Lucy S. Dawidowicz

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Dawidowicz was the author of several important studies about the life of Eastern European Jews in the period before World War II and their experiences during the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis.

Early Life

Lucy Schildkret was born on June 16, 1915, in New York City in a neighborhood settled by Jewish immigrants. Her parents, Max Schildkret and Dora Ofnaem Schildkret, had emigrated to New York from Poland, then a province within czarist Russia, sometime around 1908, when they were still in their teens. At first, they worked in the New York sweatshops. After their marriage, her parents tried their hand at several small business, but all of these endeavors failed. In 1927, they purchased a new four-family house in a developing section of the Bronx; by 1937, they were unable to make mortgage payments, and the bank foreclosed.

Although both of Lucy’s parents were reared in a religious environment of Orthodox Judaism, they ultimately rejected orthodoxy. Theirs was a secular faith expressed through the celebration of the Jewish holidays; pride in Jewish history; preservation of Yiddish, the vernacular language of Eastern European Jews; and advocacy of a Jewish socialist ideology. They were avid readers of the New York Yiddish press and wanted their daughter to have an understanding of Eastern European Jewish culture as well as American culture.

Education was the central focus of Lucy’s life. As a young child, she attended the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute to learn to read and write Yiddish. From 1928 to 1932, she went to classes at the elite Hunter College High School and, on the weekends, also attended the Sholem Aleichem Mitlshul, a Yiddish high school.

Despite the family’s economic hardship, Lucy entered Hunter College in September of 1932. At that time, the United States was in the depths of the Great Depression, and Hitler’s Fascist domination of Germany was an imminent reality. During her undergraduate years, Bolshevik communism in the Soviet Union deeply affected her intellectual and emotional development. Nevertheless, she rejected the communist ideology by the time she was graduated from college.

After her graduation from Hunter College in 1936, Lucy was unable to find a job. Her mother encouraged her to return to school to study for a master’s degree. In September of 1936, Lucy enrolled at Columbia University, choosing courses in art, poetry, and philosophy. Despite her initial enthusiasm, she dropped out of the program after only a few weeks. Instead, her interest turned in the direction of Jewish studies, particularly the history and culture of Polish Jews. The disappearance of Yiddish culture in Poland seemed imminent, since contemporary Jews in Poland were experiencing severe poverty, and outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence were becoming commonplace. In 1937, Lucy was accepted for readmission to Columbia, and she made plans to begin a research project on the Yiddish press in England.

Eventually, Lucy applied for a 1938-1939 postgraduate fellowship at the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO) in Vilna, Poland. In the late 1930’s, YIVO had become the center for research and study in Yiddish linguistics, history, social studies, and pedagogy. Lucy’s decision to study at YIVO was an expression of her ardent belief that this institution might eventually become an international center of a self- sustaining Yiddish culture. Ignoring her family’s objections to her decision to go to Poland when it stood at the brink of war, Lucy accepted a fellowship to YIVO and embarked on the Polish ocean liner Batons on August 1, 1938.

Life’s Work

Although her fellowship year at YIVO, surrounded by some of the most creative scholars of Yiddish life in Poland, was rich in cultural experiences, Lucy Schildkret decided to leave Vilna after one year because of the heightened threat of war. As she later recalled in her 1989 memoir From That Place and Time, “[E]very night we lay down to sleep and to dream the dark dreams of our fears.” Although she felt guilty about leaving her friends and colleagues behind, Lucy was able to return to the United States shortly before the Nazis invaded Poland on September 2, 1939.

During World War II, Lucy lived in New York City and worked as a researcher and archivist at the newly established American branch of the YIVO. The Vilna branch of the institute was taken over first by the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic; later, in 1941, the German army occupied Vilna. During the German occupation of the city, many of YIVO’s precious books and manuscripts were confiscated. Although a major portion of the collection was transported to Germany, numerous books and documents were destroyed. Some materials were saved from destruction by Polish Jews such as the poet Abraham Sutzkever, who hid portions of the archives in the Jewish ghettos in Vilna.

Desperate to learn the fate of her friends, Lucy was horrified to hear of the methodical extermination of Polish Jews once this news became public. During the war, she had immersed herself in the study of Yiddish literature and Jewish history in the hope that she...

(The entire section is 2128 words.)