The village had only one shop in it.

Located in rural Ukraine, the town consisted of some houses and a combination gas station-garage-grocery. That was where Jeffrey Veidlinger, the Joseph Brodsky Collegiate Professor of History and Judaic Studies in LSA, found himself one day during the summer of 2010. Veidlinger was travelling with a team researching the language and lives of people in Eastern Europe, searching for those who had grown up speaking Yiddish and who remembered life before World War II.

The team had driven for hours to reach this shop and meet a man who had promised to escort them to see his Yiddish-speaking mother. But when they finally got there, the son said no, there would be no interview.

“We met him and he refused to take us to his mother,” Veidlinger explains. “He said that he had lost a job once because he was Jewish, and he was worried about reminding everybody in town of his ethnic background by walking around with an international team of researchers.”

It was, of course, disappointing. “I felt very bad for the woman,” Veidlinger says. “She was the only Yiddish speaker in that town, probably the only one for miles around. Here was this opportunity to tell her life story to us, in Yiddish, and she didn’t have that opportunity.”

Finders and Keepers

Veidlinger and his team’s research is part of the Archives of Historical and Ethnographic Yiddish Memories (AHEYM) project, co-run by Veidlinger and Professor Dov-Ber Kerler of Indiana University Bloomington. AHEYM documents the lives of Jews living in the Russian borderlands whose story has been “thrice-marginalized,” Veidlinger says, “by Holocaust history, which tended to favor the experience of those who were in concentration camps; by Soviet history, which tended to belittle the experience of Jews in the Soviet Union; and in Jewish history, which tended to favor upwardly mobile Jews and the experience of Jews migrating to big cities rather than those who were left behind.”

Near Pechera, Ukraine, Sasha Kolodenker (left) and Rita Shveibish (right) stand in a forest clearing by the site of a mass grave for victims of the Nazi occupation. Shveibish survived the concentration camp set up by Nazis in Pechera. Photo by Artur Fraçzak.

Some Yiddish-speaking Jews still lived in the Soviet borderlands despite the long and brutal history of anti-semitism and violence in the area, including pogroms, mass murder during the Nazi occupation and Stalin regime, and Soviet “anti-Zionist” policies. Veidlinger’s team was able to find only about 450 Yiddish speakers to interview.

While the project encountered plenty of challenges—including the son who cancelled the interview with his mother in the final hour—the team’s interviews were otherwise almost entirely successes, says Veidlinger.

“To most people, our interviews brought a lot of joy. Even when they were talking about the difficult parts of their lives, everybody wanted to speak with us. 

“You can imagine being in your 90s and an international team of researchers comes to your village and wants to speak with you about your life and what you experienced in your own language, especially if your story had been repressed. There’s a good reason why they want to talk.”

Interviewing people in Yiddish allowed people who grew up speaking the language to remember things differently, Veidlinger says. Simply speaking it aloud conjured details and stories that would otherwise have been lost.

“The rhythms of life seem to come out differently in different languages,” Veidlinger says. “It’s often hard to express the things that you experience in a language that is different than the language in which you experienced them.

Professor Jeffrey Veidlinger (far left) and Professor Dov-Ber Kerler of Indiana University Bloomington (second from left) interview Nukhim Gvinter in his home and workshop in Bershad, Ukraine. A stack of partially finished leather boots, which Gvinter makes, is visible behind his left shoulder. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Veidlinger.

“And sometimes there just aren’t words for what you’re talking about in another language,” Veidlinger says. “Pilmeni is a dumpling, but the word ‘dumpling’ conjures different images in different cultures. So things like particular dishes, things like prayers, things like religious rituals, can be expressed much more easily in the language in which they take place.”

“We Risk Losing an Entire Culture”

Veidlinger teaches in LSA’s Department of History and in the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, which features one of the most important and widely respected Yiddish programs in the world. The Rita Poretsky Foundation recently offered a $150,000 challenge grant to support the center’s Yiddish program and will match donations until either the goal is met or the January 31, 2019, deadline is reached. Money raised by the challenge grant will expand the number of Yiddish language classes that the program offers, including opportunities to study Yiddish literature and culture with important scholars like Veidlinger, Professor Mikhail Krutikov, and Tikva Frymer-Kensky Collegiate Professor Anita Norich. This study is vital, says Deborah Dash Moore, the Frederick G.L. Huetwell Professor of History and Judaic Studies, to understanding many key events of world history.

If Yiddish programs like LSA’s go unsupported, then important parts of our history will vanish, Veidlinger says, and the stories of men and women like those interviewed by AHEYM will disappear.

“We risk losing an entire culture without Yiddish: the culture of Eastern European Jews,” Veidlinger says. “It’s a culture that was more than decimated by the Holocaust and by Communism and by Sovietization. It’s also where most American Jews trace their ancestry to. To understand that place, it’s important to understand and study Yiddish.”


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