All Yiddish speakers can understand each other

Yiddish, a language without a country

Everyone knows individual words: If we need to "balance out", "malochen", "moss" or are in a "mess", we use terms from Yiddish. But only for a few today is Yiddish the language of choice to cope with everyday life. At the beginning of the 20th century things looked different: it is estimated that around eleven million people spoke Yiddish, mostly in Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.

"Yiddish is a language without a country," says the Trier Yiddish professor Simon Neuberg. Charged with memories and rich in literature, Yiddish has a very small community of speakers. It is believed that 100,000 to a million people worldwide still speak Yiddish today, who "are typically very dispersed and isolated - except when they live in ultra-Orthodox communities," says Neuberg. Such religious communities can be found in New York, Jerusalem, London and Antwerp.

There is evidence that Jews have lived in what is now Germany for 1,700 years. This is where the old colloquial language of the Ashkenazi Jews originated in the Middle Ages on the basis of Middle High German. Even today, numerous words in modern Yiddish sound similar to German. And this despite the fact that from the 14th century many Jews resettled in the course of persecution in Poland and Eastern Europe and incorporated Slavic words and sentence structures into the language there.

Yiddish as "feeling"

When Majer Szanckower hears Yiddish, "his heart opens", as he says. His parents fled Poland in 1946 after pogroms. A few months later he was born in Berlin. From 1951 to 1957 the family lived in a camp for so-called displaced persons in Föhrenwald in Bavaria. After the war, such camps housed thousands of people who no longer had a home, such as former forced laborers, concentration camp prisoners and Jews.

"We only spoke Yiddish there, on the street, at home, with friends," recalls the 74-year-old. Yiddish is his mother tongue. The family later moved to Frankfurt, where Szanckower still lives today and manages the Jewish cemeteries. From his office in Frankfurt's Jewish community, he talks in a video call about Föhrenwald, friends from back then, with whom he is in contact to this day, and how happy he is to be able to speak Yiddish with them.

Szanckower holds Yiddish books, songs and poems that he has collected over the years in the camera of his computer. Here and there he reads a paragraph. "As a German speaker, you understand that, don't you?" He asks when reading a newspaper clipping. Another text contains numerous English and yet another Polish terms that were introduced into the language by Jews in America or Eastern Europe.

Yiddist Neuberg has conquered the language itself. He grew up in a small village on the west coast of France and stumbled upon Yiddish by chance when he was twelve. He hadn't heard it before, didn't know a speaker; so he learned the language from books and practiced pronunciation with recordings of folk songs. Today he speaks it to his daughters every day.

How Yiddish almost completely disappeared

After the Holocaust at the latest, Yiddish had a difficult time. Some Jews saw it as the language of the oppressed Jews - and therefore rejected it. Israel, for example, made a conscious decision to use modern Hebrew as the official language, as a sign of a fresh start.

Others struggled emotionally with the language. Some Jews survived the Nazi persecution in hiding. "You have experienced that it is extremely dangerous to be recognizable as a Jew" - for example through language, says Neuberg.

He reports of people who had internalized this pressure so much that they could no longer utter a word in Yiddish. Still others heard their parents or grandparents speak Yiddish as children and decades later tried to build on roots and learn the language.

Language renaissance and new offers

Today universities and cultural institutes offer language courses. Video calls and online discussion boards help the few speakers to network around the world. Yiddish texts and voice recordings can be found on the Internet. And sometimes even contemporary books like "Harry Potter" are translated into Yiddish. In addition, series like "Unorthodox" or "Shtisel", in which Yiddish is spoken, reach a large audience via Netflix.

Neuberg speaks of a remarkable development. Much more people now know something about Yiddish than they did a few years ago. In addition, many younger people discovered the language of their ancestors for themselves.

And yet: "The world in which Yiddish was spoken and lived no longer exists," says Szanckower. Learning the language today is not the same as learning French or Arabic. "You can't just go to a pub abroad and get started."

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