Examples of memorial books from the Zekelman Holocaust Center’s collection.
Examples of memorial books from the Zekelman Holocaust Center’s collection. (Shari Cohen)

The Zekelman Holocaust Center has more than 1,600 memorial books — one of the largest collections in the United States, according to Memorial Books of Eastern European Jewry, published in 2011.

Six million Jewish individuals were killed during the Holocaust, and many of the hundreds of European communities where they lived were essentially decimated. Afterward, beginning in the 1950s and continuing even today, some Jewish survivors of European villages, cities and regions began to publish books about their communities. They wanted to document the rich Jewish life of their hometowns, often dating back hundreds of years, and to pay tribute to the family members who had died during the Holocaust.

In Yiddish, these books are known as Yizkor Bikhur — memorial or remembrance books. In a sense, they serve as a form of Kaddish — the memorial prayer said for deceased family members — for Jewish communities that were destroyed. Many volumes were published in Israel and the U.S. after the war in a range of formats and languages. 

Sometimes members of landsmannshaften (organizations of Jews from the same European hometown) published them. Some books, such as the one published by the New Cracow Friendship Society, include individual family tribute pages that list deceased relatives and helped pay for publication. Some communities published more than one memorial book.

With black and white photos of rabbis, school children, family groups, synagogues and homes, these books create poignant images of the past. Some include detailed histories of Jewish communities dating back to the 1500s.  

Examples of memorial books from the Zekelman Holocaust Center’s collection.
Examples of memorial books from the Zekelman Holocaust Center’s collection. Shari S. Cohen

The memorial book for David-Horodok, a town in Byelorussia, includes photos and descriptions of individual Jewish partisan and resistance fighters. Detroit is home to many descendants of this town, about 60 miles from Pinsk.

Heart-breaking first-person accounts document how the Nazis and some cooperative locals first took away the Jewish community’s rights and dignity, then their property and finally their lives. Many Jewish Horodokers were murdered in or near the town in 1941 by the SS and local non-Jewish citizens, as described by survivors in the memorial book.

Feiga Weiss, librarian and archivist at the Zekelman Holocaust Center (HC) in Farmington Hills, explains that “memorial books have the capability to give someone identity, a connection to their roots.  In Pirkei Avot, [Chapter of the Fathers] Chapter 3, Verse 1, the Mishnah says, ‘Know from where you came, and where you are going…’” These books, she explains “brings the history to your face.”

The HC has more than 1,600 memorial books — one of the largest collections in the United States, according to Memorial Books of Eastern European Jewry, published in 2011. An estimated 2,000 memorial books have been published worldwide. The Holocaust has inspired a huge volume of literature, but the memorial/remembrance book designation is limited to volumes that include lists of pre-war community residents and those who died during the Holocaust, Weiss explains.

When Rabbi Charles Rosenzveig opened the West Bloomfield Holocaust Memorial Center in 1984 (which later moved to Farmington Hills), a library with archives was an important part of his plan. According to Weiss, “He wanted documentation.” Today the Zekelman memorial book collection is an important resource for Holocaust survivors and their children; individuals doing genealogy research; as well as students, researchers and authors.

Cheri Eisenberg, a former Detroiter who now lives in Atlanta, explains that there are two memorial books for David-Horodok — one published in 1957 in Israel in Hebrew and Yiddish, and another in English in the U.S. in 1981. 

The latter was published with assistance from the David-Horodok’s Women’s Organization, then based in Oak Park. The book includes descriptions of pre-war life from Eisenberg’s great aunt, Anna Zemmol. Roz Blanck of Franklin, who is active in the local David-Horodok group, has visited the town twice. There are no Jews living there now, she says. The town has a Holocaust memorial sculpture.

According to Weiss, new information about the World War II-era continues to be discovered. “Holocaust history hasn’t ended yet,” she says. 

“What I am seeing is that more and more individuals and families are self-publishing their own personal memorial books for their families in limited editions. Our Museum Shop is proud to feature these local survivor personal narratives.” 

German Memorial Books

The Zekelman Holocaust Center has a very large collection of memorial books published by German cities and other organizations. Librarian/Archivist Faiga Weiss says German-speaking volunteers helped the Holocaust Center contact German cities and archives to locate memorial books. They sent the books that they had published at no charge. “The quality of the memorial books was also exceptional. They listed the people who were deported, their birthdates, where they were deported and date of death. Some of the books actually traced survivors and noted where they were currently living,” she says.

Resources for Those Interested in Holocaust Memorial Books

For those seeking a memorial book for a particular town or region, the Zekelman Holocaust Center provides an online list at www.holocaustcenter.org/visit/library-archive/memorial-book-collection/  

Due to remodeling, the collection is currently in storage, but individuals interested in research or in viewing specific books can contact feiga.weiss@holocaustcenter.org for assistance.

In addition, the New York Public Library offers some scanned memorial books on its website: https://libguides.nypl.org/yizkorbooks

The National Yiddish Book Center sell reprints of some memorial books: www.yiddishbookcenter.org/collections/yizkor-books/how-to-order 

Translations of memorial books are available through www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/ybip.html or www.amazon.com.   

Source: Feiga Weiss

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