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

Mark L. Smith

By – January 1, 2013

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.

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He divides his time between Brook­lyn and Mohe­gan Lake, NY.

Discussion Questions

Mark L. Smith immersed him­self in the works of Yid­dish writ­ers in gen­er­al, whether poets, prose writ­ers, play­wrights, humorists, or his­to­ri­ans who penned before and after the Holo­caust. In this pio­neer­ing work, Smith focused on the works of five impor­tant his­to­ri­ans who were sur­vivors of the Nazi occu­pa­tion of Poland. They used as their resources local doc­u­men­ta­tion, such as Yizkor Books and focused on the inter­nal Jew­ish life under Nazi occupation. 

The his­to­ri­ans are: Philip Fried­man, Isa­iah Trunk, Nach­man Blu­men­thal, Joseph Ker­mish and Mark Dworzec­ki. Incred­i­bly, they did not draw the atten­tion of schol­ars pre­vi­ous­ly. Smith opens the book by describ­ing the works of each of the his­to­ri­ans. The fol­low­ing chap­ters ana­lyze at length and in great depth the sub­jects they researched. Their approach was region­al­ly spe­cif­ic, assum­ing that a more gen­er­al his­to­ry could be extrap­o­lat­ed. They did not study the spir­i­tu­al strug­gles of reli­gious Jews dur­ing the Holo­caust. Exten­sive bib­li­ogra­phies of the works of each his­to­ri­an are includ­ed in the last part of the book which is 150 pages long. 

This is the most impor­tant pre­sen­ta­tion of the his­to­ri­og­ra­phy of the Holo­caust from a Jew­ish approach. It is engag­ing read­ing in spite of the grave sub­ject dis­cussed and the detailed ref­er­ences. The notes appear on each page, allow­ing one to read con­tin­u­ous­ly or check below when desired.

Smith’s work is an out­stand­ing effort at right­ing a wrong by describ­ing the efforts of the five neglect­ed post­war Yid­dish his­to­ri­ans and so shed­ding new light on the work that was done dur­ing a time con­sid­ered a peri­od of silence for Yid­dish writ­ers imme­di­ate­ly after the war.