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Yiddish-German: from Central Europe to the Holocaust and back?

Before the Second World War, German enjoyed the status of a global language on par with English, French and Spanish. It is a little-known fact that the German language’s vast geographic presence was possible only thanks to German-Yiddish speaking Ashkenazi Jews. While the Second World War destroyed German language and culture’s global status, it also meant the near-total ‘extermination and stigmatisation of Yiddish language and culture.

January 16, 2019 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary

The fence of the Choral Synagogue of Vilnius with a Yiddish flag. Vilnius was once considered the capital of Yiddish culture. Photo: S.fuer (cc) wikimedia.org

During the first half of the 20th century maps depicting language use in Europe accorded ample space to German. In cartographers’ opinion this language was spoken and commonly employed for publishing from eastern France and the Low Countries in the west to Moscow, the Volga and Crimea in the east, and from Scandinavia in the north to Trieste and Sarajevo in the south. Until the Second World War, the plurality of scholarly and scientific monographs were printed in German. Although in the mid-19th century most works devoted to Africa were brought out in English, by the turn of the 20th century the use of German had become dominant in the field of African Studies, as well. At Anglophone universities in the United States and Britain courses of German for reading purposes proliferated. Even the dismantling of Germany’s maritime empire in the wake of the defeat of the country in the Great War did not affect the continuing rise of German to the status of a global language on a par with English, French or Spanish.

German had already become the undisputed lingua franca of science and scholarship in the west, while in the “international division of labor linguistic”, English predominated as the global language of commerce, while French as the language of diplomacy across the world. The status of French and English was underpinned by France’s and Britain’s worldwide empires. In the latter case, the rapid rise of the United States as a leading global economic and military power added to the global importance of English. At the same time, the gradual collapse of the Spanish colonial empire, alongside growing political and economic instability in Spain itself, weakened the international position of the Spanish language. Paradoxically, Russian as the official language of the territorially largest land empire did not develop into a global language, its popularity outside the Russian Empire limited to the Slavophone Orthodox nation-states in the Balkans. In Imperial Russia itself, French continued as a leading language of social advancement and distinction, and German as a leading language of scholarship.

German-Yiddish: The lingua franca of central and eastern Europe
Ernst Böttcher. 1930. Teubners Geschichtsatlas. Leipzig: Teubner

However, a glance at the map of Europe in 1910 suffices to see that the German-speaking populations were actually limited to the German Empire and parts of the western half (Cisleithania) of Austria-Hungary, alongside most of Switzerland. The rise of new ethnolinguistic nation-states across central Europe after 1918, at the expense of the territorially curtailed German Empire and the dissolved Dual Monarchy, meant that the official use of German as a state language was effectively contained to Austria, Switzerland and Germany. Yet, German continued as the preferred language of international and commercial communication (Verkehrssprache) across central and eastern Europe.

Ashkenazi Jews as a vehicle for the German language

What today is largely forgotten is the fact that such wide use of German as this vast area’s lingua franca was possible only thanks to Ashkenazi Jews. In the early modern period most of them lived in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Following the partition of this polity in the late 18th century, four-fifths of its territory was incorporated into the Russian Empire. These annexed Polish-Lithuanian lands were made into a discriminatory Pale of Settlement outside of which Jews were forbidden to live and settle in the Russian Empire, lest they “pollute” the ideologically Orthodox Christian character of the empire.

This former Pale of Settlement, alongside other ethnically non-German states and territories inhabited by Ashkenazim – the Baltic national polities of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, interwar Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania and northernmost Yugoslavia (that is, present-day Croatia and Slovenia) – accounted for two-thirds of the area where German was employed as a lingua franca in the interwar period. This view silently equated the Ashkenazim’s language of Yiddish with German. The name of Yiddish, that is, יידיש (eydish) in Yiddish, means “Jewish”. But to German and Yiddish speakers at that time, it was obvious that the name of Yiddish was an abbreviated version of the term Jüdisch-Deutsch, namely “Jewish German” or “Judeo-German”. Hence, the prevalent view was that Yiddish was none other but (“broken”) German written in Hebrew letters. People realised that there were some differences between Yiddish and German, but they were not larger than, for instance, those between German and Swiss German (Schwyzerdütsch). Furthermore, after the emancipation of Jews and during the process of modernisation, most Ashkenazim with some formal secular education mastered standard German in addition to their first language of Yiddish. The situation was similar to what is observed nowadays in Austria, Switzerland, or central and southern Germany. Children are brought up there speaking the local Germanic dialect and later acquire standard German at school.

The difference was that facing rife and increasingly politicised antisemitism during the 19th century, at the turn of the 20th century, Ashkenazim codified Yiddish into a standard language in its own right, beginning with the 1908 standardisation conference held at Czernowitz (now Chernivtsi in Ukraine) in the Austro-Hungarian crownland of Bukovina. The story resembles the standardisation of Dutch as a language in the 17th century, which helped to emphasise the cultural difference of the Netherlands, especially after the country gained independence from the Holy Roman Empire in 1648. Political realities necessitated both language-building projects, namely, Dutch and Yiddish. However, a high degree of mutual comprehensibility remained between these two languages and German. In the case of Yiddish it was higher, due to the very recent standardisation of this language and because Yiddish shares the same dialectal base with standard German, unlike Dutch.

Ethnicised religious terms “differentiate” German speakers from Jewish German-Yiddish speakers

After a millennium, this rewarding cultural and linguistic symbiosis between German and Yiddish speakers came to an abrupt end during the Second World War. In the course of the Holocaust, “ethnic Germans” exterminated Jews. The perpetrators were German-speaking Christian Austrians and Germans. The majority of victims were Yiddish-speaking Judaists, who happened to be Czechoslovaks, Hungarian, or Poles, that is, citizens of these nation-states. However, from the purely sociolinguistic perspective and as acknowledged time and again by the aforementioned interwar maps on the use of German across central and eastern Europe, during the Holocaust it was one group of German speakers who aimed at wiping out another group of German speakers, the difference between them defined in ethnicised religious terms. The near-success of the Endlösung (“Final Solution”) annihilated the vast majority of Jewish communities in central and eastern Europe.

But simultaneously this genocide also liquidated the widespread use of German outside the boundaries of the post-1945 Austria and Germany. In this manner the brief spectacular history of German as a global language of scholarship and the preferred lingua franca of central and eastern Europe was terminated. Ethnically self-righteous, “true” (read: Christian) German speakers destroyed the European and global future of “their” German language by forcing it into the “ghetto” à rebours of the two small nation-states of Austria and Germany. In reply, Jewish survivors switched their linguistic loyalty to Hebrew, which became the leading official language of Israel, founded in 1948. Sadly, this self-destruction of German language and culture meant the disappearance of Yiddish from Europe. Nowadays, the latter language survives among Haredim (Orthodox Hassidic) communities in Israel, where about 200,000 people speak it.

Germany attempts to make amends

Postwar (West) Germany made an effort to atone for the Holocaust financially and politically, unlike Austria, which until recently clung fast to the mendacious myth that the country had been “Hitler’s first victim”. The remembrance and commemoration of the Holocaust was made into the ethical and legitimising basis of today’s German statehood. Following the reunification of Germany in the wake of the fall of communism, the state’s capital was moved from Bonn to Berlin. Many feared that this step would mean a resurgence of German nationalism, including antisemitism. Their fears seemed to have been confirmed by the 1999 return of the German parliament (Bundestag) to the Reichstag building, where antisemitic laws of the Third Reich had been either enacted or promulgated during the 1930s.

However, the German government and state took care to preserve the remembrance and comprehension of the Holocaust as the pillar of compulsory political education (politische Bildung) for all the students in the country. Germany cultivates good relations with Israel, and Berlin became the most popular European destination for young Israelis, many of whom settle down in the German capital. Finally, in 2005, a Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas) was unveiled in Berlin.

The memorial in Berlin for those murdered during the Holocaust Photo: John C. Watkins (cc) wikimedia.org

The future brings possibilities of renewed antisemitism

The 2010s is the last decade when few remaining survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust are still around. They know the truth about wartime Europe under the murderous German occupation. They lived through the horror of the Holocaust and afterward suffered the unprecedented trauma caused by this experience. New generations, journalists and scholars still may enquire such survivors and witnesses about the dark past of Germany, Austria and Europe. However, as survivors die out, by the 2020s only books, archives and museums will be available for consultation. In the context of the post-2015 generalised rise of populism, xenophobia and authoritarianism across Europe and the west, this opens a chance for Holocaust deniers and renewed antisemitism. All must remain watchful. A repeat of history is not an impossibility.

It is common knowledge that Austria has not yet fully come to terms with its participation in the Holocaust, and neither has France, nor the Netherlands, Italy, or Slovakia. The list goes on. The question, however, is whether post-unification Germany has done enough for ensuring that the Holocaust will permanently remain the basis of liberal and ethical German statehood and history, as well as of the project of European integration. Personally, I doubt it. Is reading books, delivering speeches, or ritualised commemorations a sufficient vaccination against a repeat of the Holocaust? Do such formalised activities prevent antisemitism, or just become a set of political and educational moves to go through without giving much thought to them? I am worried that the latter. Passive participation is a pseudo-participation of bored and half-asleep audiences waiting for another Holocaust event to come to an end.

Perpetual need for active engagement and remembrance of the Holocaust

What will be needed in the 2020s is an active engagement in talking about and commemorating the Holocaust. Part and parcel of this process is remembering that the majority of both perpetrators and victims were German speakers. That the small and stifling national ghettoes of present-day Austria and Germany in which the German language nowadays plods on is a cultural purgatory brought about by the exterminatory success of the Holocaust. Not only did the Third Reich exterminate Europe’s Jews but also the future of German language (and culture) as central and eastern Europe’s lingua franca, to which the National Socialist regime paid much lip service.

The question is: how to achieve such active engagement? How to coax people to think on their own? In the realm of language politics, I propose that “Yiddish-German” should be recognised as the most suitable name for the German language, appropriately reflecting this language’s manifold sociohistorical character. From this perspective, it is obvious that Yiddish-German is commonly written in two scripts, namely Hebrew and Latin. Sadly, only Latin is taught in German schools, while each German and German speaker should have an equally good command of Yiddish-German’s two scripts. The fact of Yiddish-German’s biscripturality should be formally recognised and enshrined in the German legislation, also leading to the adoption of Hebrew letters as the European Union’s fourth official script, alongside the Cyrillic, Greek and Latin alphabets. Why is it that scholars and politicians in Germany and across Europe can constantly refer to the Judeo-Christian roots of European civilisation without knowing the Hebrew script? It is a shame.

Some would say the aforementioned vision is too idealistic of a program and therefore could never come to fruition in reality. Where is the attraction in this for children, accountants, builders, taxi drivers, IT engineers, or people from other walks of life, apart from a handful of scholars and specialists? Yiddishland used to be a vast central and eastern European continent of language and culture, which effectively underpinned the widespread employment of the lingua franca of Yiddish-German from France to Russia, and from Scandinavia to the Balkans. Without Yiddishland there would have been no “international German language” prior to the Holocaust. The horrific amputation of the Yiddish constituent (or even base) of the Yiddish-German language and culture forced the rump in the form of the misnamed “German” language to remain in the national ghettoes of Austria and Germany.

Yiddishland. The dialects of Yiddish. Map: Yuri Koryakov, 2008.

Renewing Yiddish-German culture and language

A way to recover the cultural and social fullness of Yiddish-German lost in the Holocaust can be found in the vast corpus of Yiddish-language books and periodicals, which covers all aspects of modern European life, from belles lettres to machine construction manuals, from encyclopedias to school textbooks, or from atlases to music scores. This veritable treasure trove of printed matter is buttressed with numerous Yiddish-language radio programs, song records and even some feature films. At least 11,000 Yiddish-language books are readily available free of charge in a digitised form from the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library (founded in 2009). The problem is that the vast majority of speakers of Yiddish-German based in Germany and Austria are unable to access these cultural riches because their skill of reading and writing is limited only to the Latin alphabet of the Yiddish-German language.

Making the teaching of both scripts of this language mandatory in German and Austrian schools would ensure a rapid reactivation of the Yiddish constituent of Yiddish-German language and culture. Yiddish-German speakers, irrespective of their religious and national backgrounds, would be able to access any publication in this language, no matter in which script it was produced. They would reconnect with the entire Yiddish-German cultural and linguistic heritage, true to its European dimension. The almost eight-decade-long post-Holocaust gap of truncated and ghettoised Yiddish-German would come to an end. University departments of Germanistik (German Language and Culture Studies) would be melded with departments of Jiddischistik (Yiddish Language and Culture Studies) into the all-encompassing departments of Jiddischistik-Germanistik.

“A utopia,” a realist would conclude. But without such open-ended and imaginative reinterpretations of the past for a better future, serfdom and slavery would still be the mainstay of the European economy, and antisemitism an important and legitimate pillar of politics across Europe. Change is possible. The first necessary step is to dare to look out of the black box of received knowledges, prejudices and preconceptions.

Tomasz Kamusella is a Reader in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His latest monograph Ethnic Cleansing during the Cold War: The Forgotten 1989 Expulsion of Turks from Communist Bulgaria was just published by Routledge.

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