The Midnight Plane to Czernowitz: The 2018 International Yiddish Conference


by Saul Chapnick  

from today’s TIMES OF ISRAEL

Have you ever missed an anniversary, a birthday, or event and regretted it for years, or even a lifetime?  I have.  It was missing out in attending the 1908 International Conference on Yiddish Language that took place exactly 110 years ago this year at Czernowitz, a city that served as the regional capital of the Hapsburgs (modern day Chernivtsi, Ukraine).

You may ask even how was it distinctly possible that a man my age could have been around 110 years ago.  For the past nearly thirty years, I have immersed myself in learning about Jewish life and infrastructure in  prewar Europe, plus seeing what the role of Yiddish was, if at all, in that culture.  For most Jews of this age, modern history began with the Holocaust and the creation of the third commonwealth, the modern-day State of Israel.  Events like the Czernowitz Conference, or the Kishinev Pogroms, World War I or the Leo Frank affair are just not in our lexicon, even though they all occurred in the twentieth century, thus making them modern, not ancient, history.

As Jews, it is incumbent upon us to fulfill the obligation of “Zakhor,” “To Remember.”  We are to look back at our history and internalize it in such a way to feel just like we were there, and feel what our brethren felt.  This is just not reflected in our reading of the Passover Haggadah, but everything we do and say in life.  To do “Zakhor” means we have a fuller understanding of ourselves in order to be able to navigate the future. Zakhor enables us to be more comfortable with self.  That is why I went on a personal quest over the last 25 plus years to visit libraries, read books, make visits to Poland and Ukraine to meet with political leaders, rabbis, community leaders, and lay people so that I can learn and experience.

Czernowitz 1908 symbolized to me that turning point in Jewish history.  A part of me felt that I did spiritually attend that conference, but realistically, I knew that it was a physical impossibility.  Then, in July, Dovid Katz, a leading Yiddish scholar, posted in Facebook that he was invited to be the keynote speaker at the 2018 International Commemorative Conference of Yiddish Culture and Language at Czernowitz to mark the 110th anniversary of the very first conference.

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