Yiddish in Historical Research: Some Reflections
Zaagsma, Gerben, European Judaism
This article discusses the importance of Yiddish for our understanding of European Jewish histories and highlights some of the particularities of using Yiddish materials in historical research and the problems involved in doing so. There is a wealth of Yiddish materials available for historians yet many sources still need to be catalogued and disclosed. At the same time it is often not easy for historians to acquire the necessary linguistic skills to use Yiddish sources in their research, both because of practical reasons and a lack of awareness of the specific linguistic needs of historians. Opening up the field of Yiddish to historians though is very important to understand the rich and varied histories of Europe's Jews better, particularly before the Holocaust.
In the past two decades the landscape of Yiddish in Europe has changed significantly due to what is often perceived and described as a 'Yiddish revival'. But, despite much talk about this revival in popular culture (and what that is supposed to mean is usually not very clearly defined), it seems that an interest in Yiddish outside the fields of literary studies or linguistics is growing only slowly. Ewa Geller's recent remark that 'around the world the number of institutions offering Yiddish on a high academic level is growing proportionally to the diminishing number of native Yiddish speakers' does not seem to reveal itself in the number of historians working with Yiddish sources, which remains relatively small. (1) In that sense, the recent establishment of the Bundism.net network is a notable and very welcome sign of a younger generation of historians engaging with Yiddish in their work. (2) Generally speaking, though, we face a situation where there is a huge mass of Yiddish material still to be uncovered and used but relatively few young historians present who acquire or possess the linguistic skills to engage with that material in their research.
This is a great pity, all the more because it distorts our view of European Jewish histories. The importance of Yiddish is not only self-evident when studying the histories of Jews in Eastern Europe; the Jewish experience in every West European country is to a greater or lesser extent shaped by East European Jewish migration and thus has a Yiddish dimension. In that sense the European Yiddish experience is fundamental to understanding European Jewish history today (and the same is of course true for the Americas and Israel). Yiddish is also important for a better understanding of the extraordinarily rich and varied history and culture of Europe's Jews before the Holocaust, which so often still stands in its shadow as merely a pre-history leading up to that catastrophic event instead of being evaluated on its own terms.
There exists a vast wealth of Yiddish archives that awaits historians in both Europe and the Americas. Many national libraries and institutes in Europe have Yiddish materials. One only needs to think of the Yiddish collection of the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam, the newspaper collections of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the British Library in London, the holdings of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw or materials located in Vilnius, which very few scholars know about. As for the United States, of course YIVO's archival holdings are indispensable for any scholar of (East) European Jewry and in addition the Dorot Jewish Division of New York University Library houses many Yiddish books and newspapers as does Harvard's Widener Library in its Judaica collection. (3) And highly important is the recent launch of the National Yiddish Book Center's digital library which has brought more than 10,000 Yiddish books online and made them available to researchers worldwide. (4) Those are only the most obvious collections as Yiddish materials are spread in many other places and often among general archival holdings or libraries; take for instance the Yiddish titles in the Kate Sharpley Library on the anarchist movement in California or the Fuks collecton in the Dutch town of Leeuwarden. …