Culturocide: The murder of Jewish culture

In the cadences of translated Yiddish and Ladino and in the echoes of those voices of poetry and song, a living memorial must reach from our time down the ages to come.

The Vilnius Yiddish Institute 390 (photo credit: Chavi Moskowitz)
The Vilnius Yiddish Institute 390
(photo credit: Chavi Moskowitz)
When the Jews of Europe were murdered en masse, two age-old cultures died with them. Yiddish, 1,000 years old, and Ladino, which began about half-a-millennium ago, were murdered along with their millions of native speakers.
The word “genocide” that trips so naturally and tragically off our tongues was coined by Polish-Jewish Prof. Raphael Lemkin in 1944. We need a separate and clear category for the murder of entire cultures. Culturocide.
The murder of a culture.
What was lost? The world of Ashkenazi or Yiddish culture has been perverted by pretty but primitive shows like Fiddler on the Roof, by the vulgarities of well-meaning Catskill comedians and their imitators.
By reducing Yiddish to jokes, Broadway and TV smut words, and to Yiddishe-momme and Bubbie- shmaltz, the most vulgar or faux-sentimental aspects of Yiddish have been preserved.
What was Yiddish culture? Here are some basic facts: For hundreds of years, Yiddish was spoken from Amsterdam to Birobidjan, from Rome to Finland. The language is multi-layered, a rich combination of a Germanic base with hundreds of Hebrew words. The ensuing Yiddish absorbed words from surrounding “host languages,” mainly Slavic ones.
In the 1930s, it was the daily language of millions of Jews in Poland, Romania, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia and in Russia, Ukraine and other areas of the Soviet Union. (Hundreds of thousands more spoke Yiddish in Western Europe and in the Americas from Canada to Argentina, in South Africa and Australia.) Yiddish was the living language of the majority of Jews in the world.
There were hundreds of Yiddish schools, dozens of Yiddish theaters, hundreds of thousands of readers of daily newspapers, periodicals and books. Yiddish was the language of the yeshivot and of rabbinic discourse.
Music, poetry, art, all expressed Yiddish culture. See Chagall, for one. Listen to Yiddish songs of stage or theater, which became folk songs. Read a Yiddish poem. Even in translation, the immensity of the loss becomes apparent.
While the Nazis destroyed the thousand- year-old culture of Yiddish, they murdered Greek and Balkan Jewry and its five-century-old Ladino culture.
“Ladino” is a folk-term, not one favored by scholars. It is a language based on Old Spanish, (as well as Catalan, Portuguese, Galician, etc.), many Hebrew words and terms, and borrowed words from the languages of the countries which welcomed the expelled Jews of the Iberian Peninsula.
While Yiddish continued to be written in Hebrew characters, Ladino made the transition to Latin script, with a phonetic spelling, different from today’s Spanish.
As richly textured and multi-layered as Yiddish, it was the spoken language of tens of thousands in Greece, Turkey and the Balkans. That great center of Ladino, Salonika, was a majority Jewish city. In it were born Ladino-language newspapers, theaters and songs.
Some of these songs go all the way back to Spain. Music and poetry flourished.
Religious literature and prayers were written or read out in Ladino.
Painstakingly, the Nazis sought out the smallest island of Greece, the tiniest communities, to kill Jews. As in Poland, 90 percent of Greek Jews were murdered. And with them, was extinguished their beloved “Spanyol” or “Djudezmo” culture. Just as we have many names for those we love, Ladino has many names.
The Shoah: Quantitative studies Since the Shoah, the new Book of Lamentations consists mainly of studies that count and enumerate numbers, places, camps, and some try to understand the phenomenon and its causes. Today, most organized Jewish visits to Poland stress the death camps and graves of the Holocaust. Greece and the Balkans are ignored.
The memory of the killed would be better served and more deeply felt, if Jews, Europeans and people who care everywhere would remember and mourn the murdered and the richness of their culture.
Since Zionism won the language war with Yiddish in the 1920s, Hebrew has been the rich expression of the continuity of Jewish culture in all its varied forms in Israel. Now even Israel seems ready to recognize the vitality of the culture from which the masses of European Zionists sprang. For example, an expert in the field of Yiddish language and literature, Prof.
Chava Tourniansky of the Hebrew University, was a recipient of the Israel Prize in 2013.
The study of Yiddish language and literature is undertaken in Israel’s major universities and in institutes of learning in many countries. Museums such as Yad Vashem, those of Washington and Berlin and more recently Warsaw try to convey in some measure, greater or smaller, the cultural loss we and the world have suffered.
Centers for the study of Ladino language and culture d also exist, but many fewer than for Yiddish. The radio has at least given a modicum of life to Ladino through the inimitable romansas songs.
Studies and museums are essential for the record, but they are mausoleums of what was, or limited attempts to continue what was.
What we can do: Books, movies, TV programs of witness We can restore some measure of life to the cadences and rhythms of life of our murdered cultures. These can be transmitted to Jews and non-Jews throughout the world in every form of print and film. Let us convey to the generations to come the vitality of the Jewish life that we mourn.
We throw the gauntlet to a serious publishing house, with good mass circulation, to produce a great selection of Yiddish literature and poetry.
Researchers at Yad Vashem, at YIVO, at the Washington’s United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, at the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, and other institutes and universities should join in producing such works. This would comprise not an additional Book of Lamentations but a Library of Witnessing for that living culture that was killed with its bearers.
Film and television producers can recreate the richness of their lives for us and for the (non-reading) generations to come. Already a modest beginning has been made in this area, which may yet take off and flourish. More than books, film can have the impact which can enter every home and involve the entire family. Still, the field is wide open for filmed recreation of Jewish and Ladino cultures. These films should be produced in all European languages where the Holocaust took place, as well as in English, Spanish and Arabic. These films and books should be financed in great part by all the countries where Jews and their cultures were destroyed.
Culturocide cannot be undone. The victims, though, deserve that their lives be recalled in that great outburst of human creativity which flowered in Eastern Europe and in the Balkans, and which ended in inhuman tragedy.
In the cadences of translated Yiddish and Ladino and in the echoes of those voices of poetry and song, a living memorial must reach from our time down the ages to come.
And if not now, when?
The writer lives in Jerusalem, where he has returned to writing after decades of public service in the offices of prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol, at the Hebrew University and as world chairman of Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal. His novel, A Tale of Two Avrahams, will soon be available through Gefen Publishing House, and is on Kindle and Amazon.