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The Yiddish Historians and the Struggle for a Jewish History of the Holocaust

  • Author(s): Smith, Mark Lee
  • Advisor(s): Friedländer, Saul
  • Myers, David N.
  • et al.
Abstract

At the intersection of three areas of Jewish scholarship — Yiddish studies, Holocaust studies, and the history of Jewish historiography — one encounters a group of Holocaust historians whose works have yet to be explored in their original context. The study of the Holocaust has led to increasing interest in source materials written in Yiddish, and it has also led to a well-developed literature on the history of Holocaust historiography. Surprisingly neglected in that literature are the works of the survivor historians who chose to write Holocaust history in the Yiddish vernacular of their readers.

This work introduces the general subject of Yiddish historical writing — and the concept of “Yiddish historians” — in the context of prewar Diaspora nationalism. It explores the continuities that led these historians to study the Jewish history of the Holocaust and also rendered Yiddish historiography an appropriate vehicle for their work. Chief among these were the focus on internal Jewish history and the anti-lachrymose approach to Jewish historical writing that had developed among Yiddish historians before the Holocaust and which led to their study of Jewish life, rather than death, under Nazi occupation. In particular, their writings contest the view that early Holocaust historiography focused primarily on the “perpetrators.”

Prewar Yiddish historians established a transnational public discourse with an educated lay audience that was reenacted after World War II by their survivors and successors. The interactions of the postwar Yiddish historians with their audience formed a “lay–professional partnership” that contested the existence of a “Myth of Silence” in the Yiddish-speaking world.

In response to accusations of cowardice and passivity that arose against the Jewish victims of Nazism, the Yiddish historians fashioned both a vigorous defense, in studying the many impediments to Jewish resistance, and also a daring offense, in formulating a new definition of “spiritual resistance” that would expand its scope to the widespread efforts of unarmed Jews to remain alive under Nazi occupation.

Most recently, the gradual transfer of the Yiddish historians’ work from the community of Yiddish speakers to the larger world of Jewish and general scholarship has gained these historians a degree of integration into the mainstream of Holocaust study.

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