A Portable Library for Polish Jews

The Dos poylishe yidntum Series Aimed to Rebuild Yiddish Culture in the Diaspora

Written by:
Jan Schwarz
Winter 2016 / 5777
Part of issue number:

Between 1946 and 1966, Buenos Aires’ Tsentral Farband far poylishe yidn in Argentine (Central Union of Polish Jews in Argentina) published a series of 175 hardcover books called Dos poylishe yidntum (Polish Jewry). This remarkable publication venture, which took place under the editorship of Mark Turkow, coincided with a period of steep decline not only in the number of Yiddish speakers and cultural institutions but in Yiddish’s transnational scope as well.

Dos poylishe yidntum articulated the determination of a small cadre of writers to rebuild Yiddish culture in their new homes far away from Ashkenaz, the territory of Yiddishland in Central and Eastern Europe. The European Yiddishland lay in complete ruins after the khurbn (the Holocaust). Like other publishing ventures after 1945, Dos poylishe yidntum was a heroic attempt to commemorate the destruction, and continue the creation, of modern Yiddish literature.

Turkow embodied the continuity between pre- and postwar Yiddish culture. Between the wars, he worked as a journalist for the Polish and Yiddish press in Warsaw, first covering sports and later the political debates in the Sejm, the Polish parliament. In 1939, he managed to immigrate to Buenos Aires. His three brothers, Jonas, Zygmunt, and Yitskhok, were actors and directors of the Yiddish stage and cinema in Warsaw during the interwar period. After the end of World War II, they continued their prolific acting and writing careers, including authoring several memoirs included in the book series.

Dos poylishe yidntum became a magnet for Yiddish writers. In 1949, after a five-week trip to several South American countries, Turkow wrote to the historian Yankev Shatski in New York: “I must answer approximately 100 letters which arrived while I was away. Most contain suggestions for new books. . . . By the way, Friedman’s Oshvientshim is now being sent to the printer.”

But while Dos poylishe yidntum acquired a reputation as a commercial success, the reality was very different, as evidenced in Turkow’s letter to a contributor: “We have—as usual—limited funds, but we work hard and make plans for the future. The truth is . . . the whole thing could go down the drain. Basically, we have no more energy to toil and to dupe the printer and the binder. Such is our destiny.” In a 1952 letter to Shatski, Abraham Mitlberg, the series’ secretary and coeditor, complained that while it was not financially viable to ship books abroad, the publishing house nevertheless published ten books in “this bad year.”

Despite financial worries, the publishers adhered to the highest standards. The books were published with a distinguished black binding and beautiful cover illustrations. They were printed with the best typography on fine paper and included illustrations, photographs, and indices. Most contained introductions by Yiddish writers and cultural figures, as well as reviews of previous books in the series, making it a portable library for a community of readers who functioned as de facto subscribers.

Jonas Turkow wrote five books about the Holocaust for Dos poylishe yidntum. Three focused on his incarceration in the Warsaw Ghetto, the ghetto uprising, and the aftermath of the war, up until the time of his emigration to the United States. The two other volumes, Farloshene shtern (Extinguished Stars, vols. 95–96), contained portraits of Yiddish actors in Poland before and during the Holocaust. (Their meticulous indices make these books vital scholarly sources on the histories of Yiddish theater and the Warsaw Ghetto.) Turkow’s books, which were based on diaries and original documents from the Warsaw ghetto that he managed to hide and retrieve after the war, were praised for their objectivity and richness of detail; in a review, historian Noekh Gris compared Turkow’s methodology to Emanuel Ringelblum’s spirit of collecting (zamler gayst) for his Oyneg Shabbos archive documenting life in the Warsaw Ghetto.

In a number of ways, Dos poylishe yidntum exemplifies Yiddish publishing after 1945: despite its diverse and prolific output over a twenty-year period (a Herculean effort was made to collect key works from and about the Polish Jewish past), it was almost completely invisible outside Yiddish linguistic and cultural circles. The series, and the efforts of Yiddish publishers throughout the world, was informed by the zamler gayst and the ingathering of cultural heritage (kines) begun by the folklorist and playwright S. Ansky and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Vilna. Like the more than 1,000 Yizkor books published by landsmanshaften (mutual-aid groups), the Dos poylishe yidntum aimed to offer broad, nonpartisan coverage of Jewish life in Poland prior to, during, and after the khurbn (the Holocaust).

The publishers also had an altruistic goal. During the first years of the series, profits were donated to help Jewish survivors in Europe; as a note on the title page of the first volume read: “The profits for this book will be donated to the relief work for the benefit of surviving Jewish children who are hospitalized in sanatoriums in Sweden.” The publishers also worked closely with the Central Jewish Historical Commission in Poland to ship hundreds of books to survivors in Poland and displaced persons camps.

In some cases, titles were published simultaneously in Yiddish and Polish. The series’ transnational scope was a significant departure from pre-Holocaust Yiddish publishing in Argentina; most works were local in scope. Buenos Aires emerged as an international Yiddish publishing center through a convergence of circumstances: the strong leadership of editors Mark Turkow and Mitlberg; the worldwide readership for Yiddish books about the literature, history, and destruction of Polish Jewry; and most important the availability of sufficient funds, raised locally, to support the endeavor. As Mitlberg wrote in a 1947 booklet about the series, “We feel deeply that we are implementing a historical mission in the Yiddish publishing industry, by elevating the importance of the Yiddish book; by creating an address for Yiddish writers and familiarizing a worldwide Yiddish readership with the tragically terminated chapter of the martyr-logical history of Polish Jewry.”

The speed with which the books were published in the early years was remarkable: an average of two books per month, in runs of three to five thousand copies (high numbers for Yiddish books). Many of them were boldly marked oysfarkoyft (sold out) on the series list that was inserted at the end of each book. By 1954, an estimated quarter million had been sold.

The book series was representative of a transnational effort of Yiddish writers and kultur-tuers (cultural organisers) to publish and distribute new and older books about Eastern European Jewry. In Warsaw, the Communist Yidish-bukh (Yiddish Book) publishing house issued more than 300 volumes of new and classic Yiddish works in the 1950s and 1960s until the 1968 anti-Semitic purges ended Jewish culture in Poland. In Tel Aviv, Avrom Sutzkever, the Yiddish poet and survivor of the Vilna Ghetto, began publishing the substantial literary journal Di goldene keyt (The Golden Chain) in 1949, subsidized by the Histadrut, the Socialist Labor Union. The journal came out regularly, with two to four issues per year until 1996. Like the book series in Buenos Aires and Warsaw, the journal featured contemporary poetry, prose, criticism, and memoirs, primarily from the postwar generation of Yiddish writers. In addition, established Yiddish publishing houses such as Farlag Matones, Ikuf Farlag, and CYCO Farlag continued to operate in New York; L. M. Stein in Chicago, and Y. L. Peretz farlag in Tel Aviv and Sovetish Heymland in Moscow, were founded in the 1960s.

In 1957, Shmuel Rozhanski, a Yiddish cultural leader and the head of Argentine YIVO, launched the Musterverk series, which ran until 1984. The volumes were published by the Instituto Cientifico Judio (or IWO, a translation of Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut), founded in 1928. The series featured the most important works of Yiddish literature from premodern times through the first half of the twentieth century, with introductions by Rozhanski, glossaries, and critical articles for use by scholars and study groups. The South African businessman Joseph Lifshitz supported the publication of this second impressive Argentine book series, which remains an important tool for Yiddish education and literary studies.

The titles in Dos poylishe yidntum were typical of post-1945 Yiddish culture. The majority fell into three categories: fiction, khurbn memoirs and scholarship, and memoirs about Polish Jewish life. The series included works by young surviving writers such as Mordechai Strigler, Yehuda Elberg, and Eliezer (Elie) Wiesel, whose literary memoirs were based on their khurbn experiences. The series also republished classics of Yiddish fiction from before the khurbn; folklore, primarily from the Hasidic tradition; Yizkor books; and scholarly writing by historians such as Philip Friedman, Yankev Shatski, Bernard Mark, and Emanuel Ringelblum. Three collections of first-rate poetry featured Chaim Grade and Rokhl Korn.

Dos poylishe yidntum served a well-defined readership in the quarter century following the end of World War II. For Yiddish writers and readers born between the 1880s and the 1930s, including survivors of the khurbn and the Gulag, war memoirs and the “world of yesterday” genre resonated. The works were informed by I. L. Peretz’s vision of Yiddish as a vehicle for modernizing the world based on humanist, socialist, and aesthetic ideals. As these readers’ population declined, Dos poylishe yidntum and the rest of the Yiddish publishing industry eventually disappeared.

Dos poylishe yidntum and other post-1945 Yiddish publishing ventures offered hope for the continued creativity of Yiddish literature, as well as a cultural anchor for survivors in DP camps, their relatives, and the international Yiddish reading public. Eastern European Jews had always defined themselves as kehile kedoyshe (a holy community) and a people of portable books. The name Dos poylishe yidntum expressed the sheer khutspe behind Turkow and Mitlberg’s insistence that a Yiddish library of 175 books could symbolically replace the destroyed Yiddishland of Polish Jewry. Der khurbn began with the Nazi book burnings in 1933, a prelude to the burning of people less than a decade later. The scope and variety of Yiddish publishing after 1945 indicated that the surviving remnant of Eastern European Jewry—once again writing, reading, and discussing Yiddish books in Buenos Aires, New York, Tel Aviv, Moscow, and Warsaw—was returning to life.

Although Turkow and Mitlberg were tremendously successful in creating a “site of memory” through the series, they were unable to bridge the generation gap and interest a younger generation in their Yiddish cultural legacy. Only thirteen of the 175 volumes were translated into other languages. Only one volume in the series succeeded in reaching an international readership: Wiesel’s Un di velt hot geshvign (And the World Was Silent), which became the French La Nuit (1958) and then the renowned English Night (1960). Wiesel’s eventual international success notwithstanding, the original Yiddish version of Un di velt hot geshvign (which differs significantly from Night) remains invisible outside of the Yiddish world to this day.