Helen Pollack

Helen Pollack, one of the Yiddish Book Center’s very first zamlers, has remained a member and supporter of the Center for many years. She is now a member of the Yerushe Society, designating a bequest to the Center in her estate plans.

Black and white drawing of woman with pearl necklace smiling joyously

One day in the early 1980s Helen Pollack and her husband, Irving, were reading the Forverts newspaper when they came across an advertisement that caught their eye.  

“We answered the ad, and lo and behold three young men came out to us in an old truck,” Helen recalled. “They gave us some literature and told us what we were supposed to do. We sent letters to synagogues, to the local paper, saying we were collecting Yiddish books, and suddenly we started getting lots of calls.” 

Helen and Irving were among the very first zamlers, or volunteer book collectors, for the Yiddish Book Center, which was then just getting off the ground. While Irving has since passed, Helen, now 98 years old (biz hundert un tsvantsik—until 120), has remained a member and supporter of the Yiddish Book Center and is a member of the Yerushe Society, designating a bequest to the Center in her estate plans.  

Helen’s parents were second-generation Ameri-cans and didn’t speak much Yiddish at home, she said. But they sent her to the Sholem Aleichem Shule, a secular Yiddishist after-school program, where she learned some of the language. She later went to City College and Columbia University, became a high school teacher, and met her husband, a World War II veteran who was also a teacher. In the 1970s the couple moved from their home in Brooklyn to Cedarhurst, Long Island, where they became involved in their local Conservative synagogue and other Jewish organizations. When the call came to save Yiddish books, it was something they knew they had to do. 

“We collected things that really blew our minds,” Helen recalled. “Math books in Yiddish, all of Charles Dickens in Yiddish, Shakespeare in Yiddish—we were just thrilled with the books.” 

The Pollacks’ ties to the local Jewish community helped them in their quest, and collecting Yiddish books allowed them to make new connections. “I collected books from temples, from synagogues,” Helen recalled. “Most of the time it was from older people who loved Yiddish, who were part of the Yiddish world, but who were sizing down and were getting rid of their homes. I met so many different kinds of people.”  

The Pollacks’ involvement with the Yiddish Book Center didn’t stop with book collecting. “We were both teachers, we didn’t have a great income, but I always found that I could afford to help them out with whatever program they were doing,” Helen said. “Whatever they wanted to do, I was happy to be part of it.” 

Now, more than forty years after she first started collecting books for the Center, Helen is proud to see her work bear fruits. “I knew there was a future for Yiddishkayt,” she proclaimed. “And I see it in what the Center is doing, with their summer pro-grams and college programs. That is my purpose in collecting, and I have hope that there will be a renaissance in Jewish literature. I think we can keep it alive.”  

Are you also a zamler or member from the early days of the Yiddish Book Center? If so, we would love to hear from you. Please contact us at [email protected] or 413-256-4900 ext. 117.