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Steve Hinnefeld
University Communications

Last modified: Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Preserving Yiddish memory from before World War II

NEH grant will enable IU professors to share oral histories collected in Eastern Europe

May 5, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded two Indiana University faculty members $267,000 to preserve and annotate oral histories they collected from Yiddish-speaking residents of Eastern Europe and make the material available to scholars, educators and the public.

Kerler and Veidlinger image

Dov-Ber Kerler (left) and Jeffrey Veidlinger

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Professors Jeffrey Veidlinger and Dov-Ber Kerler were awarded the grant through the NEH Preservation and Access program. Their project, which also received a 2005 NEH grant, is called Archives of Historical and Ethnographic Yiddish Memories, or AHEYM -- aheym is the Yiddish word for homeward.

On 10 expeditions, the two recorded more than 750 hours of interviews with 350 elderly people who grew up speaking Yiddish in the years before World War II. They have worked mostly in Ukraine but also in Romania, Slovakia, Hungary and Moldova, visiting more than 100 cities, towns and villages and conducting detailed interviews that were professionally recorded on digital video.

"Many of these people we interviewed hadn't spoken Yiddish for 20 or 30 years. But the minute you turned it on, they were completely fluent," said Kerler, the Dr. Alice Field Cohn Chair in Yiddish Studies, professor of Jewish studies and Germanic studies at IU Bloomington. Veidlinger is the Alvin H. Rosenfeld Chair in Jewish Studies and associate professor of Jewish studies and history at IU Bloomington.

The project began in 2002 with university funding and continued with an Arts and Humanities Initiative grant from the Indiana University Office of the President in 2003. A $200,000 NEH grant for 2005-07 supported additional fieldwork expeditions. With the recent NEH grant, the scholars will:

  • Preserve the collected interviews and recordings, producing digital copies for secure electronic storage
  • Catalogue and index the materials for preservation at the Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music and provide annotation, partial transcription, and translation in collaboration with the Ethnomusicological Video for Instruction and Analysis (EVIA) Digital Archives at IU
  • Create a public Web site that will feature recorded interviews, songs and stories and video tours of the Jewish neighborhoods of Eastern European towns, guided by longtime residents

Separate from the grant, Veidlinger will rely on the material to produce a book, tentatively titled In the Shadow of the Shtetl, Jewish Memory in Eastern Europe.

Ukraine Interview

Veidlinger and Kerler conduct an interview in Bershad, Ukraine.

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Yiddish, spoken by Central and East European Jews and written in the Hebrew alphabet, was once the primary language for an estimated 11 million people. It continues to be spoken -- and its use is growing -- among Ultra-Orthodox Jewish and Hasidic communities. But the Yiddish-speaking communities in the small towns, or shtetls, of Eastern Europe were devastated by Soviet repression, the rise of Nazi Germany and World War II.

"Most people, myself included, thought the shtetls were gone," Veidlinger said. "Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, everyone thought these towns were totally destroyed."

World War II "wiped out Jewish life" in the region, Veidlinger said. "And then some people returned and rebuilt, literally in the shadow of the Holocaust. It's amazing what these people have been able to live through. That's a phrase that we heard so often: 'You wouldn't believe what I've lived through.'"

Kerler, a linguist and poet who learned to speak Yiddish as a child in Moscow, said he didn't doubt there were elderly Yiddish speakers in the region. But he admitted to being amazed at their number, the variety of their memories, stories and songs, and the depth of their feeling about the language.

"The moment you start speaking Yiddish, they receive you like some long-lost relative," he said. "For them, it's the most integral part of their Jewishness, their identity. They see it as their language."

To speak to Veidlinger or Kerler, contact Steve Hinnefeld at Indiana University Communications, 812-856-3488 or