A Home for Lost Histories

When Jeffrey Veidlinger listened to Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe, his research took an unexpected turn. He soon realized he was among the first to uncover a history of Jewish resilience and resistance that had yet to be told.

By Bruce Lilly

“Our children’s children’s children’s children must know.”

This declaration by an elderly Jewish Ukrainian man refers to the atrocities that occurred in his country during World War II. His statement also recognizes the very real danger that knowledge of these horrors could fade away and be irretrievably lost with the passing of his generation. Soviet domination of much of Eastern Europe isolated the Jewish communities of the region until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Historians have only recently gained access to Eastern European Jews who survived decades of hardships over the course of the twentieth century. Unlike the well-documented history of the Jews in Western Europe during this same time period, the story of Jewish life in Eastern Europe is only now beginning to be told. Far too little is known about their suffering under Soviet totalitarianism, their systematic extermination by the Nazis, and the return of the survivors to their small towns after the war.

“Aheym” is a Yiddish word meaning “homeward.”

This is changing, however, thanks to AHEYM (Archives of Historical and Ethnographic Yiddish Memories), a project in the College started by Jeffrey Veidlinger and Dov-Ber Kerler. Veidlinger is professor of Jewish studies and history, director of the Borns Jewish Studies Program, and holder of the Alvin H. Rosenfeld Chair in Jewish Studies. Kerler is professor of Jewish studies and Germanic studies and holds the Dr. Alice Field Cohn Chair in Yiddish Studies.

The research effort began as an investigation by Kerler into the Yiddish dialects of Eastern Europe. “I just tagged along for fun,” Veidlinger says, “but as I listened to these people, I became interested not only in how they were saying things, but in what they were saying.” He realized that he was hearing accounts that perhaps no professional historian had ever heard before.

Veidlinger

Veidlinger in the AHYEM archives.
Photo: Jack Michel

The common assumption among scholars at that time was that the world of the shtetl—a Yiddish word for small Eastern European towns with large Jewish populations—had been entirely extinguished by World War II. It turned out that more Jews repopulated the small towns after the war than outsiders had realized. “It’s still a small number,” Veidlinger says. “In some towns, it’s only a couple of dozen, but a dozen people in a town where we thought the Jewish population was completely wiped out is still something.” The project’s acronym symbolizes this movement of Jews back to their homes. “Aheym” is a Yiddish word meaning “homeward.”

Veidlinger soon realized that he had stumbled upon a treasure trove of historical data stored in the memories of these people who had miraculously survived the Holocaust and returned to the shtetls. What began as an effort to learn about the evolution of the Yiddish language in the region expanded to include a collection of oral histories that shed vital new light on the lives of East European Jews in the twentieth century. Beginning in 2002, Veidlinger and Kerler repeatedly traveled to Eastern Europe to conduct research. Using the assistance of IU graduate students and professional videographers, they have amassed an astounding 800 hours of videotaped interviews in Yiddish. Approximately 380 people from Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia were interviewed, most of whom were born between 1900 and 1940.

As Veidlinger collected stories, he noticed recurring themes. One he heard repeatedly was of Jews as victors in the war. “We don’t generally think of Jews as surviving the Holocaust and fighting back,” Veidlinger says, “but many who escaped the German campaign of genocide often went on to fight the Germans as part of the Soviet Union’s Red Army. Some of these men were in the regiments that celebrated victory when liberating Berlin. We spoke with one man who became a commander of a battalion of tanks. He said to us, ‘The Germans killed my whole family. They killed my mother. They killed my father. They killed my brothers and sisters.’ Then he looks at us and says, ‘But I got even with them. I reckoned with them. I killed more of them than they killed of mine.’”

Another theme that emerged in the interviews was the unavoidable challenge of reconciliation. When the Germans moved through Eastern Europe, they massacred Jews from the shtetls and buried them in mass graves. Those who escaped and chose to return to their homes after the war had to find some way to live in the same small town with people who may have collaborated with the Nazis. “This is very different from the Jews who survived Auschwitz and then began a new life in another country,” Veidlinger says. “Ultimately, wounds this severe never heal, so reconciliation may not be possible, but I was struck by the fact that the returning Jews found some way to reclaim a place in the community.”

Veidlinger also marveled at the perseverance of these people. The Soviet Union began its attempts to stamp out religion in the 1920s. There were also forced famines in many areas of Eastern Europe. These hardships were then followed by the Holocaust. “I’m interested in the role that faith can play in perseverance,” Veidlinger says. “These people found a way to retain their beliefs and their community in spite of great odds.”

The interviews feature a broad range of life and culture: historical and linguistic information, musical performances, folk narratives, folk remedies, fragments of Purim plays, reflections on contemporary Jewish life in the region, and guided tours by local residents of sites of Jewish memory in the region. Biographies, photographs, and videos are publically accessible at the AHEYM project website. Veidlinger’s two previous books, The Moscow State Yiddish Theater: Jewish Culture on the Soviet Stage and Jewish Public Culture in the Late Russian Empire, have won multiple awards. His book based on the materials gained from the interviews, In the Shadow of the Shtetl: Small Town Jewish Life in Soviet Ukraine, will be published by IU Press in 2013. There is also a documentary film in the works.

In a forgotten corner of Eastern Europe, where Soviet commissars once coexisted with Hasidic miracle workers, only a few isolated Jewish communities managed to survive the Second World War and the Nazi Holocaust. Separated from the rest of the Jewish world for a generation, they developed their own distinct culture, memories, and traditions, and survived by retaining their faith in spite of great odds.

Visit the AHEYM Project at
http://www.iub.edu/~aheym/

By giving voice to so many untold stories that would otherwise be lost to the historical record, AHEYM demonstrates the vital role oral history can play. Historians have little or no access to people living under repressive regimes, which makes it impossible to measure public opinion, but research can be conducted after the political structure collapses. “In this case, we’ve learned that the repressive Soviet regime was unable to stifle belief systems, despite its best efforts to do so,” Veidlinger says. “This same methodology can be used to understand the impact of repressive regimes on people the world over.”

All of these efforts require funding and Veidlinger stressed the vital role played by donors. “This project would not have been possible without the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities,” Veidlinger says. “AHEYM has received almost $500,000 in two separate NEH grants.” He also expressed gratitude for the support of Jay and Marsha Glazer, who fund the Alvin H. Rosenfeld Chair; Alice and Ted Cohn, who fund the Dr. Alice Field Cohn Chair; and Robert and Sandra Borns, who fund the Borns Jewish Studies Program.

“We frequently end our interviews by asking, ‘Do you have anything else to say? What would you like to say to Americans?’” Veidlinger says. “They invariably say that their stories need to be told.”

That’s precisely what AHEYM is doing—telling the stories and making sure the voices of these people can be heard again and again for many generations.

Photos: Some of the participants in the oral history project, left to right: Dov-Ber Kerler, AHEYM project director, with Riva Medved; Miron Endelstein; Sash Kolodenker and Rita Shveibish; Moyshe Margolis; Mira Pasik; Moyshe Kupershmidt; Perets Sandler; Frida Pecherskaia; and Semyon Sklyarsky.