Yiddish language and culture and its post-Holocaust fate in Europe

Briefing 19-01-2022

Yiddish is a language once spoken by Jews in an area spreading from Alsace to the Urals, influenced by and influencing local languages and cultures. It neared extinction in the 20th century when it lost the majority of its speakers, mostly – but not only – through the Holocaust. Yiddish is part of European folk culture, contributing to the works of great writers and musicians and broadening European culture more generally. Successive waves of Jewish migration provoked by poverty, persecution, pogroms, Stalinism and Nazism, war and all forms of antisemitism, have drastically reduced the Jewish population across Europe and, with it, the number of Yiddish speakers. The Holocaust – referred to in Yiddish as Khurbn (destruction) – was an ethnic and cultural cleansing process designed to erase any trace of Jewish life from European culture, including Yiddish, a language perceived as 'bad German'. Some Holocaust survivors tried to recreate their pre-war lives and cultivated their language and culture. Others, however, traumatised by the war, wanted a new beginning, often far from home and their children wanted to fit in and speak the local language. As the use of Yiddish continues to diminish, its speakers are growing older, and its transmission among generations was interrupted, Unesco has put Yiddish on the definitely endangered languages list. However, the fate of Yiddish as a dead or stifled language is not yet sealed. Traditional religious Jewish communities, mostly in Israel, and North and South America, but also in Europe, still use Yiddish and contribute to Yiddish culture. Moreover, Yiddish is enjoying a revival as a language and culture among both young secular Jews and the non-Jewish population, and Yiddish language and culture courses, studies, and traditional Jewish Klezmer music festivals abound in Europe and beyond. Whether this will be enough to keep this European heritage alive and what might be the EU's role in bringing this once vibrant European culture back to life remains to be seen.