Authors: Julia Elkouby, Lily Parsey
On Wednesday morning a group of us set off to visit Shalvata, the Jewish Holocaust memorial centre in Hendon. We went on this particular day as there are a feisty group of Yiddish speakers who meet up to talk Yiddish so we thought we could get some stories about Yiddish language and culture.
The main impression we got from the group was that they enjoy Yiddish language and culture as they are nostalgic about it rather than considering it a particularly useful language or culture in the modern world. When we told them we were learning about the Yiddish language and culture, they would immediately exclaim “Why? Learn Spanish or Italian!” It was also interesting that most of them did not speak Yiddish to their children as they did not think it was important for them to learn. Indeed, even Jewish culture and religion is not necessarily considered fundamental to transmit to the following generations. Instead, they seemed to want to focus on integrating well into British society. Most of the group members claimed that they had been anglicised and therefore did not heavily identify with Yiddish culture anymore, especially in London where after the closure of Yiddish theatres, the only form of Yiddish culture was in the language.
When they described their arrival in London, they told us how after the war, most Jews were put in hostels together. Being with people who came from similar places and had shared similar experiences allowed them to form a sense of home in a strange country. However, they said that they then became integrated into British society and started speaking English even amongst themselves. As such, they did not forget Yiddish but it was no longer central to their day-to-day lives.
Some did not reject Yiddish but instead rejected German which was the language associated with Jewish prosecution. One lady noted that her ‘husband used to say to [her] “Don’t speak that language!”’. This clearly illustrates the extent to which the perception and culture of the language changed after the war, making people change their culture and identity to form a new one. The majority of modern Yiddish culture stems from the revival of Yiddish in North American culture, as well as the rejection of many highly religious people to speak the “holy language”, Hebrew. It is thus mostly alive in highly religious communities, as opposed to those who were integrated in other cultures after the war. To the communities in London such as that represented in Shalvata, Yiddish was a language which reminded them of their youth and as a connecting force of a shared past and heritage.
One man told us two stories in which Yiddish language managed to unite people and animals. The first one was about his dad. His father had a shop in Manchester and he would close up quite late every evening but one evening he decided to close up around 10pm. When he looked outside the window, he saw a Chinese man staring at him. This man spoke Mandarin and Yiddish, but then they realised that they also both spoke Yiddish. They therefore decided to go out to dinner together and had a meal where they shared the story of their lives. The next day the Chinese man left to go back home and although they never saw each other again that evening had meant the world to both of them. He said that Yiddish was an ‘esperanto language’- a language that brings together people from different cultural backgrounds and unifies them.
The other moving story he told us was about his mother, his mother had a dog called Peggy. This dog was only ever spoken to in Yiddish and when he would take this dog for walks he would ask ‘left’ or ‘right’. The dog wouldn’t respond but then as soon as he said it in Yiddish the dog would immediately go in the right direction. This was quite a funny aspect of Yiddish as it is such an unconventional language, teaching a dog Yiddish never occurred to him before.
The people who come to Shalvata mainly come for the benefits, as well as the opportunity to reconnect to the past together, despite all coming from different backgrounds. Some of them came with the Kindertransport but speaking Yiddish brought back their early life and nostalgic memories of their childhood when they had first learnt Yiddish. They said that it was ‘an early experience which will always stay with you’. Two particular members of this group had known each other before but had been separated for 70 years or so. It was only through the group that they were able to reconnect.
The other main point to underline was that they all spoke different styles of Yiddish: and all claimed to speak the best variety. Each dialect has a different accent and slightly different vocabulary. As one member said, Yiddish is “a bit of a jargon language- a mixture of all different languages’. The disagreement over what constitutes “proper” Yiddish went to the extent that one member got up and left the room during the Yiddish talk denouncing it as “broken Yiddish”. When we were asking some questions another member claimed that he spoke “proper Yiddish, the Yiddish of Warsaw” which provoked an uproar: “Oh no you don’t”. “He mixes it all up!”. “He can’t speak any language”.
Indeed, all the members had very distinct and pronounced characters. Most of the time it was difficult to hear what anybody was saying as everybody wanted to add their opinion or contradict another. As one of the volunteers said: “You have to have a certain character to survive the Holocaust”. One particular character we were warned about right upon our arrival was Jack, who grew up in a family of farmers in Romania. Known as “cheeky Jack”, he walked around the room saying to people his own age they were his father. Making remarks about anything and everything, he is known as the group clown. For instance, over lunch, he was asked what his profession used to be to which he replied: “I used to work in iron and steel. My wife used to iron and I used to steal!”
So although the members ranged from 83 to 94 years in age, we have rarely been in such animated company. With constant chit chat and laughter accompanying lunch and afternoon tea, we had a truly unique experience, engaging in conversations with some truly inspiring people with a highly optimistic outlook that is hard to find nowadays.
Thanks a lot again to the Shalvata members and volunteers!