Barry Trachtenberg. The Holocaust & The Exile of Yiddish: A History of the Algemeyne Entsiklopedye. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2022. 336 pp. Cloth $37.50. ISBN 9781978825451.
The encyclopedia is a genre of the Enlightenment, intrinsically linked with the desire of eighteenth-century intellectuals to classify and produce knowledge. Yet what does it mean for Jews to compile such a work for Jewish readers, particularly in a Jewish language? This question animates Barry Trachtenberg’s recent monograph, The Holocaust & The Exile of Yiddish: A History of the Algemeyne Entsiklopedye, which focuses on one such example: the creation of the Yiddish-language Algemeyne entsiklopedye, or “General Encyclopedia,” begun by Jewish intellectuals in the 1930s and completed in the 1960s in order to, as Trachtenberg puts it, “meet the needs of Yiddish-speaking Jews at the very moment when these needs were themselves undergoing a radical transformation” (79).
Deeply researched and compellingly narrated, the book suggests that such an undertaking could—and did—have many meanings. Pioneering Jewish historian Simon Dubnow (1860-1941), quoted by Trachtenberg, described encyclopedias “not merely as a compendium of knowledge but as a ‘people’s book,’ a communal project of the nation for whom it was written” akin to a modern version of Moses Mendelssohn’s German translation of the Hebrew Bible (41). A specifically Jewish reference work could also reveal Jewish aspirations during different eras, including the harrowing period of the Algemeyne entsiklopedye’s creation. For Jewish intellectuals in the twilight of the Weimar Republic, the development of a general encyclopedia in a Jewish language was a utopian project. In the absence of Yiddish-language higher education and reference works, the Algemeyne entsiklopedye, Trachtenberg argues, “could be a means by which those Jews who primarily spoke Yiddish could self-modernize and fully participate in the world outside their own communities” at a time when many Jews no longer viewed the Torah and Talmud as the only paths to erudition (60). This endeavor was made more poignant by the complicated fortunes of those who embarked upon what could be seen as a continuation of Enlightenment aspirations at a time when these views, especially for Jews, were most directly under threat. Finally, in the post-war period, the encyclopedia was a means for Jews to come to terms with the devastation of the Holocaust using the intellectual tools and international networks available to them.
To tell this story, Trachtenberg’s book traces the creation of the Algemeyne entsiklopedye in the cities of its development and exile, following the project from Berlin to Paris to New York City over a period of thirty-six years (1930–1966) and beautifully explaining the historical milieu for each of these urban centers. The introduction lays out the stakes of this project in the context of the genre itself. Chapter one, “A Bible for the New Age, 1930–1933,” describes the encyclopedia’s beginnings in Weimar Berlin, which witnessed the publication of the first probeheft (sample volume) and debates about the aims and structure for the project as a whole. Chapter two, “Man Plans, and Hitler Laughs, 1933-1940,” describes the publication of the first four volumes and first supplement on Jewish topics in interwar Paris, at a time when the editors’ plans for the volume grew increasingly ambitious. Chapter three, “Spinning the Historical Threads: New York, 1940–1966,” continues the account in American exile after the Nazi invasion of Paris, where for a quarter century the surviving encyclopedists used the project to reckon with the Holocaust and preserve the memory of Yiddish civilization. Ultimately, contributors included such varied luminaries as YIVO institute head Max Weinreich (1894–1969), scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem (1897–1982), literary critic Shmuel Charney (1883–1955), and pioneering Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg (1926–2007). Indeed, by the publication of the final volume, “the project had assumed such a prominent stature in the Jewish world that it involved dozens of influential Jewish intellectuals who represented a much wider range of ideological perspectives, including many who earlier would never have considered submitting to its initial volumes” (5). The book’s brief conclusion brings the Algemeyne entsiklopedye into the present, putting it in conversation with the 2008 YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe.
Trachtenberg’s monograph joins a host of others published in recent years focused on interwar Yiddish culture. These include several that concentrate on Yiddish intellectual life in Weimar Berlin, likely a subject of particular interest to readers of this blog, such as Marc Caplan’s Yiddish Writers in Weimar Berlin: A Fugitive Modernism (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2021); Samuel J. Spinner’s Jewish Primitivism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2021); Shachar Pinsker’s A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2018); and Rachel Seelig’s Strangers in Berlin: Modern Jewish Literature Between East and West, 1919-1933 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan University Press, 2016). While some of these works address the literary oeuvre of German-speaking women such as Leah Goldberg (discussed by Pinsker), Else Lasker-Schüler (discussed by Spinner), and Gertrud Kolmar (discussed by Seelig), they generally do not address women’s direct involvement in the shaping of Yiddish culture. Readers familiar with the recent surge of translations and scholarship about Yiddish women writers may well wonder if Weimar Yiddish cultural projects, like the one at the heart of Trachtenberg’s story, could have taken place without any women. A forthcoming biography of Rahel Szalit (1888-1942) by Kerry Wallach may add nuance to this narrative, since Szalit illustrated Yiddish stories by Sholem Aleichem.
Trachtenberg, however, makes the point of directly addressing the presence and absence of Yiddish-speaking women in the male-dominated Yiddish intellectual project like the Algemeyne Entsiklopedye. He acknowledges the contributions of women such as the art historian Rachel Wischnitzer (1885–1989), who was involved with the encyclopedia since 1931 and wrote an extensive essay on Jewish art for its pages. His book abounds with other similar examples. For instance, it points out the inclusion or exclusion of women—and topics related to women—in the various volumes of the encyclopedia, such as on page 63 where Trachtenberg observes the strange neglect of the women’s movement in the 1932 probeheft, or his mention on page 85 of a lengthy discussion of abortion in volume 1, or his observation a page later that one of the few famous Jewish women included in volume 1 was Sephardic Anglo-Jewish writer Grace Aguilar (1816–1847). The choice to explicitly acknowledge women’s role and presence in the ambitious encyclopedia at the heart of Trachtenberg’s book reveals how a work of intellectual history can draw attention to individuals and narratives that are usually viewed as unimportant and, by implication, unworthy of serious academic research. It is a welcome and important model for the field.
Finally, The Holocaust & The Exile of Yiddish is a testament to archival research and the collection of knowledge—both in terms of its subject matter and its own creation. The book describes how difficult it was for the encyclopedists to collect information for the project (80), and hints at the challenges Trachtenberg himself faced while finding the material to tell his story, an effort made even more complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As he argues, the intellectual undertaking of the Entsiklopedye “both shared in and came to symbolize the plight of the Yiddish language and culture during the middle decades of the twentieth century” (3). It is a story that scholars and students of European history and beyond will find well worth reading.
Sonia Gollance is Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Yiddish at University College London. She is a scholar of Yiddish studies and German-Jewish literature, who taught previously at the University of Vienna, The Ohio State University, and the University of Göttingen. Her first book, It Could Lead to Dancing: Mixed-Sex Dancing and Jewish Modernity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), was a 2021 National Jewish Book Awards finalist. She has co-edited journal special issues of Feminist German Studies (with Kerry Wallach) and In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies (with Joel Berkowitz and Nick Underwood).