My PhD dissertation, A Mention to Those not Mentioned: Yizkor Books and Holocaust Memory 1943–2008, is about the so-called Yizkor books and the people who produced them. Yizkor books are a special kind of memorial literature, published to commemorate Jewish communities destroyed in the Holocaust and themselves being the result of communal activity. These two points distinguish the books from other forms of Holocaust commemoration and literature, such as memoirs written by survivors. Around 1,300 books have been published to date, according to Yad Vashem in Israel. Despite the volume of publications, the books are an area of Holocaust commemoration that has gone mostly untouched by the scholarly community.

As this is historical research, an important part of it is tracking change over time in the publication places and languages of the books and in the type of publishers. It is the largest research of its kind to date, including 613 books.

One focus of the research was on the books themselves. The first Yizkor book was published in the US, in 1943, by an organization of descendants from the city of Lodz, Poland, and was entirely in Yiddish. It chronicled the catastrophe that befell the Jews of the city and the relief efforts carried out by their townsfolk in the US. The Lodz Ghetto was the last ghetto to be liquidated by the Germans and at the time of publication, it was still active.

Yizkor books reached peak numbers in the 1960s and 1970s. The last book included in my research was published in Israel in 2008. It was in Hebrew, commemorating the Jewish community of Volos, Greece. Over time, Israel became the main place of publication for the books (about 82% overall), with the US as a significant, albeit much smaller, second (around 10%). Hebrew became the main language of publication, followed by Yiddish, and a mix of both languages. Some books were published in English, but mainly since the 1980s and in smaller numbers than Hebrew and Yiddish. 

I would here like to highlight two main findings.

The first has to do with the identity of the publishers – the people who initiated and usually managed the publication process. The books were not only published by people and organizations who were descendants of the community. There are two additional types:  First, organizations that were not directly related to the community. For example, Yad Yahadut Polin, a worldwide Jewish organization founded in 1965. The organization had the explicit goal of commemorating the destroyed Jewish communities of Poland and Lithuania. More precisely, its goal was to commemorate those communities that by then had not received Yizkor books, usually because there were too few survivors to take on the task. Another new type of publisher was classes of schoolchildren in Israel, as young as twelve. Those classes answered the call of Gideon Hausner, then a member of the Israeli parliament and formerly the chief prosecutor in the famous 1961–1962 Eichmann Trial. Hausner sent out a letter to schools all over Israel, and held conferences in Jerusalem, urging the publication of Yizkor books. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, classes published Yizkor books in collaboration with survivors from those communities. This phenomenon is especially interesting as the children were all born after the Holocaust, mostly in Israel, and many of them had no familial connection to the Holocaust. 

The most extensive part of the dissertation deals with memory. Here, I would like to discuss a second finding. Yizkor books generally present an idea of “universal martyrdom”, the notion that all victims of the Holocaust, regardless of the time, place, or circumstances of their death should be commemorated as martyrs. In commemorative traditions before the Holocaust, the term “martyr” was reserved specifically for those who chose death over conversion or committed acts of great heroism during a pogrom, such as diving into a fire to save a Torah book. In those previous traditions, only those martyrs, as well as important figures such as rabbis, were worthy of text commemoration. Other victims of catastrophe were only given a line in the necrology within the commemorative book of the community, the pinkas. We can see similar ideas in the commemoration of Holocaust victims in Israel and the US, where the emphasis has often been on heroism and armed resistance while maintaining that many victims went “as lambs to the slaughter”.

Contrary to those traditions, Yizkor books present a universally inclusive approach to the commemoration of the victims of the Holocaust. Many amcha, the so-called “simple people” of society, received long texts commemorating them even if their lives or actions were not special. Many books also include texts which explicitly call for the commemoration of groups that were sometimes seen as “problematic” by the general public. For example, the ultra-orthodox who did not take up arms, Jews who converted to Christianity to survive, or women who were sexually exploited by German officers. These people, alongside all other victims of the Holocaust, were commonly called martyrs in Yizkor books and seen as having value in being human beings who suffered, and not in their actions.

There is still much research to be done on Yizkor books in general, and many books are left unexamined. There are also many projects of translating Yizkor books into English in recent years, which is a fascinating phenomenon. My dissertation is the first step into a wide and fascinating field of knowledge.

Lior Becker, PhD in history from Uppsala University.


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