Ruth Kaswan
Yiddish Language Conference in Czernowitz
This is a chapter from the unpublished book by Ruth Kaswan “A Quest for Dignity”. The book is a double biography of the author’s parents, prominent socialists Joseph and Leah Kissman, co-founders of the Bund in Bukovina. Joseph Kissman (1889-1968) was one of the youngest participants in the Czernowitz Conference. Later in his career, living in the US Joseph Kissman was an active journalist and writer, frequent contributor to “Tsukunft”, “Forverts”, and other Yiddish periodicals. He wrote the book “Shtudyes tsu der geshikhte fun rumenishe yidn in 19tn un onheyb 20stn yorhundert” (Nyu York : Yidisher visnshaftlekher institut, 1944) and edited the Jewish Labor Committee’s publication “Facts and Opinions”.  
Iosif Vaisman
The Yiddish Language Conference in Czernowitz, in 1908, was a landmark occasion in the rise of Jewish consciousness and liberation. 

   Yiddish is a German dialect of about the tenth century, modified by Hebrew grammar, sprinkled with Hebrew words, and written in the Hebrew alphabet. It disappeared in Germany but having been carried eastward, to Poland and the other Slavic lands, survived as the common language of the Jews. Hebrew retained its place as the language of that which was sacred, serious and written down. When Hasidism arose, late in the eighteenth century, Yiddish was brought into religious observance, but orally rather than in written form. At the same time there was an intellectual movement away from religion, in line with the Enlightenment that was sweeping Europe. It was called the Haskala and its adherents wrote in Yiddish because that was their natural speech. This was the stream from which Yiddish secular literature emerged and within a hundred years of its beginnings, by the end of the nineteenth century, it had achieved world class stature with writers such as Mendele Moicher Sforim, Y.L. Peretz, Sholem Asch, Sholem Aleichem and many more. 

   At the same time, however, there was also a strong pull toward assimilation. It had the feel of progress. It meant affluence and higher socio-economic status. In Russia, for instance, which surrounded Jews with crippling rules and regulations, rich Jews could, and did, buy their way into legal residence in Moscow and St. Petersburg which were normally forbidden to them. Yiddish was dubbed the "jargon" and derided by those who saw themselves as modern and successful. It was similarly derided by the Zionists who, combining the sacred and the profane, sought to maintain Jewish separatism by means of Hebrew and strove for a homeland in Palestine. In the eighteen-nineties the strife of the languages flared up and Yiddish and its literature became a heated subject of debate in Yiddish, Hebrew and Jewish-Russian periodicals. For instance, B. Brandt, a Jewish writer in Russia, wrote: 

How long is it since we did all we could, while walking in the street, riding in a railway car or sitting at home, not to be recognized as Jews? Now we have cast away this false shame. We are not ashamed to speak "Jargon" because the people speak this language.1     And J. J. Lerner, in Odessa, put the case more strongly:  Precisely when the situation of our brothers is not so favorable... it is necessary to raise the esteem of Yiddish and to demand that it should be granted a place among the languages of the world... Who knows if the revival of the "mouldy Jargon" is not a condition for a greater resurrection - the resurrection of an entire people.2     Max Bindermann brought to the Kissmann household German as everyday language and the high culture of Western Europe, as well as socialism as an ideal and moral imperative. Joseph enthusiastically embraced both. Then he met Nathan Birnbaum. 
   Birnbaum was a Viennese writer and lecturer, in German. He became interested in things Jewish and journeyed eastward to explore. There he found the new Yiddish literature, and Czernowitz, a city where he could feel at home among German speaking Jews. He was the first to translate a story by Peretz into German, and it created a sensation. Deciding to settle in Czernowitz, he and a Ukrainian partner opened a bookstore. It, wasn’t enough for a living but it was a good place from which to live a literary life. He continued to write and lecture, and in the course of his travels came to the gymnasium in Seret where Joseph was a student. 

   There was a big fuss. The parents of the Jewish students objected that this worldly socialist would seduce their sons away from religion and respectability and asked the school’s director to forbid it. The director, a German from another part of the Empire, didn’t understand what the fuss was all about and saw no reason to deny the wishes of his students. Afterwards, realizing that the lecture had been every bit as inflammatory as the parents had feared, he demanded that everyone who had attended put his name on a list, and of course it became a point of honor to be on that list. The matter was dropped, but Joseph had been captured. He began to write in Yiddish, and later that same year, at the age of seventeen, published his first piece, in the Sozialdemokrat, in Lemberg. 

   Birnbaum decided that what was needed to promote the cause of Yiddish was a conference that would bring together all those who used it for intellectual and creative work so that they could meet each other and stand together before the world. He labored on the project all alone for a year and it opened on schedule on the thirtieth of August 1908. 

   The conference started with a flap. Each nationality in Czernowitz owned a building that served as a cultural center for their community and as a sort of symbol of their presence. The Jewish community had just built a new center and the conference was scheduled to take place in their assembly hall. The leadership of the Jewish community were the substantial, conservative men in town and when they realized after the opening session that they had a rabble of jargon - spouting revolutionaries on their hands they suddenly found that the conference couldn’t continue because there was more work to be done on the hall. Birnbaum quickly arranged for the use of the Ukrainian hall and the conference proceeded without missing a beat. 

   With the exception of Mendele Moicher Sforim and Sholem Aleichem, virtually every Yiddish writer from Russia westward to New York attended the Conference. The star was Y.L. Peretz but all the rest, young and old, were to dominate Yiddish literature until the gruesome end of the people in the flames of the Holocaust. 

   At eighteen, Joseph was the youngest person in attendance at the Conference. He made friends with thirty-two year old Avrum Reisen, already well known as a flaming revolutionary poet and storyteller. Decades later Joseph described the Conference in general and his encounter with Reisen in particular: 

   For Reisen, as well as for the other guests, Czernowitz was a newly discovered corner of God’s world: a city that was free, where European culture was a tangible reality at every step, with democratic order, equality, respect for all people;... 

    The difference was the result of a long process of development under unusual circumstances. The Jews in this eastern province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were in a paradoxical position. Cultural assimilation combined with a political form of national consciousness and the synthesis of this combination of water and fire was - a raised national consciousness. German was the dominant language in the Bukovina... The German university, the German middle school, the German theater were full of Jews. The German newspapers were in Jewish hands. Jews sat in the Austrian administrative offices like the courts, the post office, the financial offices, etc. In some offices the Jews were in the majority, the dominant nationality... 

    For the Jews in the Bukovina German was devoid of national significance and simply served as a means of communication in a world language. For the intelligentia it was the language of science, without any national connotation - a sort of Esperanto... 

    Czernowitz was... the most appropriate place for the conference... In no other city would the conference have been received with so much acceptance, with so much understanding from the rest of the population, or with so much respect from the authorities.... 

    When they read a telegram of greetings from the highest official of the Austrian administration in the Bukovina, I whispered to Reisen a translation of the title "Kaiserlich - Koniglicher Landspresident des Herzogstum Bukovina," (Imperial - Royal Land President of the Duchy of Bukovina.) Incredulously, he asked, "The Governor of the province, himself?" And when I affirmed that it was so, he commented, awestruck, " The representative of the emperor Franz Josef sends greetings to the Yiddish Language Conference!"3 

   This environment of peaceful coexistence and mutual respect could not fail to influence the Conference. Peretz was moved to declare, "The people, not the State, is the modern concept. The nation, not the fatherland. A singular culture, not borders guarded by armed soldiers, constitute the particular life of a people." 

   Birnbaum had worked out an agenda for the conference according to the traditional prescriptions of academic philology: grammar, spelling, establishing uniform usages, and other items of that sort. None of these were mentioned. The fifty or sixty participants, representing all the divergent cultural streams, were interested in only one question: the role of Yiddish in Jewish culture. The Yiddishists demanded that it be declared, "The national language of the Jewish people." Zionists and those inclined to favor assimilation wanted to limit it to the status of "folk language." An additional proposal advanced by the most militant Yiddishists argued that it be declared, "The only national language of the Jewish people," but they had no chance for success. After four days of wrangling the Conference resolved that Yiddish is, "A (not ‘The’ but ‘A’) national language of the Jewish people." 

   In this context it is necessary to remember that these events took place more than two decades before the Holocaust removed the Eastern European Jews from consideration. At that time, in that place - Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Bielo (White) Russia and the Ukraine - lived the majority of the Jewish population of the world, some eight million people, and except for the parts under Austrian rule (western Poland and the Bukovina) they were mainly very poor. The Jewish doctors, lawyers, moneylenders and the like were merely a thin, shiny film over the mass of Jewish misery. Moreover, among the impoverished masses of all nations the Jews, compelled by law and prejudice to live in cities, constituted an underclass more subject to discrimination, disdain and derision than any of the other underprivileged groups. The prototypical image of the Jew was the shabby peddler hawking old clothes in the streets, or the tailor in his home full of hungry, squalling children wearing out his eyes in sixteen-hour workdays - when he had work. As the denial of Yiddish had about it an aspect of betrayal of the poor by the well-to-do, so the victory of Yiddish was a declaration of solidarity with the Jewish masses that was by definition a revolutionary act. 

   The affirmation of Yiddish at the Conference was to have significant consequences for the Jews of Eastern Europe. In addition to such obvious uses as literature, theater and journalism, it inspired the creation of a vast school system around which the Jewish population in the areas of its greatest concentration, in Poland and the Baltic States, was able to create almost a state within a state in the period between the two world wars, inspiring in the people a sense of pride and identity and providing a focal point for democratic socialist action in the context of the political activities in their countries. 

   Though the situation was somewhat different in Romania, this was, essentially, the world in which Joseph spent his life until the Second World War. It may be fairly said that, for him, the Yiddish Language Conference in Czernowitz was the determining event of his youth. Many years later he wrote: 

   For the Jewish working class (national-cultural autonomy) was a means for national revival, the banner in the battle for national rights, the stimulus for constructive cultural work... 

   Arguments are heard from the opposition that the Bund was slow to recognize Jewish nationhood. But the concept of nationhood awakened in the Jewish masses at the same time as in the Jewish bourgeoisie. While the new sense of nationhood took the form, among the higher classes, of demands for a homeland and a new language, the political nationalism of the Jewish working masses called for recognition of their language and culture in the country where they lived.4 

   For Joseph, the conference did not end with its official conclusion. To go back to his reminiscences:     The poetry reading after the Conference was also a part of the Conference, for me personally, the most enjoyable part. 

   It occurred to me to have a literary evening in my hometown, Gurahumora... 

   Avrum Reisen and Hersch David Nomberg came to Gurahumora. Their arrival created a sensation in town. 

   Curious and pleasant remembrances: The reception at the railroad station was heartwarming. However, as soon as we arrived at the hotel we fell into a heated dispute. The cause of the dispute was the chairman of the event. He was a fine young man, a socialist, and had recently obtained his doctorate in jurisprudence. But he had one fault: he didn’t know Yiddish. He was planning to open the evening and make the introductions in German. The guests were outraged. But there was no one else to do the job - except me. The guests insisted that I should do it, and I absolutely refused. I argued that I was too young, that it would be a disgraceful thing to do to the Gurahumora audience. Avrum Reisen was particularly put out. He would not set foot on the stage if German was spoken. I was quite unprepared for such stubbornness. 

   When the first wave of anger had passed I calmly explained my position. Here, in this town where I grew up, I was still known as a child. I could not appear as chairman of an event which most of the town was going to attend. The honor of the occasion demanded that a "finished doctor" take the stage. The first one to accept the argument was Nomberg, and he imposed only one condition, namely that the chairman apologize for his lack of Yiddish. This was readily agreed to... 

   It was a splendid evening. The auditorium in the Town Hall was packed. When I went around town a day or two before the event to promote it... it was received as a call to a socialist rally. At that time there was no socialist organization in town but the word "socialist" already had its followers... 

   After the crowd had left, a small group of us stayed behind talking to our guests and drinking tea. Reisen could not get over the small town homeyness and warmth with which he had been received. When he was at his most enthusiastic in praising us, I interrupted with a suggestion that they should spend the following day at my home, with my parents, and return to Czernowitz on the evening train. They agreed at once... 

   The poets’ visit began with a sporting event. 

    On the trip from the town to the village Nomberg asked me if there was a bicycle he could borrow to ride around the valley. He was very happy when I told him there were two bicycles at home. We hadn’t been at the house for more than a half-hour when he reminded me of the bicycle. I wasn’t very pleased with his request. I would have preferred spending the time with both guests peacefully in the house. In addition, it was market day in town and the highway was crowded with traffic. Riding a bike under the circumstances was a ticklish affair, and Nomberg, a small, slight man, didn’t inspire much confidence in such a muscular undertaking. But I had promised. 

    I hauled out the bicycles and gave Nomberg precise instructions on how to go. At the end I proposed that I go first and that he follow me because I knew the road and how to avoid potholes, bumps and other obstacles. Nomberg listened to all my good advice and nodded assent. Then he mounted the bike and took off like a shot. It took all my strength to catch up with him and then he led me on a wild race, uphill and I reminded him for dinner that down, for the best part of an hour. It was only when that we had promised my mother to be back in time the ride came to an end... 

    We had a very pleasant dinner. The guests talked about Russia, which was, for us, a legendary land in thrall to an evil spirit. But they wanted to know about our life. It intrigued them - Jews in a gentile village, living peacefully, with freedom and without fear... They kept drawing out my parents, both my father and my mother. I was impressed by how tactfully they steered the conversation to subjects beyond the concern of young people. And I was grateful to them for this. My father understood what they were doing: when the time came to say the blessing after the meal he didn’t say the usual one over three men but instead said a prayer over Yiddishkeit. 

    After dinner no one wanted to leave the table and retire for a rest, but a half-hour later Nomberg again wanted to get on a bicycle and go for a ride. This time I delegated the job of accompanying him to my older brother, while I stayed behind with Reisen.5 

  1. viz. Niger, S., "Yiddish Literature in the Past 200 years." In The Jewish People Past and Present, Jewish Encyclopedic Handbook: Central Culture Organization (CYCO,) New York, 1952, v. III. 
  2. ibid
  3. Kissman, Joseph, "Avrum Reisen at the Language Conference in Czernowitz. Zukunft, Vol. LVIII, No. 10, December 1953, p. 515 ff. 
  4. — "To the matter of national - cultural autonomy." Unser Zeit, August, 1944, p. 43. 

  5. Zukunft, Op. cit. 
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