Jews of Vilna, late nineteenth century.

The visitor to Eastern Europe hoping to discover a rich Jewish architectural heritage must remember that what was once the center of Judaic cultural and religious life in Europe -principally in Lithuania between the eighteenth century and the Shoah– had disappeared beyond ruins and cemeteries. The complete eradication of a Jewish presence, the sworn objective of the Nazis, was conducted with the complicity of a segment of the local population. This was followed by the antireligious policies of the Soviet Union and its series of population transfers and persecutions, reducing to nothingness and incomparable culture and the unique language of Yiddishland. Any Jewish-themed journey into the Baltic countries is therefore first and foremost a matter of archaeology and genealogical research. That said, there is still much to gain by visiting the small communities that have tried, courageously, to bear witness to the past and reveal their Jewish roots to younger generations.

The term Yiddishland is a neologism denoting after the fact a country that never existed as such and which might be described, rather, as a linguistic and cultural space, the place where the Yiddish language was used. The term can thus be understood in its broader sense, with both historical and geographical meaning: it covers the evolution of the Yiddish language from its formation by Ashkenazic communities from Germany (the Valley of the Rhine, Moselle) in the tenth and eleventh centuries, its migration across Bohemia through Poland and Eastern Europe, and finally its transfer in the late nineteenth century to cities like New York, Antwerp, Paris (around rue des Rosiers), Buenos Aires, and others.

In its most common usage, however, Yiddishland refers to the extension of Yiddish across eastern Europe, as much in space as in time, as it actually evolved and was spoken by nearly all the members of the Jewish communities here. This was the case in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Bessarabia, Moldavia, and in sections of Hungary and Romania from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the mid-twentieth century.

Map of the Yiddishland before the Polish partition.

A map of the Polish Union before 1772 (the date Poland was first divided), which stretched northward to the gates of Riga, eastward as far as Vitebsk, southeastward to the gates of Kiev, and southward to Lvov and Polodia, roughly described the historical boundaries of Yiddishland, for this was where speakers of Yiddish were concentrated. Formed upon a Germanic background (it evolved from Middle High German) and coupled with many Hebrew words (around 10% of the vocabulary), Yiddish also absorbed over the course of its history a fair number of slavisms (another 10 to 15% of its vocabulary) of Polish or Russian origin.

After the division of Poland let to that country’s disappearance between 1795 and 1918, Yiddishland was almost completely integrated within the Russian Empire (with the exception of Galicia, Bukovina, sub-Carpathian Ukraine and Transylvania, which all fell within Austria-Hungary) and hemmed inside the tcherta osiedlosti (residential zone), after a ukase issued by Catherine II imposed significant restrictions on movement, notably a ban on entering central Russia, Saint Petersburg, and Moscow. This state of affairs remained unchanged until the First World War.

Jews in Slonim, 1920’s (National Digital Archive)

The centers of Yiddishland were Vilnius (the “Jerusalem of Lithuania”), Warsaw (the Muranów district), Kraków (the Kazimierz suburb), Lódz (northern and central neighborhoods), Minsk, Lvov, lasi, Kishinev, Czernowitz, and Odessa. This “nation” was characterized most of all by the shtetlach, small rural towns where Jews were a majority within clearly defined neighborhoods centered around the synagogue and the narketplace, where the community gathered and traded with the non-Jewish world as well. There existed countless shtetlach, whose names still vividly evoke Jewish life in the region: Lubartów, Chelm, Szczebrzeszyn, Wlodawa, Zamósc, Raziechów, Sambor, Drohobycz, Brody, Belz, Bursztyn, Brzezany, Kremenets, Sadgora, Kossov, Wyznitz, Czortków, lasi, Bershad, Berdichev, Pinsk, Borboujsk, Baranovichi, Slonim, Vitebsk, Dvinsk, Tykocin… In each of these towns can still be found traces of times past: synagogues, cemeteries, marketplaces, old mikva’ot, typical houses with galleries and rectangular courtyards- a certain spirit of the place that endures even after the extinction of its residents. Architecturally, one of the best preserved examples is found in Tykocin, near Bialystok, with its two Christian and Jewish districts clearly demarcated, the synagogue and church at the center of each neighborhood, the marketplace between the two, and the two cemeteries at the far ends.

Marc Chagall, Retour de la Synagogue (Back from the Synagogue), 1925-1927

The shtetl was the birthplace of a rich culture that, beyond folklore, achieved veritable nobility and formed a common heritage: Yiddish literature through nineteenth-century founders Sholem Aleichem, Itzhak Leybush Peretz, and Mendele Moykher Sforim and twentieth-century poets such as Glatstein, Gebirtig, and katzenelson, as well as the works of Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer; painting depicting life in the shtetl, culminating in the masterpieces of Chagall; photography by Vishniac or even Alter Kacyzne; music through Yiddish songs (like “Mayn Shtetele Belz”, “Di Yiddishe Mame”, “Kinderyorn”, “Az der Rebbe Tanzt”, and “Rabbi Elimelech”) but especially through musical comedies like Fiddler on the Roof (or Anatevka) by Jerry Bock or, more generally, the Klezmer tradition, which is experiencing a strong revival today. All these artistic expressions have idealized the shtetl in present-day consciousness as a place of well-being, a warm atmosphere with its joys and sorrows, an idealization all the stronger now that this world is forever lost, swallowed up for eternity by the Shoah.

Life in the shtetl was far from idyllic: Jews suffered unemployment, insecurity, pogroms, and ignorancem resulting in heavy emigration, from the late nineteenth century through the 1930s.

In northern Yiddishland (Lithuania, Belarus, northeast Poland), the Gaon of Vilna (now called Vilnius) had a determining influence on Jewish life, in the form of an orthodoxy respectful of the letter of the law and the commandments, but open to a certain form of rationalism (the Haskalah). In southern Yiddishland (southern Poland, Ukraine, Bessarabia), Hasidism began to develop in the mid-eighteenth century, a mystical, anti-Enlightenment movement seeking to revive Judaism’s original fervor by sending its practitioners into trances and promising immediate contact with God. It was centered around the charismatic tsadikim, who in turn built around themselves veritable courts and a new form of orthodoxy.

Today, Yiddishland exists only in memory, in its intellectual creations and the artistic and cultural expressions, and in the hearts and songs of those who strive to breathe life back into both its spirit and letter. Revisiting this bygone world resembles an archaeological dig through both real terrain and memory itself.

Ben Zimet

Yiddishland is a distant land for some, memories quickly packed into suitcases following brutal departures and shared through food, words and more often silences. Jewish culture is making a big comeback, especially through music and the klezmer revival of the last thirty years.

One of the pioneers of Yiddish music, born into a refugee family in Antwerp, became a refugee during the war. This was before he was born musically in Paris, where he helped to light up the city’s most beautiful halls and cabaret nights. Ben Zimet, solo or in the company of Talila and various orchestras, has recorded numerous albums and played to three generations of enthusiasts.

We meet this astonishing artist in a mythical place, Chez Georges, one of the last musical references in Saint-Germain-des-Près. Where so many artists started out. South American music from the 1930s, French music from the 1960s, disco, oriental, Russian, Armenian and Yiddish music, are shared by those in their 20s, dancing the night away…

Jguideeurope: You were born in Antwerp. Do you have any memories of your childhood in this city?

Ben Zimet: I lived in Antwerp for the first five years of my life. But I had Polish nationality because my father was a refugee from that country. At the beginning of the Second World War, when the Germans arrived, we fled to the south of France, having missed the last boat to America. It was an epic journey that lasted seven days and seven nights, the details of which I will spare you. We first lived in Nissan-lez-Ensérune, in the Hérault region, for two years. This was under the benevolent protection of the inhabitants. Then in Maussac, in the Corrèze region, when the Allies landed in North Africa and the French authorities regrouped all the “métèques” of which we were a part towards the centre of France. I recounted this period in the show “Un Enfant de la Corrèze” (A Child of Corrèze) presented at the Avignon Festival and at the Francophonies in Limoges.

At the Liberation, we returned to Antwerp. I still remember this extraordinary Antwerp train station. When we left in 1940, we saw a mountain of bales in front of the entrance. On the way back in 1945, dozens of people in striped pyjamas, survivors of the concentration camps, were running in all directions. They were finally free, freed from their previous nightmare…

My father first worked in the black market with the American, French, British and Russian occupation troops who were in Antwerp at the time. Then, he worked in the restaurant business in the Jewish quarter, on the Lange Kievit straat, near the railway station. The surviving siblings of my mother, née Weber, worked in the diamonds industry in that area. Antwerp was then one of the world’s gem centres.

What motivated the family’s choice to come to Antwerp?

Poverty, of course. Antwerp was a Promised Land for us who came from Poland, a distant city with a large Jewish community. Emmanuel Zimet, my father’s very resourceful twin brother, arrived first. Then he sent his passport back so that my father could emigrate too. My grandfather, who ran an inn near Jaslov in southern Poland, stayed and disappeared in the turmoil, along with one of my father’s sisters and another brother. My great-grandfather Benjamin was a rabbi there and I had a cousin who was a cantor in London. Perhaps this explains my own vocation…

I have very pleasant memories of Antwerp with my family after the war, even though we were rather poor. The school, the friends, the Zionist organisations, finally, the end of the years of this sinister war. I went to the Flemish high school in Antwerp and also to the Tachkemoni school where we learned Hebrew. At home we spoke Yiddish freely, as well as a mixture of French with a Polish flavour with the parents. Much later, once my Parisian career was launched, I gave a few concerts in my hometown, though without much success. The people of Antwerp probably did not share my vision of a new, modern, innovative Yiddish.

How did you get started in the business?

A bit by chance. I started singing at the Contrescarpe, in the popular French bistros of the time, but I never imagined I would have a career. It happened by itself, starting in the 1970s. My wife and I spent most of our time in Montparnasse, at the Sélect, the Dôme and the Coupole. We liked to hang out with the other artists who played there. While I was making miniatures in Indian ink, I had a secret dream of becoming a blues singer. I had a beautiful voice. And then, one day, Maurice Alezra, the owner of La Vieille Grille, the first Parisian café-theatre, came to our house and said to me: « Don’t you want to come and sing at La Vieille Grille, in the autumn? » For me, who knew this historic venue well, where people like Rufus, Higelin and Brigitte Fontaine made their debut, it was like being offered to perform at the Taj Mahal! I was overjoyed.

I created a first show of Yiddish songs and tales, accompanied by a Breton violinist, and then things went very fast. Many Parisian venues opened their doors to me. I was on the radio, on television and the Parisian press often talked about us. Then came the Bouffes du Nord, which I also frequented with Peter Brook and his actors, the Théâtre de la Ville and tours in France and elsewhere. This lasted for about thirty years. I also made a few films with my Yiddishland orchestra. It was the good life, with its moving moments and memorable encounters. Through music, I believe I brought meaning and strong emotions to the people, men, women and children who came to listen to me. What a great reward…

Speaking of tours, how did the Polish public, the land of your ancestors, welcome your repertoire?

The first time was for the first Yiddish festival in Krakow. Apart from the immediate identification that I had with my native land as soon as we touched down in Poland, through the landscapes of the countryside and the towns, these typically Jewish streets from which the Jews were irrevocably absent, you could feel the embarrassment of the Polish Christian organisers. For history was pointing an accusing finger at them, despite the many individual cases of solidarity that they had shown with our people. We were, in some way, in the pain of returning to a family that had either abandoned us, or left us to the savages, or was powerless to do better. The audience in Krakow applauded us a lot. Will we ever know if it was remorse, politeness or real appreciation of our music? It was all ambiguous, more than ambiguous, when you heard the taxi drivers outside the palace where we were staying calling out « Auschwitz, Auschwitz », just twenty kilometres away. I had never been there before. Nevertheless, I felt Polishly moved by the scenery and the sound of a language I had often heard as a child, without understanding it, coming out of my own father’s mouth. We returned to Eastern Europe several times, to give concerts in Poland, but also in Romania and Hungary. And each time, the reception was wonderful.

You are currently preparing the show “Fascinating Gershwin” about the great American composer.

Let’s say that I have invented a personal friendship with him, outside of time and space, to stage my own approach through the genius of his music. I was already familiar with “Porgy and Bess” and “Rhapsody in Blue” from my youth in America, where I was twelve years old after the war. This music, as well as jazz, blues and gospel, had made a strong impression on me, even more than I thought at the time. As I said earlier, I always had this secret dream of becoming a blues singer. In “Fascinating Gershwin”, I talk to him, I share his life, as if we were old friends. And through this invented friendship, but not so much, I paint a portrait that I believe to be original. That of the Jew in the century, the eternal emigrant Jew, just before, during and after the Shoah. In telling the story of Gershwin’s brilliant life, I am also telling the story of myself. And perhaps a little of this Fascinating Gershwin will reflect on me and on you, dear viewers and listeners…

Interview made by Steve Krief


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