`Secondary Holocaust effect’ breaks link to age-old Jewish language
MICHAEL TARM
Associated Press
CHICAGO – For Barney Sidler and his fellow inmates at the Buchenwald concentration camp, misery and death were everyday features of life.

So was Yiddish, the language of prewar European Jews that scholars say was another, if lesser known, victim of the Holocaust.

Nearly all Buchenwald’s prisoners spoke the Germanic language, which dates back to the 11th century displacement of Jews in Europe, said Sidler, who recalls the words of encouragement inmates would whisper in Yiddish amid the horror.

“People would say to each other, `Zorg zihk nihst. Got vet undz helf’ – which means, `Don’t worry. Got will help us,'” said Sidler, 73.

Most of the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis hailed from the Yiddish-speaking heart of Eastern Europe, where Nazis also pillaged and burned the close-knit Jewish shtetls, or villages – similar to ones portrayed in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”

“Yiddish speakers fared especially poorly because their language was, to the Nazi ear, a debased, corrupted version of the language of the (German) Fatherland,” wrote Miriam Weinstein in her recent book “Yiddish: A Nation of Words.”

“Because almost no one but Jews spoke the language, Yiddish became an easy marker for enemies looking to root them out,” she wrote.

The Nazis gutted prewar Yiddish culture and hence decimated the main wellspring of Jewish culture for centuries, according to leading Yiddish scholar Dovid Katz.

“The idea that Hitler failed to annihilate much of the European Jewish civilization is soothing self-deception,” said Katz, head of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute in Lithuania, a prewar hub of Yiddish arts and learning.

That Yiddish civilization evolved over a millennium as Jews sought to escape persecution by first settling German areas in central Europe, then by moving eastward to Poland, Lithuania and other regions nearby in the 14th century.

Yiddish began as a fusion of medieval German with Hebrew and Aramaic – languages Jews spoke before dispersing from areas in and around what is now Israel. As they moved into Eastern Europe, Yiddish also picked up Polish and Russian words.

Early detractors, who sometimes included Jews themselves, would deride Yiddish as a hodgepodge dialect with little merit as a language in its own right.

But by 1900, Yiddish was widely favored by Jewish writers. Ultimate acknowledgment of its merits came in 1978, when Yiddish-language writer Isaac Bashevis Singer won the Nobel prize for literature.

In his acceptance speech, Singer sounded a hopeful note.

“Yiddish has not yet said its last word,” he said. “It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world.”

But as elderly Holocaust survivors die, an irreplaceable link to Yiddish language and culture is being broken, Yiddish enthusiasts say.

The number of non-orthodox Yiddish speakers, most of whom are Holocaust survivors, has fallen below 500,000 worldwide and will “soon collapse altogether,” Katz said. “It is a devastating time. … For us, it is the secondary Holocaust effect.”

Sidler, who was just 12 when U.S. troops liberated the camp in 1945, strikes a pessimistic chord about the chances of Yiddish surviving as he knew it.

“I still speak Yiddish to my sisters and cousins,” said Sidler, who moved to the Chicago area after the war. “But in another few years, it’ll be nonexistent, I fear.”