Capture Oral Histories in Yiddish—Before It's Too Late

A letter from Aaron Lansky

I’m writing to ask you to support an all-out drive to capture a large number of oral history interviews in Yiddish, while the last Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe are still here to tell their stories. For a limited time, your gift will count twice—matched dollar for dollar by our friends Deborah and Peter Wexler.

But first I want to share a story of my own. Not long ago, Christa Whitney, the head of our Wexler Oral History Project, came to see me.  

“Binyomin Harshav is in the hospital,” she said.  

Born in Vilna in 1928, Professor Harshav was an accomplished Yiddish and Hebrew poet and translator, a biographer of Marc Chagall, and a professor of Hebrew language and literature at Yale. When Christa interviewed him at his home in New Haven, she was amazed by his recall of Jewish Vilna before the War, “of the Yiddish writers and folkstimlekhe (folksy) details.”

That interview, which you can view on our website, is riveting. Speaking in a rich, native Yiddish, Harshav recalls the time his teacher sent him and his fellow students to collect Yiddish curses as part of a class on folklore. They headed to the marketplace to eavesdrop on the women in the stalls—including Chaim Grade’s mother, who eked out a living selling rotten apples. When they didn’t hear what they wanted, they pretended to steal fish from the fisherkes, the fishmongers, who responded with a torrent of invective. “Kh’l makhn fun dayne kishkes a telefon!—"I’m going to twist your intestines into a telephone cord!”—one woman yelled at him, an expression that still made Harshav smile all those years later.

Harshav grew up above the Kletskin Publishing House, one of the most important Yiddish publishers in Europe. When he was four, he befriended a typesetter by reciting a Yiddish poem by Mani Leib. In the summer his family moved to a dacha, a cottage in the country. Chaim Grade and Avrom Sutzkever, two of the world’s greatest Yiddish writers, would sit on the porch on Shabbos afternoons to study Jewish history with Harshav’s father.  

Once Professor Harshav began telling stories, he couldn’t stop. Christa arrived at 10 in the morning and she kept the camera rolling till after dark. By that point Harshav had gotten as far as age eighteen, and he still had a long lifetime of stories to go: escape from the Nazis, refugee life in the Urals, aliya to Israel on the last illegal ship in 1948, adventures in the Israeli Army, membership in a prominent Hebrew literary group, the founding of an academic department at Tel Aviv University, and his groundbreaking work at Yale.  

“When will you be back?” he asked as Christa packed the lights and camera.  

“Soon,” she promised.  

“But I never got back there,” Christa told me that day in my office. “We tried to find a day and either it didn’t work for him or it didn’t work for me. Literally last week I was due to interview him. I called the day before to confirm.  [His wife] Bobby said he’s in the hospital; he’s not doing well. " . . .  Her eyes filled with tears. “I’m so sorry,” she said. 

Professor Harshav died three weeks later. Although Christa blamed herself for not returning sooner, it was hardly her fault. Since founding the Wexler Oral History Project, she and her small crew have traveled thousands of miles, filming last-minute interviews in Montreal, Mexico City, Havana, Buenos Aires, Warsaw, Vilna, and Tel Aviv. They’ve recorded an astonishing 601 interviews. Yet perhaps it’s human nature that the stories we fail to capture are the ones we’re least able to forget.

Of course, the Yiddish Book Center is no stranger to triage: Which imperiled books do we rescue first? Which titles do we digitize? Which do we translate?  Which do we share with students? The same goes for oral history: there are so many Jews with stories to share, and it’s never easy to decide which to film first.  

But as Professor Harshav’s passing made clear, time is running out, and we’ve therefore decided to launch a full-scale initiative over the next three years to focus on those groups that literally can’t wait:  surviving Yiddish writers and their descendants, Yiddish actors and performers, and those Jews who still possess firsthand memories of Yiddish-speaking life in Eastern Europe and beyond.  

Whenever possible, we intend to record the interviews in Yiddish. “People open up in Yiddish,” Christa reports. “They say things they wouldn’t say in English. Any suspicion about who I am and what I want from them seems to fall away when we start speaking Yiddish. Some of the best interviews I’ve conducted, and certainly the most memorable, have been in Yiddish.”

Lemoshl—for example? Two years ago Christa traveled to Vilna, where she interviewed Fira Bramson, a retired librarian who helped catalog Yiddish books after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At first Fira was reticent. “She slouched in her chair, resistant to questions,” Christa recalls. “I spoke to her in Yiddish and her entire attitude changed. She sat up straighter, leaned toward me, spoke animatedly. She got so into telling her story she couldn’t stop—she continued to speak to me as I was packing up the equipment.”  

In Wroclaw, Henryk Robak told how his father, the editor of Haynt, a major Yiddish newspaper, used to take him to Warsaw’s groyse sinagoge to hear Koussevitzky, Sirota, Yossele Rosenblatt, and other legendary khazonim (cantors).

In Israel, too, Christa was amazed how many people were eager to speak to her in Yiddish. Shura Grinhoyz-Turkow told how, as a teenager in Bialystok, she ran off with a jazz musician from Odessa—a rash decision that saved her life by placing her beyond the reach of the Nazi invasion. Lea Szlanger described Shabbos afternoons in a Tel Aviv café, sipping coffee with Szymon Dzigan, the famed Yiddish comedian. The poet Moshe Sachar remembered troubadours performing in the courtyard of his Lodz apartment house: “Khotsh di shtot iz geven a groyse fabrikant shtot, undzer hoyf iz geven vi a kleyn shtetl—even though Lodz was a great manufacturing city, our courtyard was like a small shtetl.”

Stories like these and hundreds of others provide an incomparable portrait of Jewish life at a moment of profound cultural change. They’ve already become an indispensable source for scholars, and they’re attracting a wider audience as well: full-length interviews have been viewed 263,368 times on our website, excerpts with English subtitles have been seen 1,548,512 times on YouTube, and short films based on the interviews have been screened at cultural festivals, museums, synagogues, and other public events around the world. 

Christa and her team of filmmakers, students, and volunteers are determined to do everything in their power to capture as many additional stories as they can before it’s too late. They’ve got their work cut out for them.  In addition to actual filming, each interview requires upwards of forty hours of research, editing, key-wording, cataloging, excerpting, and subtitling before being uploaded to YouTube, the Internet Archive, and the Center’s website. The estimated, incremental cost of an all-out push over the next three years is $300,000—a metsie, a small price to pay to preserve our history, but an enormous expense for an organization like ours. 

That’s why I’m so excited that Deborah and Peter Wexler have placed a remarkable challenge on the table: they have agreed to match every single dollar you contribute!  

I’ll always remember how you rose to the occasion and helped us rescue more than a million Yiddish books at the last minute. Now I’m turning to you with equal urgency, to ask you to help us save imperiled Yiddish stories as well.  

  • Your tax-deductible contribution of $10,000 will fund an extended trip to interview Yiddish-speaking Jews in Israel, Russia, Poland, South Africa, Australia, or Argentina.
  • $5,000 will cover the cost of a “field kit” for additional interviewers: a camera, lights, and tripod.  
  • $1,500 will pay for additional Yiddish-speaking interns to process the collected interviews: key-wording, cataloging, subtitling, and posting excerpts to YouTube.
  • $500 will allow us to race off at a moment’s notice to film a now-or-never interview in the United States or Canada.

Given the stakes—and the urgency—I hope you’ll be as generous as you can. But I want to assure you that whatever you can afford, your help will make a real difference—and it will go twice as far, matched dollar for dollar by Deborah and Peter Wexler’s generous offer. 

Please, won’t you make your most generous, tax-deductible contribution right now, while there’s still time?

Mit a hartsikn dank—With heartfelt thanks,

Aaron Lansky

P.S. You can view some of the clips from our Yiddish interviews on our website. Or make a donation in support of this effort.