Last night, I made a special effort to watch the documentary Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, a recent documentary biography of the life of Sholem Aleichem, playing at Cinema du Parc.
Sholem Aleichem, was the pen name of Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich who lived from 1859 to 1916. He was a popular chronicler of the lives of the Jews of that period. The Jewish population had been living for hundreds of years in the Polish/Russian countryside, and was facing the onslaught of modernity. French ideas of emancipation, American ideas of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, socialism, and the struggle against the rule of the czar, all intermingled with the cultural traditions of the Jews.
Most European Jews were speaking Yiddish at that time; a language that developed over the thousand year settlement of Jews in Europe and is a confluence of Hebrew, German and Slavic languages. Sholem Aleichem, wrote in Yiddish, although it was already a time when Jews were beginning to favor the languages of the countries in which they lived rather then their “mame loshen” – “mother’s tongue” of the home and hearth.
Sholem Aleichem wrote about the Shtetle – characters who inhabited his world. He reflected on his time and place, and gave voice to the average Jew living in the Polish and Russian countryside. He wrote about Tevye, the Milkman, the character on which Fiddler on the Roof was based, and about Motl, the Cantor’s son. Die Kleine Menshelech, a play based on these same characters was the one that began the rebirth of Yiddish in Israel during the 1970’s. We all know that during the Holocaust, six million mostly Yiddish speakers, of every walk of life were murdered by the Nazi.
I am currently working on a documentary about Yiddish culture. What has happened to the Yiddish language three generations after the Holocaust? Does anyone still speak, or remember Yiddish?
Among all the excitement of hearing Sholem Aleichem’s accents and ideas in English on screen, another thing that stuck out was the documentary reporting of the systematic attacks against Jews in Poland and Russia starting in 1881. This was a new phenomenon at the time. Jews and their neighbours had been living side by side in relative harmony. Jew baiting was a medieval phenomenon, the nineteenth century was supposedly a period of “emancipation and liberty” for the common man. And then came the unexpected violence, killing of Jewish men, women and children in their homes. These were the “pogroms” initiated following the assassination of the Czar in 1881 and repeated in 1905-06.
Sholem Aleichem, himself, lived through the pogrom in Kiev in 1905. The film reports that, he and his family “hid for three days in a hotel” while the massacres were going on. I suppose this is what gives rise to the title of the documentary, “Laughing in the Dark”.
The startling photographs of murdered bodies with grieving family members pictured in the documentary do not leave me. They remind me of the news stories we have been hearing about the deaths of Syrian citizens, men, women and children, in Homs and in other areas of Syria. The death toll reported so far is over 9000 people, with no end in sight.
Homes vandalized during the pogroms in Kishinev in 1903.
In hindsight, it is easy to see that the absence of response to the violence perpetrated against Jewish citizens in Poland and Russian led directly to the politics and daring destruction of Jews, practiced by the Nazis as an instrument of State. Sadly, I am reminded of the current practice of a similar statecraft in Syria today. But this has been going on for years in the Soviet Union, in North Korea, and Iran.