The mother tongue via Minsk

Alexander Ostroukh has spent 10 years compiling a Yiddish-Belarusian dictionary. (Matt Siegel)

Alexander Ostroukh has spent 10 years compiling a Yiddish-Belarusian dictionary. (Matt Siegel)

MINSK, Belarus (JTA) – Alexander Ostroukh can thank Leonid Brezhnev for helping along one of the most complex and definitive Yiddish dictionaries ever compiled – in Belarusian, a language barely spoken by most of his own countrymen.

The Yiddish translations of the longtime Soviet leader’s multi-volume memoirs proved a useful tool for Ostroukh, a Minsk intellectual and art restorer, and local Yiddishists.

They “allowed us to create our own dictionaries,” he says. “I still have colleagues who remember entire passages from Brezhnev’s books in Yiddish.”

Brezhnev, leader of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, had his memoirs translated into all the native languages of the Soviet Union.

Ostroukh has devoted 10 years to his Yiddish dictionary project.

“For me it’s not a holiday, it’s not a profession, it’s my life,” he says. “I need to do it, so I’m doing it for myself. It’s not a commercial project or a way of making money.”

Ostroukh, a linguistic autodidact, speaks Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Yiddish in addition to his country’s native Russian and Belarusian.

His decision to spend so much of his life on a dictionary relating two nearly dead languages makes him interesting enough, but he’s not even Jewish.

Due perhaps to the legacy of tragedy they share with their country’s Jews, it’s not uncommon for non-Jews in Belarus to take up projects in memory of Jewish life here. In addition to Ostroukh, there is the artist Richard Grusha, who erects memorials to Jews on the sites of unrecognized mass execution.

“The mentality of a Soviet man was very unusual,” says Ostroukh, looking every bit the Soviet intellectual in his bland sweater, close-cropped beard and wire-rim glasses. “You couldn’t run your own business. Either you became an alcoholic or you entered a kind of abstract world. The world of art for example, music or language. I was interested in languages.”

One thing that sets Ostroukh’s project apart is its sheer scale and the peculiarly secular religiosity that has come to dominate his life for the past 10 years.

Ostroukh was introduced to Yiddish in July 1984 when he and several other art students were sent to Slonim, a town in western Belarus, to restore a 16th century synagogue that had fallen into severe disrepair. He was immediately enthralled.

Sitting in the kitchen of a rented flat in Minsk, his eyes light up as he recounts that first encounter with the dying language.

“Yiddish was particularly interesting because it was a very unusual language. It’s very macaronic,” he says, referring to its incorporation of German, Russian and Hebrew. “In the Soviet Union where everything was closed, for us students it was a revelation.”

For centuries before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Yiddish was a fixture of life in Belarus. Until World War II it was one of four official state languages along with Russian, Belarusian and Polish.

Belarus lost 2 million people, 25 percent of its population, in the Holocaust. Some 810,000 of them were Jews – 90 percent of the prewar Jewish population.

Minsk’s Yarma memorial, erected on the site of the city’s Jewish ghetto, was the first in the Soviet Union to single out the suffering of Jewish rather than merely “Soviet” victims.

In the wake of the Holocaust and the Soviet regime’s chauvinistic linguistic policies favoring Russian, both Yiddish and Belarusian became nearly extinct. As of 2005, no public school in Minsk taught in Belarusian.

Ostroukh’s massive dictionary, weighing in at more than 1,000 pages, builds on the works of earlier Belarusian Jews, notably the 1932 Yiddish dictionaries of Shmuel Plavnik and Sofia Rohkind’s 1940 publication. Much of the new dictionary’s phraseological information was drawn from those efforts.

Ostroukh also acknowledges a debt to the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, where he studied Yiddish and its history from 1998 to 2004, along with the history of Belarusian Jewry.

The project, funded primarily by Russian donor Andrei Gorbenko of St. Petersburg, is a landmark effort in the resurgence of Yiddish studies. It contains one of the most thorough treatments of Yiddish phraseology, as well as meticulously detailed etymological information.

Ostroukh laments the current situation of Yiddish in Belarus, a poor country considered by many in the West to be suffering under Europe’s last dictator, Alexander Lukashenko. Few people still know the mother tongue, and they are elderly and poor.

So aside from his dictionary, Ostroukh does what he can to help revive the language on what was once some of its most fertile land.

As a teacher at a Minsk art school in the 1990s, Ostroukh had his students memorize Yiddish children’s songs alongside Russian classics.

Married to a Jewish woman, at home he teaches his two children how to speak and read a language that is more their heritage than his own.

Ostroukh understands and is unfazed by those who criticize him for embarking on such an arcane project. He recalls something he read years ago in an interview with Soviet writer Samuil Marshak.

“You should do one completely useless thing in your life,” he says. “It just might turn out to be the most worthwhile thing you’ve ever done.”

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