It rose approximately 1000 years ago among the Jews in Germany. In the course of history it spread out among Ashkenazy Jews and became to be an intricate fusion of mediaeval German dialects, Hebrew and Aramaic (20%) as well as several Slavic languages. Consequently Yiddish belongs to the group of Germanic languages, however, its letters are Hebrew.
Among all Jewish languages Yiddish was geographically most widespread. It is not clear when exactly Yiddish reached Lithuania, however, the fact is that the literary version of the language, standardized at the beginning of 20th century, was accepted as "Lithuanian Yiddish", i.e. that dialect which was spoken by litvaks. At the turn of the century 99.3% of Jews in Lithuania considered Yiddish to be their mother tongue.
|Dr. Max Weinreich and the title page of his four volume "History of Yiddish Language"|
Yiddish had enormous impact on culture of Lithuanian Jews, especially during the inter-war period when a wealth of Yiddish social, cultural, scientific and educational organizations, as well as publications in this language turned Lithuania and Vilnius into a spiritual center of world Jewry. The Jewish Scientific Institute (YIVO), founded in Vilnius in 1925, was engaged in research in the fields of history, sociology, literature and folklore science in Yiddish, and it also became the founder of modern Yiddish linguistics. Max Vainraich (1894-1969), Scientific Director of YIVO, headed research in this field.
The Yiddish language and literature department, which functioned at Vilnius University in 1940-1941, was headed by another prominent linguist Noach Prilutski (1882-1941).
Yiddish literature is the richest and most diverse of all Jewish languages, with the exception of Hebrew. Among those 19th century Yiddish writers in Lithuania were prosaic Aizik Mejer Dik [1807 (1814)-1893], Jacob Dinezon (1852-1919), poet Michel Gordon (1823-1890), poet-satirist Eljakum Tsunzer (1840-1930), the founder of literary criticism in Yiddish Israel Eljashev (1873-1924), whose pen-name was Bal-Machshoves ("The Thinker").
|The cover of the book about the influence of the Lithuanian language on the Lithuanian Yiddish dialect by a famous Lithuanian lexicograph Chackelis Lemchenas; the author in his working room|
Yiddish literature flourished in the inter-war period. A group of young writers and artists Jung Vilne ("Young Vilnius") was formed in this city. It included Abraham Sutskever (born in 1913, now lives in Israel), Chajim Grade (1910-1982), Shemarja Katcherginskij (1908-1954). A famous poet Moishe Kulbak (1896-1937) also created in Vilnius. In Kaunas young writers founded the organization Mir alein ("We alone"). There was also a group associated with the almanac Vispe ("The Island"). Among Yiddish writers in Kaunas were David Umru (1910-1941), Hirsh Osherovitch (1908-1994), Jakov Josade (1911-1995) and others.
|The cover of the "Flowers of the North", an anthology of the Lithuanian Jewish prose|
WW II annihilated more than 90% of Lithuanian Jews and thus swept out from the surface of the earth the majority of Lithuanian Yiddish speakers. The Soviet regime, which already in 1940 suppressed all Hebrew activities, completely destroyed the culture of Lithuanian Jews. Today only monuments of literature bear testimony to the rich written tradition in the languages of Lithuanian Jews.
|A fragment from the poem "Vilna" by a Vilna poet Moishe Kulbak. In Yiddish.
Ch. Lemchenas. The Influence of the Lithuanian Language on Lithuanian Yiddish Dialect. Vilnius. Mintis. 1970. (in Lithuanian)
D. Katz. The Religious Prestige of the Gaon and the Secular Prestige of Lithuanian Yiddish. The Gaon of Vilnius and the Annals of Jewish Culture. Vilnius, 1999.
V. Merkys. Jewish Publishing Houses in Lithuania in 1795 - 1915 m. The proccedings of the scientific conference "Jewish Education and Science in Lithuania Before the Catastrophe". Vilnius, 1991. (in Lithuanian)
E. Zingeris. The Resources of Hebrew and Yiddish books in Lithuania. Jewish State Museum, Vilnius, 1994. (in Lithuanian)
The Flowers of the North. An anthology of Lithuanian Jewish prose. Vilnius, Vaga, 1997. (in Lithuanian)
© Jews in Lithuania, Vilnius, 1999-2000