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A Forgotten Yiddish Past
By Michael Tarm

Emmanuelis Zingeris doesn't want the picture of naked corpses being bulldozed into mass graves to be the only enduring image of Jews killed during World War II.

"We go to cemeteries and death camps and leave flowers where they perished,'' said the Lithuanian Jewish leader. "But after the 101st wreath-laying ceremony, you have to ask: Shouldn't they be remembered for the way they lived and not just for the way they died?''

Zingeris says preserving their living memory means, above all else, preserving the traditions of Yiddish, a 1000-year-old German dialect written in Hebraic script.

Today, Yiddish has all but vanished. Before the war, over 10 million European Jews spoke it. Most of the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis were native Yiddish speakers.

"People say `never forget','' said Zingeris, a legislator in Lithuania's parliament. "But who remembers that Jews had a uniquely European culture of their own?...No one does.''

Zingeris recently launched a drive to promote awareness of Yiddish in Europe and to keep it alive in tiny, still-existing Yiddish communities.

If there is to be a Yiddish revival, there couldn't be a more appropriate place for it than Vilnius, the capital of Yiddish culture and learning before the war.

The first Jews came to Lithuania in the 14th century. Lured by tolerant Lithuanian regimes, Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazy Jews later poured into the region.

       So important was Lithuania to Lithuanian Jews, or litvaks, Latvia and Byelorussia were lumped under the same name. A Lithuanian diplomat joked at a post-World War I conference on territorial borders that his country claimed "everything the Jews call Lithuania.''

       On the eve of war in 1939, Yiddish was the lingua franca for almost all of Lithuania's 250,000 Jews. The Jews of Vilnius made up half the city's 130,000 residents. Smaller Jewish communities in Latvia and Estonia also spoke Yiddish.

In Jewish villages dotting Lithuania, the language was so influential that even ethnic Lithuanian farmers sometimes learned fluent Yiddish.

In Vilnius itself, the sound of Yiddish filled the close-knit, cobble-stoned streets of the Jewish quarter. Bearded peddlers traded their wares and children chased horse-drawn carts to neighborhood markets.

Vilnius was home to the celebrated Yiddish Institute of Higher Learning, the closest thing to a Yiddish university in the world. A booming publishing industry churned out thousands of Yiddish-language books each year, everything from school manuals and Biblical texts to translations of Freud and Dostoevsky.

"These communities became some of the most creative in the 3000-year history of the Jewish people,'' said Dr. Dovid Katz, a Yiddish writer and an Oxford professor of Yiddish.

       But all that's gone now.

       Today, there are virtually no reminders of the city's Yiddish past, save for some fading Yiddish letters on one run-down, hidden-away building in central Vilnius.

       During the Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1944, over 90 percent of the Vilnius Jews were executed. Many were shot in open pits in a forest just 8 kilometers away.

       The Germans dynamited the cornerstones of Yiddish cultural life, including the Great Synagogue and the Strashum Library, which once held the world's largest collection of Yiddish books.

        There are 6,000 Jews left in Lithuania, most of them Soviet-era immigrants from Russia. There is an ever-dwindling community of Holocaust survivors in their 70s and 80s.

       "At meetings five years ago, I used to speak in Yiddish to 400 of these survivors,'' explained Emmanuelis Zingeris. "Now, there are 200. My Yiddish-speaking audience has gotten twice as small.''

       Yiddish is disappearing all over the world as older Jews die and younger ones become assimilated. Once vibrant Yiddish-speaking communities of New York are nearly gone.

       The last stronghold of Yiddish is among 2 million Yiddish-speaking Chasidic Jews. But the Orthodox Chasidics shun secular literature and theater, keys to sustaining a credible Yiddish culture.

        Israel has also made little attempt to preserve Yiddish and, at one time, aggressively discouraged it. Founders of Israel opted for Hebrew as the state language, scorning Yiddish as a remnant of exile, oppression and weakness.

       Many of the last great Yiddish cultural figures, like Nobel prize laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer and painter Marc Chagall, have died. No one is there to take their place.

       "The full scope of Hitler's work is only becoming apparent now, as surviving native Yiddish speakers born before the war die off,'' said Dovid Katz.

       While Katz and Zingeris speak excitedly about breathing life back into Yiddish culture, they admit that reversing the decline of Yiddish could be a losing battle.

       "I have this sensation that Yiddish is a mist on a morning field,'' said Zingeris. "It's disappearing before our eyes like a dream that never was. I so badly want to stop this tragedy, but I'm afraid that no one understands me. No one understands how big this tragedy really is.''


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