Finding Yiddish in North Africa

It was while he was a soldier during World War II that Bernard Sussman came to realize there was value to the language of his grandmother. There are countless examples of American soldiers in World War II using Yiddish. Most often it was to communicate with European Jews. Yiddish often provided a shared language and culture between American and European Jews that allowed communication. Yiddish also allowed Americans and Russians to communicate once the two forces met after marching through Germany. Yiddish allowed discussions between concentration camps survivors and the soldiers who liberated them. Yiddish was the language American soldiers used to help Jewish displaced persons find their families after the war. It’s not surprising to find the language of European Jewry being used by American Jews whose families came from Europe not so long before the war.

But Yiddish was often used in more surprising wartime contexts in other parts of the world. Sometimes it helped American service members to do their job abroad by acting as a language for translators. Two Yiddish speakers from different parts of the world discovering their common tongue becomes a repeated story in wartime. One example is Bernard Sussman’s experience in Algeria in World War II. 

Private Sussman, a Bronx native, entered the Army in 1942. He was stationed in Oran to provide ordnance support in 1943. He supervised the local civilian laborers who worked at the docks unloading crates. While doing this work, he met several Jewish civilians.

In his letters home from North Africa, one of the first things Bernard Sussman noted was that the local Jewish population did not speak Yiddish. A buddy, Harold Servetnik, brought Sussman to a Shabbat service at the synagogue in Oran. Previously unaware that these were Sephardic Jews with a different linguistic background, Sussman noted in a 1943 letter home: “There is quite a Jewish population, native, that is, besides the refugees. They speak French and Hebrew, not Yiddish.” Severtnik had become close with an Algerian family. Through this contact, Sussman learned about Algerian Jews and felt a sense of community, but it seemed clear the Yiddish he learned from his grandmother would be of no use.

This changed when, frustrated by failed communications in French, Sussman discovered a man he was supervising at the docks was a Jew who spoke Yiddish. Yiddish became the way they were able to communicate and Sussman was able to act as an interpreter to allow the North African to communicate with other Americans. Yiddish allowed the ordnance work to continue.

Sussman wrote about this in letters to his father. In turn, his father sent the letters to The Forward, the Yiddish-language daily newspaper in New York.

On December 25th 1944, the letters appeared in editor Chaim Ehrenreich’s column in the Jewish Daily Forward. Yiddish-English translation of was done in 1999 for Sussman by Hy Wolfe and Shelby Shapiro.

Image from Forward retrieved via Jewish Historical Press

IN NORTH AFRICA HE REALIZES HOW IMPORTANT THE YIDDISH LANGUAGE IS

The letter that Bernie Sussman wrote to his parents, and sisters, Mr. and Mrs. Harry Sussman 3214 Fish Avenue, Bronx, New York is already more than a year and one half old, but the letter is in no way dated. On the contrary, it is extremely interesting and also important. We hope that many of our readers will take the time to read it.

Bernie wrote from North Africa on April 17, 1943. Bernie Sussman served in the army. Unfortunately, his father, who sent the letter to us, did not tell us if Bernie was an enlisted man or an officer. One readily realizes, however, that he is an intelligent young man with a head on his shoulders. 

Bernie writes:

I am certain that what I express in this letter will interest you. You may remember that Adele and I had a rather disdainful attitude (not so Esther, in hindsight she was always more open minded) with regard to the use of Yiddish within the family. Especially while Bubbeh was alive, and that was the only language we could use in talking to her. 

We were, ostensibly, American and modern and wanted to avoid old-fashioned, foreign influences. Every first generation American-Italian, Greek, etc.-probably felt more or less the same. We weren’t tolerant or sensible enough to accept Yiddish as just another language like English, French, or German. We were not farsighted enough to realize that Yiddish could be just as useful as any other language. Yiddish seemed to us to be the last language to be of practical value. For years we studied Latin, French, Greek, Spanish, German, but we neglected the opportunity to learn a language which came naturally to us, with no difficulty.

In spite of myself, I learned to understand Yiddish well and to speak it with some facility. And here in the middle of Africa, my knowledge is being used in the best possible way, in conservation with a person I had trouble understanding. I was particularly friendly with this one man, but could understand his French only if he spoke it slowly and with much repetition. Then we discovered that we both knew Yiddish. I experienced the same pleasure speaking with him in Yiddish as if, suddenly, I was able to converse in fluent French. When he requested that I act as English interpreter for him, I felt extremely gratified. I now speak with this man almost daily. Try to imagine what it means when, in attempting a conservation, you can utter only unintelligible sounds; then, all at once, you realize you can have an intelligent conversation.

I believe that I already told you that the Jews here speak French and Hebrew, not Yiddish. This man is an exception. He speaks and understands several languages. I will, perhaps, never again have an opportunity to use my Yiddish in a practical situation, but this experience is justification enough for learning a language even if it should require much work and effort. Generally speaking, it is my opinion that no matter how unimportant and irrelevant it may seem at the moment, a subject is worthwhile learning, not merely for the sake of knowledge alone, but for its usefulness at another time.

If not for the war and not for North Africa, Bernie Sussman might not have arrived, with some difficulty, at the realization that Yiddish is a language that is pertinent and useful. Many, many other Jewish young men have themselves found this out.

Sussman would go onto serve in Italy continuing with ordnance work before being transferred to military police in 1944. He returned home in August 1945.

Bernie Sussman lives in Florida. He wrote about his wartime experiences in his memoir A Road Back for which the Forward column was originally translated to English.