April 19, 2012 by LeVoyageur
Today is Yom HaShoah in Israel, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The country stills itself for a few minutes in the morning as sirens wail and the population remembers. Jewish communities throughout the world will mark the day with memorial services, speakers, and by taking part in events that raise awareness or help others.
Several years ago, while a graduate student in library school and while working at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago, I became interested in a form of memorial to those communities destroyed in the Holocaust. Books began to appear on my desk for processing known as ‘yizkor books.’
These works were often monumental volumes published in very small quantities and they defied conventional cataloging. It was unclear to me at first: were they biography, history, Holocaust Studies, Jewish Studies, or all of the above? To browse through the pages of a yizkor book, you would discover an often polyglot presentation of communal history that was at once local history and personal memoir, a memorial to victims of genocide, and a testament to survival.
Yizkor books are a form of literature with roots deep in Jewish history. Appearing as early as the Middle Ages, one famous example is the Memorbuch of Nuremburg which was written following the massacres of Jews during the Crusades, recording those who were lost and local communal history. In the 17th century, following the Chmielnicki massacres of Jews during the Ukrainian war of independence from Poland, other communal memorial books were penned. Perhaps most famous is Yeven Metzulah, or The Abyss of Despair, by Rabbi Nathan of Hanover. Hanover had fled the violence and later encountered survivors wandering through Europe whose recollections are included in his work.
Following World War II, most of the survivors of the Holocaust dispersed throughout the world from their homelands in Europe. They moved to the new state of Israel, to Australia, Argentina, America and everywhere in between. Small communities in Eastern Europe, now lost, were painful memories to the remnant, living thousands of miles from their former homes.
As survivors began to build new lives, there was also the desire to remember. One way that this remembrance took form was through the yizkor books that had become a sad testament to the all-too-frequent experience of violence against Jews in the history of Europe. Survivors from towns across Europe began to form international committees to remember their lost communities and families. Through these committees, composed of fellow survivors living around the world, yizkor books were published.
Given these circumstances, yizkor books were often written in several languages at once: you might find Hebrew, Yiddish, English, Spanish, Romanian, or Polish in one volume. The volumes vary from place to place, but are presented universally as testaments to the memory of the lost Jewish communities of Europe, that they would not be forgotten. Photos of communal organizations, from sports groups to nature lovers, from workers movements to religious leaders provides a unique historical picture of the life of small Jewish communities prior to the Holocaust. Remembrances of Jewish life and short biographies of many who were killed, such as resistance leaders, rabbis, local dignitaries, the young and old, often make yizkor books seem very personal.
And to be fair, they are very personal. But in the personal nature of the reflections, the sadness, the anger, and the testimony, we find the vitally important voice of the non-historian. The survivors, whose often raw memories surface in the works, record for whoever would listen their own version of events and history.
However historians use yizkor books or however librarians categorize them, they established a historical record. If survival meant living with an incomprehensible burden, one option open to survivors was to remain silent. Many did remain silent for years; but many also rose up above their pain to ensure that the incomprehensible losses they had experienced would not be suffered in silence. The unspeakable would not remain unspoken.
Individually, each yizkor book may hold special appeal to a small number of people with links to a particular community or family. Each work is a sort of monument, valuable in its own right. But as a corpus, the number of yizkor books runs into the thousands, they speak with great clarity. The entire library of yizkor books profoundly relates not just the inhumanity of their times, but the context in which it took place and it’s aftermath. Yizkor books are remembrances of brutality but importantly, they are also remembrances of a time before the Shoah and a testament to survival.
For further reading, I have attached my work on Yizkor books (below) and direct you to the yizkor books section on the website of the New York Public Library, and to the Yizkor Book Project of Jewish Gen.