Help us preserve and protect the countless Ukrainian Yiddish titles in our keeping
Help us safeguard the Jewish heritage that flourished in Ukraine for a thousand years, and to do all we can to make sure it’s neither obliterated nor forgotten
For Jews, the war in Ukraine has been especially heartrending. Many of our parents and grandparents came from those lands, and many Jews are still there. Like me and my wife, you may already be supporting humanitarian efforts to help those displaced by the fighting. Here at the Yiddish Book Center, however, we face an additional responsibility: to safeguard the Jewish heritage that flourished in Ukraine for a thousand years, and to do all we can to make sure it’s neither obliterated nor forgotten.
The role of Ukraine in Jewish history cannot be overstated. It’s a story of persecution and pogroms that compelled many of our ancestors to emigrate, but it’s also a tale of extraordinary Jewish creativity. The area was the birthplace of Hasidism, and also of Yiddish theater and modern Yiddish literature, which began with the publication of Mendele Moykher-Sforim’s first Yiddish story in Odessa in 1864.
Sholem Aleichem, the most beloved of all Yiddish writers, was born in the shtetl of Pereiaslav, near Kyiv, in 1859, and most of his best- known stories, including Tevye der milkhiker (Tevye the Dairyman), are set in Ukraine. When Sholem Aleichem was alive Kyiv was largely off- limits to Jews; today, his statue proudly stands in a city square.
In 1908, the polyglot city of Czernowitz—then in Austro- Hungary, now Chernivtsi, Ukraine—played host to an international conference where Yiddish was declared “a national language of the Jewish people.” Afterward, I. L. Peretz, Sholem Asch, Hersh Dovid Nomberg, Avrom Reyzen, and other Yiddish luminaries set off on a rollicking literary road show to urge cheering crowds to put the resolution into practice.
Modern Zionism took root in Odessa, where tensions between Hebrew and Yiddish animated the debates of the Khokhmey Odes, the self-proclaimed “Wise Men of Odessa.” It’s said that the Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik used to go every day to a local newsstand to buy a Hebrew newspaper. One day, however, he arrived out of breath and shouted,“Gikh, gikh, git mir di tsaytung!” (“Quick, quick, give me my newspaper!”) The clerk was dumbfounded. “Mar Bialik,” he said, “usually you ask in Hebrew. Why today in Yiddish?” “Vayl haynt hob ikh nisht keyn tsayt,” snapped Bialik. “Because today I have no time!”
From 1912 to 1914, S. An-sky led an ethnographic expedition through the shtetlekh of Ukraine. His plan to return the following year with a list of 2,000 questions was derailed by the First World War, but his collected notes, photographs, and sound recordings survived, as did The Dybbuk, one of the most famous Yiddish plays, which he wrote to showcase his research.
Beginning in 1918, Jewish creativity exploded under the patronage of the newly independent Ukrainian government. The Kultur-lige supported Yiddish writers and avant-garde Jewish artists like Issachar Ber Ryback and El Lissitzky. Yiddish theater flourished, and Ukrainian-born Jewish writers like Dovid Bergelson, Der Nister, Leyb Kvitko, Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, Itzik Manger, David Hofstein, and many others breathed new life into Yiddish letters. Isaac Babel wrote indelible Jewish stories in Russian, including the tale of Benya Krik, the larger-than-life boss of Odessa’s Jewish underworld.
Why remember these long-ago accomplishments now? Who has time to think about books and culture when missiles are flying and people are dying?
Vladimir Putin, for one. From the outset, he has insisted that there is no such thing as a Ukrainian language or people. Perhaps that’s why, even as his troops attack Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, they’re also taking aim at Ukrainian art and culture. According to the Museum Crisis Center, over the first 20 days of the war Russian troops attacked libraries, churches, and a mosque, shelled local historical museums in Chernihiv and Okhtyrka, destroyed architectural monuments in Kharkiv, and burned the art museum in Ivankiv to the ground. Anastasiia Prymachenko, the great- granddaughter of a Ukrainian artist whose paintings perished in the blaze, told the Times of London, “I think it is because they want to destroy our Ukrainian culture—the museum is the only thing we have with lots of artifacts showing Ukrainian culture.”
The Ukrainians are resisting culturally as well as militarily. Across the country, museum workers are dismantling exhibits and hiding artifacts, and others are surrounding statues with sandbags to protect the patrimony on which their national identity depends.
They’re also protecting online treasures. Library professionals have identified and archived over 2,000 Ukrainian cultural heritage websites in order to safeguard “scientific and historical data, virtual reality exhibits, tours, photographs, music and sound recordings, art, sculptures, theater, and university resources such as journals and digital rare books, to name only a few.”
And what about Jewish cultural artifacts in Ukraine?
The country still has an active Jewish community, and some of their institutions have suffered damage, including the 111-year-old Choral Synagogue in Kharkiv, where the windows were blown out by a nearby missile strike, or a Jewish day school that was hit by artillery fire. Other missiles landed just adjacent to Babi Yar, the ravine on the outskirts of Kyiv where the Nazis shot 33,771 Jews over the course of a single week in 1941. Thousands of Jews have reportedly escaped the country, but historical memories are never far behind. The vast majority of the million Soviet Jews killed in the Holocaust were in Ukraine. Soviet persecution of Jews that began in the late 1920s culminated on August 12, 1952, when Stalin ordered the execution of major Yiddish writers–including many from Ukraine–on a single night. Although a surprising number of Jewish buildings still stand in Ukraine, many more, including libraries, schools, cultural centers, and synagogues, were destroyed long since, by Nazis and Soviets alike.
All of which makes our work at the Yiddish Book Center even more critical, because today one of the largest collections of Yiddish books and artifacts published and created in Ukraine can be found not in Kyiv or Kharkiv, but in the Lief D. Rosenblatt Library, a secure, fireproof, underground facility beneath our Amherst headquarters. And that’s not all. Thanks to your vision, most Ukrainian Yiddish titles in our collection–including vanishingly rare editions from Soviet Yiddish research academies in Kyiv and Kharkiv–are already digitized and freely available to everyone, everywhere, online, where no tyrant can ever threaten them again.
I thought long and hard before sending you this letter. It felt unseemly, at first, to solicit money for cultural preservation while the fighting continues, the roads are clogged with fleeing families, and millions of refugees urgently need our help.
But then I remembered Hillel’s adage: “If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?” Surely the crisis in Ukraine is not a case of either/or. As the Torah reminds us, we have an obligation to help the hungry and outcast because we were slaves in Egypt, and we have so often been refugees ourselves. But we also have an obligation to care for the books and teachings in which our values reside, because if we don’t protect them, who else will?
As for the last of Hillel’s questions—“If not now, when?”—we need look no further than the last European war to find examples of Jews who risked their lives to preserve their literature and culture. Think of the Papir-brigade, the Paper Brigade: writers and intellectuals in the Vilna ghetto who, at pain of death, strapped books and texts to their bodies and smuggled them out under the Nazis’ noses. Or consider Oyneg Shabes, a group of sixty Jewish men and women who chronicled daily life in the Warsaw ghetto, then buried their accounts in milk cans and tin boxes. Only three of the sixty survived to dig them up after the war.
We can’t equate our work in Amherst, where we’re safe and warm, with the heroes of the Paper Brigade and Oyneg Shabes, who day after day put their very lives on the line to preserve Jewish memory for future generations.
But in recovering Yiddish books, you and I did assume a responsibility of our own: as fighting continues in Ukraine, it is incumbent on us to safeguard the books we’ve found— including thousands of Yiddish titles written and published in Ukraine—and share their content with a world that has rarely needed them more.
We’ve already taken steps to highlight the Ukrainian Yiddish treasures in our collections. We’ve joined with other organizations in support of Ukraine; we’ve highlighted Ukrainian Yiddish content in our Weekly Reader and other publications; and we recently produced a gut- wrenching, one-hour Zoom program featuring musical tributes, oral histories, and readings of works written by Ukrainian Yiddish writers decades ago that are achingly reminiscent of what we’re seeing there today.
The Jewish concept of pikuekh-nefesh teaches that, with rare exceptions, human life comes before all else. That’s why, if you haven’t done so already, I strongly urge you to support humanitarian groups like HIAS, the International Rescue Committee, or Razom for Ukraine.
But I’m also asking you to make a special contribution to the Yiddish Book Center as well, so we can undertake three practical initiatives we believe will make a difference:
- To continue to identify Ukrainian Yiddish imprints and make them available online, free of charge, to readers everywhere, including Russia and Ukraine.
- To advance awareness of the thousand years of Jewish history and creativity in Ukraine through all the means at our disposal, including our website, social media, podcasts, oral histories, public events, and educational programs for high school students, college students, and adults.
- And last, to join forces with major universities and others to bring Ukrainian Jewish studies scholars here to serve as Visiting Fellows and share their knowledge at the Yiddish Book Center and beyond.
This is not a routine appeal—there are no premiums or special incentives. Rather, I’m asking you to help us make good on a sacred obligation: to preserve the books entrusted to our care, to share their content, and to advance understanding of the world from which they came so that wars like this one will never happen again.
Mit a hartsikn dank—with heartfelt thanks,