Publication of Archival Library and Museum Materials
Publication of Archival Library and Museum Materials
Publication of Archival Library and Museum Materials

Florida Atlantic University Library

The Yiddish Children's Collection

About The Collection

Yiddish was the primary language of Eastern European Jews until the mid-20th century. A hybrid language based on medieval German grammar written with the Hebrew alphabet, it evolved by adopting vocabulary from Semitic, Romance, Slavic and even Anglo-Saxon languages as the Jews wandered throughout the Middle East and Europe. Throughout most of European history, Jews lived in highly insular, segregated communities. In largely rural Eastern Europe, Jews lived in shtetls (the Yiddish term for villages) that dotted the landscape, often making up the majority of the population. Jews also lived in major cities constituting between ten and thirty percent of the urban population. The vibrant culture of the Jewish cities and the traditional piety of the were destroyed by the Nazis when the Jews were herded off to mass executions, slave labor and near-certain death in concentration camps.

One of the more common features of shtetl life was the mokhr-sforim, or book peddler, who traveled from shtetl to shtetl selling their wares, including highly treasured children’s books. These small children's books, occasionally with more than one story per volume, are a part of the Special Collections at the Florida Atlantic University Libraries located in the Special Collections Department at the S. E. Wimberly Library. The variety of books, some originally composed in Yiddish and others translated from a surprisingly wide variety of languages into Yiddish, housed in this collection offer scholars many avenues of exploration.

Books in Yiddish were often very inexpensive and made with inferior material, highly acidic pages along with substandard ink and glue, that was not conducive to a long life. The covers and endpapers were made with beautiful marbled paper of a somewhat better quality. Line art engravings are included in nearly all of the books. The original quality of the books and their present condition make them excellent candidates for digitization.

Eastern European Jews began to immigrate to the United States in the 1880s and, in fewer numbers, to South America as well, taking with them their books, artifacts, and unique language. Unlike their experience in Eastern Europe, these Jews found the fluid culture of North and South American more willing to accept them. An example of changes in Jewish lifestyle in the Americas was the demise of the Jewish clubs in Buenos Aries, Argentina. These clubs which included, but were not limited to, libraries, recreation areas, and dining were very popular until the Jews had assimilated into the general culture of Argentina.

Mark Swiatlo (1915 -2003) was very active with the development of Florida Atlantic yiddish children's collection book graphicUniversities Libraries’ Judaica Collection at the S. E. Wimberly Library. After the ending of World War II, Mark emigrated from Poland to Argentina where he made his living as a Hebrew teacher. He knew that thousands upon thousands of Yiddish books were available in the Yiddish clubs of Buenos Aries, and wanted to bring them to the Judaica Collection. With underwriting by Jean Weisser, the daughter of Joseph and Mary Savetsky, Mark was able to bring thousands of Yiddish, Hebrew, and European language books back to the Judaica Collection at the S. E. Wimberly Library. The stamps from the Jewish Club’s Libraries are clearly visible on most of these books. The books in Yiddish became a part of the Savetsky Yiddish Resources Collection. Among these books were the treasures of Yiddish children’s books now being presented by Publication of Archival, Library & Museum Materials (PALMM).

It is important to keep in mind that in the 19th and into the early years of the 20th centuries, some publishers routinely printed books without paying royalties. Therefore, copyright compliance is a dubious issue with the Yiddish children’s books. Included with the questionable publications are the line art engravings. The die for the engravings may have come from the same common source as the type or they may have come from other sources outside the Jewish communities. The conclusion, albeit unsubstantiated, that the dies may have come from the general Hebrew letters type is that many of these books have line art engravings that have no relation to the story. A case in point that some of the dies may have come from outside the common source Yiddish type is Uncle Tom with its line art engravings of the story’s black characters. It can be assumed that the average publisher of Yiddish stories would not have these dies in his type drawer.

A related scholarly question is the nature and extent of the working relations between Jewish and Gentile printers: did they share dies with one another, did Yiddish publishers also publish in the language of the land, and to what degree do the Yiddish translations reflect the original? Besides their obvious intrinsic value, these children’s books hold the key to understanding much about the social and economic realities of book publishing in South America and Europe.

yiddish children's collection book graphicThe stories that a culture passes down from one generation to another conveys the values, ethics, and boundaries of that culture. Along with stories by Yiddish authors, the otherwise isolated shtetls circulated children’s stories about American slavery, British imperialism, and European fairy tales. One may want to ask how these stories played into shtetl culture. This line of inquiry may possibly include aspects such as the common psychological implications between the segregated Jews of Eastern Europe and of other segregated minorities such as African-American slaves and subjects of the crown in “conquered” non-European lands. Moreover, research on the translation of the stories is also of significant value. How true are the translations to the original non-Yiddish text? What do the editorial decisions made by the translator say about the way in which a minority group perceived the world around them? Did the stories reinforce the status quo, ignore the status quo, or rebel against it? Furthermore, it may be helpful to know how many publishers published the same story, and were the line art engravings similar, were the versions similar or not, how many versions were there of a story or condensing of an adult story turned into a juvenile story?

It is the venue of scholars to compare and contrast, to inquire and learn, to substantiate or refute, and to teach others of their discoveries. The Yiddish children’s books are not only charming objects they are interesting research items for scholars to draw between the original and Yiddish translation, thereby expounding different conclusions across academic disciplines. It is for this purpose and the pleasure of once again bringing these books to light that the FAU Libraries is pleased to work with PALMM in creating digital rendition of the Yiddish children’s books.