Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Three weeks in a library

A library is not the place you might expect to find a Siberian singer singing Edith Piaf songs in Yiddish, but the last night of the Yiddish summer course at the Medem Bibliotek in Paris included exactly that. At one time there were seven Yiddish libraries in Paris, mostly attached to particular political movements. Now only the Medem remains, the biggest Yiddish library in Europe with many of the other library holdings included in its collection. That the library has survived at all is astonishing, given that it was founded in 1929 and had to be dismembered and its stock hidden during the Nazi occupation. Many of its members did not survive, following the deportations, and the language itself struggled in the new era as Yiddish was spoken less and less by Parisian Jews.
Yet the library is flourishing more than ever, hosting a Yiddish kinderschule, cooking classes, language classes, concerts, regular day and weekend literature events and, every third year, a major language and literature summer course attended by people from all over the world.
The Medem is also a publisher, with a regular journal for learners, Tam tam. Its books include dictionaries and other learning materials and, recently, a French language book on "Jewish Utopias" which were largely Yiddish speaking, everywhere from Argentina to the Crimea.
The library holdings are inevitably specialist, with most being in Yiddish, but the stock includes fiction, poetry, educational books, memoirs and many runs of periodicals. The material includes surviving material from the ghetto libraries and the libraries in Displaced Persons (DP) camps, complete with library stamps. The library is particularly strong in material related to the socialist Bund movement, which founded the Medem, but it holds copies of the post war London literary journal Loshn un Leben and the pre-WW1 London anarchist literary journal Germinal, which I discovered was there only minutes before having to leave. You can find out more about the library on
Followers of Five Leaves will know we have an interest in Jewish and Yiddish culture, but also that we love libraries - public, academic, specialist. The Medem has survived because Yiddish readers were lovers of libraries - at one time there were 900 libraries in Poland run by the Bund. It is great to see the Medem flourishing in new premises, with most of those around the library, at least over the summer school, being young people, and a number of people working on translation, bringing Yiddish writers a new audience.

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