יידיש (Yiddish) is historically the language of the אשכנזים (Ashkenazim) in מזרח-אייראפע (Central and Eastern Europe). Just a century ago, there were 11–13 million Yiddish-speakers among 17 million Jews worldwide. 85% of the approximately 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust were Yiddish-speakers, leading to a massive decline in the use of the language. Assimilation following World War II and migration to Israel further decreased the use of Yiddish.
Yiddish was birthed in a diaspora, and now lives on in a diaspora from the place that birthed it. It survives today in small pockets throughout the Jewish diaspora in places like ניו יארק סיטי (New York), מאנטרעאל (Montréal), and לאנדאן (London). It’s very much a living language, but increasingly disconnected from the geography of Central and Eastern Europe.
Still, that geography is embedded in Ashkenazi culture. Many of the places in these maps are written into the very names of today’s Ashkenazim. When Austro-Hungarian and Czarist Russian authorities compelled their Jewish subjects to take permanent surnames in the 18th and 19th centuries, one of the most common practices was to adopt the town or region where they lived, or where their families came from, as their last name. Yiddish names like Frankel (from Franconia), Epstein (from Eppstein), Gordon (from Grodno), Horowitz (from Hořovice), Shapiro (from Speyer), Schlesinger (from Silesia), and Wiener (from Vienna) all originated in this way.
For centuries, many Ashkenazim were forbidden from owning land in Europe. Consequently, many Jews throughout Europe led transient lives, constantly on the move from town to town. The Decolonial Atlas’ Jordan Engel’s own Yiddish-speaking great-grandfather lived variously in present-day Ukraine, Hungary, and Slovakia before emigrating to New York. There’s no doubt that Jews in that region, at that time, were savvy geographers by necessity. These maps are a testament to that expertise.
Because everywhere they have lived, Yiddish-speakers have been a minority, and since the language has almost never had government recognition or backing, there is little standardization of Yiddish place names. Some Yiddish names, like ווארשע (Varshe – the capital of Poland) and ווילנע (Vilne – the capital of Lithuania) are well-established, but many others, especially shtetlekh (smaller towns), have suffered a worse fate. All too often, people either don’t know or pretend not to know that these places have their own Yiddish names.
In the important work of preserving Europe’s Jewish history and revitalizing Yiddish knowledge, these maps are indispensable.
If you know of any maps we could add to this list, leave us a comment below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Map 1: Political Map of Europe Circa 1924 in Yiddish. Source: Medem Library, Paris.
Map 2: Eastern Europe in Yiddish. Source: Fundacja Shalom textbook, June 2016
Map 3: Physical map of Europe in Yiddish. Source: Geographic Atlas of Icchok Kaduszyn, 1922
Map 4: Poland and Lithuania in Yiddish. Source: Geographic Atlas of Icchok Kaduszyn, 1922
Map 5: USSR in Yiddish. Source: Geographic Atlas of Icchok Kaduszyn, 1922
Map 6: Ukraine in Yiddish. Source: Geographic Atlas of Icchok Kaduszyn, 1922
Map 7: Jewish Autonomous Oblast, USSR. Source: Geographic Atlas of Icchok Kaduszyn, 1922
Map 8: World Map in Yiddish. Source: Geographic Atlas of Icchok Kaduszyn, 1922
Map 9: Asia-centered World Map in Yiddish. Source: Geographic Atlas of Icchok Kaduszyn, 1922
Map 10: Eastern Europe Yiddish Road Map, 2018, containing Yiddish names of 3,500 towns. Source: Shtetlach
Map 11: The region around Suchostaw, Ukraine in Yiddish. Source: Yonina Matz Lamdan
Map 12: Líte – The Classic Litvak (Lithuanian Jewish) Territory in Latin-script Yiddish. By Dovid Katz.
Map 13: Linguistic Territory of Litvish, An Atlas of Northeastern Yiddish (Working Draft 2020). By Dovid Katz.
Map 14: Yiddish Atlas of the Soviet Union, 1931. Source: Yiddish Dialect Dictionary.
Map 14: New York City in Yiddish by Jordan Engel.