• Rishon

Yiddish Historian Jack Berger Connects with Descendants of Belica Shtetl

The following message was written by Jack:

Folks, Most of you know that for nearly thirty years (yes, that right…) I have devoted a significant portion of my time and energies to the translation of Holocaust Memorial Books from (mostly) Yiddish and (some) Hebrew into English. I undertook this work as a result of observing the senescence of the Yiddish language, and an increasing level of difficulty for interested individuals to read and learn about the experiences of those wishing to leave a written legacy and  memorial behind, so we do not forget this greatest calamity to befall human civilization since time immemorial. My interest was catalyzed by such a book prepared for the shtetl of Zelva (today in Belarus) which is where my maternal ancestral roots are to be found.  Subsequent to the task of translating that book into English, I “made the rounds” of a number of memorialized Jewish communities to which members of my family traced their origins. By 2010, I had run that course with seven (7) such books under my belt. Also, by this time, Steven Spielberg had made a generous donation of $5MM to the DOROT Division of the NY Public Library, to digitize the entire 1,723 volume archive of such books. Having this archive available online meant I no longer had to go hunting for hard copies (which are not easy to procure), but could translate online. I then was faced with a question: what should I do next?  I was unsure, but thanks to the Spielberg-funded archive, I could “surf the territory” to see what I might find interesting. In this process, I came across the Yizkor Book for a shtetl named Belica (pronounced Belitsa) which also happened to be in Belarus. The book was substantive, but I was taken aback to learn, by reading the editor’s foreword, that there were no more than 150 Jewish families that resided there prior to WW II. I was greatly moved, because I knew there must have been substantial casualties as a result of the Holocaust, and yet enough people survived to join together and prepare a truly respectable tribute to their shtetl’s Jewish community. I decided to translate the Belica Yizkor Book, out of respect for those survivors who made the effort to create it in the first place, and I published in in 2010. There is no good infrastructure for finding people by their Old World ancestry. I was also skeptical of how many could have survived into the present, and would they even care. Well, as most of you know, I work with a wonderful publisher who only asks for a minimum run of 100 books. By this time, I knew I could count on supporters to underwrite 70-75 of these books, but absent any landsleit, I was concerned about how to sensibly allocate and dispose of 25-30 books. Ruefully, after the dust cleared, and books distributed to supporters and suitable Judaica institutions, I was left with a 30 book inventory.  I was not about to stop my work because of this, so I simply archived the books and hoped for the best. EIGHT YEARS went by, during which I published six more books, when like a bolt out of the blue, I received this e-mail last June:

I told some of you about this, and  -- yes – Beverly got her 5-10 books (and subsequently another 10). But what was really fascinating, was to discover a WHOLE FAMILY descended in the United States from immigrants and survivors who were amazingly interested in this endeavor. To make a long story even longer, Beverly then arranged for a “family get-together” where I was invited to speak about “why I am doing this.” She expected to get about two dozen people together, and 43 showed up yesterday at a cousin’s home out on Long Island. I cannot describe the satisfaction everyone felt about this. The rest of my inventory vanished into the eager hands of participants that Beverly had not previously provided for.


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