Yiddish Literature in the 20th Century

Yiddish writers emigrated from Europe, and though Yiddish writing all but ceased after the Holocaust, it is seeing a small rebirth today.

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But as Stalinism's deadly shadow spread, there was a resurgence of anti-Semitism, and the blossoming of Yiddish Soviet writers was doomed to elimination in the gulags and by firing squads. Notable writers, many who were exe­cuted, included Moshe Kulbak (1896-1940), for example, the novel Zelmenianier, 1931; David Bergelson (1884-1952), for example, the novel Nokh Alemen (After All), 1913; and Peretz Markish (1895-1952), for example, the novel Dor Ayn, Dor Oys (Generation In, Generation Out), 1929. The Soviet promise of a home for Yiddish literature was never realized.

The Nazi Holocaust decimated the Yiddish-speaking population Europe, along with its writers, poets, and artists. Those who were lucky escaped to America, Palestine, or other countries. The work of someYiddish writers survives this period, including those of the poet Yitzkhok Katzenelson (1886-1944) and the writer Emanuel Ringelblum (1897-1944). Both took part in the Warsaw ghetto uprising and documented their brutal experiences for posterity.

The Land of Israel

Prior to the formation of the State of Israel (1948), Palestine was not important center for Yiddish writing. Many early Zionists believed Hebrew should be the dominant language, and Yiddish was regarded with disdain, even though it was spoken widely by Ashkenazi [Eastern European] Jews. Early pioneers were drawn to the kibbutznik way of life and included among them were Yiddish writers emigrating from Europe. These included writers and poets such as Barahman Lev (1910-1970), Yoel Mastboin (1884-1957), Abraham Rives (1900-1962), and the woman poet Rikudah Potash (1906-1965).

After statehood greater efforts were made to recognize Yiddish with centers of study and publications. Much of the Yiddish writing in Israel after the Holocaust centered on stories, novels, and memoirs recounting the hardships of survival in Europe. Yiddish scholarly activity now concentrated mainly on Israeli universities. Since 1994, the scholarly journal Khulyot (Links), featuring articles in Hebrew and Yiddish dealing with Yiddish writing and writers, has been published jointly by faculties of the Universities of Haifa and Tel Aviv.

After the Holocaust

Prior to World War II, Poland, Russia, and America were centers of Yiddish writing. After the war, Poland lost 90 percent of its Jews. Russia's anti-Semitic policies silenced most Jewish writers, and many migrated to Israel up through the breakup of the Soviet Union. Only America remained as a vital center for Yiddish literature, especially as European refugees arrived immediately after the war. Yiddish centers, like YIVO, were repositories of Yiddish culture, and Yiddish studies were introduced in some American universities. In general, however, there has been a steady decline of Yiddish writers in America, and with the death of Issac Bashevis Singer (1991), a dominant Yiddish literary voice was lost.  

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Payson R. Stevens

Payson R. Stevens was President and Creative Director of InterNetwork Inc. and well as InterNetwork Media Inc.