LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The preservation of Yiddish as a spoken language gets a lot of attention, but it once also had a vibrant written tradition - plays, poetry and novels all were published in Yiddish until the time of the Holocaust. A great deal of these works can be found at the National Yiddish Book Center in Western Massachusetts. Jon Kalish reports.
JON KALISH, BYLINE: The National Yiddish Book Center was founded by Aaron Lansky, who began his efforts to save Yiddish books in 1980 while enrolled in a Jewish studies program at McGill University in Montreal.
AARON LANSKY: I started putting up notices in the Jewish delicatessen and laundromats in the Jewish neighborhoods, you know, that I'm a young grad student, I'm looking for books.
KALISH: Lansky was surprised to learn that the offspring of Yiddish speaking immigrants were throwing out large quantities of old books.
LANSKY: I'm racing around the city on a bicycle and the piles in my apartment are getting higher and higher. And my teacher came over one night and we started going through these piles and we realized, oh, my God, these are some of the greatest treasures of the Jewish people and they're just here for the taking.
KALISH: Large numbers of Yiddish books were first published in the 1500s. They were mostly aimed at women and poorly educated men who couldn't read Hebrew. In the late 1800s, there was an explosion in Yiddish publishing. Lansky says that in addition to translations of Tolstoy and Shakespeare, there were political tracts, science texts and fairy tales translated into Yiddish. There were also short stories and novels by writers such as Sholom Alechim and S. Ansky making up the Yiddish cannon.
LANSKY: It embraces all the great themes of all modern literature - the conflict between the individual and the collective, power and powerlessness, sexual awakening, I mean, struggles for social justice, war and peace. There's very little that you won't find in pages of Yiddish literature.
KALISH: The National Yiddish Book Center's headquarters is located on the campus of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. It is a light and airy structure that recalls a wooden synagogue in one of Eastern Europe's shtetles or small towns. The oldest books are stored in a climate-controlled vault on the lower level, newer books are upstairs on shelves. Books are still being published in Yiddish today in the U.S., Israel, Europe and South America. Sebastian Schulman coordinates the center's program to translate Yiddish books into English.
SEBASTIAN SCHULMAN: In Yiddish, you'd say ahrange fallen een a schmaltz grube. And that means fell into a bucket of fat - you hit the jackpot. And that's really what I felt what happened when I got into Yiddish.
KALISH: The National Yiddish Book Center pays people to translate a small number of Yiddish books each year. It has a website called Taitch where a community of 200 translators discuss the origins and meanings of Yiddish words and phrases.
SCHULMAN: We have one user who's a native speaker of Pennsylvania Dutch and really knows the sort of Germanic component of Yiddish, but he's weaker on the Slavic component of the language. And so we have users from Russia and Ukraine who chime in and say, well, this is what this means in Slavic.
KALISH: The center is also publishing books. A Holocaust memoir written by a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto will be the next release.
LANSKY: Rachel Auerbach became the only one of all the writers of the Holocaust to be able to base her memoirs on her own wartime writings.
KALISH: Auerbach was a journalist who escaped before the ghetto was liquidated. Aaron Lansky says her notes were buried for safekeeping and retrieved after the war. She used them as the basis for a two-volume memoir.
LANSKY: These are an absolute unique document that came out in Yiddish in Israel, had a very small readership and were quickly forgotten.
KALISH: Most of the center's books have been digitized, 11,000 titles are available online for free. The center says they're often downloaded by people living in religious Jewish neighborhoods, like Brooklyn, where Yiddish is still widely spoken. But many secular Jews connect with the National Yiddish Book Center as well. Every summer, there are programs for people who want to read important literary works or learn to speak Yiddish.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Yiddish).
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Speaking Yiddish).
KALISH: Twenty-five-year-old Michael Yashinsky works at the Detroit Opera House and dreams of staging a Yiddish play someday.
MICHAEL YASHINSKY: It's not just about dusty pages, it's really what can be found in those pages and making it relevant to Jews of today or to anyone today who's interested in this amazing culture that flourished in Yiddishland.
KALISH: The National Yiddish Book Center shares books with libraries around the world, including the National Library of Israel. For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish