If you are lucky enough to possess original Yiddish letters and postcards handed down in your family, then you are probably very curious to know what they say. Do they contain interesting family stories that you never knew? Or even a juicy family secret? Or maybe a unique insight into world history?
Perhaps they do. We’ll never know until you get them translated. But even without seeing your letters and postcards, I’m willing to bet that they contain multiple variations of the following statements:
- “Please write more often”
- “Thank you for the money you sent (and please send more…)”
- “Your mother/father/sister/cousin is suffering from poor health”
- “Send my regards to cousin X”
- “The winter is terribly cold”
- “Thank God we are managing to get by”
- “Please, please write more often (and tell X to write too)”
Sometimes a letter is a genealogical goldmine, revealing a wealth of names, dates, places and other details. Occasionally it will record an interesting story for posterity. Often it contains nothing other than minimalist updates on life. I guess that in the days before Facebook, our ancestors had to satisfy themselves with very little emotional interaction with their dearest ones across the seas!
In my experience interesting stories and historical insights are more common in Yiddish memoirs, which are characterized by hindsight, than in Yiddish letters, which were penned in the immediacy of the moment, when today’s weather seems more consequential than the rise and fall of civilizations.
But there is something else we gain from Yiddish letters and postcards, if not the meaty data we thought we were craving. As we decipher the fragments of these fragile documents, which are so often damaged and hard to read, we gain an intimate insight into the state of mind of real people in that moment – and not just anybody, but our own flesh and blood. We hear their voices and glimpse their personalities as they really were, and sometimes we recognize ourselves in them. We are touched by the power of the love that bound together the members of our families, though they lived on different continents, in different worlds, never to meet again.
Recently we translated a series of postcards written from Krakow in the late ’30s, and the client was surprised that they contained no reference whatsoever to the stormclouds of world war and Jewish doom that were gathering over Poland at that time. Rather they focused on the illness of the elderly mother of the family(the client’s great-grandmother), her eventual death, her funeral, and the debts incurred as a result of all of the above. Considering that all the people involved were brutally murdered and their entire society decimated just a few years later, these details seem quite petty at first glance. And yet the client felt a real thrill as he read his ancestors’ words and they came alive in his mind for the first time.
The rich reward of letters and postcards is that they, more than any other kind of Yiddish document, show us that our ancestors are not just names and dates appearing on our family tree, but real people, ordinary people who lived day by day, just as we do.
And that is ultimately what makes us love them.