Jewish Studies (Holocaust) Memorial Books
Rosemary Horowitz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0145


From the Russian civil wars through the Nazi years, the Jews of Eastern Europe were targets of ongoing violence. One response by some to their extreme personal and communal losses was to compile a memorial book to their community. The volumes from the interwar period are Yizker dem ondeynḳen Zshiṭomirer ḳdoyshim (1921); Hurbn Proskurov: Tsum ondenken fun di heylige neshomes (1924); and Felshtin: Zamlbukh tsum ondenk fun di Felshtiner kedoyshim (1937). To an extent, the books written during the interwar period established the pattern for the Holocaust era ones. Influenced by religious, historical, and cultural practices, those volumes, known variously as yizker bikher, yizkor bikher, sifre zikaron, or pinkeysim, are written monuments commemorating the life and death of a place and its people. The books tend to have a four-part structure: (1) a description of the town and its people from its Jewish beginning to the 20th-century interwar period, (2) a description of the town and its people during the Nazi era, (3) a description of the town and its people during the postwar time, and (4) a necrology. The earliest Holocaust memorial books (c. 1943–1950) came out in numerous countries (the United States, postwar Germany, Argentina, France, and Israel). There was a shift in the 1950s and thereafter, when most appeared in Israel. However, many of them included sections in Hebrew and Yiddish. The peak years of publication occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. Publication trends changed in the 1980s when English translations of earlier books started to be issued, and then again in the 1990s, when new media versions appeared. Tallying the total number of Holocaust memorial books is difficult because of the various ways of defining the genre. For example, some people only count a volume prepared by a mutual aid organization comprising people from the same region or town, referred to as a landsmanshaft or irgun yotsei; others define the genre more broadly by classifying memoirs and historical monographs as yizker volumes. The more limited definition would not count Melody Amsel’s Between Galicia and Hungary: The Jews of Stropkov as a yizker book. Similarly, neither Liliana Picciotto Fargion’s Il libro della memoria, gli Ebrei deportti dall’Italia 1943–45, a reckoning of Jewish Italian losses, nor the books commemorating Western European Jewish communities would be included. The significant work Lerer yizker bukh, a volume dedicated to the teachers of Poland, would not count either. In general, survivors and their compatriots wanted to commemorate their hometown; record its history; testify about its destruction; tell the story of their own lives and those ancestors, friends, relatives, and others who lost their lives in the Holocaust; and guard against future acts of anti-Semitism. Writers selected what they believed would best honor their town, which sometimes meant leaving out controversial, negative, religious, or political subjects. Over the years, though, the books have attracted readers with different aims. For example, for genealogists, the books are useful for the pictures that may show a relative in a class or a youth group meeting; the maps that may show the name of the street where the family lived and the proximity of the home to the school, synagogue, or market; the descriptions of common local professions that may apply to family members; or the lists that may contain family names. For academics, the books are sources of information useful for exploring social history, cultural history, linguistics, memory, survivor culture, and other topics. For librarians, there are professional issues related to collection development, collection management, and other concerns. For curators, the books are artifacts, the actual products of the survivor community, which may be displayed as material culture.

General Overviews

Only a few works provide an overview of the history of the books and their contents. These include Wein 1973, an introduction in Kugelmass and Boyarin 1998, an analysis in Amir and Horowitz 2008, and essays in Horowitz 2011.

  • Amir, Michlean J., and Rosemary Horowitz. “Yizkor Books in the Twenty-First Century: A History and Guide to the Genre.” Judaica Librarianship 14 (2008): 39–56.

    DOI: 10.14263/2330-2976.1073

    The authors give an historical introduction to the genre, along with an analysis of publication data, a discussion of the types of information contained in the books, and a description of the usefulness of the books for scholars and genealogists.

  • Horowitz, Rosemary. Memorial Books of Eastern European Jewry: Essays on the History and Meanings of Yizker Volumes. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011.

    This first full-length collection dedicated to the volumes includes two historical accounts of the genre, five landmark reviews, four essays about the books as sources, and four essays about the books as artifacts, along with an extensive bibliographic overview of the collections and secondary sources. Of special value are the English-language translations of Yiddish reviews by Jacob Shatzky and Philip Friedman.

  • Kugelmass, Jack, and Jonathan Boyarin. “Introduction.” In From a Ruined Garden: The Memorial Books of Polish Jewry. Translated and edited by Jack Kugelmass and Jonathan Boyarin, 1–48. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

    First published by Schocken Books in 1983, this volume contains an extensive introduction to the books and the organizations that sponsored them. Besides considering literary and other antecedents to the genre, the writers focus on the intersections between the books and various aspects of memory. Published in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC.

  • Wein, Abraham. “‘Memorial Books’ as a Source for Research into the History of Jewish Communities in Europe.” Yad Vashem Studies 9 (1973): 255–272.

    After noting the deficiencies in a number of books, Wein emphasizes that the information contained in the books, such as the memoirs, testimonies, tales, community documents, letters, illustrative materials, and poems, is very valuable to the study of Eastern European Jewry. He suggests some areas of research using the books, including Jewish resistance, fate of Jews in the camps, attitudes of non-Jews, and life under Soviet rule.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.