First Published: Morning Freiheit, November 18, 1984.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Editor’s Note: The article below (abridged) was first published in Yiddish in the YKUF magazine, Yiddishe Kultur of December 1938. In this article, as in others of that period, M.J. Olgin further elaborated his views on the Yiddish language, Yiddish culture, Jewish unity against fascism and anti-Semitism, Jewish identity and assimilationism. It is evident that the ominous situation faced by the Jews in Europe in the fascist dominated countries and in the others threatened by fascism on the eve of the Second World War, greatly preoccupied Olgin’s thought in that period.
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We believe the culture of every people possesses the wonderful power of uniting, elevating and stimulating the people if this culture’s best and most progressive features are utilized.
Wherever reaction extends its power it seizes not only upon the body, the material side of the life of the people, but also upon its spirit which is expressed in the best creations of its culture.
It is the misfortune and shame of Germany that fascism in its drive to enslave and brutalize the masses of the people took to burning the best books, and with reckless effrontery chopped down the magnificent edifice of German culture.
However, where the people oppose the degenerating power of reaction they ask to quench their thirst at the living source of the people’s culture. To a greater extent this is true of the Jewish collective because it has suffered more than all the others in modern times.
Consciousness is itself a great weapon. The enemy, in order to dominate, seeks to dull, to vulgarize and degrade the people’s spirit.
Culture in its better expression is the greatest antidote to this poison of oppression. A people which has to stand up against its enemies, a people passivity. Yiddish culture and Yiddish theatre have almost never known moods that welcomed death.
Despair, sorrow, anguish were frequently depicted by our best writers, but the writers themselves never idolized those feelings. Except for a very few, all of them were always so closely linked to the masses of the people that there could never be any question where they were concerned of the death of the people. The pulse of the people’s life beats too strongly in their veins.
In his address to the World Yiddish Cultural Congress (in Paris, September, 1937) the writer of these lines warned against the so often repeated view that the Jews bring or had brought their contribution to the cultural treasure of mankind. This view, he said, “assumes as axiomatic that somewhere there is a strongbox called ’the cultural treasure of mankind’ to which each people must contribute as a justification and ransom for its right to live. Should it not make this contribution it is not worth remaining upon this earth.
“This is a basically assimilationist concept and it is as slavish as is every assimiliationist theory. Its premise is that the Jew must work for non-Jews and enrich the non-Jewish cultures in order to justify the existence of the Jews.”
It was indicated in that address that though the Jews do not reject having cultural ties with other peoples, and though they are prepared to create cultural values that can be used by other peoples, it must, nevertheless, not be forgotten that “not a single people is obligated to create for exchange with or directly for other peoples. Every people must strive, first of all, to satisfy its own cultural needs in its own way. The rest will come of itself.”
In the context in which this view was placed in that address (in Paris) it was correct.
However, there is another side to this question which needs to be stressed now. When the fascist desecrators of science come forth and declare that the Jews are “an inferior race” and when there is the danger that this idea will infect the minds not only of non-Jews, but also of certain Jewish groups that do not have a clear understanding of the spiritual labor of the Jewish people, it is necessary to emphasize the kind of cultural treasures that were created by the Jewish people, how it enriched world culture and on what a high level its own national (Yiddish) culture stands.
At the present time this consideration is of quite great significance. This, too, the popularization of the achievements of the Jews through the generations in all fields of culture is a task which rests upon the cultural activists of the Jewish people. This brings us to a consideration of our assimilated youth, without which our people’s front will never have enough strength or fighting ability. The Jewish youth was educated in the spirit of assimilation. Yet these assimilated sons and daughters of the Jewish masses are now also aroused. They are searching for a path; they are seeking a firm footing. Many of them have begun to refresh their Jewish knowledge which they acquired in their homes but which they neglected until now. Many undertook to learn Yiddish and to become knowledgeable in the original sources of the Yiddish culture.
However, there are hundreds of thousands that do not study Yiddish. Their language is English and will remain English. They, too, can be won for the Jewish collectives they could receive in English and knowledge of Yiddish culture, achievements and its spirit. For them, too, Yiddish culture can become a means that will link them to the Jewish collective.
A beginning of such an effort was already made by the Yiddish Cultural Association (YKUF), where its activists addressed large groups of Jewish intellectual youth. The result was truly astounding. In place of uncertainty there is now hopefulness, in place of doom there is now faith in the forces of the Jewish people, in the place of lurking defeatism there is a pride and readiness to struggle for the Jewish future.
The tasks before Yiddish culture at the present time are great and breathtaking. Nobody should stay at a distance.
(Transl. by S.R.)