Of Place and Memory:

The Yizkor Memorial Book as a Window Into a World Destroyed

"Our Kolno was an ordinary small town, one of hundreds like it, which existed in Poland and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust overcame the Jewish world, during the Second World War. But to us, born there, having spent our childhood and youth there, Kolno remains the one and only, the unique town, and no other town and city – however big or beautiful, could ever take its place."
Herschel Kolinsky, "Our Kolno," Sefer zikaron li-ḳehilat Kolna, 13

“The Yadov Book: in memory of the destroyed community” (frontispiece). Sefer Yadov; Yadov-buk [The Book of Jadow]. Ed.A. Wolf Yassni. Jerusalem: Entsiḳlopediyah shel geluyot, [1966]. Yiddish; introd. also in Hebrew.

Modern-day Americans who know the word “shtetl” tend to associate it with the nostalgic idea of a small town somewhere in an Eastern European backwater, à la “Fiddler on the Roof.” But shtetlekh, market towns where Jews lived for centuries and often made up the bulk of the population, were very real places, especially to those who called them home. This exhibit explores a literary genre dedicated to memorializing the shtetlekh and other Jewish communities destroyed in the Shoah (Holocaust): the Yizkor book (Yizker-bukh in Yiddish; Sefer yizkor in Hebrew), or memorial book.

“Map of the shtetl.” Sefer Yadov; Yadov-buk [The Book of Jadow].

The Yizkor book has deep roots in Jewish tradition. Medieval German Jews, for example, created Memorbücher to memorialize prominent community members. But the utter destruction of the Holocaust, which wiped entire families and communities off of the face of the earth without a trace, transformed the act of remembering into something like a holy obligation for those who had emigrated before the war, and for those few who survived the devastation.

The Jews in Europe on the Eve of World War II. From Evyatar Friesel, Atlas of Modern Jewish History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

In the 1950s and 1960s, natives of shtetlekh—and, in some cases, large towns and cities—across eastern and southeastern Europe set about to document their lost homes. Survivors’ organizations and landsmanshaftn (immigrants’ societies) in Israel, the United States, and elsewhere solicited histories, personal recollections, and eyewitness testimonies from anyone willing to put pen to paper. The books also recorded the names of the dead. The result, some 750 volumes printed in small quantities, are a testament to the diversity and vitality of a Jewish culture and way of life that was annihilated by the Nazis and their collaborators.

“The Courtyard of the Synagogue in ‘Old-Town.’” Ciechanowiec; mehoz Bialystok, sefer edut ve-zikaron [Ciechanoviec-Bialystok district; memorial and records]. Ed. E. Leoni. [Tel Aviv]: The Ciechanovitzer Immigrant Assoc. in Israel and the USA, [1964]. Hebrew, English, and Yiddish.

Portland State University Library holds one of the largest collections of Yizkor Books in the western United States, as well as an extremely rare Haggadah created by survivors in a Displaced Persons camp immediately after the end of World War II.