What do morals have to do with languages?
Speech is part of nature, biology, and evolution. Yet,
In the West it is commonly believed that a true language must be written (unwritten languages are often disparaged as dialects and patois). Hence, it “naturally” comes together with its own writing system, formally acquired in the course of obligatory elementary education, which is a recent historical development of the past two centuries (Kamusella 2016). In Western Europe, most people are quite myopic about script and its choice, because the area’s
Writing seen as the production of texts and documents is the mainstay of the modern state’s ubiquitous administration, which touches each citizen’s life on a regular basis, in the form of official certificates of birth, marriage, and death; in identity documents (especially passports); or tax returns. The production and maintenance of social reality within the boundaries of such a modern state is generated through obligatory elementary education. In turn, universal literacy turns the state’s population into habitual readers and (increasingly) writers, who interact with one another and the state through the press, the audio and visual mass media of radio and television, and during the past two decades, through the internet (social media) that rolls the earlier media into one, alongside telephony.
The European Union’s language politics is a compromise sum of its member states’ language politics. As a result, the EU is a multilingual and polyscriptal polity (or polity-like international organization), unlike – in most cases – its constituent member states that tend to be monolingual (with some exceptions, as for instance, Finland with its two official languages of Finnish and Swedish), and This normative monoscriptality in the EU’s member states may be breached in the future, if Bosnia and Montenegro join the Union. In these two post-Yugoslav states, both Cyrillic and Latin alphabets are official.
This normative monoscriptality in the EU’s member states may be breached in the future, if Bosnia and Montenegro join the Union. In these two post-Yugoslav states, both Cyrillic and Latin alphabets are official.
Yet, in the not-so-distant past, prior to World War II, other scripts than the current EU’s three of Cyrillic, Greek, and Latin letters were quite widespread across the continent for writing and publishing in Europe’s numerous languages. I mean, especially, the Arabic, Armenian, and Hebrew writing systems. Books and newspapers in Arabic script were widely published in a plethora of Turkic
Nowadays, any widespread employment of the Armenian language written in its eponymous alphabet is largely limited to the post-Soviet state of Armenia. Yet, until the 1915 Genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, the Armenian language and script were in official use across Anatolia, the Near East, and the Balkans. In addition to the Armenian language, ethnically Armenian communities used Armenian letters for writing other languages they happened to speak, be it Greek, Slavic, or Turkic (Pratt 1866). In this custom, they followed many Balkan Orthodox Christians, who used Greek letters to write Albanian, Slavic, and Turkic (Elsie 1991). Armenian Genocide survivors and refugees brought along their language and script to France and California. But after three generations they mainly switched to French and English in the mid-20th century.
Last, but most importantly for this article, until the Holocaust, the world’s and Europe’s Jews wrote and published in their numerous community languages with the almost exclusive employment of the specifically Jewish writing system of Hebrew letters. In interwar Europe, such Jewish community languages mainly meant the Germanic language of Yiddish (“Jewish German”) and the Romance one of Spanyol (“Jewish Spanish”), which is also known as Ladino (“Latin”). Spanyol was spoken and written in the Balkans by Sephardim, who constituted the majority (and then plurality in the 1930s) of the inhabitants of Salonica (Thessaloniki) prior to the Holocaust.
Before World War II, out of the world’s over 17 million Jews, 10 million resided in Europe, mostly in the central and eastern areas of this continent. At that time, 13 million of the world’s Jews spoke Yiddish, including almost 9 million in Europe. Obviously, they wrote Yiddish with the use of Hebrew characters, from which the Yiddish alphabet is composed. The extermination of 6 million predominantly Yiddish-speaking Jews during the Holocaust meant the loss of almost half of the globe’s Yiddish speakers (Katz 2005; Vital 2022). But the tragedy was worse than the statistics can lead one to believe. The surviving half of Yiddish speakers lived spread out thinly around the world, among invariably dominant speakers of other languages. Yiddishland, “Yiddishland” is an informal coinage for the Central Europe of Ashkenazic Jews, or their immigrant settlements in the United States. This term appeared in the early 20th century (Van Tassel Sutphen 1904: 271), but gained wider currency only at this century’s end (Brossat and Klingberg 1983; Ngram 2022).
“Yiddishland” is an informal coinage for the Central Europe of Ashkenazic Jews, or their immigrant settlements in the United States. This term appeared in the early 20th century (Van Tassel Sutphen 1904: 271), but gained wider currency only at this century’s end (Brossat and Klingberg 1983; Ngram 2022).
Not a single Yiddish-speaking locality survives now in Europe or elsewhere in the world. However, orthodox Hassidic communities, with about 0.75 million members, maintain Yiddish as the language of their everyday communication, typically at the level of a town or city quarter (or even just in a single neighborhood or designated street), be it in Israel, North America, or Western Europe (Wodziński and Spallek 2019: 212, 216–217).
In postwar Europe, the increasingly ritualized remembrance of the Holocaust and the often but unthinkingly repeated invocation of “Judeo-Christian values” are seen as a necessary prevention of any repeat of genocide on this continent in the future (Kamusella 2020). Yet, this belief underpinned with such ritualistic practice (or rather,
Commemorating the Holocaust and genocide prevention must be grounded in a morally driven activism to be effective. People must engage, rather than, half-asleep, idle through another boring Holocaust remembrance event. Otherwise, all the officially approved effort is good for nothing. When talking to colleagues and students, I was surprised that they are not at all astounded by the absence of even a single, however small, Yiddish-language library in today’s Europe; or that there is no brisk trade in second-hand Yiddish books, which were produced in millions of copies before World War II, and in tens of thousands of copies until the 1968 ethnic cleansing of communist Poland’s Jews. That Yiddish language and culture are not taught and researched in university departments of Germanic languages but are rather dispensed with or at best consigned to the new scholarly ghetto of Jewish studies. Even more surprisingly, primary and secondary sources on the Holocaust in Yiddish, or the victims’ language, are shunned in preference to documents and publications in German, that is, the murderers’ language.
Strangely, German-speaking descendants and users of this murderers’ language in today’s Germany and Austria are oblivious to the fact that only thanks to principled efforts of Yiddish-speaking Jewish poets the genocidal German was exorcised into this postwar language in which writing poetry is possible again. For this feat that was totally unimaginable in 1945, Yiddish language and culture are forgotten as “dead.” Worryingly, this attitude is a clear boost to pro-nazi tendencies and forces nowadays, because it appears to prove that the Third Reich’s policy of “Final Solution” was successful, despite the Allies and postwar Europe’s protestations to the contrary (Knight 2021).
I propose that only the actual use of and engagement with Yiddish language and culture, as part and parcel of active Holocaust remembrance, may save Europe from another genocide. For this purpose, why not to make Yiddish and its Hebrew script official in the European Union? Why not teach, as a matter of course, the Hebrew letter-based script of Yiddish as one of the two equal alphabets of the single Yiddish-German language in German and Austrian schools? Why not re-establish some dedicated Yiddish-language libraries in Europe? These are simple and straightforward questions, to which, at present, neither the EU nor concerned Europeans are able to provide clear-cut answers. This article seeks to analyze the moral and pragmatic dimensions of Holocaust remembrance, or rather their sorry absence in today’s Europe, from the perspective of postwar Europe’s curious language policy on Yiddish. This policy of turning a blind eye to the wartime destruction and the continuing postwar neglect of the continent’s Yiddish language and culture endangers democracy in postcommunist Europe.
However, not to leave the reader completely empty-handed and crestfallen, in this text I show how Yiddish terms and phrases may be easily introduced in a comprehensible manner to as yet non-Yiddish-reading publics with the prop of stop-gap romanization. In this essay I follow the romanization system developed by ייוִואָ YIVO, that is, the יידִישער װיסנשאַפֿטלעכער אינסטיטוט
In this essay I follow the romanization system developed by ייוִואָ YIVO, that is, the יידִישער װיסנשאַפֿטלעכער אינסטיטוט
In interwar Germany propaganda pamphlets and maps claimed that the area of the use of the German language extended from eastern France in the west to Moscow and the Volga in the east, from Scandinavia in the north to Trieste and northern Yugoslavia in the south (Böttcher 1930: 24). Despite the loss of the German overseas colonies in the wake of the Great War, Berlin insisted on promoting German as a
Yet, three-quarters of the claimed spatial area of the German language found themselves
German and Austrian גוים
In the course of World War II, nazi Germany conquered this “living space,” or in other words, סענטראַל און מזרח אייראָפּע
Nazi propaganda claimed that thanks to this genocide the promised
In 1949 the German philosopher of Jewish origin טעאָדאָר אַדאָרנאָ Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) claimed that “after Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric” (After Auschwitz 2001). This dictum used to be widely interpreted as the sheer impossibility of composing poetry after the Katastrofe, especially in German. During the war, this “truly nazi and
The world’s Jews, their culture, their history, were to vanish forever, as though they had never existed. The plan was carried out almost in full. Yiddishland and its Ashkenazic population were obliterated. Remnants fled to America or Israel, which was founded in 1948. The Soviet bloc countries duly followed the postwar Kremlin’s antisemitic turn and suppressed Yiddish culture and education, which Katastrofe survivors briefly cultivated for a mere couple of decades in the wake of World War II (Grözinger and Ruta 2008).
In the freshly postwar Germany and Austria, then still under the Allied occupation, compulsory de-nazification also meant drawing a veil of oblivion over what had happened. Most nazis and genocidaires escaped any responsibility for what they had done. In public discourse, the Katastrofe, Ashkenazim, and Yiddishland were conveniently forgotten. In the wake of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials (1963–1965), some reckoning with the genocidal past commenced, though quite reluctantly in West Germany during the 1970s. In Austria a similar process began very shyly, following the Waldheim Affair (1986) (Gruber 1991), and in East Germany only after the German reunification. Meanwhile, neither in Germany and Austria, nor elsewhere in postwar Europe, did any state or institution take care of dusty and rotting Yiddish publications, which nazis had failed to burn, pulp, deface, or destroy in another manner.
It was only half a world away from Yiddishland, in the פאראײניגטע שטאטן
However, in the sorely unnoticed absence of Yiddish – what a fit of absentmindedness – publishing and poetry in the diminished post-Katastrofe German language has flourished nevertheless. How was it possible after Auschwitz? It should not have happened, namely, all this postwar poetry and literature in German words. This unimaginable rescue of the genocidal German language came from the still lingering pale shadow of murdered Yiddishland. In spite of the Katastrofe, the hard-working Yiddish language came to the aid of German.
This feat of hope against hope actually took place in טשערנאוויץ
In 1918 עסטרייך-אונגארן
Czernowitz’s simultaneously fertile and febrile cultural and polyethnic atmosphere produced a generation of multilingual and convinced Europeans who shunned any narrow national, confessional or ideological categorizations (Hirsch and Spitzer 2010). Some survived the Soviet occupation and the subsequent Katastrofe, which in Romania was planned and carried out by the Orthodox Romanians themselves. Nazi Germany nodded approvingly to this initiative (Ioanid 2008). The second Soviet liberation-cum-occupation, followed by Stalin’s antisemitic struggle against “rootless cosmopolitans” – that is, Katastrofe survivors – convinced the remaining polyglot Czernowitzers that it was high time to flee to the West. But not before they saved poetry and the German language.
Already in 1945, drawing on Ausländer’s metaphor of
Meanwhile, in 1946, the exasperated Ausländer returned to America and chose to write in English. For her it would be unbearably disgusting to continue writing in the language of the nazi murderers. But after the two postwar decades, things changed. In 1957 she met Celan again, this time in Paris. The two
At first Celan’s transformation of the
Seventeen years later, in 1967, Celan made an effort to meet and talk to Heidegger, despite the poet’s deep misgivings. The German philosopher was evasive and unrepentant. Celan immediately saw through Heidegger’s deception. Heidegger stuck to his nazi convictions and the
In the 94th year of his life, in 2021, one of these last Katastrofe survivors, journalist and historian מאַריאַן טורסקי Marian Turski, presented all of us with a small book. His gift is the much-needed 11th Commandment: “Thou shall not be indifferent” (Turski 2021). Because indifference to however small an act of discrimination incrementally leads to yet another genocide. It kills. After all, as Turski emphasized in his 2020 speech on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of this death camp, “Auschwitz did not fall from the sky” (Turski 2020). Ordinary people built it, like you and I.
Flirting with this or that
How to achieve this moral but elusive end? A simple recipe does not exist. Yet today we are lucky to have the legacy of Celan’s and Ausländer’s poetry and thought to fall back on. The main message distilled from both poets’ words amounts to the straightforward moral compass of Turski’s 11th Commandment. What is lacking, however, is the patient day-to-day practice and cultivation of this principle of empathy and help for one another, alongside a clear realization that a new Katastrofe may erupt in the near future, should we stop taking care.
What I can suggest for consideration is a modest proposal, a simple exercise in זען
Is the answer, No? Are you sure? I know that nowadays Celan’s poems get regularly translated and published in the majority of European languages. The centenary of the poet’s birth in 2020 was celebrated in this manner (Borso 2020; Corbea 2020; Rykhlo 2020; Torres Mariner 2020). But what was it an occasion for? For business as usual or for reflection and a permanent change for the better? If the latter, why is it that the Yiddish language from which Celan’s and Ausländer’s poetry sprang is so utterly consigned to oblivion in today’s Germany, Austria, and Europe? The leaven of Yiddish allowed for the successful transmutation of the
The attempt at erasing this language’s Yiddish obverse in Hitler’s Germany and German-occupied Europe resulted in the Katastrofe and the destruction of Yiddishland, together with its Jewish inhabitants. By the same token the language’s reverse was degraded to the level of an odious
Let us not squander the Yiddish rescue of postwar German and European culture. At least let Germans and Austrians read in Yiddish again, or rather in both varieties of their
When I completed the first draft of this essay at the turn of 2022, little did I know that the issues under scrutiny would become timelier than I expected, due to Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified war on peaceful Ukraine. Incongruously and frighteningly, the Kremlin abuses the history and vocabulary of the Allied struggle against nazi Germany in order to justify its invasion of Ukraine, which from day one has been conducted in a genocidal manner on the horrific scale of total war. Moscow’s officially declared goal is to “de-nazify” Ukraine. This is a cynical and anachronistic propaganda ploy that has nothing to do with the liberal and democratic character of present-day Ukraine (Putin’s Claim 2022). Unless, without saying it openly, the Kremlin sees these foundational values and qualities of the West as hallmarks of “nazism” (Kamusella 2022).
The “norm” of Russia’s barbaric onslaught on Ukraine and the Ukrainians is marked by scorched earth and the indiscriminate shelling of residential areas, hospitals, schools, museums, or libraries. The mass and social media let us observe in real time the flattening and destruction of entire cities in a couple of weeks, mass killings of civilians, or multiplying instances of rape deployed as an instrument of warfare (Balachuk 2022; Cultural Destruction 2022; Hinsliff 2022; Lee and Faulkner 2022). Simultaneously, “victorious” Russian marauders excel at robbing Ukrainian apartments, houses, factories, shops, companies, or warehouses. The Russian officers, troops, and freshly installed occupation administrations look on approvingly and help themselves to bigger loot (Ship 2022).
The Russian armies attacked Ukraine from Belarus and Russia on February 24, 2022. Now, when I am writing these words at the turn of June 2022, a mere three months have elapsed. The war rages on. Meanwhile, about 14 million Ukrainians, more than a third of the entire population, have been displaced. Out of this number half had no choice but to look for safety abroad, while the others are internally displaced from eastern to central and western Ukraine (Ukraine Refugee 2022). There is no end in sight to this tragedy. The Russian forces have already abducted 200,000 parentless Ukrainian children to be made into Russians (Russia Has 2022), whereas 1.3 million Ukrainians have been deported – mostly against their will – to Russia (Over 2022). Many of these developments may already meet the criteria of genocide as defined by the United Nations (
Should the Russian government be successful, Ukrainian language and culture would be obliterated as thoroughly in Europe as nazi Germany and its European allies erased Yiddish language and culture during the Katastrofe (Holocaust). Would then Europeans as quickly and with no reflection accept the destruction of Ukrainian language and culture, as they did in the case of Yiddish language and culture eight decades earlier? Would they agree to the liquidation of any remaining Ukrainian libraries and to the pulping of Ukrainian books? Why do Europeans keep forgetting? Why does their remembrance of the Katastrofe fail to prevent new genocides in Europe? The future of democracy and liberalism in Europe and the West urgently depends on an honest discussion devoted to these existential questions.
I do not know what future awaits Russia and the Russians in the wake of their barbaric war on Ukraine. Yet, from the perspective of language politics, the postcommunist Kremlin’s genocides in Chechnya and Ukraine have been rapidly making Russian into another murderers’ language (язык убийц
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