Florette Lynn holds English and Yiddish copies of These We Remember, the Yizkor book memorializing her mother’s shtetl.
Photo by Mark Adams
January 1, 2009
For the past nine years, Florette Lynn has been working intensely on a project connecting her family’s past with the present.
From her home in Westwood, she obtained and translated a memorial book written in Yiddish that chronicles the daily lives of residents of Ivenets, a Belarus shtetl that was her mother’s birthplace.
Lynn hopes her efforts will provide invaluable links with a Jewish history that dates back for generations.
So, too, does Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council of MetroWest.
Wind said she plans to incorporate the Yizkor book in the council’s next annual Holocaust “From Memory to History” exhibit, which will run from Jan. 27 to March 12 at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany.
“The word ‘yizkor’ means memory,” said Lynn, “and the Yizkor books memorialize the shtetls, the culture, the people, the world that were destroyed during the Holocaust. We don’t know where some of them were buried or where they were killed, so these books are their only tombstone.”
Scholars estimated there were some 800 such volumes, recording first-person histories of Jewish life in many Eastern European towns and villages. The earliest ones date back to the Crusades of the 11th and 12th centuries.
More contemporary Yizkor books were compiled during the 1800s and were updated by survivors in the years after World War II as a tribute to their former homes and slain friends and neighbors.
Those who wrote or told their own stories did so “because they were memorializing their lives so that their children and grandchildren would know what their lives were like, what Jewish life was like, in Eastern Europe, because it was all destroyed,” said Lynn.
“The stories trace the history of the Jews in the shtetl. How did they get there? Where did they come from? What did they do for a living? They move chronologically through history. Politically, they belonged to various organizations — the Orthodox, the Bund, various Zionist and non-Zionist organizations.”
‘A very rich time’
The Yizkor book Lynn translated painstakingly from Yiddish into English has entries from the Ivanets shtetl dating back to more than 200 years and covering the years between the two world wars.
The town, which still exists, is some 30 miles from Minsk, the current capital of what is now Belarus.
“There was a lot going on before World War II — political ferment, intellectual ferment; there were magazines and books and newspapers. It was a very rich time,” said Lynn.
Her connection to the community is personal. Her mother, Mirke Osherovits, grew up in Ivanets, then left by herself in 1911 at the age of 17 to come to New York. Her mother would later try to bring her relatives over, but they never came. They last made contact in 1940.
“None of her family survived,” said Lynn, “They all were slaughtered.”
Lynn learned of the existence of an Ivanets Yizkor book while she was doing genealogical research. After she viewed a copy in Teaneck, she was determined.
“I had to translate that book,” she said.
She searched the Internet and found a copy on sale at a bookstore in Israel. The New York Public Library, which has a collection of Yizkor books, also has a version of the Ivenets text on-line (yizkor.nypl.org/index.php? id=2234).
Lynn purchased the book for $90. “I started translating it, word for word,” a task, she said, that was “tough.”
Wind marveled at Lynn’s effort.
“It is a Herculean task. It is not just knowing Yiddish. It is not just knowing Hebrew. You have to know the culture, the background, and it is an immense job.”
“I tried very hard to capture the literary quality as well,” said Lynn. “I didn’t want to just make it ‘he said, she said,’ and I didn’t want to translate it as Catskills Mountain Yiddish. I can hear the music of the language, and I wanted to put that into English.”
She said many survivors who compiled the text had to spend years rebuilding their lives after World War II before they could write or speak about their bitter and bittersweet memories.
“It took a certain amount of years before they could rip themselves open,” said Lynn. Her own mother apparently had no knowledge of the book and resisted talking about her shtetl past.
In the years after the concentration camps were liberated, Wind said, many survivors found their grim experiences were met with disbelief, even among fellow Jews in the United States and Israel.
“They didn’t want to hear about it, or they would say, ‘Don’t look back; look forward.’ They and many of the soldiers who liberated the camps were told, ‘Don’t talk about it. Don’t think about it. Forget about it.’”
Many never told their stories until their grandchildren asked, “What happened?”
“That was very hurtful to the survivors,” said Wind. “Not only were they denied the opportunity to have the catharsis of speaking about it, many were told, ‘Well, if you survived, you must have stolen or prostituted yourself or done horrible things.’ They knew they could not speak about it except with someone else who had endured it.”
But now, with pre- and post-Holocaust memories recorded from her mother’s hometown and accessible in English, Lynn said she hopes her Yizkor book will educate new generations.
Her objective is that the book be used as a sourcebook to teach in Holocaust studies in colleges and high schools. “My next mission is to bring it out into the world. I don’t want it sitting on a shelf.”