The Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts is one of my favorite memorials having to do with German history even though it is not a commemorative site, and it doesn’t focus on Germany. The Book Center is a vibrant institution devoted to Yiddish culture, literature, language and history. Its mission is to share Yiddish culture with the rest of the world.
I learned about it from my aunt Sabine. She sent me a text: “forget whatever you’re reading and get the book Outwitting History. A guy named Aaron Lansky wrote it. You won’t be able to put it down.” Sabine’s recommendations are always good so I got the book right away. I read it in one sweep and passed it on to my husband who also was riveted by the story of the man who saved Yiddish books.
Aaron Lansky began collecting Yiddish books when he was studying Yiddish literature with Ruth Wisse as a graduate student at McGill University in Montreal. The assigned class readings were out of print and only a few copies of the books were available at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal so Lansky put up notices in delis and Laundromats and community centers in Jewish neighborhoods asking if anyone had Yiddish books. It was a serendipitous historic moment because just at that time a generation of older Jews was wondering what to do with their personal Yiddish libraries. Their children and grandchildren didn’t read Yiddish so they had no interest in the books that had been collected over a lifetime by their elders. The thought of just leaving the treasured volumes behind or, worse, discarding them was heartbreaking, so the young enthusiastic student Lansky was heaven sent. “I was 23 years old and somehow it’s fallen on me to pick the fragments of this world and save them for the future,” Lansky remembers in the documentary Bridge of Books. His friends joined him and soon his college apartment was overflowing with books. Eventually, the boxes and boxes of books collected by Lansky and his nationwide network of zamlers (collectors) became the Yiddish Book Center, which found a home in 1997 in the cultural village adjacent to the campus of Hampshire College. Turns out, Lansky was doing more than saving books: those thousands of volumes led him, step by step, to the larger mission of saving and revitalizing Yiddish culture.
Fast forward to 2013 (read Lansky’s book to learn the captivating details of the story). That summer, my husband Armin and I visited the center because we wanted to know more about the project that had recovered more than a million Yiddish books - literature, philosophy, history, science as well as newspapers, periodicals and Yizkor books (memorial volumes commemorating Jewish communities destroyed in the Holocaust).
Armin and I arrived at the lush green campus on a warm day and made our way past nondescript university buildings towards what looked like small wooden houses with peaked roofs. We learned later that architect Allen Moore had designed the buildings to echo the rooflines of an East European shtetl (Jewish town). Inside the Book Center it was airy and quiet, woodwork glowed in the soft light. Armin and I stood transfixed when we saw the library just a few steps below: rows and rows of shelves packed with Yiddish books. Tears rolled down my cheeks and I noticed Armin wiping his eyes. Our tears were complicated, more than sadness. We’ve been to concentration camp commemoration sites and Holocaust memorials; we’ve seen exhibitions in Berlin portraying the individuals and the structures that perpetrated systematic Nazi terror. These sites provide vivid testimony to brutality and destruction. Each one is a chilling reminder of the gaping absence left by the Holocaust.
In the Book Center in Amherst, far away from Germany, we felt something different and new: the presence of Yiddish culture.
Walking through the aisles and the adjoining exhibits, I explored this presence. I’d never known, for example, that the Yiddish alphabet is based on Hebrew script. Since I’d been singularly focused on the destruction wrought by the Holocaust, I hadn’t paid attention to other factors that contributed to the gradual disappearance of Yiddish culture, including the pressures of assimilation in American Jewish communities. I watched videos from the Center’s Oral History Project that captured Yiddish culture in everyday lives. I studied the information about the ongoing work of the Center: cultural events, summer classes, language courses, a translation initiative funded in part by Steven Spielberg, who also supported the digitization of thousands of books for world-wide circulation and historic preservation. The Yiddish Book Center situated me simultaneously in the past, the present and the future, it alternately touched in me layers of sadness, curiosity; outrage and appreciation.
Before we left, Armin and I bought a DVD of “Laughing in the Darkness”, the story of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem who is considered by many to be the founding father of Yiddish literature. Watching it, we learned about Jewish identity in Eastern Europe at the turn of the 19th century and about the dissolution of that identity. We learned that Yiddish functioned as a “portable homeland” for the Jews who were forced to leave Eastern Europe. We were amazed to find out that when SholemAleichem died in 1916, more than 100,000 people lined the streets of New York for his funeral. How could we not have known about this man? The Book Center is accomplishing its mission, I thought, it has opened our eyes to Yiddish culture and history.
As Germans, Armin and I felt grateful that we were welcomed at the Center. We only wish that every German could visit this thriving site.
Learn more about the Yiddish Book Center here.