The History of the Yiddish Language

The Academic Association,
“Jewish Culture” in Czernowitz

by Abraham Dupler (Rishon le Zion)
Translated by Jerome Silverbush

The Jewish language [Yiddish] whose origin can be found in the ghettos of the German cities became the language of the masses in Eastern Europe. With the rise of Zionist ideas began the fight against the disappearance of Yiddish as Jews started to use the local languages. In Czernowitz, Dr. Nathan Birnbaum fought for the recognition of Yiddish as the “mother tongue” and initiated the Jewish Language Conference (1908) which was stimulating and fruitful.

Inspired by the Jewish academic association, Culture in Vienna, in 1910 several students in Czernowitz also tried to form an association which would serve to preserve the Jewish language in Bukovina and especially in Czernowitz. In the contemporary intellectual and comfortable middle class Jewish circles of Bukovina, the use of the “Jewish street language” or “jargon” as Yiddish was called was looked upon with contempt and one was ashamed of this language and so it took much courage to defend the language. The founders of this novel academic association displayed this courage. There were eight students: Abraham Reiner, Pinkas Schorr, Simche Klier, Abraham Arie, Schaje Blasenstein, Michel Gast, Abraham Dupler and Edmund Melzer. These students had various political orientations, but were bound together by the Yiddish language and their goal. At first, this novel academic association was looked at askance by some of the existing Jewish student organizations in Czernowitz and it was boycotted, but gradually they became used to it, and as the respect and the influence of the Association and the Yiddish language rose, slowly, slowly, Yiddish gained entrance to the previously closed social circles.

The academic association, Jewish Culture wasn't a student association in the pre-war sense. Above all, the association was the first Jewish academic association to break with the outmoded Germanic customs and usages. It had completely discarded the barbaric custom of the saber duel from the Middle Ages, the uniforms which already at that time appeared comical, the various outmoded student customs and in this manner stripped off the foreign national student character. As a sign of membership, they wore a sash with their colors, blue-white-red. The lyrics of the association's song written by members Wolf Schärf and Abraham Dupler were set to music by Jewish actors.

The first officers of the organization were: Abraham Reiner as chairman, A. Arie as deputy chairman, and Abraham Dupler as secretary and librarian. Later, as original members Moses Dickstein, Leon Czeikel, Fritz Herzan, Samuel Fuhrmann, Abraham Brender, A. Zimring, Moses Schärf, Wolf Schärf, Niliu Thaler and A. Rosenthal joined the group. During the semester, the group was enlarged by the addition of the following members: Elias Felder, Chaim Lecker, S. Mosner, Fischler, Mayer, Terner, Schnarch, Baltuch, Weidenfeld, Halpern, Altheim and Hochstädt. After the war Isiu Brettschneider, Lachser, Finder, Lutwak, Laufer, Chaim Weidenfeld, Sch. A. Soifer, and David Schlomo Bickel. There was a larger group of students under the leadership of Wolfgang Fokschaner (from the Jewish national academic association Zephirah and many others. Also, several gentlemen joined the association as A.H., among them Dr. Berl Friedmann and Dr. Jakob Pisstiner. The first honorary member of the Association was the elderly author Mendele Mocher Sforim whose note of appreciation in his graceful handwriting hung for many years in the association's meeting hall.

The goal and purpose of the association were to spread Yiddish and make it “socially acceptable.” So to speak, one had to give this language “backbone.” It must be spoken by the Jewish intellectuals and upper class in order to become the legitimate “national language” of the Jews of Bukovina, since the Jewish masses already spoke Yiddish. Only then when this language had found acceptance in all strata of Jewish society, could one speak of a national identity with a national language. The fight was for complete national recognition, for their own school system, and for the use of the language in public life.

In order to achieve this “holy” goal the primary task for the association was to create a library which would serve to spread the Yiddish language and literature. Books and newspapers in the Yiddish language were collected. The members of the association demonstrated their sympathy by contributing books and money. The money was used to buy books that would help achieve their goal. In a short time the association had a goodly number of books at their disposal which were read in and lent out from the association's meeting hall. Courses were introduced to teach the Yiddish language and participants were brought in. Further, lectures were held in the city and state to explain the goals of the association and they were always well attended and received with enthusiasm. A Yiddish amateur theater group was formed which performed pieces by prominent Jewish dramatists in Czernowitz and the provinces. Often, with the help of well known Jewish actors evenings of great style were presented. Often at such evenings, Jewish authors read from their own works (Wewjurks, Imber, Steinberg, etc.). Similarly, entertainment was provided for young and old. Garden parties, home socials, academic evenings with a dance following served this purpose. Jewish Culture could be thanked for the fact that the Jewish singing club Hasamir preserved Jewish folksongs in Czernowitz. The association was represented in Hasamir by its members Michel Gast and Abaham Dupler.

A small success that Jewish Culture achieved together with other student groups before the outbreak of the First World War should be pointed out. In the report of the year before last of Franz Josef University in Czernowitz (1912/1913), the number of students who report themselves as Jews was noted. However, this gesture of the university had one little blemish: the “mother tongue” was still listed as the German language.

With the outbreak of World War I, the association had to interrupt its activities since most of the members had to devote their services to the Austrian fatherland, but it was reactivated at the end of 1918 with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Since, however, the Jews in the newly created Greater Romania were far from having equal rights, the situation of the Academic Association Jewish Culture got worse and the fight for their own national identity and language had to start again from the beginning, or in some cases, just be continued. The Romanian authorities however were a thorn in their eye and they reacted completely differently than the authorities of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. At the beginning of the twenties, the association was dissolved on so-called political grounds. The association's treasury as well as the well-stocked library were given to the Jewish School Association which was founded in 1919.

The majority of the original members are no longer among the living. The members Lt. Schaje Blasenstein, Simche Klier and Pinkas Schorr lost their lives in the war. During the Second World War many members fell victim to the Nazis, among them Lawyer Dr. Edmund Melzer, who was shot by the Nazis in Czernowitz, as well as the Lawyer Dr. Moses Schärf who the Nazis murdered in Paris.

Professor Dr. Dickstein and Prof. Czeikel died in Russia, Lawyer Dr. S. Mosner and the Jewish journalist Sch. A. Soifer died in Czernowitz while Lawyer Dr. Altheim died in Bucharest. R.A. Dr. Miliu Thaler, Issiu Brettschneider, the athletes Chaim Weidenfeld and Finder died in Israel.

Abroad, to our knowledge, still are living today the following former members: In Romania, Lawyer Dr. Fritz Herzan, the doctors Dr. Mayer and Dr. Terner and the banker Zimring; in Czernowtiz Prof. Chaim Lecker who in 1919 published a Yiddish text for the schools and Lawyer Dr. Fischler; in Argentina Prof. Dr. Samuel Fuhrmann and in New York Lawyer Dr. Schlomo Bickel. In Israel presently live the former lawyers Dr. Arie, Dr. Elias Felder and Dr. Laschser in Tel-Aviv, the former lawyer Dr. Wolf Schärf in Jerusalem and the former Regional Post Director Abraham Dupler in Rishon le Zion.

Nothing is known about the fate of the older members Michel Gast, Dr. Abraham Brender, Rosenthal, Baltuch, Laufer, Dr. Lutwak as well as the other members.


From "The History of the Jews of Bukovina," p. 164-5. Article: "The Academic Association, 'Jewish Culture' in Czernowitz," by Abraham Dupler (Rishon le Zion), Translated by Jerome Silverbush.

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