Montage of portraits of members of the committee for the celebration of the centennial of Yiddish writer Mendele Moykher-Sforim (Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh) at the I. L. Peretz Jewish Library, Ejszyszki, Poland (now Eišiškės, Lith.), 1936. (Bottom, center) Yiddish writer Daniel Tsharni. (YIVO)

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Memory per se was not an operative category among East European Jews. Rather, in the premodern period, Jews had their master metaphors organized around saints, sanctuaries, and sacred times. In this way, each generation of Jews shaped the model life, the model community, and the model time. In periods of crisis, the function of Jewish memory was to transcend the ruptures of history. At such times, the precise levers of inner-Jewish transformation were the historical archetypes that embodied the covenantal relationship between God and Israel: God’s command of lekh-lekho (Go forth) to Abraham, the binding of Isaac, the Exodus, Sinai, the Mosaic curses, the destruction of the Temple, the Valley of the Dry Bones, the Battle of Gog, the Megilah of Purim. The chronicler, preacher, or synagogue poet could either invoke any of the relevant archetypes, reminding God, as it were, both of His promise and of Israel’s steadfastness in the past, or, more boldly, could provoke God’s response by throwing the present sacrilege in His face. “It is for Your sake that we are slain all day long,” says Psalm 44 (23–24), “that we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. / Rouse Yourself: why do You sleep, O Lord? / Awaken, do not reject us forever!” In the face of national catastrophe, the Jewish response is dialectical: the worse the present expulsion order, or massacre, or blood libel, the more it recalls the most sacrilegious event of the past.

The Liturgy of Remembrance

East European Jews laid claim to a liturgical calendar that routinely linked feasting and fasting, rejoicing and rage, in a dialectical movement from redemption to destruction and back again. At the Passover Seder, when the door is opened to admit the Prophet Elijah, the assembled call upon the Lord to pour out His wrath on the nations that do not acknowledge God’s greatness, augmented in the Ashkenazic–East European rite by an anguished cry for divine vengeance. Conversely, on the Ninth of Av (Tish‘ah be-Av), a day of fasting to commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples, congregants sit on the floor and recite kines (dirges). Among these is a Song of Zion composed by the Iberian Hebrew poet Yehudah ha-Levi that makes manifest the dialectical movement from Exile to Return, followed (in the Ashkenazic rite) by an assortment of poems imitating ha-Levi’s poem, which commemorate more contemporary catastrophes and acts of desecration.

Most striking in its juxtapositions is the celebration of Purim. The public and raucous reading of the Scroll of Esther is preceded by a day of fasting. On Purim day proper, in and around the celebratory feast, Ashkenazic Jews instituted a one-day-of-the-year theater season. Young boys and men went house to house performing a purim-shpil, a rhymed and chanted burlesque, initially of local events, then of the Purim story itself, of other biblical sagas, and finally, of any popular plot. Here, panchronism and parody reigned, the unself-conscious mixing and matching of past and present, sacred and profane, Persia and Poland. Presided over by a loyfer or payats (a clown), the Patriarchs appeared in Hasidic garb, the Ishmaelites were dressed as Cossacks, and Queen Esther was played as a hunchback in heavy boots.

In all these rites and ceremonies, the unit of remembrance was not the individual but the community. The Tenth of Tevet, when the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II began, became the day to mourn all those whose death date was not known. This practice of telescoping and clustering memory profoundly influenced the manner in which historical events were chronicled and commemorated.

The first major national catastrophe to befall East European Jewry was the Cossack Revolt of Bohdan Khmel’nyts’kyi. Known as gzeyres takh vetat, the Evil Decrees of 1648–1649, it reinforced but did not alter the liturgical modes of collective memory. While Natan Note Hannover’s contemporary chronicle Yeven metsulah (Venice; 1653) was adopted in some Polish communities as recommended reading prior to the fast of the Ninth of Av, Shabetai ha-Kohen Katz’s richly allusive Megilat evah (1651) served as an introduction to penitential prayers to be recited on the Twentieth of Sivan, the anniversary of the beginning of the massacre in Nemirov. In this metonymic scheme, Nemirov was to Poland as Jerusalem was to ancient Judah. The Twentieth of Sivan, furthermore, marked the anniversary of the massacre at Blois in 1171, a date already familiar to Polish Jews from their penitential prayers for Yom Kippur. The covenantal link of catastrophes—not the historical particularities of the Cossack revolt—is what argued for a new memorial date, which was observed in some communities until World War I.

The Politics of Memory

The simultaneous rise of Hasidism and the Haskalah in Eastern Europe added competing realms of memory to the exclusive domain of the synagogue. The folk biography of the tsadik became a powerful and popular propaganda tool. Embellished with several centuries’ worth of hagiographic motifs, Shivḥe ha-Besht (1815) recounted the spiritual apprenticeship, self-revelation, the gathering of disciples, and the acts of healing and cosmic intervention of the founder of Hasidism in order to demonstrate that miracles had not ceased from Israel. Goaded by the Hasidic example (which was spearheaded by Shneur Zalman of Liady, the founder of Lubavitch Ḥabad Hasidism), Tsevi Hirsh Levin compiled ‘Aliyot Eliyahu (1856), a more down-to-earth folk biography of the Gaon of Vilna, the founding father of the Misnagdic movement. From that point onward, the traditionalist camp began to collect and disseminate genealogies, epitaphs, and rare rabbinic manuscripts in an effort to reinvigorate the old models of the sacred person and holy community.

Remembrance. Marc Chagall, 1914. Gouache, india ink, and pencil on notebook paper. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. (Gift of Solomon R. Guggenheim, 41.440. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York / © 2006 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris)

Countering this movement to restore or recycle memories already there, to disassemble the present in terms of the eternal past, was the Haskalah, which saw the writing of history as a way of redefining the nature of Jewish existence. Through new venues and institutions—the press, scholarship, the modern Jewish school, secular literature in all its forms, theater—the structure of remembrance began to change as well. It became ever more contrapuntal, as every act of retrieval was simultaneously an act of rejection: them and us; then and now. In the historical imagination of the Kovno-born Avraham Mapu, pioneer of the Hebrew historical romance, the figure of the ideal maskil was projected back into the ancient past. Yoram and Yedidyah, the fictional heroes of Ahavat Tsiyon (The Love of Zion; 1853), were disciples of the Prophet Isaiah in the age-old struggle against hypocrites and imposters.

The politics of emancipation were predicated upon a linear, ameliorative concept of time. Today was better than yesterday; tomorrow would be even better. The crisis of emancipation at the end of the nineteenth century introduced a new management of historical time. While Zionist ideology proclaimed an imminent end to the European exile, the cultural arm of Zionism fought for a restorative program: the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language; kinus, or the ingathering and preservation of the Diaspora through creative anthologies; the fashioning of new national symbols out of old. Through a Zionist hermeneutic and the creation of new songs, Hanukkah, Purim, Passover, and Shavu‘ot became rehearsal days of national liberation. Historical writing—everything from Mapu’s Ahavat Tsiyon to Graetz’s History of the Jews—was reappropriated as a valuable exercise in national self-definition. Folk beliefs and custom, vilified only yesterday as ossified remains of the medieval past, were now reclaimed as folklore, the sine qua non of nationhood.

The competing internationalist camp was hard-pressed to kidnap Jewish symbols and festivals. It required great homiletic skill to recast the concepts of surplus value, class conflict, and alienation of labor into recognizably Jewish terms. Between Moses and Spinoza, apart from certain biblical prophets, the Essenes, and Jesus, it was difficult to locate another protosocialist Jew. The Jewish socialist calendar, only recently expanded to include Bastille Day and May Day, otherwise celebrated only the Exodus from Egypt.

When, in 1891, Simon Dubnow issued his programmatic statement (in Russian) “On the Study of the History of Russian Jews,” followed a year later by an abridged version in Hebrew, he proposed three radical notions in one: (1) that Russia itself could provide emancipated Jews with a usable past; (2) that an institutional matrix was needed for Russian Jewish historiography; and (3) that every literate citizen of the Jewish polity could become an active player in this rescue operation. One of the first collective fruits of Dubnow’s manifesto was the anthology Evreiskiia narodnyia pesni v Rossi (1901), edited by Saul M. Ginzburg and Peysekh Marek, which rescued not only “historical songs” from the recent Russian Jewish past, but an urban Yiddish folk culture that was very much alive. Dubnow himself introduced a new model person into the Jewish pantheon: the historian as nation builder and culture hero.

Memory and the Model Person

Goaded by Dubnow, the veteran Hebrew–Yiddish maskil Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh began to reexamine the project of Jewish collective memory. In the playful but extremely substantive preface to his fictional autobiography Ba-Yamim ha-hem / Shloyme Reb Khayims (1894), Abramovitsh issued a kind of countermanifesto. Addressing a fictional group of fellow intellectuals in Odessa, which included the young Dubnow, Reb Shloyme—a stand-in for Abramovitsh—protests that what Jewish life lacked above all else was the possibility of heroic action:

None of us ever did anything to set the world on fire. Dukes, governors, generals, and soldiers we were not; we had no romantic attachments with lovely princesses; we didn’t fight duels, nor did we even serve as witnesses, watching other men spill their blood; we didn’t dance the quadrille at balls; we didn’t hunt wild animals in the fields and forests; we didn’t make voyages of discovery to the ends of the earth; we carried on with no actresses or prima donnas; we didn’t celebrate in a lavish way. In short, we were completely lacking in all those colorful details that grace a story and whet the reader’s appetite.

Through the very act of penning an autobiography, however, Abramovitsh helped transform himself, in the guise of his persona, Mendele the Book Peddler, into a universal folk hero.

With the rise of secular Jewish schools and a free press in tsarist Russia, the literary anniversaries of the classical triumvirate—Mendele, Sholem Aleichem, and Y. L. Peretz—were marked by young and old alike throughout Jewish Eastern Europe and its Diaspora. In the Soviet Union, the state apparatus created a veritable cult around the figure of Sholem Aleichem, with shrines, commemorative stamps and medals, and traveling exhibitions. Among the most cherished possessions that would accompany Soviet Jews to Israel and the West were his works in Russian translation. In a more playful vein, Itsik Manger compiled Noente geshtaltn (1938), “intimate portraits” of pioneering figures of Old and Early Modern Yiddish literature, which he dedicated to “the activists, teachers, and students of the Yiddish secular schools.”

Despite Abramovitsh’s elaborate disclaimer, Yiddish and Hebrew literature became the purveyor of a new model person—not “dukes, governors, generals, and soldiers,” but something far more spiritually exalted: Jesus, Zarathustra, Hamlet, the Young Werther, or Prince Myshkin in Hasidic and rabbinic garb. Inspired by the writings of Peretz and Mikhah Yosef Berdyczewski, Yiddish and Hebrew novelists, playwrights, and poets picked from the vast gallery of Hasidic leaders not only the Ba‘al Shem Tov and Levi Yitsḥak of Barditshev—whom they portrayed as pantheists and salt of the earth—but also and especially spiritual leaders in the throes of existential crisis: Naḥman of Bratslav, the Kotsker Rebbe, Khayim Gravitser, and Yekhiel of Gostynin (in Der tilim-yid by Sholem Asch; 1933). Count Valentin Potocki entered the literary pantheon as the Ger Tsedek (in Alter-Sholem Kacyzne’s Der dukus; 1925). Also popular was the eighteenth-century false messiah, Jakub Frank (in plays by Moyshe Kulbak and Arn Zeitlin). Given the secular humanistic bias of the times, few rabbinic figures were deemed to possess any moral stature. In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s first (and greatest) historical novel, Der sotn in Goray (1935), Rabbi Benush Ashkenazi, bearer of a symbolic surname, tries to counter the Sabbatian heresy taking hold throughout Poland—and dies in battle.

Abramovitsh also did not foresee that the turbulent and tragic present would provide living models of Jewish heroism. The Bund turned the “cobbler’s apprentice” Hirsh Lekert into a revolutionary hero, and his unmarked grave in Vilna into a pilgrimage site. Hearkening back to the ballad of Lekert, Shmerke Kaczerginski composed a ballad commemorating Itsik Vittenberg, the commander of the United Partisan Organization in the Vilna ghetto. In a peculiar dialectic, however, the last great Yiddish poets on European soil turned back to the older, hallowed models of spiritual bravery and self-sacrifice. In the Warsaw ghetto Yitsḥak Katzenelson wrote “Dos lid vegn Shloyme Zhelikhovsky” (1942) and “Dos lid vegn Radziner” (1942–1943), epic poems about recently reported instances of martyrdom. Simkhe-Bunem Shayevitsh’s “Lekh-lekho,” written in the Łódź ghetto in 1942, likewise extolled the ideal of martyrdom, while in the Vilna ghetto, alongside his poems that called for armed resistance, Avrom Sutzkever immortalized “Di lererin Mire” (1943), the teacher who tended to her flock even as it was decimated. It is as if these poets had resolved to rescue for postwar generations that which they deemed to be the most authentic forms of Jewish heroic behavior.

Memory and the Model Place

Whereas it is commonplace to think of East European Jewry as having situated itself more in time than in place (as notably articulated in The Earth Is the Lord’s: The Inner World of the Jew in East Europe [1950] by Abraham Joshua Heschel), the most protean locus of Jewish memory in Eastern Europe proved to be not the model time or the model person but the model community. The modern Jewish subcultures all contributed to the paradigm shift and gained something in return. In Orthodox and moderate maskilic circles, the new historiography was essentially the hagiography of place. Shemu’el Yosef Fuenn’s Kiryah ne’emanah (1860) on the Jews of Vilna, Shim‘on Eli‘ezer Fridenshtain’s ‘Ir giborim (1880) on the Jews of Grodno, and L. (Aryeh Loeb) Fainshtein’s ‘Ir tehilah (1886) on the Jews of Brest-Litovsk, were little more than compilations of primary sources, their project being to portray “Cities and Mothers in Israel”—that is, Jewish covenantal communities.

Palestine in this period was rediscovered as a real place. Kalman Schulman’s Shulamit (1855), one of five books on Palestine that he published in Hebrew, as well as the Yiddish spin-offs by Ayzik Meyer Dik, served to reterritorialize the ideal Jewish past, even as they helped clarify the language and content of the Bible. (Shulamit was one of the first secular books that Dubnow read, while still in heder.) Similarly, in his historical operettas, such as Shulamis and Bar Kochba, Avrom Goldfadn paraded Jewish kings and generals across the stage, choreographed Jewish marching music, and orchestrated men and women singing duets. In the imagined future, liberated Zion would be a colorful place indeed.

Der untergang fun Zlotshev (The Fall of Złoczów), by Szlojme Mayer (Munich: Farlag Ibergang, 1947). (YIVO)

Dubnow’s effort at constructing a usable Russian Jewish past gave pride of place to Jewish communal life. In his call to collect historical data, he made a special plea to rescue pinkeysim, communal registers. Between 1897 and 1906, Dubnow published a series of historical–political essays that advanced the radical idea of reviving the kahal, the medieval Jewish community council, as a secular institution of Jewish autonomy within a federated Russian state. Whereas Abramovitsh and his cohort of Russian Jewish intellectuals had viewed the kahal as the seat of corruption, Dubnow believed that the institution could someday evolve into a democratic and representative Jewish parliament.

If the kahal could be resurrected as a viable communal model, then even the God-forsaken shtetl was potentially salvageable under the banner of Jewish nationalism. Abramovitsh himself turned his fictional autobiography Shloyme Reb Khayims into a vehicle of communal memory, though he failed to identify the town of K. as his native Kapulye on the grounds that one Jewish townlet was just like any other. A breakthrough came with Yeḥezkel Kotik’s Mayne zikhroynes (1913–1914), a loving family and communal history of Kamenets Litovsk in the guise of autobiography. Most extravagant in representing the individual-narrative-as-communal-history was Yekhiel Yeshaye Trunk in his seven-volume memoir, Poyln (New York; 1944–1953), which encompassed Polish Jewry from its Hasidic courts to its major metropoli.

The nascent genre of memoir literature demonstrated that East European Jewish life was not “completely lacking in all those colorful details that grace a story and whet the reader’s appetite.” The rise of YIVO and the Landkentenish movement in interbellum Poland made the rescue of local color into a social mandate. In 1931, in a review of Pinkes fun der shtot Pruzhene (1930), a grassroots communal history, Max Weinreich encouraged Polish Jews “tsu derkenen dem haynt”—to systematically study everyday life. The YIVO also renewed Dubnow’s call to collect Jewish communal registers, an effort hampered by the institution’s financial straits. Clearly linked to this project was a campaign to encourage interest in Jewish art and architecture.

Landkentenish, an ambitious movement to foster “engaged tourism,” added a further, regional dimension to the preservation of historical landmarks and the valorization of everyday life. One of its culminating achievements was Zalmen Szyk’s 1000 yor Vilne (1939), which rather than privilege the sites of Jewish interest, provided a detailed multicultural map of the city. The editor of Landkentenish in its second iteration was the young historian Emanuel Ringelblum.

Another constituency vitally concerned with the preservation of a sense of Polish Jewish space were the landslayt in America. As memorialized in the hundreds of souvenir booklets, in the sentimental and satiric songs about “Mayn shtetele Belz” [listen to a recording] and “Rumenye” [listen to a recording], and in the Sunday supplements of the Forverts that featured a new class of professional photographers including Itsik Kipnis and Alter Kacyzne, even the ruined and impoverished shtetl landscape became a source of longing.

But it was destruction above all that rendered covenantal the notion of Jewish space. In April 1903, the Union of Hebrew Writers dispatched the 30-year-old Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik to Kishinev to gather eyewitness accounts from the survivors of the recent pogrom. While Bialik’s factual account languished in an archive for decades to come, his immediate response, the epoch-making poem “Be-‘Ir ha-haregah” (1903), turned Kishinev into a symbol of Jewish ignominy and divine impotence. When, for reasons of tsarist censorship, the poem appeared under the cryptic title of “Masa Nemirov,” thereby linking the latest pogrom to the Cossack revolt of 1648–1649, the effect was anticovenantal. The memory of Kishinev became a rallying cry for self-defense, which would put to an end the chain of Jewish catastrophes. Contrariwise, in the midst of the German occupation of Vilna, a massive publishing project involving religious and secular Jews, Hebraists and Yiddishists, Zionists and Bundists was designed to document the creativity and resilience of Vilna Jewry in a time of crisis and to demonstrate that a new, diverse and democratically elected leadership had emerged to replace the older elites. This two-volume Vilner zamlbukh (1916, 1918) was followed in 1922 by Zalmen Reyzen’s Pinkes far der geshikhte fun Vilne in di yorn fun milkhome un okupatsye (1922). So global, however, was the extent of the catastrophe wrought by World War I, that no one community, however revered, could stand for the whole. S. An-ski (Shloyme Zaynvl Rapoport) titled his diary chronicle of the war Khurbn Galitsye (1921). Communal memory in extremis was a rescue operation, sometimes life-threatening. Beginning in World War I and gaining momentum during the Civil War in Ukraine, a library of catastrophe came into being—everything from Eliezer David Rosental’s alphabetical list of destruction, Megilat ha-tevaḥ (1927–1930), to Rachel Feigenberg’s documentary novel A pinkes fun a toyter shtot (khurbn Dubove) (1926). The memory of these catastrophes was soon eclipsed by World War II.

It was in the Nazi ghettos, in the heroic effort of historians, statisticians, journalists, economists, poets, prose writers, artists, diarists, and amateur collectors (zamlers), that the various ideological and generic strands came together. Whether operating under official Jewish communal auspices, as in Łódź, or underground, as in Warsaw, each major ghetto mobilized to chronicle the life and death struggle of East European Jewry. In the most ambitious of these, the Warsaw Oyneg Shabes archive under the directorship of Emanuel Ringelblum, the expressed goal was to preserve the specificity and individuality of Polish Jewry. Determined that it be remembered not only by virtue of its destruction, Ringelblum commissioned the writing of monographs about the surrounding Jewish towns and townlets, by drawing upon the 150,000 refugees now concentrated into the ghetto. By design, these shtetl monographs documented the rich fabric of Polish–Jewish relations, the subject to which Ringelblum himself returned in 1944, after the final liquidation of the ghetto. Once a champion of such coexistence, Ringelblum concluded that after 800 years of living and struggling together, the Jews, in the end, died alone.

In Jewish Eastern Europe, the bond between history and memory was not severed. If anything, it grew stronger with the advent of modernity. The revolutions in historical, aesthetic, and political consciousness that introduced new forms and forums and even new languages of Jewish self-expression bridged the chasm between the critical and archetypal assessment of historical events, between the facts and their symbolic meaning. In the face of social upheaval, mob violence, and ideological strife of ever-growing intensity, the ability of East European Jews of all walks of life to commemorate, to chronicle, and otherwise to disassemble contemporary events into their recognizable parts became a powerful tool of Jewish self-understanding and an historical force in its own right.

Suggested Reading

Sholem-Yankev Abramovitsh (Mendele Moykher-Sforim), Of Bygone Days, in A Shtetl and Other Yiddish Novellas, ed. Ruth R. Wisse, 2nd rev. ed., pp. 254–358 (Detroit, 1986); Shmuel Feiner, Haskalah and History: The Emergence of a Modern Jewish Historical Consciousness, trans. Chaya Naor and Sondra Silverton (Portland, Ore., 2002); Haim Gertner, “Re’shitah shel ketivah historit ortodoksit be-Mizraḥ Eropah: Ha-‘Arakhah meḥudeshet,” Tsiyon 67.3 (2002): 293–336; Samuel Kassow, Who Will Write Our History? Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive (Bloomington, Ind., 2007); Benjamin Nathans, “On Russian Jewish Historiography,” in Historiography of Imperial Russia: The Profession and Writing of History in a Multi-National State, ed. Thomas Sanders, pp. 397–432 (Armonk, N.Y., 1999); David G. Roskies, ed., The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe (Philadelphia, 1989); David G. Roskies, The Jewish Search for a Usable Past (Bloomington, Ind., 1999); Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (Seattle, 1996).