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Some thoughts on Holocaust Memorial Day and why I Yiddish

Updated: Dec 31, 2022

Yesterday I gave a guest class on the Holocaust for a synagogue I used to work at in London. I showed them lots of examples from my own research and also talked a bit about working with Holocaust archives and what people had to do after the war to trace lost loved ones. At the end of the class, someone asked 'How do you spend your time doing this research and not lose your mind?' I blanked, thought about how maybe I have lost my mind, then an answer came out almost automatically:

'I speak Yiddish. And I sing Yiddish, and I teach Yiddish, and I translate Yiddish, and I keep trying to improve my Yiddish so that I can keep helping other people engage with the culture that the Nazis tried to destroy'. I'm not saying the only reason I love Yiddish is as some form of post-Holocaust resistance, I love Yiddish because its great and it feels like its in my bones. But it is part of it.

So today instead instead of sharing the story of one of the people whose lives I'm currently immersed in and who lost those lives to the Nazis, I'm sharing my first attempt at a Yiddish translation/adaptation of a poem written by my mother, who died when I was four and whose 31st Yortsayt (anniversary of her death in the Hebrew calendar) was last weekend.

When I visited some of the sites of mass murder in Lithuania a few years ago a number of the sites of mass murder, I felt so heavy that I ended up buying some bubbles because I needed to see the air move. I blew the bubbles around the woods and the cemetery where some of my own relatives had been murdered and watched them rise in the air and somehow I felt like the spirits of the dead – or their memories, or whatever remnants of them there may be – needed that too. There's something about the youthfulness and beauty of my mum's poem, combined with the sadness of her not being here, which reminds me of those bubbles.

Transliteration and English original below. Photo : blossoms falling in Vilne [Vilnius],taken during my first trip to Lithuania

קום שפּילן זיך אין װאַלד, טײַערל

דאָרט, בײַם אַלטן דעמב

װוּ בלומען װאַקסן און ס'ברענט אַ פֿײַערל

און אַלץ איז װילד און פֿרעמד

דער טעם פֿון פֿרילינג אומעטום,

די פֿלאַמען װאָס לוסטיק שפּרינגען

די פֿײגעלעך װאָס פּישטשען אין דער שטום,

דאָס לאַכן און דאָס זינגען

טאָ װיש אָפּ שױן די טרערן, לעבן־מײַנס,

קום טיף אין װאַלד מיט מיר,

מ'עט דאָרט פֿרײַ װי פֿױגלען זײַן

און גליקלעך אָן אַ שיעור!

Kum shpiln zikh in vald, tayerl,

Dort baym altn demb

Vu blumen vaksn un s’brent a fayerl

Un alts is vild un fremd

Der tam fun friling umetum

Di flamen vos lustik shpringen

Di feygelekh vos pishtshen in der shtum

Dos lakhn un dos zingen

To vish op shoyn di trern, lebn-mayns

Kum tif in vald mit mir

M'et dort fray vi foyglen zayn

Un gliklekh on a shir!

[original by Josephine Cohen z"l]

Come to the woods my love, and play

Down by the old oak tree

Where bluebells grow and birds are gay

And all is wild and free

The smell of woodsmoke in my hair

The joyful leaping flames

The soft blue spirals in the air

The laughter and the games

So wipe away your tears my love

Come to the woods with me

And there we'll dance and sing my love

Be happy and be free

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