See how this forgotten Holocaust history is being given new life

Posted July 25

Some Jewish historians' personal stories of Holocaust plights and survival had reportedly fell into obscurity due to a language barrier, but they are now seeing new light after one man embarked on a journey to preserve and highlight the texts.

The first-person stories that offer a rare glimpse and perspective into the Jewish experience during the Holocaust were written in Yiddish, creating a barrier for some mainstream historians who were unfamiliar with the language, according to the Jewish Journal.

Yiddish joins Hebrew and Aramaic as one of the three major languages that have been spoken throughout Jewish history. While its use was rampant by the time of the 19th century, millions of its speakers were victims of the Holocaust.

Additionally, as Encyclopedia Britannica notes, the former Soviet Union cracked down on the use of Yiddish, further hampering its use. Today, though, the language is once again thriving at universities and in other Jewish circles.

While the historical Holocaust texts were reportedly relatively ignored in academic circles over the years, Mark Smith, a 58-year-old graduate student, embarked on an intentional journey to bring their contents to light.

It all started a few decades ago when, out of interest in the Yiddish language, he began to collect rare works to try to preserve and protect them.

That later led Smith, who is an architect by trade, to take a deeper look at the texts — the stories from Jewish historians that he said represent "a deliberate choice" to communicate in Yiddish about what had unfolded during the Holocaust.

"It was a worldwide community of Yiddish speakers to whom they were addressing themselves," he told the Jewish Journal.

Smith, a doctoral student at UCLA, recently completed a 536-page dissertation titled, "The Yiddish Historians and the Struggle for a Jewish History of the Holocaust."

It's a work he believes could have an impact on the study of the Holocaust era, as the paper specifically takes a look at five historians whose work had not yet been given fair or proper attention, according to Smith.

Those historians were: Mark Dworzecki, Philip Friedman, Isaiah Trunk, Joseph Kermish and Nachman Blumental. It was after surviving a number of concentration camps that Dworzecki, who was a medical doctor, specifically felt compelled to speak out and tell the stories of other Holocaust victims.

"Those who disappeared have commanded us: Tell!" he wrote in 1948, according to the Jewish Journal.

And now that these stories are being given new light, David Myers, a Jewish history professor at UCLA who also oversaw Smith's thesis project, believes historians will now need to amend their understanding of the field.

"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," reads the paper's abstract.

Smith wrote in the abstract that these "survivor historians" decided to write the history of the Holocaust "in the Yiddish vernacular of their readers," but that their work decades later was still "surprisingly neglected."

The abstract said the works of these historians helps to round out understandings of early histories written on the Holocaust.

Rather than an early Holocaust history focusing primarily on the perpetrators of the event, these overlooked works provide first-person accounts from the victims who experienced the unspeakable horrors.

"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," the abstract reads.

One of the reasons the work of these historians is intriguing is that they wrote about both the histories surrounding the Holocaust as well as the Jewish experience, including information about Jews' attempts to resist the Nazi mentality through economic and spiritual means.

"Generally speaking, most historians who write about the Holocaust are not also Jewish historians," Smith told the Jewish Forward. "Both fields are very large, and you have to specialize, and you don’t specialize in both."

Read Smith's paper here.

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