Issue 41 | October 27, 2020
Yiddish in the Aftermath of the Holocaust
On October 18th, Dr. Amy Kerner, Fellow of the Jacqueline and Michael Wald Professorship in Holocaust Studies, presented “Bridge to Nowhere? Yiddish in Argentina from the Holocaust to the Dirty War,” in which she traced the history of the Yiddish language in Argentina from the Holocaust to the so-called "Dirty War" of 1976-1983 and its aftermath.
Dr. Kerner began with a discussion of what it means to face the history of the Yiddish language decades after the Holocaust, a period that is often considered to represent a decline in Yiddish. With the destruction of the vast majority of Eastern European centers of Yiddish life that resulted from the Holocaust, we may find it surprising to find the existence of a thriving modern Yiddish culture in cities like Buenos Aires.
Yiddish Language in Argentina
Exploring the history of the Yiddish language and culture in Buenos Aires presents a unique opportunity to access archival materials written in Yiddish that contribute to a more comprehensive history of Jewish life before, during, and after the Holocaust.
From the 1890s to the 1920s, a large number of Russian Jews fled the Pale of Settlement and were among the first Yiddish immigrants to arrive in Argentina; by 1945, the Jewish Argentine population numbered around 300,000.
Holocaust survivors who arrived in Argentina after the war found a flourishing Yiddish cultural life in cities like Buenos Aires. Yiddish speakers had founded the majority of all cultural institutions in Buenos Aires, and many publications and social networks were created. It became a major center of postwar Yiddish publishing, and the community welcomed survivors and promoted community-sponsored memorial projects focused on Holocaust remembrance, with the goal of educating all Jewish Argentines about the Holocaust.
Dr. Kerner discussed three challenges that threatened the continuity of the Yiddish language in Argentina. In the 1950s, President Juan Perón led a government-sponsored initiative to combat the spread of communism; the preconceived notion that associated Jewishness with communism found these efforts often targeted the Jewish community, and as a result, threatened to suppress the use of the Yiddish language.
Another challenge that developed concerned the diplomatic relations between Argentina and Israel after 1948. Israeli government officials promoted Hebrew as the preferred national language and encouraged publishing in Hebrew rather than in Yiddish.
In the 1960s, as a result of increasing anti-communist movements and changing military power systems, many young Jewish Argentines became active in left-leaning political and cultural organizations. In 1966, a right-wing authoritarian government was established in Argentina by a military coup, establishing Juan Carlos Onganía as its leader. Violent protests and guerilla warfare erupted after the Onganía government banned all other political parties and organizations. In this climate of political repression and rebellion, many young Jewish Argentines came to resent the use of Yiddish, claiming that it was a marker of weakness and represented the tradition of their parents, which they wanted to distance themselves from.
It wasn’t until after the so-called “Dirty War” between 1976 and 1983, a state-led campaign against so-called “subversives” that left some 30,000 dead, that the significance of Yiddish emerged as a topic in public discourse. In its aftermath, it was discovered that Yiddish at times operated as a language of communication for use by the underground and other activist groups to record and correspond with the outside world, precisely due to the fact that many did not speak the language, and publications could go undetected by the censors.
Dr. Kerner concluded her lecture by reflecting on the history of Yiddish in Argentina, stating that it is not only about the story of cultural, historical, or linguistic survival, but also sheds light on the three generations of Jewish immigrants who saw the Yiddish language as a distinct marker of Jewish identity. This research suggests that we need to widen historical discourse to include a much larger time frame when approaching the history of the Yiddish language in Argentina.
Panel Discussion: The Silence of Others
Thursday, Oct. 29th, 5:30pm
This is an online event.
This documentary reveals the epic struggle of victims of Spain's 40-year dictatorship under General Franco, who continue to seek justice to this day. Filmed over six years, the film follows the survivors as they organize the groundbreaking 'Argentine Lawsuit' and fight state-imposed amnesia of crimes against humanity, and explores a country still divided four decades into a democracy. Seven years in the making, The Silence of Others is the second documentary feature by Emmy-winning filmmakers Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar.
The Ackerman Center screened this film from October 12-26, 2020, and there will be a discussion about the film and its historical implications on October 29th at 5:30pm Central.
Click below to view the film's trailer
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This issue was made possible by the following contributors:
Chrissy Stanford, Research Assistant