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Expeditions to the Last Shtetl Jews

The Vilnius Yiddish Institute conducts research expeditions to seek out survivors throughout Eastern Europe. Their Yiddish dialects and subdialects are documented using modern linguistic methodology, and their personal histories and the local folklore and customs are recorded. The interviews are videotaped and stored digitally. Visitors to the Vilnius Yiddish Institute are welcome to come and “meet” the last Jews in such towns, for example, as Valozhin, Mir, Kletsk, and Radin. They are now just dots on the map, but once they were home to the lofty cultural, religious, and intellectual achievements of their Jewish leaders, institutions, and communities. One recent expedition included a Passover seyder for Jews in Periyaslav, Ukraine, the town where Sholem Aleichem, the great Yiddish writer, was born in 1859. Since 2002, the institute has been a partner in Indiana University’s Yiddish Ethnographic Project, and to date three major expeditions to Ukraine have been undertaken jointly.

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The expeditions seek to capture as much as possible of the rapidly disappearing Yiddish heritage from the mouths, hearts, and souls of its last scattered keepers, most of whom have made the conscious decision to live out their years in the towns of their ancestors. Many of these remarkably strong shtetl Jews look after the local Jewish cemeteries and other historic sites.

The program of expeditions also includes a humanitarian aspect. Most of these survivors in Eastern Europe have never received any Holocaust compensation and are living their last years in dire poverty. In addition to paying them honoraria for interviews, the Institute actively seeks to bring their plight to the attention of world Jewry and to the relevant international authorities concerned with compensation. Thanks to the new On-Site Survivor Support Project, donations are reaching these courageous survivors in many far and out of the way places serviced only in part by the major Jewish organizations. At the same time, the Institute maintains close and mutually productive contacts with the American Joint Distribution Committee. 

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