PolishWeddingChairs1939

Red wedding chairs in a forest in Poland, circa 1939.

UPDATED AT THE END…

If a tree grows through a red chair in the forest, is it real?

This photo made the rounds on Facebook recently and I’m inexorably haunted by it.

The accompanying text read:

These chairs were laid out for a wedding in 1939 in Poland. The wedding was abandoned, and so were the chairs due to the German invasion. They were found again after the war with the trees growing through them. Every year they are repainted.

My initial response was OMG (fitting for Facebook, I know). I can’t stop looking at this picture. The lush green grass sprouting at the base of the spindly tree trunks. The vivid red paint on the chairs that reveals some of the wood grain beneath. This image is bold. It feels stylized. Could it be that it was Photoshopped?

I’m trying to figure out how all the trees rose so perfectly through the space in the chair-backs without breaking any of the chairs in the process. Maybe that’s the part that’s stylized; the folks who come and paint them every year (meanwhile, who are they?) fixed the broken ones and manipulated them to create this perfect alignment.

In a reverse-image search on Google the only results I got were from Pinterest. Strange. And I came up empty at Snopes, the hoax-busting website. Does anyone reading this know the origin of this photo and/or the accompanying story behind it? I’m mostly looking for verification and if it is indeed real, I’d like to know more details. It’s lovely and eerie and I can’t take my eyes off it.

Baffled, intrigued, and impatiently waiting for answers. Got any?

UPDATED at 4pm on July 15, 2015

So that was fast. Not sure where the Holocaust tale came from, but this is actually a picture of an art exhibition. From 2001! It’s called “The Four Seasons of Vivaldi” and it was created by a French artist named Patrick Demazeau. The photo was taken in a forest in the province of Namur, Belgium. Here’s the link.

 

terezin quote fixedI just learned of another baby that was born in a concentration camp. This is something worth celebrating—another sharp stick in Hitler’s eye! When I learned about my mother-in-law’s birth in a camp, I didn’t understand how that was remotely possible. Then I heard about a few more babies born in camps and was forced to suspend my disbelief. And now, another one.

Although this baby died in January at age 70, his name, Rudi Klobach, popped up in my news feed today. As the much-loved soccer coach of Women’s World Cup star Carli Lloyd when she was a student at New Jersey’s Delran High School (1997-2000), his death is noted for the sole reason that he will not be able to watch Carli go toe to toe with Japan in the finals this year.

As exciting as the Women’s World Cup is, I’m more interested in his family’s history. Born on June 18, 1944 in Terezin concentration camp, little Rudi went on to have a good life that positively impacted many children.

Per an article in yesterday’s New York Times, “Klobach was born in 1944 in the Nazis’ Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, where his father was given the job of collecting bodies to put in graves,” his wife Barbara Klobach said.

Like so many survivors, he rarely spoke of his family’s experience during the war.

I learned a little bit more about him in his obituary. He and his parents, Klara and Karl Heinz Klobach, were rescued from the camp by the Russians and eventually settled in Düsseldorf Germany, where his sister Maria was born. In 1948, when he was four years old, the family moved to the United States, eventually settling in Pennsylvania after his father, a trained architect, received sponsorship from an American architectural firm.

rudi klobach hall of fame trophy

Photo: courtesy of Mark Makela for The New York Times

In addition to coaching the girls’ soccer team through many a winning season, Coach K, as he was affectionately called, also taught German at Delran High School. In fact, the school’s German program wouldn’t exist without him: he built it from one class to a full-time curriculum with five levels of study. Deepening the school’s ties with all things Deutschland, Rudi established a German Club and traveled with his students every other year to Germany, Austria and Switzerland to enrich their language learning.

In 2011, Rudi was inducted into the South Jersey Hall of Fame in 2011. As a New Jersey native, I appreciate that they left off the “New” in the title. Sometimes Jersey is just Jersey, plain and simple.

 

 

 

 

 

Rich Cohen, perhaps best known for his book Tough Jews, just wrote the most crystal-clear explanation of the current state of American Jews on Tablet. He answered things I didn’t even know I was wondering about. Here are some of Cohen’s main points, via quotes taken directly from his essay:

Our seven-decade bubble
“The unimaginable evil of the Holocaust seemed to kill anti-Semitism, even the polite country-club variety that shows up in the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. After the war, Hemingway disavowed Jewish jokes, which, he seemed to realize, were connected, in some way, to what happened. It created a bubble, a zone of safety not only for Jews but for other minorities. It’s no coincidence that the civil right movements came in the wake of WWII. Anti-Semitism still existed of course, but, in America, it became socially unacceptable. It retreated to the bedrooms and parlors, where it was expressed in the way of certain mystery religions, in secret, behind closed doors, so quietly you might think it had vanished.

“This is my childhood, the world where I grew up. The horror of the Holocaust purchased us a 70-year vacation from history, though we didn’t know it. We believed the world had changed, as had human nature. Jews remained distinct in the new dispensation, but in a good way—a near-at-hand exotic, a symbol of exile, which we were told was the natural state of modern man. For perhaps the only time in history, you might actually want to be a Jew. Because of the close families and good husbands and yada yada. Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth, Mel Brooks. To those of us who came of age in these years, the future seemed like it would be more of the same, the present carried on forever.

Jews can no longer pass
“It’s as if Jews are bell-bottoms or fringed coats. Once upon a time, we’d been in fashion, but not anymore. What you have now is a return to the green-screen hatred, which, like malaria, spikes and remits but never goes away.”

What changed?
“Well, for starters, there are just fewer of us in proportion to the whole. Whereas Jews once constituted five percent of America, and as much as forty percent of New York, those numbers have shrunk. We’re perhaps thirteen percent of New York and around two percent of the nation. In this sense, American Jews are living with the results of their success. This is indeed the promised land. It’s where Jews fulfilled the dream which, for many, has been to stop being Jews and become part of the imagined whole.  Like the caboose of a train, we’re getting smaller as we go away.”

What else?
“Which brings up the second point—the Holocaust, which is one reason there are so few Jews. We lost almost half our population not long ago. “Never Forget” is one of the admonitions we heard in Sunday School. But people do forget. Everything, all the time. As the events exit living memory, as the people who survived it as well as those who liberated the camps, die, tragedy shifts from memory to history. As memory fades, the old thing returns, filling the subterranean cisterns.”

The all too common conflation of Israel with Judaism
“Some attribute the hatred to the policies of Israel. (“Bibi is to blame.”) But this confuses cause and effect. Israel is not the source of anti-Semitism, but a result. Before the Holocaust, it was said that the Jews in their statelessness were the cause of wars and disturbance, the burr under the saddle of mankind, the ghost in the machinery of statecraft. After the Holocaust, it’s said that Israel, the Jewish State, is the burr under that saddle. Though the condition has changed—no state v. state—the conclusion remains the same: It’s the Jews. To me, this is the world settling back into the Jew-loving and Jew-hating equilibrium that was unsettled, for a time, by the Shoah. After, all, the dream of the early Zionists was neither to be hated, nor loved—it was to be normal, treated as individuals, like everyone else.”

(This is Julie speaking now, up until here it was all quotes from Rich Cohen’s piece)
Although this is not wonderful news, it brings me some relief. I realize that I’ve been trying to make sense of what’s going on, why there’s been such a surge of anti-Semitic acts of late, and this helps me understand it better in a historical context. It’s not that the last seven decades have been idyllic, but they have certainly been a reprieve from what came before. If it indeed represents just a lull in the hatred and vitriol, we have our work cut out for us. We will not be silenced.

*This is Cohen’s phrase; I just used it for my headline because it was a perfect encapsulation.

Chamber Door courtesy of USHMM

A door to a “de-lousing” chamber in Auschwitz. Sign says: Harmful gas! Entering endangers your life. Photo: Courtesy of USHMM

 

Imagine this: Your 14-year-old son says his history teacher told him that the gas chambers in the Nazi concentration camps weren’t intended to kill Jews.

Really? What were they for then?

Per The News-Gazette in Champaign, Illinois, the town where this incident occurred, the teacher (who has not been publicly identified) said, “These concentration camps were horrific places due to cruelty from the guards, little to no food, as well as extreme overcrowding that led to the rapid transmission of deadly diseases in those conditions, such as typhus.”

He explained that this is based on his own research of the subject. What are your sources Mr. Teacher? Are they fact-based and reputable? Well, here’s a fact: The gas that came out of the showers killed lice, for sure, but it also killed the host, the HUMAN BEINGS that carried the lice. What you read is propaganda, that the ‘showers’ were to clean the prisoners, when in reality, they were to extinguish them, to choke the life out of them, to MURDER them. These are facts, witnessed by people who are still alive (!) and archived in legal documents around the world.

I don’t know what is going to happen to this teacher, and I don’t need to know his name or anything about him. Going forward, I just want him to share historical facts, not propaganda.

cynthia voelkl John Dixon The News-Gazette

Cynthia Voelkl. Photo: John Dixon/The News-Gazette

 

Thank you for saying something, Cynthia Voelkl. It’s easy to spout outrage, but to actually do something and attempt to effect change, well, that’s to be commended.

I think she sums it up best with this line: “I know it’s a complicated issue, especially with laws about free speech, but I don’t think historical facts are a matter of opinion.”

 

LeRoy “Pete” Petersohn, 1945

Pete Petersohn 2001-v3

LeRoy “Pete” Petersohn, 2001

I’d like to introduce you to a really important person who unwittingly made a huge difference in my life. His name is LeRoy “Pete” Petersohn and he was a medic in the United States Army during WWII. He’s the other protagonist in my book, along with my mother-in-law, Hana. He’s truly the yin to her yang. Without him she wouldn’t exist. I’ve been working on the chapters about him recently and well, Memorial Day just snuck up on me. I want to dedicate this post to him, because without him my husband would not be here, and as you can gather, neither would my children. Pete saved Hana’s life when he discovered her at three-weeks-old at Mauthausen concentration camp in 1945, and swiftly administered medical care that staved off fatal infection. He was a war hero through and through.

He died in 2010 at age 87, but I did have an opportunity to meet him in 2008 when he was presented with the Golden Shofar Award in Albany, New York. I am in regular contact with his youngest son, Brian Petersohn, who has been generously sharing all of his father’s clippings, writings, photos and other war-related mementos with me over the past few years. Most endearing, however, are Brian’s own memories and stories of growing up with him. He sounds like one of those dads every kid wishes he or she could have, someone who’s loving, kind, fun and funny. It gets emotional at times, but it’s been so beautiful to share my journey with one of Pete’s kids. Pete really feels like family now, and indeed, he is. Thank you Brian, for bringing your father vividly to life for me and for the future readers of the book.

subway seat graffiti

I take my children to school each day via the subway. One morning a week or so ago my six-year-old daughter excitedly told me I had just sat upon a square and to stand up so she could show me. And this is what I saw: a swastika in black permanent marker. But at second glance, I saw something else. Some other subway rider had whipped out her ballpoint pen and filled in the corners of the swastika to make it look like a square. And then she added peace symbols and hearts in the quadrants.

“What’s wrong Mommy? You don’t like the picture?”

Here’s what my first-grade daughter knows and understands so far:

  • She is Jewish
  • Her father is Israeli
  • Her mother (me) is writing a book about her Savta’s extraordinary life (savta is Hebrew for grandmother)

“This is a swastika,” I said. “It’s a symbol of the nazi party.”

(I just now decided that I will not capitalize the “n” in nazi because it somehow legitimizes them; it’ll be capped in my book though, I’ll make sure my editor makes sure of it…).

“The nazi’s wanted to kill all the Jews and they succeeded in killing a lot of us, including some of your relatives. That’s why I’m writing a book about your Savta.”

“How come you never work on the book anymore?” she asked.

How could she have known? (Kids always know). I had spent the last few days contemplating whether or not to leave my job as an editor at BBC to work fulltime on my book. I had taken the position in December 2013 and have barely touched the book since. I miss it. I crave it. I really, really, really need to get back to my book.

“Well, I work fulltime and my life is really busy. I’d like to get back to writing my book,” I said. “What do you think? Should I leave BBC to work fulltime on my book?”

She looked away and then down at the ground.  I could see that she was really thinking about how to respond. And then, “I think it’s a decision you have to make, Mommy.”

Well knock me over with a feather! Holy sh*t! I laughed and hugged her and said, “Thank you my oh-so-wise daughter.”

A week or so later I resigned from the BBC. I’m exhilarated about this decision and as of May 8 I will have a new fulltime job: to complete the manuscript for “What Happened to That Baby.”

For those of you who have been on this intermittent journey with me, please continue to check back. I will try to post somewhat regularly. For those of you who are just joining, welcome! I hope you’ll come visit once in a while too. I encourage discussion on these pages, but I do moderate all comments before posting. Please be respectful and no ad hominem attacks. These are very charged topics but there are ways to engage without resorting to intolerance and hatred.

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peace and love

Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, Rwanda. Credit: DKC Public Relations/AP

Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, Rwanda.
Credit: DKC Public Relations/AP

I just read about an amazing woman, but only after her death. Her name was Anne Heyman and she had a vision to save Rwandan orphans by creating youth villages akin to the ones in Israel that took in all the Jewish children orphaned by the Holocaust.

When the village for orphans opened in 2008, a long line of teenagers, alone and shattered, stood in the blazing sun holding paper bags containing all their possessions. Entire families of some had been wiped out, and they had no photographs. Some did not know their birthdays, or even what their real names were.

She built the village of 32 houses high up on a hill “because children need to see far to go far,” said Heyman.

What impresses me about her work is that she embraced more than just the children, and spread the love and philanthropy in a pay-it-forward way. The youth that first arrived were those orphaned by the genocide  in 1994, but later children of parents who had died of AIDS began to  arrive. Soon, other vulnerable children were also taken in.

Ethiopian Jews who had grown up at a youth camp in Israel were the first counselors. Housemothers were hired locally to make the houses into homes, often the first the youths had known. Many of the women had lost their husbands and children to genocide.

In a nod to her inspiration, she named the camp, Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. “Agahozo” is a Kinyarwanda word meaning “a place where tears are dried” and Shalom is Hebrew for peace.

Although she died a premature death (age 52), her work will outlive her. And that’s a beautiful thing.

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Yascha Mounk, courtesy of his website

I just read an opinion piece entitled, “German, Jewish and Neither,” by a young German man named Yascha Mounk. And it left me reeling.

He and his mother were the only Jews in Laupheim, the small town in southern Germany where he grew up [he was born in 1982]. In his essay, which appeared in the New York Times this weekend, he included two short anecdotes that left me gasping. That both of them occurred in the past two decades is what made me feel like the recipient of a sucker punch. The first one took place in 1992 when Mr. Mounk had just started the fifth grade. His teacher, Herr Weiss, was going down the class list asking students if they were Protestant or Catholic, so he would know which religion class to send them to. Here’s how he describes it in the article:

“Mounk, Yascha. Protestant or Catholic?”

“Well, I guess I’m sort of Jewish.”

The class laughed. Uproariously.

“Stop making things up,” Johannes Emmerle, a Protestant, shouted as the hilarity ebbed. “Everybody knows that the Jews don’t exist anymore!”

Herr Weiss reprimanded Johannes. “Don’t talk unless I call on you. We must have order. O.K., Yascha. You’ll have a free period when the others take religion. There’s a Turk in another class, I think. You two can keep each other company.”

Then he added, as an afterthought: “And, Johannes, you are wrong, as a matter of fact. There are a few Jews. Again.”

Herr Weiss’s afterthought was like a knife in the back. And the “Again” at the end was the final twist to make sure the knife was in good and tight. Then there was the second anecdote, which was more outwardly offensive, but no less insidious.

This incident occurred when Mr. Mounk was a young adult. Although I’m not sure exactly how recently, it seems to have been in the past decade or so. Here it is:

Once again, Germany’s changed understanding of its past manifested itself in ordinary interactions. One Saturday morning, for example, I went to Munich’s Oktoberfest with a group of acquaintances. A jolly brass band in lederhosen was playing. We clinked our mugs in a traditional Bavarian toast.

Stephanie, a petite woman in her late 30s, was trying to make a joke. “How do you fit 200 Jews into a Volkswagen Beetle?” she asked.

“Knock it off,” said Hans, a big-boned, folksy friend of mine. “This is not appropriate.”

“Why should I?” Stephanie shot back. “Because you tell me to shut up? Because they tell me to shut up? Come on, it’s just a joke!”

“I doubt it’ll be funny,” Hans said.

“Not funny? Have a sense of humor! Why can’t a joke about the Jews be funny? It’s 2006. The Holocaust happened 60 years ago. We should tell jokes about the Jews again!”

“Look,” Hans said, “you know as well as I do that Germans have a special responsibility to be sensi — ”

“A special responsibility? I’m not even 40! No, no. I won’t stay silent any longer. Here’s how you fit them in. You gas them. You incinerate them. You stuff them in the ashtray. That’s how you do it.”

There was that word “again” again. Read the third paragraph from the bottom of the anecdote and you’ll see it. The line reads, “We should tell jokes about the Jews again!”

What the f*ck!?!?! It will always be too soon to tell jokes about the Jews. Especially Holocaust jokes. Who in their right mind could think a Holocaust joke is in any way humorous? Just cut it out you ignorant joke-telling people. Those jokes are far from funny. They reveal your inability to be a member of the civilized world.  Those jokes should never see a reprisal. They are most definitely never “again” and always too soon.

I’m thinking about writing to Mr. Mounk (who wrote, “Stranger In My Own Country: A Jewish Family in Modern Germany,” which comes out on Tuesday, January 7, 2014) and finding out how he handled the aftermath of the joke. I couldn’t tell from the article whether or not he responded to her. I know that I would have railed into her. Oh, would I have let her have it. Wonder what calm, cool and collected response I could use in a situation like that. Something just witty and smart enough to make the person feel stupid and confused at the same time. Any suggestions? Feel free to share them in the comments section below.

BTH cover

I met Deb Levy because we had something in common. We were both writing books based on someone else’s Holocaust story. Deb’s book, Bury the Hot, is now published. She sent me a copy and I read it in one big gulp. I had so many questions for her afterward but limited it to nine, which are answered by her below. You can purchase your own copy of Bury the Hot at amazon, which I encourage you to do. It’s a page-turner.

1. What was it like telling someone else’s story?

One of the very first things Sal [Wainberg] said to me after asking me to write his story was this, “Do not make a Hollywood version of my account. Do not embellish for the sake of storytelling. Do not make me out to be a hero. I just want the truth.” So, I felt a tremendous responsibility to hold to the truth. I also felt a tremendous responsibility for earning his trust, and that of his wife, Sandy. They were both sharing their memories and their marriage in such an honest and open way, and I held their trust in me in very high regard.

Deb Levy, author of Bury the Hot (courtesy of Deb Levy)

Deb Levy, author of Bury the Hot

2. How much and what kind of research did you do?

Sal sent me the VHS tape and transcript of a video testimony that he had given in 1995. I pored through it and filled a spiral-bound notebook with hundreds of questions. We don’t live near each other, so we spoke on the phone for several hours at a time – Sandy sitting silently on the line listening in. We called into a conference call center that recorded our conversations so that I could listen and respond without worrying about writing things down. We spoke once or twice a week, for hours on end, for several months. I also (like you!) used Google quite a bit and found amazing resources – from a Hebrew/Gregorian calendar conversion tool, to the Yizkor (memorial) book of his shtetl. And I went to Yeshiva University and the JDC [Joint Distribution Committee] and looked through their archives to get more information about historical events that he was part of.

3. Who else did you interview beside Sal? How did you handle any inconsistencies in his story?

I interviewed his wife Sandy quite a bit, privately, because a good part of the book focuses on their marriage, and how the repression of his childhood experiences impacted their relationship. (She was learning some details of his past along with me, believe it or not.) I also spoke with his daughter, who is my age, to get a different perspective. But Bury the Hot is mainly Sal’s story, as he remembers his experiences and as he perceived them. Any historical inconsistencies, I checked with him and we compared notes on things like dates. For instance, he recalled the war breaking out on Erev Rosh Hashanah (he was three years old.) But every history book notes Germany invading Poland on September 1, which was about two weeks before Rosh Hashanah in 1939. When I pressed him on this, he said that he remembered wearing his new Rosh Hashanah clothes and going outside as planes darkened the sky above his home. And so he assumed it was Rosh Hashanah. But he realized that he must have just gotten his new outfit a few weeks before the New Year, tried it on, and then gone outside to show off his new clothes. To be honest, I was really amazed at how accurate and vivid his memories were.

4. Tell me about your decision to include Yiddish words, especially how you deftly handled their definitions, i.e., weaving them into the narrative rather than footnotes or parenthetically.

I love any book that weaves a foreign language into its prose – it brings a culture to life in a way that mere descriptions cannot. And Yiddish is such an amazing language, full of flavor and feistiness and a “hamisheh” quality. It’s the language of my family and our history, and the language that Sal spoke for the first 15 years of his life. It’s also a dying language and one that I wanted to revive in some way.

5. Has writing this changed the way you think about WWII and the Holocaust? What about your faith? I can’t imagine going through the process of interviewing, researching, writing and publishing and not coming out the other side unfazed.

To be honest, when Sal first asked me to write his story and his wife said, “His story is unbelievable,” my first thought (which I kept to myself!) was, “Yeah, I’ve heard it before.” I cringe now thinking about that. We may think that by reading Anne Frank and watching Schindler’s List we’ve heard it all before, but we haven’t. We haven’t even come close. There are millions of stories that need to be told – each one unique and heartbreaking and filled with truths and teachings. I don’t know that writing this changed the way that I practice or believe, but it changed me as a mother. I have three young boys, and raising them while writing about another young boy in peril was fraught with challenges. I struggled between wanting to do everything I could (as we all want to do as mothers) to give them a good life and protect them from harm. But at the same time, I started to resent their good life and innocence. I wondered often if they would have survived the things that Sal endured, and it terrified me, because I didn’t think they would. And so there was a part of me that wanted to “toughen them up” so that they could survive if their world, God forbid, turned upside down. But that is impossible, and probably not the best way to raise children!

6. How do you feel about the book, the people involved, the fact that the last survivors will soon be no more? 

I’m incredibly proud of the book, and incredibly, incredibly grateful to Sandy and Sal both for trusting me with their memories and laying themselves bare. Seeing it in print, seeing it go so public, I realize the incredible courage they exhibited in opening themselves up so completely. They were incredibly honest, and honesty is not always so attractive. Also, I think I was so close to it that it’s only been through the response I’m getting from readers that I realize I did something very important for history and humanity. Every day that goes by, there are less and less of those who can provide a first-hand account, or who can tell it cogently. And so there is this race against the clock to make sure we capture as much as we can and then share it with generations to come.

7. Any interesting or surprising responses to your book? Would love to hear what kind of feedback you’re getting from readers, whether they be from survivors, kin of survivors, Jews, non-Jews, etc.

The response has been incredible. Certainly, it is a Jewish-interest story. But some of my most fervent fans and supporters are non-Jews. And why not? It is a human story and one does not have to be Nigerian to appreciate Chinua Achebe, or Indian to read Salman Rushdie. But perhaps the greatest response was from Sal’s daughter, who hadn’t read a page of the book until it was published. The whole time I was writing his story, I worried about how she and her brother would feel reading about their father’s suffering, or their parent’s marriage. But she said, “I feel like we are now somehow related. Over 40 years, I have managed to absorb some of this history. But in 1/10th the time, you got it. And now you are my sister. This is why he chose you.”

8. Anything you wish you had done differently?

Yes! Like I said, I found the Yizkor book of Zelechow (his shtetl) online and used it as a resource for corroborating his memory of historical events. It also listed the names of people from his village, which I incorporated into the book. But it wasn’t until I went back to the Yizkor book, while I was working on the approximately 8th or 9th revision of Bury the Hot, that I realized there were pictures at the end of this online document. And I found pictures of his family, people he hid with. I had chills seeing the faces of the characters I had been writing about. Unfortunately, Sal had passed away by this time, and so I couldn’t share those photographs with him, or seek his help in identifying some of the people in group photos.

9. Name one thing you learned about the Holocaust that you didn’t know before starting this project.

I learned a lot about the difference between Polish and German society at that time, and the many years leading up to the war. I learned that the war’s end in 1945 did not bring an end to the suffering of Jews in Poland – at all. Anti-Semitism was centuries old, and persisted long after the Holocaust.

P.S. Click here if you’re curious about the book’s title.

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As a Brooklyn-dwelling former spelling bee champ (4th and 5th grades, thank you very much), I was delighted to learn that the winning word at this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee was knaidel and it was spelled by a New York City kid who’d never eaten a matzoh ball in his life. He is the child of immigrants from southern India.

But as many who have cared to follow have since seen, the Yiddish-intelligentsia are up in arms over what they deem an incorrect spelling.

Oy vey!

At first I thought they were overreacting. But then I read this cogent essay in today’s New York Times and now see this is a much deeper issue that has its roots in anti-Semitism. According to Jewish scholar and professor Dara Horn (bold text mine),

 The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which created the standard Yiddish transliteration now used in libraries around the world, holds that the correct spelling is ‘kneydl.’

Yiddish is a thousand years old, but YIVO, founded in 1925 in what is now Vilnius in Lithuania, finished standardizing the spelling of Yiddish words in the Hebrew alphabet only in 1937. YIVO (an acronym for the Yiddish Scientific Institute) was created by scholars who saw Judaism as a nationality based on language, not religion — and who insisted, amid rising anti-Semitism, that the Yiddish language was as rich as any other. For Yiddish to matter, spelling had to count — which is why this orthographic debate is far more fraught than it appears.

…In 19th-century Europe, religious writers spelled Yiddish words by imitating Hebrew, using vowel markings where none were necessary so their new writing would resemble ancient Hebrew texts. Meanwhile, Jews who wanted to assimilate into European life wrote in a Yiddish spelling that openly imitated German.

…[In the early Soviet Union] government control over Yiddish schools and presses led to the invention and enforcement of a literally anti-Semitic Yiddish orthography by spelling the language’s many Semitic-origin words phonetically instead of in Hebrew. (Imagine spelling “naïve” as “nigh-eve” in order to look less French.) It was an attempt to erase Jewish culture’s biblical roots, letter by letter.

These psychologically destructive spellings — implying, as they all did in various ways, that Jewish culture didn’t belong in Europe — were what YIVO was fighting against.

…By 1945 the Nazis had killed the majority of the world’s Yiddish speakers. YIVO itself survived only through the efforts of Jewish prisoners, including celebrated poets who were forced by the Germans to loot YIVO’s archives for a Nazi-created “Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question.” Members of this “paper brigade” risked their lives to smuggle out cultural treasures, including documents that scholars had painstakingly collected to record and standardize Yiddish spelling.”

As Ms. Horn tweeted, “My piece on #yiddish spelling [w]as a matter of life and death,” and although perhaps a bit overstated, I somewhat agree. What do you think?

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