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Yiddish in Interwar Berlin  

Marc Caplan

Berlin in the interwar era of the Weimar Republic (1918–1933) was not a center for Yiddish culture so much as a periphery dependent upon more dominant locations of Jewish life such as the United States, Poland, and the Soviet Union. In this respect, the status of Yiddish reflects a greater sense of marginality and dislocation then characterizing German culture, which, at the time, felt unmoored from its imperial coordinates of the 19th century and under the sway of more innovative international cities such as Leningrad, Paris, New York, and especially Hollywood. The draw of Berlin for Yiddish-language writers or community activists was therefore not the allure of Weimar culture or the hopes of attracting large audiences among German Jews. Instead, the economic disorder of the Weimar Republic, paradoxically, offered financial windfalls and business opportunities for migrants with foreign currency—particularly for writers with contacts to the American Yiddish press. Moreover, Germany, unlike Poland, maintained diplomatic and economic relations with the Soviet Union, which allowed writers and activists sympathetic to the Bolshevik Revolution a safe haven while the home front remained riven by military conflicts, scarcity of basic necessities, and an uncertain political future. The heyday of Yiddish activism in Berlin was relatively short-lived, only dating from about 1921 until about 1926. After that date, the Soviet Union had achieved political stability and began to invest, at least for the next decade, in a wide series of Yiddish-language cultural institutions including publishing houses, newspapers, centers of higher education, and popular entertainment. Although it would be an exaggeration to claim that Yiddish culture made a deep or lasting impact on the German culture of the Weimar Republic, for Yiddish readers, the literature produced in Germany ranks among the most important and innovative achievements in Yiddish culture of the 1920s. The most significant writers to have resided in Berlin during this era include Dovid Bergelson, Der Nister (Pinkhes Kahanovitsh), and Moyshe Kulbak.