From the Jewish Tribune, by Brigit Katz
“On sunny Shabes afternoons…the young people played on the lakes near Probeken and sang sweet, haunting, Russian romantic, Zionist, and worker songs…[I]n winter, when the frost crackled, we skated there on steel ice skates or rode in sleighs.”
This description of Jewish life in Poland during the 1920s can be found in the Yizkor Book of Brzezin, one of hundreds of memorials written by Holocaust survivors about the shtetls in which they once lived. Thanks to the JewishGen Yizkor Book Project, these memorials are being translated from their original languages, thus becoming accessible to those who wish to discover their Jewish heritage.
Yizkor Books were originally published in large numbers by landsmanshaft, or societies of Holocaust survivors from the same town. The books pay tribute to communities that were decimated by the Holocaust, providing descriptions and histories of various shtetls, biographies of prominent community members and lists of people who perished in pogroms and in the Holocaust.
JewishGen is a volunteer-driven organization that accumulates records of Jewish life from across the world, and then makes those records accessible through online databases and other online research tools. Its Yizkor Book Project was founded in 1994 by Lance Ackerfield, one of the many volunteers that actively contribute to JewishGen’s growing collection of resources.
The mission of the Yizkor Book Project is to make the information contained in the Yizkor books accessible to those who cannot read Yiddish and Hebrew, the original languages in which the books were composed. Both volunteers and paid translators are recruited to translate the large corpus of Yizkor Books. These translations are then published online and, occasionally, in print.
“We would like to translate as many books as we possibly can,” Avraham Groll, the director of Business Operations for JewishGen, told the Jewish Tribune. “If we feel that there’s enough interest, we will actually publish the books.”
The Yizkor Book Project is also in the process of adding to online indexes of names that appear in the books. According to Groll, these indexes allow researchers to find the specific Yizkor Book in which their family name is mentioned.
“That will have value in trying to focus your search,” he said.
“Perhaps [researchers] have relatives in a town [who] they didn’t know about.”
Yizkor Books not only allow those with Jewish heritage to discover where their families came from. Through detailed descriptions of shtetl life, they also paint a picture of the Jewish communities that were destroyed by the Holocaust.
“[The Yizkor books] really give you an idea of what life was like,” Groll said.
“The books have value [for those] who want to research their family and want to know [about] their heritage.”
Click here to read the entire article and here to visit the Yizkor Book Project.