Michael Chabon realized by reading an old Yiddish phrase book that Yiddish is one of the greatest dead languages in Europe. This language, which a hundred years ago was spoken by just as many people as Hungarian, disappeared without trace from the linguistic map of Eastern Europe. As it was basically a spoken language, it has left behind only a handful of written records: some bilingual prayer books, a couple of 19th-century secular literary works and dailies, the memorial plaques of a few cemeteries and mass graves.

Shops in the Lwów ghetto in the autumn of 1941

And the shop labels in Lwów. Lwów is perhaps the only city in Europe where you can still see Yiddish inscriptions on the streets. They have not only survived for the seventy years of the city’s sleeping-beauty-dream, but they are also preserved on the quadrates of the decorative plaster nowadays, during the renovation of the shops. As on the facade of the large grocery store presented in the previous entry, at the corner of Chornovola Avenue, behind the opera house, where the former new Jewish quarter met the Old Town.

Or as on the wall of the former milk shop whose photo was sent to us by Alfanje from the same neighborhood, and which also announced its assortment in two more languages of old Lwów and Lemberg which disappeared from the city together with Yiddish.

It seems that the owners of the shops are also aware of the unique, brand-like nature of the Yiddish inscriptions in Lwów. This is proved by the fact that they not only preserve and renovate them, but they also copy them to antiquate and make “genuinely Lwówish” the newly opened shop portals. Such as that of this knitwear shop in the former new Jewish quarter, just around the corner from the house of Sholem Aleichem.

However, the recent creation is revealed not only by the modern typography of the inscription. But also by the fact that the equivalent of “knitwear” written in Hebrew characters is not in Yiddish – then it would be שטריקוואַרג shtrikvarg –, but in Hebrew: סריגים srigim. Although this use of the sacred language would have been impossible at the beginning of the last century, nowadays it is obviously more practical if the seller has in mind the Israeli tourists passing by the front of the shop in the direction of the Sholem Alechem memorial plaque. Which is also the most recent and probably the definitively last Yiddish-language inscription in the former Lemberik.

1906 אין דעם הויז האט געוווינט אין
יאר דער קלאסיקער פון דער יידישער ליטעראטור שאלעם-אלייכעם

In dem hoyz hot gevoynt in 1906 yor der klasiker fun der yidisher literatur Sholem-Aleykhem

In this house lived in 1906 the classic of Yiddish literature, Sholem Alechem

5 comentarios:

walter dijo...

By chance, I'd just started Dovid Katz's 'Words on Fire'. In the introduction he writes "Over the past century and a half, a permanent treasure store of literary masterpieces was created in Yiddish during the kind of 'secular outburst' that occurs periodically in the cycles of Jewish history. [...] Yiddish today is the language of three principal groups: the last (and rapidly dwindling ranks of) survivors of pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe, a minute number of serious secular enthusiasts, and (by the lowest estimates) hundreds of thousands of traditional orthodox Jews (overwhelmingly Hasidim) who are multiplying into the millions of native Yiddish speakers of the next century". Your post spurs me on to read more.

I noticed SOAS offers a crash course in Yiddish - maybe next year!

Studiolum dijo...

Katz’s is a good book. Don’t you want to write a review of it for Río Wang?

Yiddish is absolutely not difficult to learn, especially with a minimum of German knowledge. I took good use of Sarah Zucker’s two-volume manual, but Routledge has just published a Colloquial Yiddish, which seems to be good. And the history and production of the late 19th-century Eastern European “Yiddish Renaissance” is highly interesting!

motl dijo...

Sheva Zucker and not Sarah.
The modern yiddish literature is not limited to "the late 19th-century Yiddish renaissance". The outburst produced his effect until WWII and even after with the surviving writers and poets. Among them, so important pens like Yankev Glatshteyn, Itzik Manger, Melekh Ravitsh, Avrom Sutzkever (who died in 2010 in Tel-Aviv). And many others.
Not just ..."As it was basically a spoken language, it has left behind only a handful of written records: some bilingual prayer books, a couple of 19th-century secular literary works and dailies, the memorial plaques of a few cemeteries and mass graves."
No other "little" language -without any state institutions- produced so many books in such a short time, less than one century. A couple , a handful... it's inaccurate.

Studiolum dijo...

Thank you for the correction. Yes, I know about the important 20th century developments, especially in America. What I wanted to emphasize here was the virtually non-existent character of the language and the lack of its written records in modern day Central-Eastern Europe, which makes the more surprising its appearance on the walls of Lwów.

Marshall Colman dijo...

Some years ago, BBC radio broadcast a programme about Dovid Katz, a professor of Yiddish studies at Vilna. He was travelling through the old Pale of Settlement recording the few remaining Yiddish speakers, most of whom were very elderly Holocaust survivors. Many of them had not spoken Yiddish for fifty years, and their encounter with Katz was emotional. Katz said he was not interesting in visiting Holocaust sites, he was not interested in dead Jews, he was interested in living Jews, many of whom had been forgotten. Katz is unusual for his generation (a New York baby boomer) in that he grew up speaking Yiddish. Even though Yiddish was my mother's first language, in my home it was used as a secret language between my parents, so I never learned it. Now we have people like Katz running classes for people to learn it as a second language.