A Citizen of Yiddishland

Dovid Sfard and the Jewish Communist Milieu in Poland

by Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov (Author) Ri J. Turner (Revision)
©2020 Monographs 372 Pages
Open Access


This pioneering study shows what brought Yiddish-speaking Jewish intelligentsia to the Communist movement in the interwar years. They believed that Communism is not only a way to solve the Jewish problem but also to save the Yiddish culture. Biography of the central protagonist of the book, a Yiddish writer Dovid (David) Sfard, is just a pretext to show a full range of Jewish Communist activists (such as Hersh Smolar, Bernard Mark, Szymon Zachariasz, etc.) and their life choices. This relatively small milieu influenced and controlled the Jewish life in post-war Poland until the anti-Semitic campaign of 1968. Their lives, reconstructed thanks to sources in several languages, make up a panorama of Jewish Communist experience in 20th-century Eastern Europe.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Dedication
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: In a Closed Circle (1903–1931)
  • The Jewish Problem in Tsarist Russia
  • Learning One’s Own Mother Tongue
  • The Earliest Years
  • God Abandoned My Old World
  • Like a Whirlwind, Like a Stream of Lava
  • Between Socialism and Zionism
  • The Central Address for the Provinces
  • A Week Without Sociocultural Activity
  • Chapter Two: Winning over Jewish Hearts and Minds (1932–1939)
  • Unknown Warsaw
  • In the World of Tomorrow
  • Those to Whom the Future Belongs
  • Everything Appeared So Simple
  • Reason for Fingerprinting: Communism
  • When is One of You Going to Prison?
  • Who Could Have Told Them Not to Come?
  • We are Adherents of the Comintern
  • Chapter Three: “Liberated Brother Writers” (1939–1941)
  • Fleeing Toward a Myth
  • Articles That They Themselves Would Not Have Endorsed
  • Writers Have it Good Here
  • Chapter Four: “Druzhba evreiskih narodov”—Friendship of the Jewish Peoples (1941–1946)
  • They Don’t Like Anything Soviet
  • Writing Tomorrow’s Poems
  • In the Footsteps of Berek Joselewicz and Ber Meisels
  • We Can’t Place a Militiaman Next to Every Jew
  • Just Wait a Little Longer
  • Chapter Five: “There Is No ‘Jewish Problem,’ There Are Only Jewish Problems” (1946–1949)
  • How Do Jews in Poland Spend Their Time These Days?
  • The Entire Jewish Population Has Abandoned the City
  • Let’s Hope Things Can Be Different in Poland
  • I Want to Work Among Jews
  • The Palestinian Illusion Becomes Reality
  • Cocreators of the Process of Jewish Culture
  • Without Culture, There Is No Socialism
  • Chapter Six: “A Model Solution to the Jewish Problem” (1950–1959)
  • The Nose of Polish Stalinism
  • None of Us Believed, But Many Pretended
  • We Have Yiddish Writers of Various Genres
  • Concrete Acts of Creativity
  • A Strange Spring
  • In Jewish Matters, We Are Always More Catholic Than the Pope
  • We Have to Let Somebody Go Too
  • Pessimism and Disappointment
  • What Did Sholem Aleichem Do Wrong?
  • Code Name: “Milieu”
  • And a Communist to Boot!
  • Chapter Seven : The Paths Diverge (1960–1969)
  • Written Down in a Yiddish Poem
  • The Red ONR
  • We Take Our Example from You
  • As Young as Dorian Gray
  • Jews in Poland Are Part of the Jewish People
  • An Ignominious End to Beautiful Work
  • Who Knows What a Zionist Looks Like?
  • A Zionist, but a Decent One
  • Postscript
  • Abbreviations
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names


A knowledge of the history of Polish Jews allows us to trace the possible life paths of a man born at the beginning of the twentieth century on Polish soil in a traditional Jewish family—assuming that our hero survived World War II. He could have chosen Zionism—the idea of rebuilding a Jewish state in Palestine. The consequence of this choice might have been emigration to Palestine before the war or after it. He could have chosen to assimilate to a lesser or greater degree into Polish culture, perhaps rejecting his own Jewish roots in the process. He could have signed onto the Jewish version of socialism, i.e., the Bund, the most powerful Jewish party in prewar Poland, and during the war, experienced the end of the worldview represented by the Bund. He could have chosen communism for its promise of internationalism, of a world not divided into Jews and non-Jews, a world offering an escape from one’s own Jewishness—and if he had not been in the Soviet Union during the purges of the 1930s, he would have had the chance to spend the war there and then return to Poland as an enthusiastic builder of the new order. Finally, he could have chosen that same communism—but for its promise of a world in which Jews would exist side-by-side with non-Jews, possessing the same rights and privileges; a world in which there would no longer be pogroms, and the Yiddish language would lose its stigma as a contemptible “zhargon” (jargon); a world in which Jews would not have to give up the right to be Jews.

The group that chose the last option was not large—either before the war or after 1945. Yet it had an influence on the Jewish community in Poland that belied its numbers; after the war, it offered Polish Jews a new framework that offered a measure of stability throughout the decades, even despite the successive waves of emigration, including the final one in March 1968. The members of this group considered themselves Communists—that much is clear. Most of them were active before the war in the Communist Party of Poland (KPP), the Communist Party of Western Ukraine (KPZU) or the Communist Party of Western Belarus (KPZB) and survived the war thanks to their flight to the Soviet Union. They also—perhaps even first and foremost—considered themselves Jews. They were Jews not only by birth, but also by upbringing, education, culture, and—of course—language. They certainly cannot be described by Polish-Jewish writer Julian Stryjkowski’s oft-cited statement that a Jew who is a Communist has ceased to be a Jew.1 The members of this group never ceased to be Jews. Many of them undoubtedly never ceased to be Communists either.

The relatively few monographs published thus far about Jews in the Polish Communist movement fit into either historiography on Communism, historiography on the Jewish people, or finally—historiography on Poland (wherein Jewish Communism is usually treated as a foreign body). In many instances, these three subject areas have naturally meshed and complemented each other. In this book, I propose a somewhat different outlook: I will trace the story of Jewish Communism in Poland through the lens of the biography of a Jewish intellectual, Communist, sociocultural activist and Yiddish writer, and thus trace the ways it was an integral part of the history of Yiddish language and culture in Eastern Europe.

The protagonist of this book, Dovid Sfard, was one of the most highly placed Jewish Communists in the postwar years. Despite this, he is practically unknown, except to a small circle of historians of postwar Polish Jews. His long life overlapped with most of the stormy twentieth century, beginning with his birth in 1903 in Czarist Russia. He lived through the Second Polish Republic and spent time in France and the Soviet Union. Thereafter, he returned to the Polish People’s Republic, where he lived until his emigration to Israel after the antisemitic campaign of March 1968. Beyond his various state citizenships, he was above all a citizen of Yiddishland—that “chimera of a country”2 with no precise borders, in which citizenship was determined by involvement with Yiddish language and culture.

In an essay devoted to the modern function of the term “Yiddishland,” Jeffrey Shandler notes that it is a term that has long been used in Yiddish, yet cannot be found in any existing dictionary of the language.3 In common usage, the term “Yiddishland” defines an imprecise area of Eastern Europe which until 1939 was inhabited by Jews living in a traditional style and using Yiddish in their daily life. Yet it appears that Yiddishland, although native to Eastern Europe, was not so much a concrete physical place on earth, but rather a certain mentality and state of mind that could be found in many places—in prewar Warsaw and Vilna, Moscow and Paris, in postwar Dzierżoniów in Lower Silesia, and in Buenos Aires, New York and Czernowitz. Yiddishland was carried within and from place to place, as moykher-sforemnikes (book peddlers) once carried the first Yiddish books from shtetl to shtetl. Newspapers and books were the coat of arms of this physically nonexistent country. As Shandler writes, “The place where Yiddishland truly flourished during the pre-World War II era was on the printed page and in the minds of an extensive, widely scattered readership.”4 In Yiddishland, the People of the Book became the People of Books.

Yiddish writers had to reconcile their own contradictory roles: on the one hand, they served as idols, mentors and masters; on the other hand—thanks to Yiddish—their readers experienced them as nearby and intimate, like residents of the same neighborhood or small town. Yiddish books were often the force that pushed youth onto the path of progress, departure from tradition or even apostasy. However, in the 1920s, the choice of Yiddish as the language of creative expression was not necessarily self-evident. In comparison to many other European literatures, Yiddish literature was still taking its first steps. Until 1915, all three classic Yiddish writers of the first generation—Sholem Aleichem, Yitskhok Leybush Peretz and Mendele Moykher Sforim—were still alive. The tradition of Yiddish creativity was very fresh. Deciding to write in “zhargon” meant trespassing on territory traditionally reserved for Hebrew. It is thus no coincidence that most twentieth-century Yiddish writers took their first literary steps in Hebrew.

The same was true for Dovid Sfard: He had to make a conscious choice in order to identify Yiddish, the language of home and family, as the language in which he would write and conduct his sociocultural activities. He appears to have made this decision in the early 1930s. After graduating from a Polish-language gymnasium in Lutsk and from the Polish Free University (Wolna Wszechnica Polska) in Warsaw, he completed a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Nancy. When he returned to Poland from France, he did not assimilate. He did not attempt to write in Polish—at least, nothing is known of such an attempt. He returned to Yiddishland and remained there. Until the end of his life, he wrote exclusively in Yiddish, which was far from usual among leftist writers of Jewish origin: Stanisław Wygodzki and Arnold Słucki wrote their best poems in Polish. Yet on the other hand, Sfard, as far as I know, never defined himself as a Yiddishist, i.e., one who views the development of Yiddish language and literature as ideologically desirable. Yiddishist ideology was, after all, rejected by Jewish Communists as a manifestation of Jewish nationalism.

The development of Yiddish literature in the twentieth century and its full entrance into the creative sphere, the shift from the stigmatization of Yiddish as a contemptible “zhargon” that was little more than corrupted German to its recognition as a language fully capable of serving high cultural functions, is closely connected to its role in promoting socialist and Communist ideas. This role was mutually beneficial: both Communists and the Bund appealed to Yiddish culture as the joint cultural foundation of Eastern European Jews in general and the Jewish working class in particular; in return, the Communist state (the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s; the Polish People’s Republic after the war) supported Yiddish culture by financing the activity of cultural organizations, publishing periodicals and books, and giving Yiddish writers a status (at least theoretically) equal to that of writers of the dominant language. It was precisely this prospect of government patronage of Yiddish culture and a guarantee from the powers that be that the Jewish minority would have its own cultural autonomy (although the word “autonomy” was never used in this context) that appear to have been the main factors that attracted Jews who were invested in the development of Jewish culture to the Communist Party. They were not interested only in gaining equal rights as individual citizens; rather, they sought an opportunity to continue living a communal Jewish life—with a Jewish school system, press, literature and a rich array of Jewish cultural institutions. Yiddish was the key element of the political conception known as “Nusekh Poyln” (the Polish Way), which was developed by Jewish Communists in Poland.

How realistic was this vision of Yiddishland? Or rather: was it not a vision based on a utopian assumption? It appears that since they were living in a strictly Jewish environment, the Communists never fully realized how mighty assimilation was; that it was inevitable in a country that officially offered equal rights; that there was thus no need to remain in what many perceived as a mental and linguistic ghetto. This was not only true of the postwar Polish Jewish community, its numbers devastated by the Holocaust and emigration, but also of the several million Soviet Jews, among whom rapid linguistic and cultural assimilation had been observed even before the war. Why speak and write in Yiddish when speaking and writing in Polish or Russian would make it possible to reach much broader masses? Did Yiddish culture have any hope of remaining a basic determinant of Jewish identity in a utopian Communist world? The experiences of the first postwar generation—the children of the Communist leaders and activists of the Socio-Cultural Association of Jews in Poland (TSKŻ)—showed that although it was possible to speak of an enduring Jewish community in Poland, Yiddish culture would no longer be a determinant of the identity of a younger generation that functioned almost exclusively in Polish, and for whom the defining experience was the events of March 1968. For their part, the older, prewar generation, for whom multilingualism was as natural as breathing, belonged less and less to Yiddishland as time passed, and more and more—to a Yiddish Atlantis.

The Jewish Communists did not always seem to think clearly about the future of their ideal Yiddishland. Did Yiddish cultural leaders in postwar Poland realize that their children were growing up under completely different conditions, and that this meant not only that native knowledge of Yiddish, but also the heretofore customary bilingualism, had become a rarity? Did the lack of Yiddish educational programs for children and youth before 1956 (apart from several state-sponsored schools) result from a lack of experience in working with youth, or rather from an unconscious acquiescence to linguistic assimilation? It appears that only after October 1956 did TSKŻ leaders notice that their children were becoming teenagers, and that it was too late to plant in them the Yiddish language skills that would enable them to find fulfillment in a Yiddish-language environment—so much so that many of them did not even know the Yiddish alphabet.

Nevertheless, the Jewish Communists felt that in Poland, they had to a great extent attained the Jewish communal autonomy for which they had hoped. Polish literary scholar Jan Błoński once wrote that pre-partition Poland was paradise for Jews because they could live there “in greater separation than anywhere else.”5 The same can be said of the proposed Communist Yiddishland: it was to be guaranteed the protection of the state, equal rights and access to every sphere of life, and at the same time it was to be allowed to keep the cultural and linguistic distinctiveness that had evolved over the centuries. That was what the Jewish Communists expected and hoped for from the Communist authorities. Significant evidence of this is found in a letter addressed (but never sent) by the TSKŻ to the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev, in 1958. On one hand, the letter’s demands can be interpreted as proof of the extreme naïveté of its authors. On the other hand, it is also proof of their profound faith in what they saw as the only possible way to solve the “Jewish problem”: to appeal to the leader of the state which only a few years earlier had murdered the most renowned representatives of Yiddish culture—and to present Poland to him as an example of a land where Jewish schools, clubs, newspapers and publishing houses existed.

The events of March 1968 were a personal defeat for Sfard and his circle. They meant not only a return to anti-Semitic propaganda, including a de facto declaration that the Jewish Communists made up an Israel-sponsored “fifth column,” but also the institution of arduous new censorship policies that made it impossible to do any serious publishing. The emigration of most of the Polish Jewish community after 1968 caused the Jewish Communists to lose their constituency. It is no coincidence that most high-ranking TSKŻ activists also emigrated, since they no longer saw any way to pursue their work in Poland.

From a present-day perspective, it is clear that the concept of a Communist Yiddishland carried the seeds of its own defeat from the very beginning. It was not possible to establish and maintain it in a modern society, in which Yiddish was at best the language of a small, rapidly assimilating minority. Authentic Yiddish culture created by native users of the language was on the wane, not only in the countries of the Eastern Bloc, but throughout the world, in every region in which Yiddish-speaking Jews lived in large numbers. However, the perhaps predictable failure of the vision does not make the history of its evolution and attempted implementation any less interesting or worthy of study.

* * *

The central source for information about Sfard’s life is his memoir, Mit zikh un mit andere: Oytobiografye un literarishe eseyen (With Myself and With Others: Autobiography and Literary Essays), which was published in Jerusalem in 1984, three years after the author’s death, and edited by a committee made up of Yitskhok Harkavi, Yankev Gutfraynd, Avrom Bick, Prof. Gershon Winer, Prof. Regina (Riva) Dreyer-Sfard, Yosef Kerler and Efroim Siedlecki. The main force behind the publication of the memoirs was Sfard’s widow, Regina (Riva) Dreyer-Sfard, who in a letter to theater director Jakub Rotbaum wrote: “The autobiography that I published, i.e., I provided the text, was written at the invitation of Tel Aviv University right after he arrived in this country [i.e., Israel]. He considered the text unfinished and believed that it needed to be completed and reviewed. For this reason, he did not even think about publishing it as is. He mentioned names [of people] that he intended to describe as well […] without which the book was not ready to be published, but he did not live long enough. And for a few years after his death, I had no intention of publishing it. But I saw that time was flying, I was already on the verge of getting sick and I decided to publish it, because otherwise it would never be published.”6

Regina Dreyer-Sfard’s letter helps to explain the condition in which Sfard’s memoir was published. The memoir is divided into two parts: in the first, which includes the period from his early childhood until his return from the USSR in 1946, he describes events in chronological order, although with certain digressions and general reflections. This portion is relatively well-edited, but does contain some errors in the dates of various events, as well as other more serious errors; e.g., when he describes his wartime stay in Białystok, Sfard consistently calls the local Jewish newspaper Byalistoker lebn, whereas its name was actually Byalistoker shtern. The second part of the memoir, however, reads like a draft, notes for an unfinished autobiography in which the chronology is sketched very cursorily, and the author does not so much relate what happened as contemplate his state of consciousness and that of other Jewish Communists at the time. The memoirs end at the moment of the author’s expulsion from the Party in 1968 and do not include the period of his emigration to Israel.

The manner in which the memoirs were edited, as well as the fact that they were compiled posthumously, often casts doubt on the reliability of the information which they contain. Thus, they must be read in continuous consultation with other sources. From a historian’s perspective, they are also less useful due to the author’s discretion; he sometimes omits last names, especially when discussing people in TSKŻ circles.

Another source of biographical information is interviews which were conducted with Sfard on various occasions. Two of them, recorded for the Institute of Party History (Zakład Historii Partii) in 1964, are about the cultural work of the Communist Party of Poland (KPP) in the Jewish community, and copies of it are preserved in the archives of the Jewish Historical Institute (ŻIH).7 In the Oral History Division at the Institute for Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I found three interviews granted by the writer in Israel between 1972 and 1979 in which he mainly discussed the years of World War II.8 Michał Chęciński was kind enough to provide me with the text of an interview which he conducted with Sfard in 1978 on the subject of relations between TSKŻ and government authorities.9

An important source for a writer’s biography is his literary production. In Sfard’s case, this has meant five of his six volumes of poetry,10 two collections of literary criticism,11 and his only short story to appear in print,12 as well as texts published in the Yiddish press over the course of more than fifty years: poetry, prose, literary criticism and political articles. As for the latter, I primarily took an interest in his writings on the connections between culture and politics, with particular attention to those linking literature and politics. I deliberately omitted Sfard’s many texts on Yiddish theater from my corpus, since in this context, he was primarily a consumer, whereas in respect to literature he was both a consumer and a producer. This type of source permitted me to reconstruct his writerly views in various time periods—at least those views which he expressed publicly. His poems are often a poetic record of his experiences, although one must be careful to avoid overidentifying their narrator with their author.

An unusually valuable source for Sfard’s biography is his preserved correspondence. I was able to find his letters to the writers Leyb Olitsky (1963–1970),13 S.L. Shneiderman (1971–1981),14 and Chaim Sloves (1957–1980[?]),15 and to the director and painter Jakub (Yankev) Rotbaum (1971–1981)16—altogether, several dozen letters, all in Yiddish (with one exception, in Polish).

Unfortunately, I was unable to access to all of Sfard’s personal archives. When his widow moved into an eldercare home in the early 1990s, she donated his library to the National Library of Israel and his personal archives to the Research Center for East European Jewry. The Center closed sometime afterwards, and its collections are now at the disposition of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem. The only archival materials I was able to find there were letters which he received in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, mainly from the USSR and written mostly in Yiddish, with a few exceptions (in Russian). These include both work-related correspondence (involving, e.g., the publication of texts by Soviet authors in the Polish Yiddish press) and private letters.17 It is unclear what has become of the rest of the estate.

Apart from the sources mentioned above, I also used also other sources of various types, sometimes scattered and fragmentary, from archives in Poland, Russia and Israel. A full list is found in the bibliography, as is a list of the secondary sources upon which I relied for information about and analysis of the history of the Yiddish language and culture, the history of the Communist movement (especially in Poland), and Eastern European history in the twentieth century.

I would like to acknowledge the kindness of Leon Sfard, Jacob S. Dreyer, Leopold Sobel, Joseph Sobelman and Irena Wygodzka, who shared their reminiscences of Dovid Sfard with me.

* * *

This book comprises seven chapters in chronological order.18

Chapter One describes the position of Jews in Czarist Volhynia, Dovid Sfard’s childhood home, in the early twentieth century; his first contact with communist ideology during the Polish-Bolshevik War; and his studies at gymnasium, against the backdrop of the stormy early years of independent Poland. Next, I describe the beginnings of Sfard’s literary career in Yiddish in 1920s Warsaw as well as his doctoral studies in Nancy. This was the period when Sfard began to subscribe to communist ideology himself. In this chapter, in view of the scattered nature of the few archival sources which exist from the period, I must depend on Sfard’s memoirs to a great extent. Chapter Two begins with Sfard’s joining the ranks of the KPP and an analysis of the reasons why some Jews considered the KPP party program attractive. I detail Sfard’s active participation in the Warsaw Jewish literary and cultural scene in the 1930s, focusing on the milieu of the so-called left-wing writers’ group. Chapter Three covers the two years that Sfard spent in Soviet-occupied Białystok. Based on memoirs and articles from the Yiddish press of the time, I reconstruct the attitudes of the Yiddish writers there, refugees from the Nazi-occupied General Government region, including both Communists and opponents of communism. Chapter Four describes Sfard’s fate in the Soviet Union after the outbreak of German-Soviet hostilities: flight deep into the country, a long stay in Almaty, and then his activity with the Organizational Committee of Polish Jews (KOŻP) of the Union of Polish Patriots (ZPP) in Moscow, at times in collaboration with the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Chapter Five covers the initial postwar years; it portrays the cluster of Jewish Communists who were active in the Jewish Caucus of the PPR against the backdrop of the political pluralism that existed in the Jewish community at the time, and the gradual rise to power of the Communists. The turning point was 1950, when practically the only remaining body officially representing Polish Jews was the TSKŻ, run by the Jewish Communists. Chapter Six describes Sfard’s work with the TSKŻ in the 1950s, as well as the big changes in the Soviet Communist Party at the time, particularly in 1956, and their consequences for Poland and the Polish Jewish community. Here I also discuss the publishing house Yidish Bukh and the periodical Yidishe shriftn. The chapter ends with a description of Sfard’s first visit to Israel. In Chapter Seven I present Sfard’s cultural and literary activity in the 1960s, with particular attention to his attitude toward the Six-Day War and the events of March 1968. The chapter ends with Sfard’s departure for Israel with his family. The last twelve years of his life, which he spent in Israel, are presented in brief in the Postscript.

Sfard spent time in Czarist Russia, the Second Polish Republic, interwar France, the wartime Soviet Union, the Polish People’s Republic, and finally Israel. In order to reconstruct his wide-ranging life’s path, I had no choice but to rely extensively upon the good will and aid of many people. Some people should be thanked in particular: First of all, I wish to thank Leon Sfard, who spent many hours helping me draw closer to his father’s story, and who patiently answered all my oft-repetitive questions. Jacob (Jakub) S. Dreyer, Regina Dreyer-Sfard’s son from her first marriage, sent me letters containing much important information on the war years and early postwar years and also helped me to ascertain and verify some details. My mentor and PhD supervisor, the late Prof. Jerzy W. Borejsza, was always available for inspiring conversations about various matters discussed in this book, and significantly contributed to my understanding of the complexity of the topic. My friends Kalina and Sławomir Gawlas were careful readers of the first versions of the book and patient listeners to my monologues about each of the chapters. Karen Auerbach, Audrey Kichelewski and Judith Rubanovsky-Paz helped me gain access to publications unavailable in Poland. I owe Prof. Jerzy Eisler a debt of gratitude for enabling me, fourteen months after I applied for access, to finally look at a few documents at the Institute for National Remembrance (IPN). I also wish to express my gratitude to Grzegorz P. Bąbiak, Grzegorz Berendt, the late Michał Chęciński, Katarzyna Chmielewska, Agnieszka Cieślikowa, Nathan Cohen, Jan Jagielski, Natalia Krynicka, Włodzimierz Mędrzecki, Avrom Novershtern, Renata Piątkowska, Alina Skibińska, Leopold Sobel, Joseph Sobelman, Yechiel Szeintuch, the late Prof. Jerzy Tomaszewski, the late Prof. Feliks Tych and the late Irena Wygodzka, as well as the archival staff at the Jewish Historical Institute.

I began to study the Yiddish language and culture in 1993 at the State Jewish Theater in Warsaw under the direction of the late Michał Friedman; I was able to continue in New York, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem thanks to scholarships received from the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (Uriel Weinreich Summer Program in Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture), Beth Shalom Aleichem and Tel Aviv University (Tel Aviv Yiddish Summer Program), and Beth Shalom Aleichem and the Hebrew University (The Fourth International Advanced Seminar in Yiddish Studies). The Tadeusz Manteuffel Institute of History of the Polish Academy of Sciences, where I have been privileged to work since 2007, made it possible for me to travel to Israel and Russia to conduct on-site research without which it would have been impossible to write this book.

The last person I would like to mention here, my friend Danuta Wawiłow, unfortunately did not live to see this book published; yet she had a significant hand in it. It was she, many years ago, who handed me a volume of Itsik Manger’s poetry and then persuaded me to attend my first Yiddish language class. This opened the door for me to a world that I never could have imagined. May her memory be for a blessing.

* * *

This book, based on a PhD dissertation which I defended at the Tadeusz Manteuffel Institute of History in the Polish Academy of Sciences, was originally published in Polish in 2009. Since its initial publication, many new studies have appeared in both Polish and English. Wherever possible, I have added references to new research in footnotes, but overall, this monograph presents the state of the field as it stood in 2009.

YIVO transliteration of Yiddish names, words and titles is used throughout this book, with occasional exceptions due to the multilingual context in which the protagonists of this book lived and worked. For names which are in widespread use in English (Sholem Aleichem, for example), I use the standard English spelling for their names; for figures who were primarily active in the Yiddish milieu, I write their names in YIVO transliteration; for other figures I employ the standard Polish spellings of their names. In quotations from archival materials, I standardize the spelling of Dovid Sfard’s name (which often appears in the sources as Swart or Sward).

Last but not least, I wish to thank my translator, Dr. Paul (Hershl) Glasser and my copyeditor, Ri J. Turner. No author produces a book alone, let alone a book translated from one language (Polish) into another (English) with a third present at all times in the background (Yiddish). I was very lucky to work with people who were able to move smoothly between all three language systems. This book is theirs as much as it is mine.

1 Ocalony na Wschodzie. Z Julianem Stryjkowskim rozmawia Piotr Szewc, Montricher 1991, p. 48.

2 Z. Segalowitch, Tlomatske 13: Fun farbrentn nekhtn, Buenos Aires 1946, p. 33.

3 J. Shandler, “Imagining Yiddishland: Language, Place and Memory,” History and Memory, vol. 15, 2003, no. 1, pp. 123–149, here p. 125. Recently, new research on this term has been conducted by Efrat Gal-Ed, who presented some of her findings at the international conference “Jiddisches Europa/Thinking Europe in Yiddish,” held in June 2018 at the Heinrich-Heine-Universität in Dūsseldorf.

4 Ibid., p. 132.

5 J. Błoński, “Polish-Catholics and Catholic-Poles: The Gospel, National Interest, Civic Solidarity, and the Destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto,” Yad Vashem Studies 25 (1996), p. 195.

6 Letter from Regina Dreyer-Sfard dated June 19, 1987, Archive of the Jewish Historical Institute (henceforth: AŻIH), Papers of Jakub Rotbaum, file no. 962.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2020 (February)
Jews Yiddish language and culture Socio-Cultural Association of Jews in Poland (TSKZ) Eastern Europe Soviet Union
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 372 pp.

Biographical notes

Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov (Author) Ri J. Turner (Revision)

Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov is an associate professor at the Tadeusz Manteuffel Institute of History in the Polish Academy of Sciences. Her research interests include history of East European Jewry in the 19th and 20th centuries, Polish-Jewish relations and history of Yiddish culture. She is a cofounder of the Polish Association of Yiddish Studies.


Title: A Citizen of Yiddishland
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374 pages