לויט די לערערס | Teachers Weigh In: Yiddish in Holocaust Courses?

Hannah Pollin-Galay


In an effort to pool the wis­dom and ques­tions acquired from our con­trib­u­tors’ work in the class­room, In geveb reg­u­lar­ly polls Yid­dish instruc­tors on top­ics relat­ed to Yid­dish ped­a­gogy. The respons­es to these polls offer a cross-sec­tion of the opin­ions, approach­es, and expe­ri­ences of instruc­tors from Los Ange­les to Tel Aviv, from children’s pro­grams to uni­ver­si­ty class­es to con­tin­u­ing edu­ca­tion cours­es, from new teach­ers to those with a life­time of expe­ri­ence. Our next ped­a­gogy poll is about Yid­dish clubs and read­ing groups. If you take part in or facil­i­tate an infor­mal Yid­dish group, please par­tic­i­pate in this poll and tell us about it. If you want to share your opin­ion on the top­ic pre­sent­ed below, Yid­dish in Holo­caust Cours­es, please do so! We may pub­lish an adden­dum with new responses. 

This sur­vey on Yid­dish in Holo­caust Stud­ies was con­duct­ed in part­ner­ship with the Insti­tute for Holo­caust, Geno­cide, and Mem­o­ry Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts Amherst. 

Yiddish used to sit at the margins of Holocaust scholarship and public activity. In his foundational work, The Destruction of the European Jews, Raul Hilberg mentions the Yiddish language but a handful of times. 1 1 Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews. (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1961). Yiddish words are hardly ever sounded at Yom HaShoah ceremonies. At the Nuremburg Trials in 1946, Avrom Sutzkever was denied the right to testify publicly in Yiddish.

As a BA student of Yiddish Studies--some decade and a half ago--I did not like being on the margins and, in response, developed bitter, specious rejoinders: Yiddishists study 1000 years of Jewish culture, creativity and politics, whereas Holocaust scholars look only at death. We let East European Jews speak in their own voices, whereas they let Nazis narrate history. We can get inside dem yidishn kop, whereas they see only the anus mundi.

Thankfully, a host of scholars have since disabused me of these pretenses, showing how the two fields of study can and should intersect. 2 2 Samuel D. Kassow, Who will write our history?: Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes archive (Indiana University Press, 2007); Laura Jockusch, Collect and Record!: Jewish Holocaust Documentation in Early Postwar Europe (Oxford University Press, 2012); David G. Roskies and Naomi Diamant, Holocaust Literature: A History and Guide (Brandeis University Press, 2012); Jan Schwarz, Survivors and Exiles: Yiddish Culture After the Holocaust (Wayne State University Press, 2015), to name a few. On a simple, empirical level, there are aspects of the Jewish reality under Nazi occupation that can only be discovered through Yiddish sources. More broadly, some of the most ambitious projects of cultural response were conducted in Yiddish. On the flipside, as Annette Wieviorka has pointed out, there is perhaps no other culture that suffered quite the same magnitude of loss as did Yiddish. 3 3 Annette Wieviorka, The Era of the Witness (Cornell University Press, 2006), 33. During and immediately after the war, some Yiddishists proclaimed that their mother tongue had been profoundly transformed by ghetto and camp experiences. 4 4 N[achman] Blumental. “Verter un verterlekh fun der khurbn tkufe,” Yidishe sphrakh,16:11(1956) 22. This makes Yiddishkeit a central part of the Holocaust story and vice versa.

The gap between Yiddish Studies and Holocaust Studies is narrowing constantly at conferences and in publications. 5 5 As a few recent examples: Alan Rosen, “Yiddish and the Holocaust,” In geveb, August 2015; Anna Shternshis, “Soviet Jews in World War II: Fighting, Witnessing, Remembering,” Slavic Review, vol. 74, no. 3 (Fall 2015), 657 – 659; Natalia Aleksiun, “Where was there a Future for Polish Jewry? Bundist and Zionist Polemics in Post-World War II Poland,” Jewish Politics in Eastern Europe: The Bund at 100 (Palgrave: Macmillan UK, 2001), 227-242; Markus Nesselrodt, “ ‘I bled like you, brother, although I was a thousand miles away’: Postwar Yiddish Sources on the Experiences of Polish Jews in Soviet Exile during World War II,” East European Jewish Affairs 46.1 (2016): 47-67; Amos Goldberg, “Rumor Culture among Warsaw Jews under Nazi Occupation: A World of Catastrophe Reenchanted,” Jewish Social Studies 21.3 (2016): 91-125; T. Fielder Valone, “Rescued from Oblivion: The Leyb Koniuchowsky Papers and the Holocaust in Provincial Lithuania,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 28.1 (2014): 85-108. But, will this papirene brik of research collaboration translate into shifts in the classroom, with Yiddish entering into broadly taught Holocaust curricula? Should it? We asked 17 people who teach the Holocaust in universities and museums in North and South America, Israel and Europe for their thoughts on this question.

In Learning about the Holocaust, Students Learn Something About Yiddish

There were several points of agreement: Most educators surveyed wrote that students know very little about Yiddish when entering the Holocaust-focused classroom. The educators also answered unanimously that they do indeed incorporate translated Yiddish texts in their curricula. This suggests an important base-line of inclusion: By the end of the semester, students in all of these classrooms around the globe gain some exposure to how East European Jews perceived the destruction of their own communities.

Yiddish Source Materials

Our respondents demonstrated creativity and depth in their choices for Yiddish source materials, citing a variety of ghetto diaries, musical pieces, Emmanuel Ringlblum’s Oneg Shabes archive, the films Undzere kinder and Lang iz der veg, poetry and memoirs, including excerpts from Elie Wiesel’s original work, Un di velt hot geshvign. Major Holocaust institutions, like Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum make war-era texts from an array of languages, including Yiddish, available in translation on their websites, resources that our teachers have already discovered and tested. Expanding its offerings, the USHMM website entitled Experiencing History: Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust, which was launched last November, includes Yiddish sources such as excerpts from diaries of Aron Pik and Jechiel Górny, a deposition of Pesakh Burshteyn, and writing by Moyshe Feygnboym, Leyb Kvitko, Sarah Froiman and others. David Shneer (University of Colorado, Boulder) generously shared with In geveb an innovative exercise of his own design: comparing renditions of Zog nit keyn mol, as sung by Paul Robeson in 1949 and Lin Jaldati in 1955. 6 6 Paul Robeson sang the song in a Moscow concert in 1949 during the height of Stalin’s anti-Jewish purge. You can read about the Yiddish encounter with African Americans in Jennifer Young’s article “Beyond the Color Line: Jews, Blacks, and the American Racial Imagination.” You can read about Lin Jaldati’s life and work in Erin Faigin’s interview with David Shneer and Jewlia Eisenberg.

Teaching About the Yiddish Language

While there was resounding agreement that translated Yiddish texts have a place in the Holocaust classroom, positions differed on whether or not the original language of these materials had any significance to the course. Amy Simon (Michigan State University) made the case for putting Yiddish in the foreground:

“I think that teaching with and about Yiddish is essential in Holocaust education, as it was spoken by so many victims, and because it represents the lost world of European Jewry. This is why I do use Yiddish in my teaching, especially as it is my primary research language.”

One museum educator felt that Yiddish culture deserves more attention in public Holocaust tours and workshops than it currently receives:

“I believe in the value of the expression of Jewish life built around Yiddish and the vast identity that came with it. I would like to have better support [regarding] the knowledge of Yiddish at the time of the Holocaust and to be able to explore tools to teach it. I don’t feel that Yiddish is well-represented in Holocaust education, I have barely had any contact with it and I don’t use Yiddish when I guide visits.”

Expanding the question beyond Yiddish, Jonathan Skolnik of the University of Massachusetts advocated for a more critical consideration of language in general. His strategies for teaching texts originally written in German or in French demand a similar approach because, as he writes, “issues of language are always a part of my focus.”

By contrast, some educators expressed caution in overstating the centrality of Yiddish in Holocaust classes. As one wrote:

“The Holocaust is a big topic and anyone who teaches it has to be selective and realistic about the sources and material that can be covered in any given class.”

Gabriel Finder (University of Virginia) made the distinction between Holocaust history classes, in which a discussion about Yiddish may not be pressing, versus Holocaust literature classes, in which it would be more relevant.

Jacob Glat­stein speaks about the role of a Yid­dish poet after the Holo­caust in an inter­view with Abra­ham Tabach­nick in 1955. From the Frances Brandt Online Yid­dish Audio Library of the Yid­dish Book Center. 

Teaching the Holocaust in these Turbulent Times

While these concerns were largely pragmatic, one respondent questioned Yiddish-focused teaching for ethical reasons:

“I believe that in the present moment, in light of our present politics, learning about the rise of the Nazi party, the appeals of fascism, the degradation of human life and the social dynamics that pave the way for genocide may be more important.” That is, class time invested in Yiddish culture specifically might detract from broader discussions of genocidal causality and social values.

I shared this respondent’s concerns when teaching a large lecture course entitled “Representing the Holocaust” this past semester at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst. Hoping to make Yiddish culture a significant part of the curriculum, I noted that, especially after the US presidential election in November, many of my students saw the class as an opportunity to learn about the dynamics that enable mass violence. With a surfeit of Holocaust comparisons cropping up in the media daily, they sought the intellectual means to evaluate them. Pulled between these two pedagogical poles—exploring broad values-based questions and the particular framework of a culture nearly erased by the Nazi project—I decided to hand the question over to my students. I asked them, for example, to compare two texts of the Vilna ghetto: One was the poem by Avrom Sutzkever “Lererin Mire” (Teacher Mira) and the other, the USC Shoah Foundation video testimony of Vilna Ghetto survivor Jack Arnel, who similarly describes the brutal removal of children from their families in the ghetto narrated in Sutzkever’s poem. 7 7 Jack Arnel, Interview 19111, USC Shoah FoundationVisual History Archive, (New York, USA, 1996). The students found Arnel’s testimony more accessible and “teachable,” especially when he articulated his vision of contemporary world politics in connection to the Holocaust. Relating to this video testimony more readily, the students also recognized the ethical obligation to crack open Sutzkever’s poem, to move outside their own cultural moment by analyzing the genre, the aesthetic and the morale of art created from within the ghetto experience. The group reached no firm conclusions about the relative value of either text. Yet, I learned that these undergraduates did not need to be shielded from my own deliberations on this matter.

In short, there are both new possibilities and new challenges for including Yiddish in Holocaust curricula. It seems that old scholarly prejudices painting Yiddish-language sources as historically flimsy seem to have diminished significantly: Holocaust syllabi no longer exclude Yiddish language testimonies or cultural artifacts. Moreover, a core network of scholars is developing ways of teaching about Yiddish in the Holocaust classroom, aided by new pedagogical tools from Holocaust institutions. As a competing priority, however, there may be a timely, renewed need to emphasize something I once thought was obvious: what it means for authoritarian violence to become rule of law.

Pollin-Galay, Hannah. “לויט די לערערס | Teachers Weigh In: Yiddish in Holocaust Courses?.” In geveb, April 2017:לויט-די-לערערס-teachers-weigh-in-yiddish-in-holocaust-courses.
Pollin-Galay, Hannah. “לויט די לערערס | Teachers Weigh In: Yiddish in Holocaust Courses?.” In geveb (April 2017): Accessed Feb 26, 2024.


Hannah Pollin-Galay

Hannah Pollin-Galay is Senior Lecturer of Yiddish and Holocaust Studies in the Department of Literature at Tel Aviv University.