During the Holocaust, prisoner experiences under Nazi occupation radically altered the way many East European Jews spoke Yiddish. Finding prewar language incapable of describing the imprisonment, death, and dehumanization of the Shoah, prisoners added or reinvented thousands of Yiddish words and phrases to describe their new reality. These crass, witty, and sometimes beautiful Yiddish words—Khurbn Yiddish, or “Yiddish of the Holocaust”—puzzled and intrigued the East European Jews who were experiencing the metamorphosis of their own tongue in real time. Sensing that Khurbn Yiddish words harbored profound truths about what Jews endured during the Holocaust, some Yiddish speakers threw themselves into compiling dictionaries and glossaries to document and analyze these new words. Others incorporated Khurbn Yiddish into their poetry and prose. In Occupied Words, Hannah Pollin-Galay explores Khurbn Yiddish as a form of Holocaust memory and as a testament to the sensation of speech under genocidal conditions.
Occupied Words investigates Khurbn Yiddish through the lenses of cultural history, philology, and literary interpretation. Analyzing fragments of language consciousness left behind from the camps and ghettos alongside the postwar journeys of three intellectuals—Nachman Blumental, Israel Kaplan, and Elye Spivak—Pollin-Galay seeks to understand why people chose Yiddish lexicography as a means of witnessing the Holocaust. She then turns to the Khurbn Yiddish words themselves, focusing on terms related to theft, German-Yiddish hybrids, and the erotic female body. Here, the author unearths new perspectives on how Jews experienced daily life under Nazi occupation, while raising questions about language and victimhood. Last, the book explores how writers turned ghetto and camp slang into art—highlighting the poetry and fiction of K. Tzetnik (Yehiel Di-Nur) and Chava Rosenfarb. Ultimately, Occupied Words speaks to broader debates about cultural genocide, asking how we might rethink the concept of genocide through the framework of language.
Hannah Pollin-Galay is Senior Lecturer of Yiddish and Holocaust Studies in the Department of Literature at Tel Aviv University.
"By studying how Yiddish speakers responded to the Holocaust, Hannah Pollin-Galay takes us into the underground of language. A moving and captivating book about the devastating power of words."—Martin Puchner, Harvard University
"Occupied Words is a landmark in Yiddish scholarship, an unrivaled study of the interplay of language and catastrophe. Anyone interested in the Yiddish language, Jewish folk culture, and Jewish reactions to Nazi persecution should read this book."—Samuel D. Kassow, Trinity College
"An important and original study that makes a significant contribution to the fields of Holocaust, Yiddish, and gender and sexuality studies."—Cecile E. Kuznitz, Bard College
"A profound work without parallel . . . this is an excellent book."—Barry Trachtenberg, Wake Forest University
"In her magnificent study, Pollin-Galay proves wrong the longstanding truism that the Holocaust was so terrible that it could not be described. Survivors fought to talk. Occupied Words offers a trenchant translation handbook – and a powerful window into the world of Holocaust society."—Anna Hájková, University of Warwick