The Yiddish term yizker-bikher (sg., yizker-bukh) has come to refer primarily to a vast body of memorial books commemorating Jewish communities destroyed in the Holocaust, primarily from prewar Poland though also throughout Eastern Europe (similar works have been created for other parts of Europe and the Mediterranean region). Survivors and émigrés from various communities that have organized landsmanshaftn (associations of Jews from the same hometowns abroad) in the United States, Israel, and elsewhere have produced many hundreds of such books, generally in Yiddish and/or Hebrew.
Yizker-bikher are commonly understood, both by scholars and community members, as substitute gravestones for martyrs who never received proper Jewish burial. The scope of the genre is unprecedented and commensurate with the Jewish disaster in the Holocaust. As a creative response to catastrophe, however, the books have a long pedigree in Jewish literature. The Book of Lamentations (recited annually on Tish‘ah be-Av) might be the progenitor of the Jewish literature of disaster. Massacres in Germany during the Crusades are recorded in Memorbücher of Ashkenazic Jewry. Closer to our time, Natan Note Hannover commemorated the victims of the seventeenth-century Khmel’nyts’kyi massacres in his work Yeven metsulah (The Abyss of Despair; 1653). The disruption of East European Jewish life during World War I was so great that it resulted in works such as A. S. Zaks’s Khoreve veltn (Ruined Worlds; 1917). Pogroms during the Russian Civil War in the early 1920s led to the first twentieth-century memorial book, Khurbn Proskurov (Destruction of Proskurov; 1924). The classic image of the shtetl canonized in modern Yiddish literature also influenced the retrospective portrait of ruined hometowns.
The books range in format from thin, paperbound volumes produced in displaced persons camps shortly after World War II (such as Der untergang fun Zlotshev; 1947, published in Munich and printed in Yiddish that is transliterated into Latin characters) to the four large-format volumes devoted to every aspect of the history and daily life of the Jews of Slonim (Pinkes Slonim; 1962–1979, published in Tel Aviv). Sometimes guest editors were hired to review and coordinate the flood of submissions that came in from surviving townspeople. Likewise, many of the books contain substantial initial sections chronicling the history of the town’s Jewish community, often written on commission by professional historians. Central to the genre, though not found in every individual book, are lists of the names of the dead that indicate the close link between the books and the ritual of yizker that shares their name.
Books are frequently divided into pre–World War I, interwar, and Holocaust sections, but in fact they are rarely organized on a strictly chronological basis. While some deal primarily or exclusively with the period of genocide, more commonly the life of the community commands most of the space of the book. Thus, for example, of the more than 400 double-columned Hebrew and Yiddish pages constituting Sefer Horodenke (The Book of Horodenko; 1963), more than 350 describe “Horodenke before the Khurbn” (divided into sections on The City and Its Surroundings, Institutions and Organizations, and Memories and Descriptions). Forty pages on the destruction follow, and the book concludes with a list of the names of hundreds of Jews who were killed. More generally, yizker-bikher are an extraordinarily rich source for folklore, cultural traditions, and social history, especially about the early decades of the twentieth century.
Since yizker-bikher were explicitly understood by those who wrote, edited, and published them to be artifacts by and for residents of the town and their descendants, they were generally printed in small editions of several hundred to a thousand. Original copies can be difficult to obtain today. However, increasing recognition of the richness of yizker-bikher, especially as a genealogical source, has resulted both in increased use of the books and efforts to make their contents widely available. Significant, and nearly complete, collections are housed at the YIVO Institute in New York, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Some, such as Chrzanów: The Life and Destruction of a Jewish Shtetl (1989), have been translated into English and printed in new editions. In early 2004, the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, announced a campaign to raise funds for a project to make all of the yizker-bikher available through digitization and printing on demand. Also, the Jewish Genealogical Society has commissioned volunteers to translate and make available significant excerpts from many yizker-bikher on its Web site (jewishgen.org).
Jack Kugelmass and Jonathan Boyarin, trans. and eds., From a Ruined Garden: The Memorial Books of Polish Jewry (Bloomington, Ind., 1998). Hundreds of yizker-bikher are available online at http://legacy.www.nypl.org/research/chss/jws/yizkorbooks_intro.cfm.