Yizkor (memorial) books document the history of Jewish communities destroyed in the Holocaust. Most often privately published and compiled through the collective efforts of former community residents, they describe daily life through essays and photographs and memorialize murdered residents. Most yizkor books are in Hebrew and/or Yiddish, although more English translations have been published in online and print format. NYPL’s yizkor book collection now includes about 730 yizkor books.
A phenomenon for the most part of the late 1950s, the 1960s, and the early 1970s, the yizkor books evoked by the Holocaust were edited, privately printed, and distributed (often free of charge) by committees of survivors of many hundreds of the former Jewish population centers of eastern Europe, and generally they culminate in lists of community members who did not survive the war. Over the centuries, however, traditional yizkor books (or Memorbücher, as they were called in the original Ashkenazi lands of Central Europe) had expanded beyond commemorating only the victims of persecution to record also the outstanding personages who had adorned the community in good times as well as bad. True to this spirit, the activists in the post-war yizkor book revival sought both to commemorate the dead and to recollect and celebrate, as well, the quality of life of the communities of which they had been a part. Where yizkor books contain lists of names, therefore, these are prefaced by personal memoirs and biographical sketches, and much emphasis is placed, too, on essays that describe local Jewish society in all the diversity represented by its organizations: political, intellectual, artistic, professional, and recreational, as well as philanthropic and spiritual.
Typically, these books were published in Israel or New York, or, occasionally, in Buenos Aires. The essays in these volumes may be all in Hebrew, or all in Yiddish, or some in one language and some in the other. Not infrequently, a brief English-language summary appears at the end; in a few cases, there may be substantial content in English, Hungarian, or other languages. Holocaust memorial books tend to be long, frequently running to 600-900 pages, and they are unindexed. Many of the volumes are extensively illustrated with photographs, although the images, themselves survivors of the Holocaust, have sometimes suffered damage and the quality of reproduction is not always particularly high, in line with the book production values of the time.
Yizkor books were published in very small quantities and at a time when permanent paper was little used. As a result, these volumes, which were meant to perpetuate the memory of a "vanished world," are often hard to find, and, in some cases, are themselves in danger of vanishing. The yizkor book holdings of the Dorot Jewish Division are the most extensive in the United States, with upwards of 90% of the titles listed in Zachary M. Baker's Bibliography of Eastern European Memorial (Yizkor) Books.