Yiddish Oral Histories

Among the 600-plus interviews conducted by the Wexler Oral History Project to date are more than 100 in Yiddish. Below are excerpts from some of those Yiddish-language interviews, with English subtitles. These stories, like the hundreds of others in the collection, provide an incomparable portrait of Jewish life at a moment of profound cultural change.

When Benjamin Harshav, z"l, was eleven years old, his teacher sent him and his fellow students to collect Yiddish folklore at the Vilna marketplace, by eavesdropping on the women in the stalls—including poet Chaim Grade’s mother, who eked out a living selling rotten apples—and provoking them to yell some choice Yiddish curses at the children. This is an excerpt from Benjamin Harshav's full oral history.

Yiddish poet and songwriter Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman, z"l, explains her family's deep commitment to carrying forward Yiddish language and culture. This is an excerpt from Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman's full oral history

Gabriel Weinreich recalls the mutual professional respect between his father, Max, and brother, Uriel, both renowned Yiddish linguists. Gabriel Weinreich is a professor emeritus of physics and an Episcopal priest. This is an excerpt from Gabriel Weinreich's full oral history.

Yiddish writer Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman, z"l, began writing songs and poems to amuse her children during the long hours that her husband was away at work—and, once they were older, continued to write "for myself," she says. This is an excerpt from Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman's full oral history.

In the 1930s, a group of Vilna's top Yiddish writers and artists came together in a group known as Yung-vilne. But as a baby, Benjamin Harshav, z"l, and his playmates Gabriel and Uriel Weinreich belonged to another Yung-vilne—a name given to them by the Weinrich boys' father, linguist Max Weinreich. This is an excerpt from Benjamin Harshav's full oral history.

In 1989, after the fall of the Soviet Union, retired librarian Fira Bramson was asked to help catalog Yiddish books that had been hidden away during World War II in the Lithuanian Book Palace. Though reluctant at first, she says, she soon became "smitten, head and heart, with those books."  This is an excerpt from Fira Bramson's full oral history

Henryk Robak's father—the editor of the major Yiddish newspaper Haynt—was not a very religious man. But on the High Holidays, he always took his son to Warsaw’s groyse synagoge—Great Synagogue—to hear the legendary khazonim (cantors) who performed there. This is an excerpt from Henryk Robak's full oral history.

Gabriel Weinreich recalls childhood vacations spent on the small family farm started by his grandmother, who ascribed to Tolstoy's idea that agriculture was the most important of all human pursuits—even more important than "higher" culture. The son of Yiddish linguist Max Weinrich, Gabriel Weinreich grew up to become a professor of physics and an Episcopal priest. This is an excerpt from Gabriel Weinreich's full oral history.

When poor economic conditions in Berlin forced the great Yiddish writer Moyshe Kulbak back to Vilna, he took a job teaching school—where he sometimes went to unusual lengths to inspire creativity among the students in his writing class, as one of those students, Benjamin Harshav, z"l, recalls. This is an excerpt from Benjamin Harshav's full oral history.

You can make a donation in support of this effort and your gift will be matched dollar-for-dollar by Peter and Deborah Wexler. To learn more about our campaign to capture oral history interviews in Yiddish, read Aaron Lansky's recent letter.