Bingo Finds his Way to Belarus: Yiddish Dog Books in the Interwar Period
Many of the treasures in Special Collections don’t actually live in the stacks downstairs but are instead housed in Swem Library’s Offsite Stacks (SOSS). Most materials are kept in SOSS either because they are infrequently requested through Special Collections or have specific requirements for the environment in which they must be housed. However, SOSS contains materials just as intriguing as items found in the regular stacks, so it’s a treat to go through some of the lesser known materials held there.
Earlier this year, a box belonging to the Chapin-Horowitz dog book collection arrived from SOSS to have its contents evaluated. Inside were quite a few interesting and old books, all with unique histories and subjects, but the book that immediately caught my eye was a Yiddish children’s book printed in 1920 in Bialystok, Poland. The small book, דאס לעבּן פֿוּן די חיוס, בּינגא, א געשיִכטע פֿוּן א הוּנט, (Dus Lebn Fun Die Chias, Bingo, A Geschichte Fun A Hunt) is a translation of a chapter of British-American author Ernest Thompson Seton’s (1860-1946) Wild Animals I Have Known. Outside of its historical context the publication of a children’s book translated into Yiddish may seem inconsequential. Yet this book marks an important period in the development of contemporary Yiddish literature and linguistic practice for Jewish communities in Lithuania, Poland, and Belarus.
The end of World War I and the relaxation of Czarist anti-Semitic policies following the Soviet victory during the Russian Revolution led to an incredible growth of secular Yiddish culture in Eastern Europe. In 1921 Bundists and a coalition of other leftist parties in Warsaw created the TSYSHO (Central Yiddish School Organization) which functioned as an institution responsible for creating new secular Yiddish language schools for Jews in Poland and parts of Lithuania and Belarus. The Bundists pushed for a very strong Yiddish education curriculum even before the establishment of the TSYSHO and began publishing secular stories for children years before its founding. Yiddish already had a rich secular literary tradition in the early twentieth century but considering the volume of new Yiddish material for schoolchildren that the Bundists and TSYSHO desired to release, there simply wasn’t enough material; thus, translating popular literature from other languages—rather than commissioning Yiddish authors—became a more viable and faster alternative. Consequently, popular children’s novelists from world literature like Ernest Thompson Seton became quick favorites.
Wild Animals I Have Known, specifically this section about a dog named Bingo, may be the earliest dog book written in Yiddish, thereby establishing itself as an important and unique addition to the Chapin-Horowitz dog book collection. Without organizations like the TSYSHO, pop literature and culture associated with the Yiddish language in Eastern Europe may not have survived to the extent that it has today, and the role of book publishing in maintaining dwindling minority languages like Yiddish is clearly evident. After the horrors of the Second World War, only about half of Europe’s Yiddish speakers survived. Still, only about a million and a half of the Jewish diaspora today speak Eastern Yiddish, compared to 13 million before the start of the Second World War. Despite the decimation of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe during the Holocaust, contemporary Yiddish pop literature persists, thanks both to the Yiddish schools as well as the large volume of non-religious Yiddish books published by the Bundists and TSYSHO. Support from these programs during the interwar period allow for materials like Wild Animals I Have Known to exist as tools not only for enjoyment but also as sources for language revitalization and reclamation within the Jewish Eastern European diaspora.
The Yiddish version of Wild Animals I Have Known can be found at Swem Library’s Special Collections. Online versions of the English original are available through the Swem catalog and a physical copy can be found in Swem’s stacks.
Written by Daniil Eliseev, Student Apprentice.