‘Lieux de Mémoire’ as Identity Quests: Yizker-bikher in Post-World War II Jewish Culture – Gali Drucker Bar-Am

The decades following World War II witnessed the publication of some 700 memorial books (Yiddish: yizker-bikher) worldwide. These commemorative volumes, published mainly in Yiddish and Hebrew (often with an English section as well), document the origins and histories of East European Jewish communities destroyed in the Holocaust. They feature narratives about the communities and their institutions, personal recollections, galleries of prominent local figures, family histories, and a record of the towns’ wholesale destruction. They were written, edited, and published by communities of mourners from all over the world (primarily in the U.S., Israel, and Argentina) – that is, by native sons and daughters, born and raised in these communities who emigrated before the war, or else by Holocaust survivors of those communities. What began before World War II as a sporadic and spontaneous display of grief to devastation of communities by pogroms, gradually became, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, an organized and even systematic phenomenon of cultural documentation, frequently sponsored by hometown associations (Yiddish: landsmanshaftn). David Roskies has described these works as “The memory bank of East European Jewry”.

My aim is to write an extensive monograph examining the yizker-bikher from a historical-cultural perspective as ‘Lieux de Mémoire’ (sites of memory), that is, as products and expressions of modernity. My research focuses on the role of memory in the construction of identity, and in particular of ethnic and national identity. This may seem paradoxical at first glance, since the prevalent image of yizker-bikher casts them as folk-culture oriented documents that record pre-modern communities (the proverbial East European small town, shtetl). Yet, I suggest that a closer reading would reveal that it is not memory-based folk societies that are represented in these books but, rather, increasingly modern communities propelled by an increasingly conscious historical, national impulse. Yizker-bikher, then, are a prism through which we may observe the gradual development of modern Jewish consciousness (both cultural and national) out of the traditional communities.

Dr. Gali Drucker Bar-Am is a scholar of modern Yiddish literature. She teaches Yiddish literature at Tel Aviv University and she is a post-doctoral fellow at ‘Daat Hamakom’ I-CORE, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Academic Sponsor: Prof. Eli Lederhendler.