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From the JFR Library – August 2020

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From the JFR Library

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

by Mark L. Smith

Reviewed by Donald Weber, January 1, 2013

National Jewish Book Awards Finalist 2019

In The Yid­dish His­to­ri­ans and the Strug­gle for a Jew­ish His­to­ry of the Holo­caust, Mark L. Smith, a schol­ar of East Euro­pean Jew­ry and of Holo­caust his­to­ry, con­tributes an impor­tant work of his­to­ri­o­graph­ic syn­the­sis and recov­ery. Smith’s aim is to make avail­able, and new­ly rel­e­vant, the col­lec­tive schol­ar­ship of a cohort of Pol­ish-born Jew­ish his­to­ri­ans who came of age before the Shoah.They wrote, for the most part in Yid­dish, for a seri­ous and intel­lec­tu­al­ly-engaged pub­lic. In Smith’s view, these ​“sur­vivor his­to­ri­ans” — Philip Fried­man, Isa­iah Trunk, Nach­man Blu­men­thal, Joseph Ker­mish, and Mark Dworzec­ki — remain under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed. These Yid­dish his­to­ri­ans are respon­si­ble for ground­break­ing work in a num­ber of fields — above all, in their post­war his­to­ries of every­day life in the camps and in their accounts of the forms of Jew­ish resis­tance dur­ing Nazi degra­da­tions, espe­cial­ly in terms of spir­i­tu­al defi­ance. The work of these Yid­dish his­to­ri­ans, who rep­re­sent the ​“last authen­ti­cal­ly ver­nac­u­lar phase of pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion” ought to be made more avail­able to his­to­ri­ans, as well as to the public.

To that end, Smith gath­ers exten­sive bib­li­ogra­phies of the writ­ings of these five fig­ures, all Holo­caust sur­vivors who, after the war, con­tin­ued in their pro­fes­sion­al careers in var­i­ous capac­i­ties and loca­tions (YIVO in New York, Israel, Paris, and more). They kept faith with their ​“pre-war iden­ti­ties as self-reflec­tive Jew­ish pro­fes­sion­als” and attempt­ed to ​“to study and con­vey to their fel­low sur­vivors the Jew­ish his­to­ry of the Nazi peri­od.” Most impor­tant­ly, and poignant­ly, they became ​“the lit­er­ary execu­tors of the mur­dered authors,” the Jews who left frag­ments of mem­oirs or who sought, some­how, to doc­u­ment the hor­ror of their camp trau­mas. Even­tu­al­ly, by con­tribut­ing to Yiskor books, gath­ered from their own home towns as well as oth­er van­ished places, and through the cre­ation of the Cen­tral Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Com­mis­sion in Poland, the Yid­dish his­to­ri­ans helped cre­ate the ​“foun­da­tion sto­ry of Jew­ish Holo­caust research in East­ern Europe.”

For more knowl­edge­able stu­dents of Holo­caust his­to­ry and Jew­ish his­to­ry in gen­er­al, The Yid­dish His­to­ri­ans will be fas­ci­nat­ing; Smith’s recu­per­a­tion of this impor­tant cohort in The Yid­dish His­to­ri­ans is designed for a more schol­ar­ly, more aca­d­e­m­ic audi­ence. The arc of these his­to­ri­ans’ intel­lec­tu­al and per­son­al careers is tru­ly remark­able; their con­tri­bu­tions to Holo­caust stud­ies remain tru­ly impor­tant. For a new gen­er­a­tion of schol­ars, their rich archive of schol­ar­ship on a vari­ety of sub­jects should become indispensable.

We need to thank Pro­fes­sor Smith for his mon­u­men­tal act of his­to­ri­o­graph­ic and cul­tur­al recov­ery. As a result of his exhaus­tive efforts, Smith shows how this first gen­er­a­tion of Yid­dish Holo­caust his­to­ri­ans antic­i­pat­ed some of the most press­ing issues in the field today, as they engaged with and chal­lenged con­tro­ver­sial fig­ures like Han­nah Arendt and Raul Hilberg. Above all, Smith shows that we need to revis­it their ground­break­ing research on Jew­ish life in the ghet­tos of East­ern Europe and in the camps, rec­og­niz­ing that these Yid­dish his­to­ri­ans were among the first to under­stand and describe the deep­er mean­ings — and forms — that Jew­ish resis­tance took dur­ing the Holocaust.

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