Review of Barry Trachtenberg’s The Holocaust and the Exile of Yiddish: A History of the Algemeyne Entsiklopedye

Samuel J. Spinner

Bar­ry Tra­cht­en­berg. The Holo­caust & the Exile of Yid­dish
A His­to­ry of the Alge­meyne Entsik­lope­dye
. New Brunswick, NJ: Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2022. 336 pp. $40.95.

The only Yiddish encyclopedia ends – literally and metaphorically – with the letter khes, for khurbn. The Holocaust. The Entsiklopedye’s first trial volume was published in Berlin in 1932; its last volume was published in New York in 1966. At the meeting that launched the Entsiklopedye, Simon Dubnow, the eminence grise of European Jewish scholarship, declared it to be a “Bible for a new age.” It concluded with two volumes on the Holocaust. No longer a Bible for a new age, it was a memorial to an epoch ended with genocide. Barry Trachtenberg’s The Holocaust and the Exile of Yiddish: A History of the Algemeyne Entsiklopedye is a detailed account of seventeen books that tells us as much as can be known about them: who envisioned them, who wrote them, who printed them, who paid for them, who bought them. But the story Trachtenberg tells with these details extends far beyond these little-known books—it is the story of how the Holocaust destroyed not only Jewish lives, but also European Jewish culture, thought, and politics. It is the story of the world’s saddest encyclopedia.

Its beginning almost sounds like a joke: a group of Eastern European Jewish intellectuals were brainstorming ways to help the Jews of the region in the late 1920s who were facing rapidly increasing antisemitism, economic turmoil, the creation of the Soviet Union, the intensification of ethnonationalism… “I’ve got it! A Yiddish encyclopedia!” Of course, it wasn’t a joke. It was, Trachtenberg shows, a manifestation of Jewish diaspora nationalism, reflecting the cultural commitment to Yiddish of the adherents of this ideology. The group involved with the encyclopedia was broad. It included “Mensheviks, Bundists, Autonomists, Folkists, Territorialists, and Labor Zionists” who differed in much but were all in support of “Jewish self-determination, workers’ rights, Diaspora Nationalism, and the central role to be played by Yiddish in modernizing Eastern European Jewry and preserving their national cohesion.” This tells us why they were in favor of producing an encyclopedia in Yiddish, when Jewish encyclopedias had already been written in German, Russian, and English. Yiddish was the glue that would hold together the Jewish diasporic nation. But why an encyclopedia? Trachtenberg begins the book by briefly outlining the history of encyclopedias, their ubiquity in Europe by the twentieth century, and above all the significant role they played in welding together language and “folk” in the consolidation of national communities. From their modern origins as agents of Enlightenment, encyclopedias very quickly became agents of nationalization. With or without state backing, encyclopedias reflected the nationalist vision of identity as encompassing all culture, all knowledge, and all territory where the encyclopedia’s language was spoken. They also reflected the European imperial aspiration to possess all the world. Jewish diaspora nationalism developed in the absence of a Jewish state and reflected stances toward Zionism ranging from ambivalence to opposition. In this light, the question “why an encyclopedia?” is a lens through which to view the cultural politics of diaspora nationalism as it played out amid profound political turmoil across Europe. The suitability of encyclopedias to the representation and consolidation of national identity is clear as much in their material and institutional form as in their contents. By its fourteenth edition in 1894, the Brockhaus Enzyklopädie extended to 18,842 pages over 17 volumes. 1 1 “Brockhaus Enzyklopädie,” Wikipedia, October 28, 2023, I’ve often wondered why the “portable homeland” of the Jews, so famously named by Heinrich Heine, was the Bible and not the Talmud. Well, it’s easier to carry around (schleppen was Heine’s verb) one book than the bookshelves taken up by the Talmud’s 63 tractates. The promise of the nation-state was that you’d never have to move your books. The Brockhaus was published in the same country – by the same family – for over 200 years. In this light, the encyclopedia appears uniquely unsuited both to the ideology and to the lived experience of diaspora nationalism. The fact remains that the leading theorists and adherents of diaspora nationalism supported this project; a set of encyclopedias is heavy, but it had to be if they were to anchor a nation. Its supporters explicitly framed the encyclopedia as an alternative or equivalent to a state; the prolific and ubiquitous critic Nakhmen Meisel went so far as to echo Herzl, writing just after the founding meeting in 1931, “If we will it, we will have a Yiddish encyclopedia.” 2 2 Barry Trachtenberg, The Holocaust & the Exile of Yiddish: A History of the Algemeyne Entsiklopedye (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2022), 44. Trachtenberg writes that for the encyclopedia’s editors and publishers, it was “nothing less than a declaration of the transnational sovereignty of Yiddish and the Jews who spoke it.” 3 3 Trachtenberg, 85. The great achievement of Trachtenberg’s book is that we see the challenges and the ultimate failure of Yiddish diaspora nationalism not as an abstraction that emerged in one political context and ended in another but as social lives – of people and of books – that extend far beyond the contours of an idea. Through this lens we come to see how the tapestry of diaspora nationalism was woven together in a moment of intellectual and political optimism, how it was violently ripped to pieces by the Second World War and the genocide of Europe’s Jews, and how it unraveled in the two decades following the war.

Most of all, we see the people. While it follows the chronological trajectory of the project from its inception in 1931 to its final volume in 1966, the book is actually an episodic history of the figures who produced it. The “Exile of Yiddish” referred to in the book’s title is embodied in the exilic trajectories of its protagonists and organized around the cities of their exile: Berlin, Paris, and New York. By directing our gaze toward the people who produced the Entsiklopedye and the geography of their exile, Trachtenberg implies that historical contingencies great and small were ultimately more important in shaping the Entsiklopedye than the political and cultural movements that sparked it. It is hard to disagree after viewing the evidence Trachtenberg has so painstakingly assembled. The fact that he had to take such pains already tells an important story: exile, flight, and war mean that even copies of the encyclopedia printed in Europe are vanishingly scarce. The records themselves from the crucial period of 1933-1940 are mostly gone; whatever survived is scattered around the world. Trachtenberg traveled to archives in New York, Jerusalem, Amsterdam, England, Cape Town, and elsewhere to find bits of records and correspondence that their authors or recipients managed to hang on to on the way to their final destinations. He has done a remarkable job in assembling enough evidence to tell the story. But the lack of extensive archival documentation points to the fact that the biography of the books’ producers stands in for the biography of the books themselves. Nevertheless, by following the exile and flight of the people who struggled mightily to write and print each and every volume of the Entsiklopedye, we come to appreciate the significance of this project to a group that included many of the most influential Eastern European Jewish intellectuals and political activists. Among the initiators, editors, and writers of the Entsiklopedye, we meet well known figures from the world of Yiddish thought, culture, and political activism like Simon Dubnow, all three Charneys (Baruch, Daniel, and Shmuel), Sholem Schwartzbard, Jacob Lestschinsky, and Max Weinreich. Even Gershom Scholem makes a cameo appearance. Its editors also included two figures more distinctly associated with socialist politics than with Yiddish culture: Ben-Adir and Raphael Abramovitch. It was Abramovitch who was to carry the Entsiklopedye through the phases of its exile and whose vision and work kept it afloat in times that were both financially and existentially trying. Although the political motivation of the encyclopedic project is clear,the long-term leadership of the Entsiklopedye by figures who were also leaders in the world of socialist politics suggests that the project’s politics are deeply enmeshed in its intellectual, formal, and aesthetic aspects. But Trachtenberg rarely enters deep enough into the text to offer a fine-grained picture of how the politics play out.

Trachtenberg’s interest is more topographical, in keeping with the sweeping historical and geographic scope of his story. We gain a sense of the encyclopedia’s size, its coloration, and a broad sense of what it portrays. We learn of the early debates about whether the encyclopedia was to be one of general knowledge or specifically Jewish knowledge. These debates, according to Trachtenberg, nearly sank the project. Nevertheless, the project moved forward and by the time Volume 1 appeared on December 28, 1934 the vision for its entirety extended to 20 volumes on general topics (to include no more than 10% Jewish content) and one special double-sized volume on Jewish subjects to be called Yidn, Jews. The priorities of the editors shifted in response to the dramatic reshaping of the cultural and political landscape that their readers inhabited. The final bookshelf the Entsiklopedye presented – which Trachtenberg shows in a striking photograph opposite the book’s first page – reflected the material and organizational consequences of these changes. The volumes were numbered with Roman numerals through the first ten, uniting volumes on general topics with the Yidn volumes, of which there were, all told, seven. Volumes one through five – which were ultimately the only volumes on general subjects – were also marked with their alphabetic span of topics; the Yidn volumes were marked with Hebrew numerals, and its final two volumes – vov and zayen – had no Roman numeration. Four English volumes on Jewish history were added to the project, beginning in 1946. The last volume of the Entsiklopedye to be printed was Yidn zayen in 1966. Trachtenberg describes the changes that precipitated these decisions: the growing internal orientation of Eastern European Jews as the prospects of diaspora nationalism dwindled in the face of rising antisemitism; the decimation of European Jewry; the destruction of Yiddish culture; the identification of America as the new center of Yiddish and of Jewish life. By the end, the Entsiklopedye had been transformed by world events from a mechanism to inform Eastern European Jews about the broader world to a means for American Jews to learn about and to commemorate the world from which many of them came. What started as a materialization of the hopefulness of Jewish diaspora nationalism ended as its memorial.

Occasional spot checks and samples of the encyclopedia’s contents give some sense of the topics of the articles, but not of their feel. For example, we learn that volume 1 contained many more entries on Jewish religious topics than had been agreed upon, and that the religious topics were almost entirely historical while articles on the present day were secular in orientation. 4 4 Trachtenberg, 88. This was, Trachtenberg notes, more a reflection of the editors’ interests than of a particular plan. Volume 2 had many fewer articles on religious topics and many more on political topics, with almost 100 columns on international labor movements. As Trachtenberg argues, the volumes are “simultaneously descriptive and prescriptive,” which is to say they painted a picture of the world as they wished it to be, showing that “Yiddish speakers could be both fully Jewish and part of the larger world around them.” Yidn alef appeared in 1939 and for the first time primarily featured single-authored essays by many specialists, even luminaries, on the particular topics. Trachtenberg tells us that the essays are “a tour de force of Yiddish-language scholarship,” and quotes one early observer of the encyclopedia who quipped in 1931 regarding the editors: “in their minds they understand that an encyclopedia in Yiddish must be a general one, but in their hearts rest the Jewish parts.” 5 5 Trachtenberg, 119. Yidn beys appeared in 1940 as Europe’s Jews were increasingly split between being in exile and being trapped. While it had articles by leading scholars from within the world of Yiddish scholarship, including Max Weinreich on Yiddish philology and Rachel Wischnitzer on Jewish art, it also included unlikely figures – from outside Europe and outside Yiddish – like Gershom Scholem. After Yidn beys came full-on flight as the editors escaped Paris, leaving behind most of their documents as well as the printing plates for the volumes that had already appeared. Ben-Adir, Abramovitch, and others made it to the United States. They survived, and the encyclopedia did too, but who were their readers and what did they need? Despite the profound uncertainty of the early years of the war, they promptly turned to reestablishing the encyclopedia. Trachtenberg quotes a 1939 letter from Ben-Adir to Shmuel Charney: “Especially now in what are these wholly tragic times, our duty is even greater to prove that our culture possesses an eternal value for which there can be no greater sacrifice.” 6 6 Trachtenberg, 135. And so the project proceeded onward, at every step grappling with the increasing awareness of the deep damage the culture it sought to promote was subjected to. The forward to Yidn giml, published in 1942, already declared that the Entsiklopedye would be “a literary monument that would make permanent the experiences and accomplishments of the material and spiritual development of the Jewish folk until the beginning of the historical rupture of the second world war.” 7 7 Trachtenberg, 144. The fifth general volume was published in 1944. Trachtenberg notes that the editors used the word khurbn to describe the ongoing killing of Jews. The introduction of khurbn marked the end of this part of the Entsiklopedye—the fifth volume was the last to appear. “From their vantage point in New York,” writes Trachtenberg, “the future of the Yiddish language… was bleak beyond comprehension.” 8 8 Trachtenberg, 153. Millions of Yiddish speakers had been killed in the ghettos, death camps, and killing fields of Eastern Europe. Simon Dubnow, figurehead of the Entsiklopedye and leading diaspora nationalist, had been killed among them. What would happen to the Encyclopedia? “The Diasporist beliefs that had shaped their efforts and insisted that Jews could live autonomously as Jews among other nations no longer seemed possible in a post-khurbn world.” 9 9 Trachtenberg, 156. This was a moment of despair for the editors of the Entsiklopedye—because of the genocide of their people, of course, but also because “their life work had suddenly and brutally lost its relevance.” 10 10 Trachtenberg, 157. They wished to make this work “a foundation for a restored and renewed Jewish future.” 11 11 Trachtenberg, 162. And, amazingly, they managed to produce four more volumes in the Yidn series as well as four English volumes. But did they build a foundation for a Jewish future? Trachtenberg writes, regarding the English series, that “it is challenging to assess the extent to which they achieved their goals.” 12 12 Trachtenberg, 175. Yes, the English volumes sold relatively well; yes, they published further Yiddish volumes. But Trachtenberg is too sanguine; they did not achieve their goals and they knew it. The final Yiddish volumes would be dedicated to “maintaining the fraying bonds of Yiddish communal life and documenting the destruction of European Jewry.” 13 13 Trachtenberg, 185. This they did, with two final volumes, Yidn vov and zayen (1964 and 1966) dedicated to the Holocaust.

The world’s only Yiddish encyclopedia was a manifestation of the diaspora nationalist vision of culture as sovereignty. The story of these books is thus the story of diaspora nationalism. Does this make the end of the Entsiklopedye a cipher for understanding diaspora nationalism’s end? Put another way, does the fact that the Entsiklopedye ends with khes, for khurbn, mean that the Holocaust was the ultimate or the proximate cause of the decline of European Jewish diaspora nationalism? This is not only a question of historical interest; many Jews still urgently desire and seek a non-state, non-religious form of Jewish collective identity. This desire still exists, but it is no longer expressed and shared in a distinctly Jewish common language. Yiddish was not only the Entsiklopedye’s selling point–it was the whole point. The only reason for its creators to undertake such an enormous project that had already been done in other languages was the European – now global – conceit that made the name for a nation and the name for a language one and the same. Without the glue of language holding together their idea of nation, the diaspora nationalists’ Jewish “portable homeland” dissolved into the diaspora. Nothing has emerged to replace it. There is always a low simmer of interest in Yiddish on the Jewish left. But even if it could be brought to a boil, would it be possible to create yet another new portable homeland, this time for the twenty-first century? The Holocaust and its decisive role in the decline of Yiddish undoubtedly made the Entsiklopedye impossible to complete. But as Trachtenberg shows, even with all the tools – language, politics, editors, writers – it’s hard to write and to sell a portable homeland.

Spinner, Samuel J. “Review of Barry Trachtenberg's The Holocaust and the Exile of Yiddish: A History of the Algemeyne Entsiklopedye.” In geveb, January 2024:
Spinner, Samuel J. “Review of Barry Trachtenberg's The Holocaust and the Exile of Yiddish: A History of the Algemeyne Entsiklopedye.” In geveb (January 2024): Accessed Mar 04, 2024.


Samuel J. Spinner

Samuel J. Spinner is the Zelda and Myer Tandetnik Assistant Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture at Johns Hopkins University.