Holocaust martyrs.

  Shalom Bronstein, Jerusalem

2 Iyar 5774
2 May 2014


Yizker Bikher as Preservers
of Family and Community History

(From a paper given at the Israel Genealogical Society on “Yizker Bikher as sources for genealogy”)

Dr. Ida Selavan Schwarcz

After my topic was accepted by the committee and I began to organize my resource materials, I realized that the subject I had chosen was based on an article I had read three decades before, and had forgotten, or so I thought. The title of the article is “Memorial books as sources for family history,” by Zachary M. Baker and it was published in “Toledot: the journal of Jewish genealogy” in the fall of 1979. At that time Zachary was a librarian at YIVO in New York. Today he is the Reinhard Family Curator of Judaica and Hebraica Collections at Stanford University Libraries in California. He was then and is now a kind and helpful person and possibly the world expert on yizker bikher. I must apologize for thinking my idea was original. It had obviously lain dormant in my subconscious for thirty years. I am sure that Zachary will forgive me, for he has been very helpful in my present research.

The genre of memorial book is as old as the Bible. The book of Lamentations, Ekha, may be seen as a memorial book for Jerusalem. Various kinds of memorial books, sometimes called pinkasim, were written through the ages, but the modern yizker bukh is a post-Holocaust phenomenon, even though the first book to include yizker bukh in its title was published in New York in 1943, during the war : “Lodzer yizker Bukh” .There are no exact data on the number of yizker bikher published, but there may be as many as 800-1000 volumes. (I am not including books for Germany and Western Europe, usually not written in Hebrew or Yiddish.) At a rough estimate 60% of the books are in Hebrew and 40% are in Yiddish, many include both languages. Some include other languages, usually English, in abstracts. A few, like the Sokolievka/Justingrad book edited by Leo and Deana Miller (New York, 1983) actually contain complete translations of the Hebrew and Yiddish texts.

There are relatively few yizker bikher for Ukraine. During the pogroms of 1919-1920 the Jewish populations of many towns were sometimes completely destroyed. The survivors fled to larger cities where they felt safer, or crossed the border into Romania and stayed in refugee camps until they could leave for the United States or Israel or other countries.

During the heyday of yizker bukh publication Ukrainian and Belorussian Jews had been away from their birthplaces for 40 or more years. In the Soviet Union Jewish identity via language or religion was not encouraged. The Jews of Poland, however, continued living in their towns for another 20 years. Thus the survivors were better able to recall their experiences. The bulk of yizker bikher, are, therefore, about the Jews of Poland.

When we speak of yizker bikher we usually associate it with the Yiddish term for a small town-- shtetl, even though there are yizker bikher for cities, e.g. Lodz, Minsk, etc., provinces, e.g. Bessarabia, and countries, e.g. Lithuania. The first serious work in English about the shtetl was “Life is with People: the Jewish little town of Eastern Europe” by Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog, published in 1952. This became the standard text used in anthropologiy and sociology courses in colleges and universities in the U.S.

The book was so influential that the Jewish mother as described in it became the stereotype for many social scientists and even influenced fiction writers. For example Martha Wolfenstein, in an article published in 1955, deals with “the fixation of the mother-child relation on the earliest infantile phase.” Stanley Diamond, writing about the same time, also describes the relationship between mother and son as overprotective and smothering. David Mechanic, in the early sixties, writes about the mother's overly solicitous attitude to her child. In all three of the articles the footnotes refer to Life is With People. This kind of analysis of Jewish culture was very much part of the intellectual atmosphere at the University of Chicago where Philip Roth was a student at the time. Guess where Portnoy's Complaint was born!

Most reviewers treated this book respectfully, but the late Abraham Duker felt it had many errors and described life in the shtetlekh in monolithic terms. The fifth revised edition, published in 1995, has as its subtitle “the culture of the shtetl.” Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a leading anthropologist, wrote an introduction from which I quote “The research team that produced Life is with People did not start with shtetl as the focus of their research. Shtetl became a textual way to achieve coherence, totality, and authority in the representing of East European Jewish culture. The team had gathered a massive amount of data from many people…they drew on novels, memoirs, histories, movies and previous studies. Their solution was to construct a synthetic community, a hypothetical shtetl.”

In 1973 Behrman House published “ A shtetl and other Yiddish novellas,” edited, with introductions, by Ruth R. Wisse. The stories are fiction, but they “ enrich our understanding of East European Jewish life with their vivid descriptions of places, people, and events.” In Wisse's introduction to the book she makes a passing reference to the book mentioned above, “ It would be a mistake to assume…that the shtetl as it appears in literature is always that homey, beleaguered, comforting place where 'life is with people' and all is with God”. Wisse gives us an overview of the “many varied forces pressing from without upon the Jewish towns and villages of Eastern Europe.” ( Ruth R. Wisse is at present Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University).

Another book using the word “shtetl” in its title is “The Shtetl: a creative anthology of Jewish Life in Eastern Europe,” translated and edited by Joachim Neugroschel, published in 1979 by Richard Marek. In his introduction Neugroschel writes, “ The word [shtetl] has passed sentimentally into English, describing the small towns where Jews lived in Eastern Europe for centuries. Historians and sociologists have somewhat gone along with this synthetic memory, leaving us with a simplified, often stereotyped image of a relatively serene, self-contained world, troubled only by a foreign politics generally summed up in pogroms and survival….But despite the features common to all Eastern European Jews, no two shtetls were truly alike. The personal and public dynamics, the interrelationships with non-Jews, the climate, the economics, the politics, even the dialect of Yiddish and the pronunciation of Hebrew varied sufficiently to form sharp differences, often contradictions – a crazy quilt through time and space. For we are speaking of an enormous geographical area, and we are speaking of centuries of Jewish history.” Neugreschel divides his collection chronologically to deal with religious roots, the Jewish enlightenment, tradition and modernism, war, revolution, destruction.

In 1975, “The Shtetl Book: an introduction to East European Jewish life and lore” compiled and edited by Diane and David Roskies was published by Ktav. This book is based on Yiddish language yizker bikher and memoirs translated by David Roskies. In the forward the Roskies write: “This book was put together by two people who never saw a shtetl and never will. It is for this very reason that we were determined not to make do with generalizations and sentimentalism. Our book is about real places and events.” The book was intended for classroom use and the Roskies also prepared a Readers Guide. The Shtetl Book has gone through a number of editions; the latest augmented edition was published in 2007. David Roskies is currently chair of Yiddish Literature and Culture at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He is also the brother of Ruth R. Wisse mentioned above.

One of the articles in the book which aroused a great deal of interest and amusement was “The gefilte fish line,” abridged from research into Yiddish language by Marvin Herzog. Herzog's work was eventually published as “Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry”, three volumes, (1992-2000). In this early article he draws an imaginary geographic line between Jews who made gefilte fish with sugar and Jews who made gefilte fish with pepper. Another food line was drawn between Jews who prepared farfl by cutting and those who did it by chopping. What is interesting to the cultural historian is the fact that Jews who prepared spicy fish and chopped their farfl, mainly in the Lithuanian area, spoke a different dialect of Yiddish from those who put sugar in their fish and cut their farfl, the Polish Ukrainian Romanian area. For researchers in family history it is interesting to know what side of the line our grandmothers' gefilte fish put them and if this jibes with the location of our ancestral shtetl.

The growing interest in Jewish genealogy from the mid-seventies on, is related to the growing interest in shtetl life. In 1976 Neil Rosenstein's tome “The Unbroken Chain” earned a favorable review in the New York Times. Dan Rottenberg's “Finding Our Fathers” was published in 1977. A review of this book appeared in the first issue of “Toledot: the Journal of Jewish Genealogy”, summer of 1977. Toledot was founded and edited by Arthur Kurzweil, who in 1980 published “From Generation to Generation,” which probably sold more copies than its predecessors. Toledot ceased publication in 1982.

The books I have mentioned whetted the appetite of American Jews who wished to learn more about their roots. Now began the phenomenon of Jewish genealogical societies. The Jewish Genealogical Society was founded in New York in 1977 with the advice of the Father of American Jewish Genealogy, the late Malcolm Stern. Soon societies were springing up in North America, Europe, and Australia. There are over 80 such societies worldwide, and of course, at present, an International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies.

This interest in the East European past of most American Jews was given a boost with the publication in 1983 of “From a Ruined Garden: the Memorial Books of Polish Jewry”, edited and translated by Jack Kugelmass and Jonathan Boyarin. A second, expanded edition appeared in 1998 and was given a laudatory review by our own Joyce Feld. I quote “Containing over 70 translated excerpts from Polish Yizkor books [it] 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 1983 edition included a bibliography of yizker bikher by Zachary Baker. The new edition has a revised bibliography by Baker as well as a geographical index.

My first encounter with a yizker bukh was in 1959, when I was living in Chicago. I was visited by a member of the Stavisht landsmanshaft. He had received my address from my mother, who was born and grew up in Stavisht. He was collecting funds to help publish a Stavisht memorial book. I could not make a donation, we were living on my $50 a week salary as a Hebrew teacher, but I directed him to my Chicago cousins. They must have given him a nice donation and family photos, which were included in the volume published in 1961. I inherited a copy of the book in the 1980's after my parents died, but never bothered to read it. There was no index so I could not look for family names.

In 1982 I attended the second summer forum on Jewish genealogy in Washington D.C. That is where I was bitten by the genealogy bug. A number of people attending had brought yizker bikher and correspondence in Yiddish, hoping to find translators. The evening of the gala costume ball “Come as your ancestor“, I was at loose ends because I was still in the year of mourning for my mother. I walked around the lobby and helped people with translations. One woman was looking through the Kolomaya yizker bukh for names of her family. She showed me her reference – a letter written in Yiddish she had paid someone to translate. I had to disillusion her. The word her translator had translated as Kolomaya was Kalvarie and the word he had translated as daughter (tokhter) was actually October.

When I returned home from the conference I received a phone call notifying me that I had been hired as a Judaica Librarian at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio.

From the beginning of my thirteen years there I encouraged the library to subscribe to all publications of genealogical interest: Gary Mokotoff's Jewish Family Finder; periodicals such as Toledot, Avotaynu, Dorot, and publications of local societies, including Sharsheret Hadorot, cassette tapes from the various annual genealogical conferences, and more. I also served as a reference librarian for people coming to look for their roots. In the early eighties when Jewish genealogical research was just getting off the ground, one of the first places to look for family was the yizker bukh (if one existed) for the town of origin. I received many requests, in person, by phone, and by mail. For example, one man wrote me from Las Vegas that his ancestor had come from Mir. I found the family name in the book. He asked me to translate (on a private basis) chapters from the book describing the way of life there. We became pen pals and still correspond. We visited him and his wife when we attended the Las Vegas Conference three years ago.

Unfortunately, most people looking for family in yizker bikher were disappointed. If one's ancestor was not a famous rabbi or scholar or merchant or writer or distinguished in some way, chances are there would be no biographical information available. If the book contained a list of people murdered in the Holocaust a name might be found, but it added little to knowledge patrons already had. Sometimes there were amusing incidents. A long haired young man from Berkeley, dressed like what we used to call a hippie, (but in the early eighties quite a few rabbinic students dressed like that) came to look for his roots. He knew the name of the shtetl from which his family derived. I looked in Chester Cohen's Shtetl Finder (1980) at that time the only resource of its kind and found the name of the shtetl as part of a yizker bukh for a larger nearby town. I took the book off the shelf and looked for this patron's shtetl. There was an entire chapter about it! I translated the chapter for him as he stood next to me. It told about a notorious apikoyres (unbeliever) in the town who did business on Shabbat. The rabbi castigated him and the apikoyres called the rabbi “a mad dog.” The rabbi responded, “You will die like a mad dog.” Sure enough, on one of his Shabbat expeditions to a gentile village, the apikoyres was bitten by a rabid animal and died of rabies. The young man was thrilled,

“That was my great-uncle Nathan!” he said.

It is also possible that one's ancestral shtetl is simply not mentioned in any book. It is sometimes a matter of luck if a book is written about a shtetl. For example, the writer and educator David Kohen knew Yosef Seh-Lavan (my late father-in-law) who was born in a shtetl near Shpola. Kohen was persuaded to take on the task of editing the Shpola yizker bukh, assisted by Seh-Lavan and others. But since Kohen was not from Shpola, and the members of the editorial board were far removed from religious life, there is no mention of Rabbi Eliyahu Dayan of Shpola, the ancestor of the Dayan family whose center was Zhashkov. (Parenthetically there is no yizker bukh for Zhashkov. I have translated the first chapter of “Bayit be-Yisra'el: Eliyahu ve-Batya Dayan” which tells about Zhashkov and can send it to anyone interested.) Nevertheless, the fact that there is a Shpola yizker bukh, edited by professional writers, makes it an important asset. It was there that my children discovered that their great-grandfather, Ya'akov ha-Kohen Salavan was also known as Solovey or Soloveitchik. Moreover, since he was short and stout, he had the nickname “Yankele Hirik,” for the little black dot indicating the vowel sound ee. My grandson Ya'akov adopted this nickname for a while, because he was short and chubby. However since he is now the tallest and thinnest member of the family the nickname no longer fits.

In 1984 I was approached by a representative of the Suwalki landsmanshaft and asked to translate their yizker bukh, edited by Berl Kagan, published in 1961. This was an enormous undertaking. The book contains over 800 columns in Yiddish and Hebrew. I did not have a computer just my faithful Smith-Corona portable, aleha hashalom. It took two years, working evenings and Sundays, but eventually the task was completed.

There is a great range of differences among yizker bikher, from well- organized, detailed, books with bibliographies and indices to collections of memoirs by well-meaning, but not well-versed, amateurs.

Berl Kagan's monumental work is a model of a yizker bukh. Unfortunately, it is not available in English. The translation, completed 25 years ago, has not yet been published, due, it is rumored, to conflict among the members of the landsmanshaft.

Berl Kagan (1912-1993) was a Yiddish writer and bibliographer. At least 1/3 of the book was actually written by him. It consists of hundreds of pages of text with meticulous footnotes, bibliographies and a comprehensive index of people and places mentioned in the text. Because it is a model I shall use its table of contents to indicate what a model yizker bukh should include, but often does not. [I shall read only the titles of divisions]

A. The First 100 Years

  1. How old is Suwalk?
  2. History of the Jewish settlement
  3. Economic conditions
  4. Jews in agriculture
  5. Emigration from Suwalk
  6. Education and Enlightenment
  7. Hibbat Tsiyon (Love of Zion)
  8. Jewish labor movement
  9. Institutions, societies, communal workers
  10. Rabbis
  11. Writers
  12. Publishers
  13. Pioneers of the Yiddish-Hebrew press
  14. Correspondents
  15. Cantors
  16. Actors
  17. Folksongs of Suwalk and vicinity
  18. Jews and Christians in the past
  19. Curious episodes
  20. Subscribers
  21. Bibliography
  22. From an old diary

B. Before and between the two World Wars

  1. The last forty years
  2. A city of active social involvement
  3. In the days of the First World War
  4. Pogrom in Suwalk in 1914
  5. Germans in the Talmud Torah
  6. After the First World War
  7. The Lithuanian connection
  8. The pogrom in 1936
  9. Episodes from my yourth
  10. Ratzk [a shtetl in the vicinity]
  11. Punsk [a shtetl in the vicinity]
  12. My shtetl Baklerowe
  13. Filipowe [a shtetl in the vicinity]

C. Institutions, Societies, Parties

  1. Suwalk, a center of Torah
  2. Suwalk, city of compromise
  3. The yeshiva crowd in Suwalk
  4. The Revolution years
  5. Suwalk institutions
  6. Schools and hadorim [one room Jewish schools]
  7. Hoveve Tsiyon [Lovers of Zion] in our city
  8. Po'ale Tsiyon in Suwalk
  9. Zionist activities
  10. Reminiscences about Suwalk
  11. Betar
  12. Suwalk “TOZ” [Jewish health and welfare organization in Poland]
  13. Maccabi

D. Types and Personalities

  1. R' Binyamin and R' Mordekhay Magentsa
  2. Portraits of scholars, communal workers, and philanthropists
  3. R' Hayim Mendl Fridman
  4. R' Barukh Roznberg
  5. My Family by Moshe Shlomi-Fridman
  6. R' Mordekhay Shpindlman
  7. R' Hayim Koyfman
  8. Avraham Shemuel Lizevski
  9. R' Avraham Sinenski
  10. Once upon a time
  11. Melamdim [teachers of children]
  12. Sketches and episodes
  13. Rabbi Mordekhay Tsevi Ha-Levi Vaysman
  14. Suwalk figures
  15. Bizarre happenings in Suwalk
  16. The hidden saint
  17. Suwalk nicknames

E. People from Suwalk in the World

  1. Suwalk Relief Committee
  2. The first Jews from Suwalk in New York
  3. Suwalk landsmanshaft in Israel

F. Holocaust

  1. The destruction of Suwalk
  2. On the bloody road
  3. Suwalk Jews in the Slonim ghetto
  4. In the camps of Estonia
  5. With Jews from Suwalk in the death camps
  6. Perished in Lithuania
  7. From Arkhangelsk and back
  8. Suwalk in 1957
  9. Destruction of Ratzk
  10. Suwalk is no more

G. Expressions of sympathy

H. Index

Another book which can vie with Kagan's book is the Bobruisk yizker book, edited by Y. Slutski, published in 1967. Parts of it as well as an alphabetical index of names are available on Jewishgen. Bobruisk was the birthplace of a number of writers and Zionist leaders. The book's table of contents contains a long monograph by editor Slutski as well as many articles about the towns's history, its rabbis, leading characters, education, the revolutionary movement, the Zionist movement, folklore, and the Holocaust. A leading Zionist, Shmarya Levin, came from a shtetl near Bobruisk, and his autobiography “Forward from Exile,” was translated into English by Maurice Samuel. Landslayt from Bobruisk can learn a great deal about their shtetl from Levin.

Another yizker bukh which can teach us a great deal is the Gombin yizker bukh translated from Yiddish to Hebrew by Ada Holtzman's father. Parts of it are available in English on Jewishgen. It contains articles by my friend, the late Jacob Rothbart of Pittsburgh, which I translated into English. In the chapter, “Jewish artisans in Gombin,” he describes the various trades and crafts in his shtetl. There were all kinds of tailors, some who made ready-to-wear clothing from cheap materials, custom tailors, tailors specializing in children's clothes, tailors who sewed for the Poles, and those who sewed for hassidim. There were tailors who actually lived in the homes of local gentiles and came home only for Shabbat.

There were also all kinds of cobblers. Some made cheap ready-to- wear shoes and boots and some were custom shoemakers. Some specialized in making the uppers of boots which were sewn to the soles by other cobblers. There were hat makers, tanners, furriers, bakers, butchers, fruit merchants (exporting dried fruit was a Gombin speciality). There were locksmiths, carpenters, turners, belt makers, saddle makers, tinsmiths, kasha makers soda water makers, soap makers, glaziers, wig makers, egg chandlers, fishermen, bagel bakers, waggoners, water carriers, feldshers (paramedics), barbers, and others. Rothbart added anecdotes and personal notes to most of these descriptions. Rothbart had an excellent memory and was a self-taught master of Yiddish writing.

One of the most interesting parts of the Gombin book is the section on sports. There were three sports clubs, the most important one called Maccabi. There is a photo of members and lists of participants. The main sports were soccer and gymnastics and the book has descriptions of some games. Obviously our grandfathers did not spend all their time wrapped in taleisim in shul. My paternal grandfather, a stove mason in Lukashifke, for example, went skating on the frozen lake in Pyatigory, his birthplace, fell, and broke his leg. It was not properly set and he limped for the rest of his life, earning him the nickname, Dovid der Krimer, David the lame.

If the books mentioned above are at one end of the gamut of what a yizker bukh could or should be, there are many books at the other end of the gamut. One of these, I am sorry to say, is the yizker bukh for Stavisht, my mother's home town. In 1993 I was commissioned by Dr. Robert Barnes, whose father was born in Stavisht, to translate this yizker bukh. This time I did have a computer, a Leading Edge, with a Daisy wheel printer. I completed the task shortly before making aliya and took the floppy disks along with me, hoping to print and sell the book. Desktop printing was still in its infancy. I got married and my plans for publication fell by the wayside. But thanks to the efforts of Vivian Linderman and Karen Sanders, the entire text of this book was entered on WORD and is accessible on Jewishgen.

“Stavisht” was published by a committee of landslayt in New York, but printed in Israel in 1961. It was a joint effort by North Americans and Israelis. The editor, A. Weissman, lived in Israel. When the call went out for memoirs, the editorial committee was so happy to receive material that practically everything submitted was accepted. Thus there is very great variation in style and content. There are also contradictions in details among various articles which were not ironed out by the editorial committee. The book contains mostly memoirs of the happy days of childhood and the terrible experiences of the pogroms of 1919-1921.

There are a number of mentions of the last rabbi of Stavisht, Rabbi Avraham Yitshak Haisinski (sometimes he is called Pitsie Avrum, sometimes his surname is spelled Gaisinski). He defended his congregation heroically when the pogromchiks invaded and sometimes succeeded in saving peoples' lives. He survived to come to New York, where he established a congregation, and was tragically killed by a car when crossing a street. One of his children was a professor in Paris. He wrote how, when visiting the city of Loche in France, he saw the castle belonging to the Branicki family. Stavisht belonged to Count Branicki. Professor Haisinski considered entering and introducing himself as a landsman, even though the Branicki family was Polish nobility.

Surprisingly there is no mention of the best known Stavishter of modern times, Avraham Harzfeld. It seems that the editor approached Harzfeld and asked him to contribute a memoir. But Harzfeld had a contract with Shimon Kushnir who was writing his biography, so no contribution was forthcoming. Thus, I surmise, the committee decided to ignore his existence. Harzfeld's biography, “Sadot va-lev,” has a few pages on Stavisht. It has been translated, badly, into English as “The Village Builder.”

The Stavisht book ends with stories of the pogroms and lists of people who were killed. There is no index. Someone looking for a family name would have to go page by page. Since the book contains only 252 columns, it can be done, but it is time consuming. Shortly after moving to Cincinnati, I attended the first meeting of the local Jewish genealogy society. After the formal presentation, I chatted with a woman sitting next to me, Rose Meyers. She told me that she was born in a shtetl that was so small it wasn't even on the map. I asked her for the name of the shtetl. She told me, “Stavisht.” I said “My mother was born there. It is on the map, and I have a yizker bukh for it”. She was delighted, came to visit me, and we went through the book page by page until we found mention of her birth name, Lechtziher. (In America it became Lessure) That was the beginning of a friendship that lasted until her death at almost 100. Her daughter and I are e-mail pen pals.

Most yizker bikher usually contain descriptions of the streets and alleys, the tree lined boulevard where the wealthier Jews had their homes, and the muddy byways where the small cottages of the poorer Jews are located. Some shtetlekh were located on rivers or lakes, some were near forests, and the books usually describe these natural surroundings. Some have maps and even photos of streets and houses. Some memoirs describe children's games, or contain the texts of songs sung by mothers to their children. “Childhood in a shtetl,” by Abraham P. Gannes, (1993) while not technically a yizker bukh, tells about his first ten years of life in Winograd, Ukraine. Gannes was a leading Jewish educator, and his chapter on early childhood education is a classic.

A well organized yizker bukh will make you feel that you were there –in the place your ancestors were born and grew up. You will be immersed in the daily routines, the life style, customs, religious rituals, making a living, housekeeping, child rearing and education. You will experience Sabbath and holidays, courtship and marriage, internal bickering among Jews and problems with the external, often inimical gentile world.

Most yizker bikher have sections on the Holocaust , and many include lists of residents who were murdered. These sections are the most difficult to read. No matter how many histories of the Holocaust you have read, if you see mention of a relative and a description of the roundup by Jews and their transportation to concentration camps, your eyes tear up and you are caught up in their tragic fate.

I conclude with some sentences from the conclusion by Zachary Baker in his article in Toledot. “By now it should be clear that yizkor books do not in themselves constitute the magic key that will open the sealed door that stands in the way of so many genealogists. …From the genealogical standpoint they can best be regarded as an important secondary source…[A]s a source for background material for family history in the broadest sense, no better source than yizkor books is likely to be found. For through them we are able to recover and better understand the world that our forebears knew.”


Yizkor Books as Collective Memory of a Lost World

Joyce Field

This paper is an expanded version of a presentation I delivered on October 11, 2015, in Houston, Texas, at a conference of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors and Descendants.



In Deuteronomy 25:17 we are exhorted to remember the evil of Amalek and to eradicate it. “Remember what Amalek did to you….that you shall obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Do not forget.”

Deborah Lipstadt, in “Denying the Holocaust,” dedicates her book “to the survivors of the Holocaust and to those who preserve and tell their story.” She then quotes from Deuteronomy 32:7:

“Remember the days of yore, learn the lessons of the generation that came before you.”

These words prophetically sum up the purpose of yizkor books—to remember the lost world in books that will be passed down from generation to generation. The words “memory,” “memories,” and “memorial” frequently appear in discussions of yizkor books. These words harken to the central theme and purpose of these remarkable books.

In the first edition of their seminal book on yizkor books published in 1983, “From a Ruined Garden,” Jack Kugelmass and Jonathan Boyarin wrote:

“Generally overlooked in writing about the Holocaust is the single most important act of commemorating the dead on the part of Jewish survivors. These are the hundreds of yizker-bikher, memorial books devoted to the lives and deaths of entire Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.” [p. 1]

After WW II most of the towns in eastern and central Europe, which had had sizable Jewish populations for many centuries—some since the 13th Century—were bereft of Jews, Judenrein. The remnants who had survived the war but who were made to realize that they were not welcome in their home towns left for Israel, South America, and the United States when they could, some after languishing for years in DP camps. Jan Gross, in his important book, Fear, describes the reception of the survivors in their hometowns as “The Unwelcoming of the Survivors.”

Wherever they went they were strangers, robbed of a homeland and language, but full of memories—the unpleasant ones of the war but also pleasant ones of life before the war. The people they initially associated with were landsleit, people from their hometown, some of whom had managed to emigrate before the War. The survivors were able to communicate with their landsleit whereas others did not want to hear of the horrors of the Holocaust. The sabras and the Americans urged them to look forward, not backward; to forget Yiddish and Polish and Hungarian and learn Hebrew or English or Spanish or Portugese; to assimilate and forget the old ways. Always they were told to forget. But they couldn't.

Amoz Oz, in A Tale of Love and Darkness [pp. 13-14] writes about the Holocaust survivors in Israel were treated:

“We generally treated [them] with compassion and a certain revulsion: miserable wretches, was it our fault that they chose to sit and wait for Hitler instead of coming here, while there was still time? Why did they allow themselves to be led like sheep to the slaughter instead of organizing and fighting back? And if only they'd stop nattering on in Yiddish, and stop telling us about all the things that were done to them over there, because that didn't reflect too well on them, or on us for that matter. Anyway, our faces here are turned toward the future, not the past.”

The survivors were obsessed not only with the need to be a witness to the horrors of the Holocaust but also with the need to memorialize what life was like pre-WW II. The landsmanschaftn—that is, social and self-help organizations of people from the same town—took on as major projects the writing of a yizkor book—a memorial book—of their town.

These books teach us the importance of preserving history and memory. The writers of yizkor books considered themselves to be “guardians of memory.” Some landsmanschaftn memorialized their towns with statues and plaques. Most, however, created a memorial on paper. These books were never published in large printings as they were intended primarily for family, with a few copies designated for major archives such as Yad Vashem, YIVO, and USHMM. The survivors, who had such difficulty expressing verbally what they had lost, what they had endured, and what they could never forget, wanted the world to know; out of that overwhelming need came yizkor books created by landsleit. They wrote in the languages with which they were familiar—Yiddish and Hebrew, primarily; sometimes there are chapters in Polish or Hungarian. How were they to know that future English or Spanish-speaking generations would not be able to read the books in their original languages? And so was born JewishGen's yizkor book translation project, the object of which was to unlock the histories of these towns and the sufferings and joys of their former inhabitants--so that the world would learn and never forget.

Seemingly, the writers and editors of the books were writing for each other and never expected that their efforts would be translated and put on the Internet. At the beginning,,as the translation project sought permission from the landsmanschaftn, there was great difficulty explaining what the Internet was and convincing them that others –most of whom were English-speakers—were interested in the contents of the yizkor books. It took their children and grandchildren to explain the digital revolution to the survivors at that time. The initial reluctance of the survivors to trust others with their memories has faded, to be replaced with satisfaction and pride that their memories are being honored and validated.



Yizkor books are memorial books written about a town, usually in eastern or central Europe, whose Jewish presence was destroyed in World War II. These books were written by Holocaust survivors and/or émigrés who left before the Holocaust in order to capture what life was like in these towns before WWII. They were usually published by landsmanschaftn—that is, organizations of former residents of a town—primarily in Israel, but also in the U.S., South America, and South Africa.

Yizkor books are some of the best sources for learning about Jewish communities in these European countries. However, their contents were locked away from most researchers who could not read modern Hebrew or Yiddish. The purpose of JewishGen's Yizkor Book Project, therefore, was to unlock the valuable information contained in yizkor books by translating them into English so that genealogists, historians, families, and others could learn more about their heritage and to preserve the memories of these obliterated communities, many of which had a Jewish population over 50% of the total population before WW II.

Today there are over 1200 yizkor books written to memorialize the towns which were destroyed by the Nazis and which are now Judenfrei. They commemorate a life that will never be found again. These are towns in which Jews lived for many centuries alongside their Christian neighbors. These books describe what life was like—school, Shabbat, business, games, politics, celebrations of life events, holidays—in other words, the total civic, cultural, religious life of the people. There are also gruesome descriptions of the two world wars and many include the names of those who perished. They are decidedly not for the faint-hearted, but they are vital genealogical and historical accounts as in many cases there are no official records of those who died in the Holocaust. The lists of Jewish residents as well as those who were murdered in the Holocaust are vital for our understanding of the past. Where there are no graves to mark the deceased, these books mark the existence of our people.

These books were not written by learned writers or academics, and many accounts were often written from memory by the survivors from these towns. Therefore, there can be, and often are, errors and omissions. The writing is not polished but is exceedingly emotional and written in a style with which we may not be familiar. But because the books are written from the gut and the heart and each page is stained by tears and blood, they have the power to move us. The survivors, many of whom could not talk to their families of what they had witnessed and endured, agreed to write accounts so that what happened to European Jewry would never be forgotten. What we find is that the history experienced by these people has an immediacy that one does not necessarily find in more scholarly books.

While deeply engrossed in arranging for translations or preparing the material for the Internet presentation, I was constantly amazed at the recollections of the writers. One night I received a call from a woman in Montreal, who quietly and somewhat haltingly said that her father was a Holocaust survivor of a tiny shtetl that was obviously too small to have a book written about it, but her father had compiled from memory a list of every resident of that town—over 900 names!!-- just before the beginning of WW11. He wanted this list housed where it could be readily available to everyone. She hesitatingly asked me if I would be interested in adding this list to JewishGen's materials After recovering from my shock at this remarkable feat of memory from an aged and ill survivor of the Holocaust, I thanked her for getting in touch with me. I recall that I was too moved to sleep that night. As far as I can recall now, no written records of the town had survived the two world wars; but this man recalled the names of all his landsleit and wrote them down so the world would know they had lived.


Characteristics of Yizkor Books

About 1200 yizkor books have been published. The count is imprecise as various libraries and organizatons classify books differently. Yad Vashem, for example, lists over 3,000 books in its collection as yizkor books, but no other institution counts that many. Yad Vashem includes historical accounts and memoirs that others do not. However, there is general overall agreement about the 1200 number. The New York Public Library (NYPL) Dorot Division has over 700 yizkor books in its collection, many of which have been digitized and put online (where permission was received). Over 75%, it is believed, are for towns in Poland-Russia and Germany. The National Yiddish Book Center (NYBC) in Amherst, MA, in collaboration with the NYPL, digitized these books. The NYBC prints and sells copies of these books on demand, whereas the NYPL has put the material online.

So what qualifies a book to be considered a yizkor book rather than a book of Jewish history or Holocaust history? There are no definitive rules, as far as I know, but most have some or all of the following characteristics that I have gleaned from years overseeing the translation of these books:

In summary, yizkor books are important because they humanize the martyrs and the survivors who the Nazis tried to de-humanize and because they show so vividly and grippingly how our ancestors lived. Many of the first generation American-born Jews were not interested in asking their parents or grandparents about life in Europe; or if they did, they received evasive answers, indicating that they did not need to know about their parents' life in Europe. Many of these first-generation American Jews have subsequently been wracked with guilt because of their youthful callowness in trying so hard to assimilate that they didn't really try to explore and understand their past.


JewishGen's Yizkor Book Project

At http://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/YB_History.html is the history of the JewishGen project, written in 2012 to preserve the historical record of all the details of the genesis of this ground-breaking effort.

The first translation went online in October 1997 and new translations were added almost daily. By April 2007, 457 partial and complete books were translated as well as 793 entries. The total entries include books but also separate articles from large compendia, such as the 19-volume Pinkas HaKehillot, in which each chapter is about a different town. Chapters in the two-volume Lita, the multi-volume Yahadut Lita, and Yidishe Shtet are also considered entries. These are important as often they describe small towns, towns too small to have a whole book written about them. Also, as often there are few secular records extant, these articles provide important genealogical and historical information. Through 2015, 842 books have been partially or completely translated as well as 2,024 entries. A total of 114 completed projects are online. That number includes books/monographs in English that were donated to JewishGen because of their historical importance. In 2004, the year that statistics were kept on “hits” to the web site, there were a staggering 4,175,767 hits. In 2008, the last year that the number of graphic images on the site were counted, there were 14,745 graphic images.

The translations are organized alphabetically into specific sections:

Other Languages may seem like a strange category, but let me explain how it came about.


By-product of the Internet Yizkor Book Project: bridges from the past to the future

Working with yizkor books so intimately for many years, I always considered them to be bridges to the past, giving us an understanding of how our ancestors lived and recording the names of those who perished, presented in the necrology section of the books. But what happened some years ago convinced me that these books are also bridges to the future, bringing Jews from Israel and the Diaspora and Poles together to recognize their shared history.

In the span of a less than a year, in 2003 and 2004, I heard from three Poles who wanted to translate the English translations of yizkor books of their town into Polish to educate their townspeople about the Jewish contributions to their town and to heal the rifts that had separated the two peoples. These towns were Debica, Ryki, and Zgierz.

As I “conversed” through emails with the Polish correspondents from Debica, Ryki, and Zgierz, I came to realize that these people were from an educated generation that actually knew no Jews and had not been brought up to have anti-Semitic feelings. Despite the educational system during the Communist era that suppressed discussion of Jewish civilization in pre-World War II Poland, these individuals had learned or sensed that there was something missing in the official history of their towns and their country. During the past few years the Internet helped them fill in the gaps. Somehow they found the JewishGen web site an the Yizkor Book site. Reading the yizkor book translation pages, they became transfixed. The missing links in their towns' history were before them—names of the Jewish residents, names of the Jewish institutions, names of the town officials, names of those who perished in World War II, the history of the Jewish ghetto created and then destroyed by the Nazis. Parenthetically, the pre-war population of many Polish towns was over 50% Jewish, so you can imagine the gap in the history of these towns when there was no mention of the Jewish population before the Holocaust taught in the schools or written in textboks. These Polish correspondents then knew that they had a mission: to educate their towns' residents about the history of the town, which included a once vibrant Jewish life.

All three individuals—from Debica, Ryki, and Zgierz—had similar comments about their wanting to help their townspeople understand the complete history of their town as well as to forge new links with the Jewish world. They have also changed my view of the value of yizkor books. I now consider yizkor books as creating not only a bridge to and from the past but also a bridge to the future.

The unexpected result has been that we created a sub-category on the Index page to list all the translations into languages other than English.

Following is the Introduction to the Polish edition of the Debica Yizkor Book [which was printed in 2014 and is located on the YB site along with the translation into English] as well as the Introduction to the Polish language translation of the Zgierz yizkor book, which appears on the site and is also one of the books in print created by JewishGen. These introductions reveal to me the essence of what we wanted to capture in the Yizkor Book Project. Today


Introduction to the Polish Translation of Debica Yizkor Book

http://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/debica/Demp000.html, Ireneusz Socha, July 2014

I am very pleased to announce that the Scientific Publishing House of the Society of Friends of Sciences in Przemysl is releasing the first Polish edition of “The Book of Dembitz” in 2014. The Polish edition's full title reads “The Book of Dembitz. The Cradle of our Youth – Memories of the Jewish Residents of Debica”. I prepared this edition together with Arkadiusz S. Wiech – a professional historian. We worked two years to complete the book. The volume includes all chapters from the original edition in my translation and a historical essay by Arkadiusz. The book comes with a selection of some rare and highly interesting prewar photographs and a dictionary of Jewish religion and culture.

It was not until 1999 that I found out that the Sefer Dembitz had existed. I simply discovered it when researching the Internet on the history of the Jewish community in Debica, Poland. At first, a few chapters from the book were translated to English and made available by JewishGen, Inc. online. Those were texts completely unknown in Poland: so revealing and captivating in their own right. I kept reading them, looking forward to each new chapter over the years. I had made a decision to translate that book into Polish one day. All the more so none of Polish historians had cared for commemorating Dembitzer Jews back then.

In the beginning, I contacted Joyce Field – the then coordinator of the Yizkor Books Project – and told her I wanted to translate the book. She agreed and was very helpful and cooperative. I began my work in 2004 by translating two texts: “The City and its rabbis” and “The Baking of Matza Shmura”. I never received or asked for any remuneration. I did it pro bono, in accordance with the principles JewishGen adheres to.

Later that year I met Jacek Dymitrowski, the chairman of Society of Friends of the Land of Debica (TPZD), whom I tried to convince that Dembitzer Jews were a great topic for a book. I informed him about the Sefer Dembitz and gave him my first two translations, suggesting he might use them in the book. Also, thanks to my initiative and help, an agreement was signed based on which JewishGen granted TPZD permission to use those two chapters in the forthcoming book. The plan was even mentioned in the American edition of the Time Magazine in the article by Marjorie Backman entitled “Books of Life” (May 5, 2004). Unfortunately, TPZD's book has not been published yet. However, I did continue to work on the translation. Chapter by chapter, Polish language versions began to appear online on this website. I did it in my free time, so it took a very long time – ten years. But I finally made it.

I would like to express special thanks to the people who offered their precious comments and knowledge and encouraged me to complete my work over the past ten years: Joyce Field – Emerita Yizkor Book Project Manager, Lance Ackerfeld – Yizkor Book Project Manager, Marc Seidenfeld and Aviva Weintraub – The Book of Dembitz Project Coordinators and last but not least Oded Golan and Israel Salmon from Irgun Yotsey Debica be-Yisrael.


Introduction to the Polish translation of Zgierz Yizkor Book


In April 2003 I received an email from Mazenna Gruszecka with the following comments:

“We are a public society whose goal is to preserve the cultural heritage of the city of Zgierz. Our organization contains of people who want to discover and present to the community of Zgierz the true history of our city and its residents, to remind what life in Zgierz once used to be, to find the roots of its today's condition and to preserve the monuments of the city's past. We are an independent non-profit organization acting apart from the local authorities.

On your website we found fragments of the Memorial Book Zgierz (Sefer Zgierz) which is a part of the Yizkor Book Project. We read the text with bated breath for we had to face a completely new image of our city. We in Zgierz have very little knowledge of other nations that once lived here. Hardly anybody knows where was the synagogue and other Jewish communal buildings; people don't even remember of the Jewish cemetery, althought it is fenced and there is a commemorating plate on it. The great majority of citizens have not the slightest idea how rich and varied the Jewish life in Zgierz was.

I was immediately intrigued and excited with her request that we permit the translation from English into Polish of this yizkor book and shared her email with Jerrold Jacobs, the project coordinator for the translation of the Zgierz yizkor book. He, too, agreed with Mazenna's conclusion:

And, last but not least, it would be, in our opinion, also to your advantage. If the purpose of this material is, as you assure, “disseminating information about the Holocaust and destroyed Jewish communities”, its Polish edition should be another step towards commemorating the Jewish residents of Zgierz. If we don't want the memory of the Jews of Zgierz to die, we have to spread it among people which walk nowadays along the same streets they were once walking.”

We both wanted the Polish translation to appear on the JewishGen Yizkor Book Translations site along with the English translation. Thus began a wonderful collaboration with Zuzanna and Mazenna Gruszecka, which has resulted in the presentation of the Polish translation. Whenever a new chapter was translated into English it was translated into Polish and both translations appeared on our web site.

This is the first time we had included a Polish translation on the Yizkor Book web site. Today the “Other Languages” section has the following books:

Note: The yizkor books translated into languages other than English are located at http://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/translations/. This is a remarkable category, showing books translated into, for example, Polish, Spanish, French, Russian, German.


The Miscellaneous Category

The miscellaneous category is extremely interesting. Many of the items would not be classified as yizkor books, per se, but the materials are so intrinsically related to the Holocaust and/or Jewish life that they had to be on the JewishGen site. However, there was no other place for them. Rather than reject them, a category was created to lodge these important documents. Included are such diverse materials as Book of Klezmer, Lexicon of the Yiddish Theater, all of Robin O'Neil's original treatises, Pustkow-the almost forgotten death camp, Terrible Choice: Some Contemporary Jewish Responses to the Holocaust, and Less than human: Nazi eugenics—precursors, policy, aftermath. There are many more titles.


Additional Projects

In addition to the translations, the Yizkor Book Project has spawned a number of other very important projects and databases:


Necrology Database

The JewishGen Yizkor Book Necrology Database indexes the names of persons in the necrologies — the lists of Holocaust martyrs — published in the yizkor books appearing on the JewishGen Yizkor Book Translation Project. This database is only an index of names; it directs researchers back to the yizkor book itself, where more complete information may be available.

This database allows the surnames to be searched via soundex. Because most of these names were transliterated from Hebrew and Yiddish, the spellings of the surnames may not be as you are used to seeing them in Latin-alphabet sources.

Currently there are approximately 345,907 entries from 412 yizkor books from, for example, Austria, Belarus, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine. Updates are done quarterly. It is important to remember that not all books have necrologies.

The number of entries listed for each town does not necessarily equal the number of persons memorialized. Each yizkor book had its own style and format for their necrology list. Some necrologies list each person separately on their own line, while many others have each family group recorded as a single record. Many of the family groups are inexact, such as: “Mordche and family”, or “Haim, Liba and children”, or “Shlomo and wife”, or “Feyga and her two sons”, etc., so these are not separated.. Only the full family group record as a whole unit makes sense, by providing its own context. Thus the 345,000 entries in this database likely represent more than 500,000 individuals, or about 8% of all Holocaust victims. This database can be searched at http://www.jewishgen.org/databases/yizkor/


Yizkor Book Master Name Index (YBMNI)

This is a master index of all persons mentioned in the translated portions of the yizkor books on the Yizkor Book Project website. The database is only an index of names; it directs researchers back to the yizkor book itself, where more information is available. This is a very labor-intensive project; therefore, only 17,000 entries from 28 different books are currently online. See http://www.jewishgen.org/databases/yizkor/Names/


Yizkor Books in Print

This project was initiated because numerous people had requested a professionally printed version of the translated yizkor books. Through July of 2017, 73 titles have been published in hard cover and over 6000 books sold. They are available on Amazon. A complete listing of all the books in print is at http://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/ybip.html


Yizkor Book Infofiles

These Infofiles are located at http://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/infofiles.html


Yizkor Book Database

This useful tool can be searched at http://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/database.html.

Yizkor book information has been consolidated into a master bibliographic database, which attempts to list all yizkor books known to exist, as well as many other books written about a particular community. The database currently contains the titles of over 1,000 books.

When searching for a particular town or region in the database, you will receive following information:

Many communities that do not have individual yizkor books are covered by national or regional books, which are listed under the name or the country or region. Regional books are particularly important for Latvia and Lithuania. Other regions in the database include: Baden-Wurttemberg, Bavaria, Bessarabia, Crimea, Galicia, Hesse, Karpatalja, Maramures, Polesie, Salaj, Silesia, Transylvania, and Volhynia (Wolyn).



In April 2004 Dr. Samuel Kassow, a noted Jewish history scholar, delivered a talk on yizkor books at the National Yiddish Book Center on the importance of yizkor books. In this presentation he drew on A Ruined Garden, but he did not mention JewishGen's Yizkor Book Project! His focus, it seems to me, was to commemorate a new Yiddish Book Center Project, which would print in hard cover the approximately 650 yizkor books in the collection of the New York Public Library for which permission could be granted. I received a CD of this talk from the National Yiddish Book Center and I recall at that time that I was rather perturbed at the lack of acknowledgment of what I considered a significant project. Certainly, the Yiddish Book Center project was extremely important, but so was the JewishGen's project. And I recall my making a promise to myself that never again would anyone talking about memorial books disregard the JewishGen Yizkor Book Translation Project. Numerous libraries have noted—before and after--the importance to their patrons of access to translations. Finally, it must be noted that in 2002 the Yizkor Book Project received the prestigious IAJGS Outstanding Contribution to Jewish Genealogy Award, a recognition of the vital importance of this project.

January 11, 2016


A 31 Year Odyssey

Myrna Brodsky Siegel

What possessed me to spend days and years on this one project? Was it fascination, was it an obsession, or was it an obligation?

Maytchet, Belarus is the ancestral town of both my parents. Throughout the years I was told endearing stories of a town so far away from my home in Chicago. My parents immigrated to the United States long before the Holocaust – my father in 1913, and my mother in 1920. Molchad is the Byelorussian name and Maytchet is the name in Yiddish.


1995 – YIVO

While on a trip to New York city in 1985 I went to the Yivo Institute for Yiddish learning (www.yivo.org) to inquire whether they had anything of genealogical interest from Maytchet. A librarian showed me how to look through their files and I did gather a few interesting papers, mostly from the Maytchet landsmannschaften in the New York area. My real find though was a Yizkor (memorial) book but disappointment immediately overcame me when I realized the book was written in Hebrew and Yiddish.

I only had one hour to spend in the library and how best was I to make use of that time. I walked over to the librarian and explained my frustrations. He replied, “you don't expect me to sit here with you and read the entire book!” I quickly said “no”, but asked if he could spare a few minutes. He begrudgingly said “I will give you 10 minutes and that is all! What name are you looking for?” His harsh manner startled me so I meekly answered, “Boretcky”. He thumbed through the book and within seconds showed me a page with a picture marked “Moshe Aron Boretcky in front of his flour mill with his grandchildren.” I heard the librarian say “see, I found it” – – He immediately proceeded doing something else. I was so filled with emotion I stood frozen. Now I had a book about the town that has always held such a mystique for me – – a picture and a story of an extended family member – -that I was unable to read!

Moshe Aron Boretcky was the brother of my paternal gr. grandfather Yakov Yoseph. After their father Meir Arieh passed away, an argument ensued between the three sons regarding the inheritance, and they never spoke to each other again.

In 1907 my gr. grandfather decided to come to the U.S. with his second wife Tamara and their unmarried children. He left his brothers, the flour mill and other inheritances behind. The irony is that my gr. grandfather's brothers remained in Maytchet; they and many members of their families perished in the Holocaust.

The article attached to the picture in the Yizkor Book was written by Sara Boretcky Biribis, a granddaughter of Moshe Aaron and my father's second cousin. I was determined to find Sara and meet her no matter where she lived. I wrote a letter to the publisher of the Yizkor book in Tel Aviv and patiently waited for a reply. A letter finally arrived from Israel written in Hebrew by Sara Biribis. The publisher had forwarded my letter to her. She wrote that she had so much to tell me that it would be impossible to write it all in a letter and I must come to Israel to meet with her.


1987 – Israel

Sarah and her husband Avraham were excitedly waiting at the bus stop for their newly found family member. We hugged and kissed each other and quickly realized we had to find a common language. Hebrew was out for me, English was out for her. Fortunately she spoke Yiddish fluently and I was able to understand most of what she was saying. But unfortunately my very broken Yiddish was not easily understood by her. They were anxious to show me their moshav and I knew enough Hebrew to understand that everyone was questioning who I was. Avraham kept saying “she knows the name of her gr. gr. grandfather – -Meir Arieh. Sarah did tell me that many of her cousins had the same name. The next morning their daughter Enid came to the moshav and her excellent English saved us all.

Sarah had three first cousins in Israel. One came with Sarah in 1936 with HaShomer Hatzair group and the other two survived the war and came afterwards. The four women are the only descendants of their grandparents large family to survive the Shoah.

Sarah gave me the name of a Maytchet survivor who was on the Yizkor book committee and I went to his home in Tel Aviv to purchase 5 Maytchet Yizkor books to bring home with me.

Now that I had the books, where would I find someone to read the stories to me? I remember hearing Arthur Kurzweil speak at a genealogy conference and he said it was a mitzvah to ask elderly people to help translate from Yiddish. At the time my mother was living at Park Plaza Retirement home in Chicago and I searched there for people who could read Yiddish and/or Hebrew. I asked everyone I met in the building if they could, and when someone answered yes, I immediately took out my book. Most of the people were able to read it but translating was another story. One day I sat with a lady who immediately began translating a story about a Boretcky family member. I was so excited I almost fell off the chair. She stopped suddenly and said, “This is boring, I do not want to read anymore”. I did not know whether I should laugh or cry?


1995 and 2004 – Maytchet

In 1995, ten years after discovering the Yizkor book, my husband Shael and I took the first of two trips to our ancestral towns. The second was in 2004. I would have loved to travel there with a survivor who would walk the streets with me, but that did not happen. Many of the survivors carry bitter memories of the Nazi's marching into their beloved shtetl and the mass killings. They also have deep animosity against their non Jewish neighbors who collaborated with the Nazis. When these survivors saw the video we took after our first trip, they told me that the only satisfaction they had is that the town, and its inhabitants, remain in the 19th century pale of their lives and continue to live the life of a typical pale peasant.

In Maytchet, we were with a guide and clearly seen as outsiders. A local man approached us and escorted us to a mass grave on the outskirts of town, deep into the woods. He described, much too vividly for our comfort, how the Nazis stood on a bluff a short distance away and kept shooting at the people as they approached the open pit. Our “local resident guide” said that the women walked quietly and told the children that this was G-d's will. When the Nazis came to Maytchet they first killed the young men because they were afraid they would rebel and fight back. Then they killed the woman, children and the elderly.

As a small child growing up during the World War II period my parents encouraged me to finish all the food on my plate. That plea would often end with a reminder that there were children starving in Europe.

Shael and I stood at the edge of the mass grave that contained 3,600 murdered victims from Maytchet and the surrounding shtetls. There were two memorial stones (one in Russian and the second in Hebrew) dated July, 15, 1942. I sobbed. This date was 3 weeks after my 6th birthday. How many of those starving children my parents spoke about were in this grave? If my family had not left for the U.S., in the early part of the 20th century, I too would most likely have been in there. That setting left a profound impact on me, one that I carry with me to this day.


1994 – Translating Yizkor Books

Yizkor books were written after the Holocaust by survivors and members of landsmannschaften who had emigrated before the war. They were published as a tribute to their beloved shtetl that was destroyed in the Holocaust as well as family members who had been murdered. Most were written in Yiddish and Hebrew and a few were published in other languages including French, Spanish, German, Greek, Polish and Russian. It is estimated there are approximately 1200 Yizkor books.

In 1994, realizing the value of genealogical information that could be gained from the Yizkor books, the idea of translating these books was first proposed to JewishGen and Joyce Field was the first chairman. A plea went out for volunteers to step forth and co-ordinate the translation of these books. I immediately volunteered to co-ordinate the translations for the Maytchet book.

I brought the book with me wherever I went. If I met someone who told me they were fluent in Hebrew and Yiddish, I asked for their help to translate. On flights to and from Israel I asked my seat companions to translate. As a volunteer on an army base in Israel I would sit with soldiers at night and quickly write as they attempted to translate. Family members of people who submitted stories in the book sent me translations. The translations that I received were like puzzles and I had to put the parts together in order to make some sense of what was sent to me. My husband and I spent many long hours rewriting incoherent sentences. The years went by and it was becoming an endless job.

Lance Ackerfeld became the project manager in 2009. In 2014 I pleaded with Lance for help in translating. He sent a few stories to volunteer translators hoping to put the Maytchet translation project back on a visible map. A few JewishGen volunteer translators came forth and I am grateful to them for their help to inject life into my project.

Near the end of 2013 “an angel” made a significant donation to start a fund to hire translators. Sending out a blurb to my Maytchet e-mail list brought in more money and Lance hired a translator to complete the book. He read the stories that Shael and I laboriously rewrote in the preceding years. The translator had to rewrite the bulk of the original translations. I learned the hard way that to be a good Hebrew and Yiddish translator you should be fluent in English first, and have a good command of the other languages.

Even with professional translators I still had to edit the spelling of people's names and towns trying to keep them consistent throughout the book. This became a very time consuming job.

While waiting for the translator to complete the edits, I asked if there could be appended pages to the translated published book. I was given the green light and then put out a plea for the added stories with a two month time limit. This was an opportunity for Maytchet families that were not in the original book to be honored and remembered. The few people that came forth are thrilled and grateful that their family stories are now part of this legacy.


2016 – The Odyssey Ends

As for personal genealogy information, from the book I was able to connect the descendants of my paternal gr. gr. grandfather Meyerim Arieh Boretcky's four children. From their stories, I gathered names with when and where many of them were murdered.

As for personal genealogy information, thanks to the Maytchet Yizkor book I was able to connect the descendants of my paternal gr. gr. grandfather Meyerim Arieh Boretcky's four children. From the stories I gathered names with information when and where many of them were murdered.

The stories in the book “gave me a feel” for my ancestral shtetl, and this together with information given to me by survivors I had met, helped me when we made our two trips to Maytchet. I cherish the many relationships I made with these survivors as well as their family members around the world.

If you are not familiar with the JewishGen Yizkor book web site and want to see if there is a translation project for your shtetl, follow these steps.

  1. Go to http://www.jewishgen.org
  2. Database – Scroll down to Town Finder to get correct, current spelling of your town
  3. Database – Scroll down to Complete List of Databases
  4. Eastern Europe – Yizkor Book Project Database
  5. Translations – Read a translation
  6. Right side – click on letter of alphabet of town name
  7. Scroll down to name you are searching for. Whatever has been translated is highlighted in Blue. Good luck – – I hope you have great the genealogy finds!

Only the translations from the original 460 page Molchad Yizkor book are on line:


With additional material, the printed book is 687 pages and the 39th book to be completely translated and printed.

The Yizkor Book in Print Project was set up in April 2011 by Joel Alpert. Individual books can be purchased through Amazon and/or Barnes and Noble. Orders of five books or more to a single address can be purchased at 25% below Amazon and Barnes and Noble discounted price. It can be five different titles or five of the same book. To get specific prices, e-mail ybip@jewishgen.org

A member of my family has given JewishGen a grant to disseminate the printed translated Maytchet Yizkor book to Holocaust museums and libraries in institutions of higher learning. Henceforth the stories of this community, the people, and the horrors of the Holocaust will hopefully be read by generations to come.

Now that you read my story you can see that my opening statement covers all three components of “What possessed me to spend days and years on one project? Was it fascination, an obsession, or an obligation? “

Fascination: My parent's birthplace was so far away and in my mind never-never land. A shtetl that was 80% Jewish before the war and is now void of Jews.

Obsession: Once I got started I could not let go.

Obligation: I was so fortunate that my family left many years before the Shoah. If they had not, I as a small child would have been in the local mass grave. It is our obligation to honor and remember the survivors as well as the victims.

The lives of Jews in Europe before and
during the Holocaust, as told in Yizkor books

By Bruce Drake

I have been curating excerpts from Yizkor books every Friday on the JewishGen Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JewishGen.org/) for about two years and so have become reasonably familiar with what there is to be found. This is an article is an overview of what I have found and learned. I was invited to write it for Shemot, the Journal of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain, which has kindly give permission to repost on JewishGen.

In the years after the Holocaust, many Jews who either fled Europe before the onslaught of the German genocide or managed to survive, produced books of remembrance — Yizkor books — to memorialize those who had perished. But they also used these books as a way of recapturing what life was like in their shtetls and towns during the generations before the end came. More than a thousand of these books exist, providing a rich trove of material for Jews researching their family roots and also hoping to get a sense of the kinds of lives their ancestors lived.

Unsurprisingly, many of the chapters in nearly every book contains accounts — firsthand, or passed-on to others — of the days of destruction. Those chapters, as hard as some of them are to read because of the horrors they vividly depict, tend to be the ones that get the most reaction from the Facebook page readers, followed by stories of when Jews fought back, either in their own occupied towns or by fleeing to the forests to join anti-Nazi partisans. Readers also respond to the heart-wrenching accounts of Jews who returned to their old homes after the defeat of the Nazis, only to find nothing.

But you can only serve up so many of these nightmares week after week. So I leaven stories such as those I described above with the many delights that can be found in the books: the description of the town fairs and market days, the food, the humor in the nicknames townspeople gave each other and the favorite sayings they adopted, the odd characters that could be found in every shtetl, and the lovingly-described rituals of weddings and religious holidays. There are also many stories about the grinding poverty and struggles to make ends meet, but although they can be sobering, they are also a testament to the resiliency of Jewish life.

Individual chapters are too long to reproduce here in their entirety, so here are some short excerpts of the kinds of things I've described above.

One of the biggest responses among JewishGen readers was to “The Last Will and Testament of Fania Barbakov” from the Yizkor book of Druya, Belarus which recounted the final short letters she wrote while she and her family hid in a bunker in the ghetto before they were discovered by the Germans.

My dears, a farewell before I die. Although I do not know the exact moment that I and the rest of my family will be killed, I am certain that it will be soon. We will be murdered simply because we are Jews. Many of our Jewish brothers and sisters were already killed in a most humiliating way, at the hands of the Nazi killers…I do not know who will survive from our family and who will have the blessing to read this letter filled with my proud parting words before I die to all my dearly beloved who are tortured at the hands of the killers.

My dear sister Chayale, and brother Manoska, it could be that you survive. Live a life full of happiness and abundance. Know that we are marching with pride to our death since this is our fate. We already know that our sister Bluma and her entire family already perished [husband Efraim and children Avraham, Chaya, Iosif, Chava, and Zavel, in Dvinsk]. I cannot continue writing now because all the dear ones are now crying and are filled with sorrow. I am going to leave this letter with our dear friend who has done us much good until now.

Fania and the rest of the family

We are all lying in one hole. I'm not sure if you will know where to find our grave. Mother and father are having a very difficult time and they are barely surviving. My hands are trembling and it's hard to write but know that I'm a proud Jew. I die for my people. I didn't tell anyone that I'm writing this letter before we die…How I wish I could survive and attain a little bit of the goodness of life, but all is lost…Be well.


Figure 1: Zisle and Zeev Barbakov, parents of Fania Barbakov


In “Thus the City Was Destroyed,” from the Yizkor book of Kovel, now part of Ukraine, Jews were told in the spring of 1942 to gather in Brisk Square on the promise no harm would befall them, and 10,000 did so.

We were sure that the promises made by Kasner to the community leaders that we were to be sent to work, were firm and valid.

However, soon all of our dreams were dashed. Suddenly there swooped down on the square about 4,000 armed Ukrainians. We were surrounded. We saw clearly that a great slaughter was imminent.

In the great crowd was the rabbi Nahum Moshele, may his blood be avenged, the son in law of reb Yaacov Leibenow, may his righteous memory be blessed, who never ceased studying Torah. He asked permission to say a few words to the Jews of the city in the final moments before dying. In a voice choked with tears the rabbi said: “Dear Jews, I see before my eyes a terrible slaughter, the likes of which our people have never seen. An outpouring of blood is about to drown us. Dozens of generations of mankind to Noah, and dozens of generations from Noah to Avraham. Every generation left behind a remnant of memory, and every son would pray for the elevation of the soul of his father. We are more wretched than all of the generations of Jews who came before us, for they are slaughtering all of us, our wives, our children, and our infants. No one will come to prostrate themselves on our graves, no one will say Kaddish for us, no one will hold memories of us in his heart. Our flame is extinguished; we will all descend, very soon, into the dark pit. Dear Jews, the world is so beautiful, the trees are blossoming, the birds are reciting poetry, and we must descend into the pit. Our people thirsts for life. Our rabbi Moshe, peace be upon him, when his sentence was pronounced, asked the Master of the Universe, that he be laid to rest like the grass–eating beasts of the field, or like the bird floating in the four directions of the world.” Lord, look from your holy dwelling place and see – who have you harmed, upon who have you vented your rage. We have sinned, our sons have committed a crime, but these angels, these infants, these pure angels, these babies, what sin have they committed that your wrath be spilled upon them? What is their crime; that they must rot in the pit?”

“Jews, we are approaching martyrdom. Let us be united as one person. Let us go to our deaths with gladdened hearts. This horrible moment shall pass, and the merciful Lord above us will give our souls repose under His wings.”

After him the teacher Yosef Avrech, may his blood be avenged, spoke…Turning to Manthei, he said, “The people of Israel fight with all the force of the universe. Their memory is lost, but they will live forever. Many killers rose against us, and we saw our downfall, yet we will also see

your downfall. Don't imagine in your soul that you will win the war. I tell you, your defeat will soon come. It's a shame, such a shame, that we will not see your downfall.”

When Avrech finished speaking, Manthei took out a large pistol, pointed the muzzle at Avrech's head and shot him, and his brains spilled to the ground.

Another chapter from the Kovel book, (“From the Scene of Destruction'), recounts what one former resident found when he returned in 1945.

At six o'clock in the morning I went down, gingerly, into the city. It is difficult to express in words what my eyes beheld. The city gave the impression of a large cemetery, although here and there appeared the form of a man. Ninety percent of the houses had been destroyed. Fierce fighting had raged in the city, and it had changed hands several times. It is easy to imagine what had been done to her by the aerial bombing and the shelling from canons on both sides.

It was natural that my guiding instinct led me to my former home, the house I had lived in for 20 years, where I was raised and grew up, and where I spent the years of my childhood and adolescence. With my heart pounding and trembling deep in my soul, I approached Listopadova Street and searched for number 94, the number of our house. I did not find a single remnant of it, nor of any other houses, nearby or farther away. Rows of tumbled rocks and mounds of bricks on both sides of the street – this was the dismal picture of a street that had always been teeming with Jewish life - happy and cheerful, busy and worried.

From there – I went on to the great synagogue which had stood at the hub of that part of the city. It had remained intact, but everything inside had been stolen. The beautiful ark of the Covenant, which had been the glory of the Jewish community, had been smashed – all that remained were a few scraps of wooden openwork which were at too great a height for the hands of the unclean murderers to reach. The pulpit at the center of the synagogue had been destroyed. The bookcases, the pews, and the other furniture had all been stolen. As an eternal memorial, the names of hundreds remained on the walls of that holy place. They were the surnames of the martyrs of our community, which had been wiped off the face of the earth in 1942 – the surnames of our brothers and sisters, the flesh of our flesh and the bone of our bone – written in pencil, and in ink, and in their righteous blood. There were hundreds upon hundreds of the names of our dear and beloved ones, who passed through the synagogue on their final journey to the cemetery, the place where they were murdered in cold blood by the German murderers and their various assistants…

That same day, in the evening, I left Kovel, which had become a great wasteland. I left, and never returned.


Figure 2: The Great Synagogue of Kovel


Fighting Back. “The heroic struggle of the two heroes, the Adler brothers” from the Yizkor book of Tarnogrod, Poland.

Finally the Jews in the bunker became aware that the number of Germans lying in wait at their hiding place was small and the two Adler brothers decided to go out and make a sudden attack on the Germans. They opened a hidden door and the younger brother, who had a loaded revolver, lurched in the direction of the Germans. The older brother was holding a sharpened meat cleaver, which struck more fear into the Germans than the revolver; they began to withdraw.

He hit the first German, who had placed himself in his way, with the cleaver, and killed him on the spot. Immediately after this the second German started shooting his revolver at them. Then the second brother had to defend himself and fired. The second German fell and the two brothers fled across the street with the intention of breaking through the surrounding German lines and escaping from the town...

The circle with which the Germans surrounded the two Jews drew tighter and tighter with every minute….The older Adler began with great force to clear a way with his cleaver and the younger one covered him with revolver fire. After several minutes of unequal and relentless fighting, the older brother fell, still holding the cleaver. A German policeman immediately ran up to him to tear the cleaver from his hand. He was sure that the Jew was already dead, but just at the moment when the prostrate Jew felt the German over him he suddenly pulled himself up and with extraordinary heroism brought the cleaver down on the head of the German, who fell in a pool of blood. Adler gave his last gasp, as if a gasp of relief, and fell dead, just like a post sawed from the bottom…

This incident made an extraordinary impression on everyone who was in the street at the time. For a long time the Poles in the town spoke of it and told of the superhuman bravery of the two Jews.

What could give us a better sense of life in the shtetls than the subject of food. Here are some samplings from the Yizkor book of Lubtch and Delatich in Belarus.

Jews from Lubtch, like most of the population of that region, liked to eat fatty foods. There was simply a cult for fat: fatty meat, fatty chickens, fatty geese and ducks, goose fat, beef fat, fried chicken fat, fatty stuffed derma, fatty membranes, fatty puddings, fatty soup, a fowl's throat stuffed with fat, a fatty piece of breast meat, calves' feet jelly, and even a fatty bone.

Food, cooked, fried or baked with various kinds of fat, were the most delicious: cutlets, latkes , blintzes, pancakes, potatoes, mushrooms in butter, puddings, “blinis”, Passover matzah balls with goose fat, Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) “babke” cake dripping with butter, butter rolls, etc. Today, who still talks about a good piece of sausage, a fatty herring, and certainly a fatty fish right out of the Nieman River?

Yes, potatoes. What delicacies mothers in Lubtch used to make from them! Potatoes in their skins, peeled potatoes, fish potatoes (without fish), potatoes with beans, dairy potatoes, potato soup with fish, mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, potatoes cooked in Sabbath meat stew (“cholent”), potato pancakes (“latkes”), potato pudding with egg yolks (“kugel”), roasted potatoes, fried potatoes, pancakes made from potato gruel, potato dumplings (“kneidelach”), dainty potato stew with plums, dainty carrot stew with potatoes or potato dumplings (“tsimmes”) and, in fact, the entire set of potato items made with flour just as the song goes:

“Sunday potatoes, Monday potatoes
Tuesday and Wednesday, again potatoes”…

From “Daily Life in the Town,” a chapter in the Yizkor book of Golub-Dobrzyn in Poland:

On the cold winter days, when snow fell and covered the streets with a thick layer that reached up to the windowsills, the residents would emerge and try to shovel it aside, toiling until their faces became flushed. Afterwards they would clear the sidewalks so that it would be possible to reach the shops.

The winter season is hard on the ordinary people, who have to use their limited resources to stockpile food and fuel throughout the rest of the year. And when winter finally does end, the town comes back to life, awakening as if from a deep sleep, and begins to resume its normal routine.

For the young people, summer starts with cheerful outings to the nearby fields and forests. They gather strawberries, biting into them passionately and bringing home whatever is left. These “celebrations” are repeated several times during the summer, each one giving everyone great joy…

… The “large fairs”, special market days that were conducted four or five times a year, were like holidays in the town. At these times all the farmers of the region would stream into the town square with their goods. On the previous day the town would awaken as if to a new life, with everyone getting ready to set up stalls for selling merchandise. The stalls would be spread out next to the sidewalks, along “Long Street” (Pilsudski). Here the dealers laid out pants, coats and suits. Even the shoemakers laid their goods out—shoes and boots— in stalls. However the hat makers and the haberdashery dealers brought their goods to the market square itself, where they placed their merchandise on tables.

Thousands of farmers descended on the town on this day, whether to sell their own goods or to buy merchandise that they needed. They would fill the taverns to capacity, drinking beer and whiskey until they were intoxicated. As evening fell and the market day ended, many of them could be found lying along the sides of the streets and on the sidewalks, drunk as Lot, having spent all their money on liquor.

For the children these market days were especially joyous. They would look at the mobs of farmers with great glee, watching them wandering around the town square and the streets with deafening noise. In addition, the children would also get some “fair money” and become “rich” on these days.


Figure 3: Map of Dobrzyn-Golub


A touch of humor from a litany of such stories in the Yizkor book of Ciechanowiec, Poland:

It was a Hasidic custom to play cards on Hannukah. The winning money would be placed in a kitty and would be used to purchase whiskey. One Thursday, on Hannukah, the group played longer than usual. They figured that staying up late would not be so bad. Shabbos was coming and they could catch up on their sleep with a Saturday afternoon nap. But Satan had other plans. In shul on Saturday morning, one of the men dozed off. Just then, he was called to the Torah. A neighbor shook him out of his slumber and as he suddenly awakened he shouted out, “I pass, I pass!” This was an expression used in playing cards to indicate no participation.

“Sabbath in Town" from the Yizkor book of Olyka, Ukraine:

It was customary for Sabbath preparations to begin as early as Wednesday night. In most homes the housewife would wake up in the wee hours of the night before Friday morning, and thriftily begin her Sabbath preparations to the light of an oil lantern. There is much work to do and because Friday is a short day, everything has to be finished early to add a little time from Friday afternoon to the Sabbath day.

By daybreak the house wafts with the aroma of blintzes crackling in the pan in oil. This is the time to hurry up and get going, to make sure to attend the morning prayer service in order to eat the blintzes while they are still hot – right from the pan to the mouth. There are also pitas baking over the flame rising from the oven, reminding you of what is to come.

After baking the hallahs, (large families also baked loaves of bread for the rest of the week), there are all types of cake, as well as kichel and kurzhyakes, round cookies with a rising middle like a skullcap that melt in your mouth. Now comes the moment to place the Sabbath cholent stew into the oven, remembering there is a special angel in heaven appointed over the cholent, who makes sure the cholent does not get watery, or heaven forbid, burnt or bitter. It cooks just right, absorbing the fat and spices so that it would taste like something out of the Garden of Eden. Next comes the cleaning, to scrub and polish the house and copper/silverware until it all shines in the honor of the Sabbath…

The head of the house gathers together his sons and heads for the synagogue for the Sabbath prayer service. The synagogue is filled with light from oil candelabras and shining candelabras…At the end of the service the congregants remain to chat; they are in no rush, and walk home slowly, feeling calm and relaxed. Where does a person turn during the gloomy weekdays, when he is overwhelmed by his problems, and has a wrinkled forehead? Now that same person has a totally different face, as if he has no problems in the world. He now feels totally relaxed, like someone without a care in the world.

“A Wedding in Town” from the Yizkor book of Kobylnik in Belarus:

Before the wedding, there was an extensive, very practical exchange between the two sides, with the central aim being the size of the dowry that the parents of the bride would present the groom on the wedding day, as well as their agreement to support the young couple and to provide them with livelihood after the wedding if the groom wished to continue with his Torah studies. When they came into contact, each side of the family praised the bride or the groom to the best of their abilities, describing their special qualities. They would discuss the wonderful traits of the bride, her beauty, her charm, her expertise in running the household and maintaining cleanliness, her capabilities in the kitchen in cooking and baking, and her interpersonal success with her friends. On the other side, they described the groom's handsomeness, his good health, his success and abilities to become a good supporter of a family, and his diligence in business or some other endeavor. They also talked about his dedication to tradition, his expertise in the small letter, prayer, and scriptures. The age of the groom also served as a key point of discussion between the families.

For several days prior to the wedding, care was taken that the bride and groom not meet, and not even be under the same roof… Both remained in seclusion with their respective families. The families were also careful that the Jewish laws that applied to the wedding day would be observed meticulously…The ceremony here was very short. All the participants then walked from the bride's house to the synagogue, where the wedding ceremony would take place in the yard, under the open skies. This was a very joyous procession along the main street of the town, headed by the band, which was playing wedding songs. Behind the band, two elderly women, Sheina and Perl Leah, danced the “mitzvah dance” as everyone accompanied them with joyous hand clapping. The groom walked nearby the dancers, pale and emotional. His parents and attendants marched next to him. The crowd walked behind them with drums and dancing, all of them were singing amidst a very large bustle…

The entire gathering, accompanied by the band, returned from the synagogue to the house of the bride…When this gathering was literally at the pinnacle of drinking and eating, the jester began, as best he could, to announce in a loud voice the gifts (drasha geshank) that each of the invited guests was prepared to give to the bride and groom, whether money or gifts. The jester called out the name of the giver, and the crowd of celebrants applauded him….The meal finished, and the rounds of dancing began…The crowd was enthusiastic and tipsy, and they danced with anything that came to hand: they mixed a stormy polka with the solid waltz. The Cossack dance came after the Sherel. Of course, the tango, quadrille, foxtrot and other dances that were popular at that time were also not lacking. In general, the dancing continued until dawn. In the meantime, someone made sure to prepare a nearby side room for the bride and groom so that they could spend a bit of time together, away from the hustle and bustle, before the crowd dispersed.

Sadly, there were distant ancestors of Yizkor books which did not survive the Holocaust — contemporaneous, rather than recalled, accounts of life in the shtetls. In one of two Yizkor books for Kovel, there is a chapter titled “What is a Pinkes?” which described a “book” added to over many generations. In Kovel, the book was held by the burial society and a rabbi in the chapter described its contents this way to an inquisitive youth whose father hoped to be the next host for the book: “A pinkes, Leybele, is a book in which all of the unusual events and occurrences that take place in a town are recorded, both good things and, God forbid, not such good things . The good things are recorded, so that the generations that follow us will learn to behave well and will also perform good deeds. The bad things that happen, may we be spared, are recorded so that people may know not to do them and also so that the One Above will pity us and see that no evil harms us in the future. Amen.”

Here and there, a fragment of these survive and some are reproduced in some postwar Yizkor books, one such example being records from the “ancient” Zabludow Pinkas, the old ledger kept by the Jewish Community of Zabludow, Poland from the year 1646 to 1816. To get a sense of some of the content, here are some of the rules listed in a 1750 document that resembled kind of a constitution for the Zabludow community:

At weddings and circumcisions - of a affluent person, the one who donates fifty golden coins to the cash-box, the manager on duty is allowed to invite fifty guests to each meal, besides the ineligibles, Rabbi, Cantor, Beadle, Torah students and the poor. The beadle is not allowed to invite people to the meals without the permission of the manager on duty. For average people, thirty guests besides the ineligibles as described above, and for the low income men, twenty guests.

A person supported by his father or father-in-law must attend the daily prayers, morning and night in the synagogue.

Store owners are not allowed to open their stores till after the conclusion of the prayers in the synagogue. On Hol Hamoed (* intermediate days within Passover and the Tabernacles) they are not allowed to open the shutters, just the doors. The two men appointed to uphold the weights and measurements will observe the above noted rules, as well. When it will be proven, with witnesses, that incorrect weights or measurements were carried out, selling to Jews or to Gentiles, the fine will be four gold coins to the synagogue...

The slaughterers are not allowed to distribute the meat till after the conclusion of the prayers in the synagogue...They are forbidden to keep meat for more then two days, after which time they must salt it, and not soak it in water.

On the first day of saying Slichot (before the High Holidays) the community must determine who the prayer leaders and the Shofar blowers would be, to provide ample time for each prayer leader and Shofar blower to practice and prepare himself. Each prayer leader and Shofar blower must free himself from all his other activities, stay in the Beit-Hamidrash all day and learn, and especially during the last three days prior to Rosh Hashana.

A man who is not earning a living is forbidden from making malt and conducting business negotiations, except the barman who is allowed.

The wax left from candles from the Day of Atonement can not be sold to any merchant, only on the condition that he keeps it and sells it as memorial day candles or to the synagogue.

You can find the full chapters that are excerpted here by going to JewishGen's “Yizkor Book Translations” page and using the index to look up the town: https://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/translations/

Bruce Drake spent much of his career in journalism, as a Washington correspondent for the New York Daily News and Vice President for News at NPR. He is now a senior editor at the U.S.-based Pew Research Center.

Bridging the Gap in
Our Jewish Family History

by Joel Alpert

(originally published in Avotaynu, Volume XXXVI Number 4 Winter Edition 2020)

Most Ashkenazi Jews know more about the Exodus, the Diaspora, European history and modern Israel, than they do about the towns their relatives came from in Eastern Europe. Sure, many know that their family came from Odessa or Vilna, or perhaps a small shtetl near Kiev, but what do they know about the day-to-day lives of their family members before they left for the United States and other countries? A great gap yawns between the stories we heard from our grandparents and great-grandparents about their towns and villages, and the descriptions we read in history books.

To understand more about where we came from and the lives our ancestors lived, we need more information. How can we reconstruct what appears to be lost? How can we recover the rich history of a way of life long gone, the friends and families that permeated their lives, the customs and character of their towns? I believe my own story will point the way.


Personal Search

When I was doing genealogical research some 30 years ago, I stumbled across a genre of books about individual towns (shtetls) covering the period from the late 1800s through the Shoah. Most of these books described the Jewish history of the town and captured the town's unique culture, customs and colorful characters in first-hand memories of former residents and survivors of the Shoah. Amazingly, there were about 2000 of these books written in mostly Yiddish and Hebrew, and published primarily in Israel and the United States. Their distribution was limited mostly to other former town residents. The books were written primarily for the children of the survivors in order to preserve the memories and histories for future generations. We Jews are known to celebrate and mourn our past; those who lived in Europe during these years were no exception.

I was fortunate to discover two books for the towns where my paternal and maternal grandparents lived. Why had I not heard of these books before? The answer was simple. Most were not written in English, nor had they been translated. Fortunately, since 1996, descendants of families from towns all over Eastern Europe have been engaged in a worldwide project to rectify this problem. Their goal is to translate these historically important books into English and make them available for anyone interested in knowing about the towns and culture they represent. This is JewishGen.org's Yizkor Book Project. The books are called yizkor books because of the nature of their content. Yizkor in Hebrew means memorial or memory. The Yizkor Book Project translates the original Yiddish and Hebrew books into English and then makes them accessible to others online. Because the books almost always include a list of Holocaust victims, they are of direct genealogical value.

The Yizkor Book Project encourages individuals interested in a particular town to raise funds to pay for the translation of its yizkor book and then place the translation online at the JewishGen.org on the Yizkor Book Project. Today about 700 of the 2,000 existing yizkor books are completely or partially translated into English, with about 150 completely translated.


Origin of the Books

These books were created primarily in the 1950s and 1960s, by Holocaust survivors and former residents as they gathered in hometown groups (or landsleit) and spontaneously started writing down their memories and eventually turning their memories into books. For many of these men and women, their memories were all that was left of their communities, most of which had ceased to exist. For them to meet fellow Jews from their shtetl made them feel less isolated in their new communities. They reconnected with those they knew and tried to retain the closeness and intimacy of their former lives. These survivors of the devastation of the Holocaust were often the sole remnants of their families. Recording of their memories was a way to heal from the horrors they experienced.

In searching for my own roots, I found large collections of these Yiddish and Hebrew books in the Harvard University and the Brandeis University libraries, largely unread. When I found the book for Dokshitz, Belarus, my paternal grandparents' town, I saw that it had last been checked out 25 years earlier. It was in Yiddish, which I cannot read. These treasures had been neglected.

The books in these collection include first-hand accounts of life in the towns including their institutions, rabbis, people, intellectuals, history; all from their collective memory. They describe in rich detail what life was like for our ancestors and I realized that they could help me fill in the gaps in my family history, an opportunity to gain an intimate view of my ancestors' daily lives, thus adding a new dimension to my knowledge of my family's past.


Exploring the Yizkor Books

In 1993, I found the yizkor book for my maternal grandparents' town of Yurburg, Lithuania, written in Hebrew, and in 1996 I learned about the start of the Yizkor Book Project. I asked my extended family to contribute money for a translator to translate the book into English. By 2001, I had raised about $8,000, had the book, with more than 500 pages, translated and posted it on the Yizkor Book Project website.

My wife Nancy, noting the length of the Yurburg yizkor book observed that reading such a tome online would be a challenge to anyone, and urged me publish the information in book form. Thus, began the challenge of learning how to use the new Print-On-Demand business model to self-publish the book. This method is ideally suited for such low volume books because a book can be printed on-demand, one at a time. Initially my hope was to sell 100 books so that people with ancestors from Yurburg could share their families' background with their children and grandchildren. Today, more than 400 books have been sold, far surpassing my expectations.


Developing the Yizkor-Books-in-Print Project

After I retired, I decided to use my personal experience and knowledge to publish Yizkor books for other Jewish communities that had no personal connection to me. I approached JewishGen with my proposal. Now, nine years later, I coordinate JewishGen's Yizkor-Books-in-Print Project. As of late 2020, of the 150 books fully translated in the Yizkor Book Project, the Yizkor-Books-in-Print Project has published 110 titles and sold nearly 10,000 books. Any profits from selling the books goes directly back into the Yizkor Book Project to support more translations.


The Yurburg Yizkor Book Led to Many Discoveries

As I searched the Yurburg yizkor book for family names and other hints of value, I found a man from Yurburg, Jack Cossid, who left Yurburg in 1937 and came to Chicago. I learned that Jack knew a first cousin of my mother, Moshe Krelitz, who was Jack's mentor and dear friend. Moshe, his wife and daughter were murdered in September 1941, along with nearly every Jew in Yurburg. Jack lost his mentor Moshe and every other friend who had remained in Yurburg in 1941. Jack was overjoyed that 60 years after leaving Yurburg he connected with me, a cousin of his dear friend Moshe. I visited Jack many times in Chicago and I listened to him for hours recreating the shtetl that he left which is no more, giving me an inside view into the shtetl my grandparents left in 1903. The photograph album that Jack created in 1937 when he left for America, transported me to the Yurburg of my grandparents. As a result of further exploring information in the Yurburg yizkor book, I also connected with a cousin Max, now in Mexico, whose family failed in their attempt to immigrate to the United States in 1940 because of its quotas. His mother had kept poignant letters from her brother Moshe Krelitz begging her to get out of Lithuania. I also found other cousins living in Israel who left Lithuania in 1979 and thought they had no other family because they grew up behind the Iron Curtain. A cousin, Itta, whose father was also a first cousin of my mother, survived the death camps in Germany after losing his wife and daughter. He then married a Christian woman who nursed him back to health after the war. I met their daughter Itta in Berlin and have subsequently developed a rich bond with her. Although Itta is a non-practicing Catholic living in Germany, she feels part of our Jewish family and has attended a family reunion in Montreal. She had known very little of her father's family and his plight during World War II until I contacted her.


An Important Encounter with Professor Dov Levin

One of the prime motivators in my quest to publish as many yizkor books as possible was my meeting in 1998 with Professor Dov Levin, head of the Oral History Department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Dov was the keynote speaker at the International Jewish Genealogy Conference in Boston that I was attending. I had been trying to reach his friend, Josef Rosin, a distant relative in Haifa, whom I knew had a connection to Professor Levin. I approached Professor Levin and asked him how I might reach Josef. He told me to write a note right then and there and that he would “personally deliver it into his dear friend, Josef Rosin's hands.” He did exactly that.

I later learned that the two men had met as partisans in the forests of Lithuania during World War II. After the war, both made their way across Europe, immigrating illegally to Palestine in 1945. There the men reconnected and remained friends throughout their lives. In fact, they had just co-authored the monumental Pinkas HaKehilot Lita, The Encyclopedia of Lithuanian Jewish Communities, in Hebrew. The 750-page book details the history of 500 Jewish shtetlach and today is considered the most authoritative book on Lithuanian Jewish communities before the war. There was no English translation at that time, although Yad Vashem hoped to translate the book sometime in the future.

During our brief encounter, Professor Levin said, “The most important thing, Joel, is to make sure that these Yizkor Books and other related materials get translated and into the hands of English speakers.” His heartfelt message urging me on, still resonates with me 23 years later. I can still hear his deep authoritative Litvak-accented voice, even though he died in 2016.

When I finally met Josef Rosin in 2001, I discussed with him the possibility of expanding the material on each of the 500 Lithuanian villages that he had researched and written about in Pinkas HaKehilot Lita so that it could be published in English. This time around, he would have no page limitation for each shtetl. Even though the focus of the project had been on yizkor books, the material in his book was a definite complement to the yizkor books from Lithuanian villages, Josef was concerned that there were no potential readers of the material, and although he was reluctant at first, I was able to convince Josef otherwise. By 2006, Josef had completed three volumes of Preserving Our Litvak Heritage, covering 101 Lithuanian shtetlach. Josef died in 2014 and I miss both him and Dov for their inspiration, commitment, humanity and courage. They were remarkable men who made significant contributions to the documentation of Litvak history. These three books have become important resources for Litvak genealogists.


Impact of the Yizkor books

One learns so much from the yizkor books, both general information as described above, as well as family information such as names, relationships and personal family history. I have met several people over the years who have expressed gratitude for the yizkor book of their ancestral town. Some have found references to family members; others have discovered unknown photographs of parents or other relatives, homes and businesses. The books are a way of experiencing our past up close.

Over time, my personal family project morphed into a worldwide effort. It infused great meaning and purpose for me and for everyone who has chosen to volunteer on the Yizkor Book-in-Print project. It is hard to believe that my involvement in this all-consuming project started with the translation of my own family's Yizkor books so many years ago.

As the project has grown over the years, more and more volunteers were needed and solicited. These volunteers came from many countries of the world including Britain, Australia, Israel, Lithuania and the United States bringing with them their skills, enthusiasm, commitment, and joy at being able to preserve the memories of our Eastern European Jewish villages. Some volunteers type, scan documents, format the material, process images and prepare captions, obtain the required ISBN and LCCN (Library of Congress Numbers), write introductions, identify the towns on maps, design book covers, and process orders for the sales of the books. Currently, 15 active volunteers bring these yizkor books to print and distribution.


Status of the Yizkor-Book-in-Print Project

Today, the Yizkor Book Project is headed by an Israeli, Lance Ackerfeld. His goal is to work with volunteers to complete the translations of the 700 yizkor books now in the project. The goal of Yizkor-Book-in-Print Project is to publish as many of these translated books as possible. In addition to the yizkor books, we have added personal memoirs of survivors to the collection of books published.


The Way Forward

Those interested in learning how Yizkor books might help bridge a gap in their Jewish family history, should start by going to JewishGen yizkor book project, https://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/translations/, to see if their family's towns are listed, and if the books are already translated and/or in process. Check the list of printed books and those in process, at: https://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/ybip.html . Perhaps, volunteer to help save your own family history and the memories of those who perished from your ancestral town.

Joel Alpert is coordinator of the Yizkor-Books-in-Print Project of JewishGen. Raised in Wisconsin, he is a retired electrical engineer and spent over 30 years at a national laboratory, part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He lived in Israel during the Yom Kippur War. He currently lives in the Boston area and Tucson, Arizona.

Entering a Lost World

A student's query resulted in the author's discovering details
of Jewish communities in early 20th century Europe.

Theodore Steinberg


Note: This piece first appeared in Gary Rosenblatt's Substack newsletter, Between the Lines.  Follow him at GaryRosenblatt.Substack.com


After a session of my Introductory Yiddish class, a student asked if I knew what Yizkor Books were. Of course I did, I said. They are the pamphlets that synagogues use for Yizkor memorial services. “No, not that kind,” he said. “The other kind.” It is “the other kind” that have become my retirement project, translating them into English, and that are the subject of this essay.

“The other kind” are collections of essays that were put together during, but mostly after, the Shoah, usually under the aegis of landsmanshaftn, organizations of residents from cities, towns, and shtetls who had survived the destruction of their communities. These landsmanshaftn—located mostly in Israel, the United States, and Argentina—solicited essays and photographs from their members on virtually any aspect of their disappeared communities in Eastern Europe (or in Yiddishland, as it is coming to be known). An editorial board reviewed and assembled the essays, and the volumes were published in small numbers, mostly for other members of the landsmanshaft. No one knows exactly how many of these were printed, but the latest count that I know of is well over a thousand. There are Yizkor Books for large cities, smaller cities, and even smaller towns.

The contents vary from book to book. There are essays about the town's history, about famous or distinctive people, about sports clubs, political movements, religious life, experiences during the Shoah, and about residents' post-Shoah lives, among many other subjects.

Reading the essays is a wonderful experience. Readers must remember that almost none of the authors was a professional writer, so some of the essays are, if not slightly disorganized, then digressive. Nonetheless, they provide invaluable insights into pre-Shoah life—the hopes, the problems, the relationships, the quarrels, the alliances, all the things that constituted everyday life. There are descriptions of food, of synagogues, of chasidic prayer houses, of workingmen and women, of charity and social welfare organizations, and, of course, of anti-Semitic incidents. In other words, these Yizkor Books describe a world that was destroyed – a real, vibrant, rich world that may often appear over-romanticized in modern retellings.

One notable aspect of the Yizkor Books is that the editors almost invariably include an introduction that makes a touching point: each Yizkor Book is a monument to its location. The inhabitants of the towns may have been slaughtered and they may have lacked burial and gravestones, but these books can serve as their monuments, keeping alive their memories, their lives, their joys and sorrows. Often the essays contain strings of names—here are the members of this board or the founders of this charitable organization or all the kosher butchers in town. Some readers might find these lists extraneous, but as I translate them, I feel that I am helping to preserve their memories, contributing to a posthumous victory over their killers. These are our people, and these were their lives, too often cut short, but beautiful in their own ways, and important, as all life should be.

There are in these Yizkor Books a number of poems as well, mostly written by ordinary people who were moved to express their memories and feelings in verse. None of them is a Keats or a Yeats, or to put it in Yiddish terms, a Mani Leib or a Moyshe Leib Halpern, but their poems are heartfelt and poignant, “a spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion,” as Wordsworth would say.

I referred above to my translating these precious works. My Yiddish student, having shown me the Yizkor Book from his mother's town, Wolomin (near Warsaw), asked if I might be interested in translating it. He explained that the Jewish Genealogical Society was working to have all the Yizkor Books translated and put online. Would I, he asked, be interested in translating this one. I was, and so I did, and after that, five more, so far.

The essays are primarily written in Yiddish and, because many of the survivors lived in Israel, some are in Hebrew. I do only the Yiddish sections, largely because of my own attraction to Yiddish language and culture. But I do encourage everyone to go to the website of the Jewish Genealogical Society to look into the Yizkor Book project. You might want to look up the towns where your ancestors lived to see whether a Yizkor Book exists and whether it has been translated yet. Or you might want to choose towns at random, just to see what life was like in Yiddishland before the Shoah. And for those who are really interested, the Jewish Genealogical Society has also printed a number of the translations in book form.

Understandably, the essays occasionally romanticize the lost world that they are describing, but they also capture the spirit of that world. Here's one example. In the Wolomin volume, Shmuel Zucker contributed an essay called “Erev Shabbos.” He describes Friday afternoons, when schools closed early, when the smell of baking challahs filled the air, when people rushed to the bathhouse and then put on their finest clothes. He describes the home preparations and candle lighting. Then he jumps to the next day, to activities in the beis-medresh (synagogue) between the Mincha and Ma'ariv services. Some of the men are learning Talmud, either alone or in groups, while others are talking politics. Everyone is trying to stay warm in the poorly heated building. And then, Zucker writes: “It sometimes happened that…suddenly would be heard a lament from an unhappy mother whose child was seriously ill. Then everyone would immediately begin reciting Psalms. We could feel in the air a great Jewish unity and care for each other.”

I find that short paragraph profoundly moving, as Zucker, having described a central community institution, shows how, at a time of crisis, the men who were gathered there put aside their own concerns and joined together in prayer for a mother in distress.

Each essay in these Yizkor Books shows such insights into a world that we can only visit through the records left by those who lived there. They are an incredible resource that should be more widely known.

Theodore Steinberg was Distinguished Teaching Professor in the English Department at SUNY Fredonia (NY) and is the author of several books, including a study of the 19th century author known as Mendele Mocher Seforim (Mendele the book peddler), widely considered the grandfather of Yiddish literature. Steinberg currently is translating a Yizkor Book from the Belorussian city of Vitebsk, home of artist Marc Chagall.


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