CHAP. IX THE TRAGEDY OF YIDDISH

You kill a living, spoken language when you kill all the people who speak it. The Nazis did not kill all speakers of Yiddish, but they killed the great majority of those who spoke the language naturally, who had lisped their parental tongue from infancy, taken it in with their mothers’ milk. As they grew up they may have acquired varying degrees of proficiency in the languages – Polish, Russian, German, Czech, Hungarian or Roumanian – of the countries in which they lived, but Yiddish remained their vernacular, their mumme loohshen. It was the language in which they lived, in which they gave expression to their joy and sorrow, love and hate, in which their old men dreamed dreams and their young men saw visions. It was the language in which they were at ease, not only in Zion – Bialik’s reply, when reproached for speaking Yiddish in Israel: “It’s Sabbath, I’m resting” has become a classic – but in those countries of their dispersion which, in spite of the indignities and the discrimination to which they were subjected in them, they regarded as the heym, home.

All the periodical talk of a revival of interest in Yiddish, of an “upswing in the Yiddish theatre”, [i] cannot obscure the fact that it is now Hebrew which has taken over from Yiddish as the living Jewish language. More Jewish children, it is safe to say – it is doubtful whether any meaningful statistical information is available – speak Hebrew than Yiddish. A century ago no Jewish child spoke Hebrew, although every Jewish child in Eastern Europe studied it intensively from infancy as the “language of holiness,” as the language of prayer and the scriptures, including the great “Sea of the Talmud”. [ii] Yiddish made a contribution to Modern Hebrew (Chapter III, 3). As the late Dr S. Rawidowicz, a former president of the World Hebrew Union, wrote in the English preface to the Groyser verterbukh fun der yiddisher shprakh (“Great Dictionary of the Yiddish Language”): “…the written word of Modern Hebrew was blended with the unwritten and the unexpressed image in Yiddish.”

The old Hebrew v. Yiddish controversy now seems to belong, as indeed it does, to another world, another age, the pre-holocaust age. Alike those who insisted “Yiddish, only Yiddish,” and those who dedicated themselves only to Hebrew, the “mistress”, and scorned Yiddish, the “serving maid”, together with the moderates who proclaimed there was “room for both languages” – all now seem to be voices speaking of

“Old forgotten far-off things

And battles long ago.”

It is now Hebrew which is – in Israel – what Yiddish was for the Jews of Poland, Lithuania, the Ukraine, Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia: the language of “the mother in the house, the children in the street, the common man in the market-place”. It is now Yiddish which has, in London, its “Friends of Yiddish”. A living language needs no friends.

True, among native-born Anglo-Saxon Jews, who now constitute a substantial majority of the Jewish populations in the Anglo-Saxon countries (including, for this purpose, South Africa) there are many who are “at ease” in a macaronic Yiddishised English, but their mother tongue is English, which they can speak, and certainly write, no less fluently and no less correctly than the rest of the educationally comparable indigenous population. When Leo Rosten writes (pp.ix-xii, Penguin edition, of The Joys of Yiddish) of “our marvellously resilient tongue”, our noble language”, “our cherished tongue”, it is English he is referring to, not Yiddish.

It is impossible to praise too highly the work which is being done on Yiddish linguistics in New York by the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research (founded in 1925 in Vilna as the Yiddish Scientific Institute); its Great Dictionary of the Yiddish Language; the monumental four-volume History of the Yiddish Language, by Max Weinreich; the Field of Yiddish volumes (1954, 1965, 19690; College Yiddish, by Uriel Weinreich; the periodical volumes of Yidishe Shprakh. Nevertheless, linguistics is not language. Pace Mrs Feinsilver[iii], a perusal of some of the rather arcane papers in the Field of Yiddish publications suggests that H. G. Wells’ prophecy, that Yiddish “would expire quietly, and finally become as delightfully musty and passé a subject for doctors’ theses as Anglo-Saxon is today”, is not so far off the mark.

When twelve million Jews spoke Yiddish as Englishmen spoke English and Russians spoke Russian (it is doubtful whether there are three million such Yiddish speakers now), there was no need for books like College Yiddish. Textbooks of Yiddish there were for Gentiles who wanted to study the language, but we need have no illusions that any but a small minority of those who have recourse to College Yiddish are goyim. One can imagine the reaction of a heymish Jew: Koilitch Yiddish? Vehr geyt denn in koilitch? I repeat, this is not to detract from the excellence of College Yiddish; for Jews who want to learn Yiddish it is superb. But – Yiddish lehrnt mennisht – one can hear our heymish Jew saying, you don’t learn Yiddish, yiddish rett sekh (assimilation in sekh instead of zekh, not that our heymish yeet would want to be “banged a teapot” with such things) “Yiddish speaks itself”.

“But we are all old now”, Isaac Bashevis Singer told a Radio Times correspondent, “the readers and the writers. Yiddish is becoming weaker and weaker. The young are beginning to complain that their parents didn’t teach them Yiddish” (Radio Times, 3-9 August, 1974). The point must again be made, a living language is caught, not taught. Only dead languages are “taught”.

Nobody, surely, can register with “triumph” the death of Yiddish, as Salcia Landmann suggests, in her Jiddish, das Abenteuer einer Sprache[iv] may be possible. To triumph at the death of Yiddish would be to triumph at the death of the millions who spoke it and perished at the hands of the Nazis. It would be to triumph at the death of humanity.

Nevertheless, the authoress is right when she declares (ibid) that the death of Yiddish is now only a question of time, and as such “A chapter in the German-Jewish symbiosis which here, in a unique picturesque language, survived not merely the persecutions of the Crusades, but even those of the Hitler years, is now finally drawing to its close”.

Some aspects of that German-Jewish symbiosis make inexpressibly poignant reading. I quote again from Abenteuer einer Sprache[v]:

“Avé-Lallemant a superintendent of Lübeck police in the mid nineteenth century, who acquired a thorough knowledge of Yiddish and Hebrew in connection with his study of the secret German thieves’ and vagabonds’ cant (Rotwelsch) which dates from the Middle Ages, could say of the good old (altertümlich-treuherzig) Judaeo-German of the Remaissance period: ‘Yiddish is a mighty, unnatural piecing-together of Indo-Germanic and Semitic speech forms which will remain for all time as a sombre memorial of inhuman persecution and oppression of the ancient people of God, and which is etched as deep in German culture and language as are the traces of blood in a torture chamber'”.

One of the reasons given by a German divine to whom we have referred previously, M. Wilhelm Christian Just Chrysander[vi], for Germans to learn Yiddish, was that “The Jews are human beings, intelligent creatures of out own kind and blood, and therefore out neighbours”. What worlds away from the blood libels which cost the Jewish people so dear, and the blood myth which was the motive force in exterminating more than a third of their number.

In 1687 a German was executed and his corpse impaled to the public view in Altona because he had been found guilty of murdering two Jews! It is true that the Jews of the neighbouring city of Hamburg were exposed to the fury of the populace as a result, but the Senate itself issued a decree protecting them and threatening with exemplary punishment any who molested them in their houses or in the streets.[vii]

Hermann L. Strack, a Professor of Bible and Talmud in the best tradition of German scholarship, wrote in the introduction to his Jiddisches Wörterbuch, 1916:

“Yiddish, usually considered a corrupt German, has at least as much right to be called a language as English, for its German basis is much clearer than the German basis of English”. (We can permit ourselves an indulgent smile at the professor’s naïve assumption that the title deeds of a language lie in its “German basis”.)

“Many years spent in collecting material, and twelve months of strenuous, at times wearisome labour, have gone to the making of this dictionary. My reward is the knowledge that I have thereby served my beloved Fatherland, promoted scholarship and brought a little-known nation (little-known in spite of all the oppression it has suffered in recent years) intellectually nearer to the Germans and to all who wish to learn”.

Voices such as these make the “final solution” as much a spiritual tragedy for Germany as it was a physical catastrophe for Jewry. They also provide an eloquent justification, if such were needed, for the efforts of Yivo to provide the necessary material for “all who wish to learn”. But Yiddish as a living language cannot, and should not, be revived. Perhaps, had the wheel of history taken a different turn, had Eastern European Jewry been able to exercise the degree of cultural autonomy enjoyed by, say, the Welsh, a vigorous Yiddish culture might have continued to develop. After the holocaust, however, it would be unseemly for Jews to revive a language the fundamental structure of which was that of the depraved beings who achieved power in what had been a country of poets and thinkers, and whose declared objective it was to devour Jacob and his inheritance. The curtain was rung down on the tragedy of Yiddish in the death camps of Auschwitz and Maidanek. The study of Yiddish linguistics in New York is its epilogue. Thereafter the drama of Yiddish, its pathos and its comedy will live only in books and fractionally in the English and Hebrew speech of the descendants of those for whom Yiddish was mumme loohshen.


[i] Feinsilver, op.cit., p. 403

[ii] The extent to which the “learning” of Talmud acted as “determinant” of Yiddish is well brought out by the late Max Weinreich in his exhaustive chapter on Dee shpraakh fin derekh hushuss in his Geshikhte fun der Yiddisher Shprakh, New York, Yivo, 1973, vol. I, pp.184-250. (Derekh hushuss = “the way of the Talmud,” shuss being the acronym of shisho sedorim “six orders” (of the Mishnah) by which the traditional printed volumes of the Talmud (Mishnah followed by Gemara enisled in Rashi and other commentaries) are known. Weinreich makes the point that loohshen koidesh, the Yiddish for “Hebrew”, does not denote “holy tongue”, in contrast to a secular Yiddish tongue, but “language of holiness”. The sacred texts were written in Hebrew, but learnt orally in Yiddish. Unlike the European vernaculars in the Middle Ages among the clergy, who used Latin for all learned purposes, among Jews their Yiddish vernacular was the instrument of higher, sacred learning.

[iii] Op. cit., p.403, note.

[iv] Olten und Freiburg im Breisgau: Walter Verlag, 1962 p.57.

[v] p.20

[vi] Althaus, Hans Peter, Quellen zur Geschichte der Jiddischen Sprache, Marburg/Lahn, 1966, p.217.

[vii] Feilchenfeld, Alfred, Denkwürdigkeiten der Glückel von Hameln,Berlin, 1913, pp .224-5.