Monumental. It is not a word one can often use to describe a book, but it is perhaps the only appropriate one to describe the remarkable three volume set titled The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life. This is not a set that anyone is likely to read through from cover to cover, but it is an invaluable documentary record of life in more than 6,500 Jewish communities before and after the Holocaust that should, at the very least, be browsed from cover to cover.
The three volumes, 1824 pages, are actually abridged from a 30-volume set in Hebrew published after three decades of research by scholars for Yad Vashem, so an even more astounding collection is available to readers who can read it in the original language. As it is, the book provides a wealth of information produed by more than 80 international contributors. For some small towns, the entries may be a few lines while for the larger cities, the history stretches for several pages. More than 600 black-and-white photographs are sprinkled throughout the text to add a visual sense of the time and place. The entries are listed in alphabetical order so it's very easy to use and there is also an excellent chronology, glossary and index of personalities.
The encyclopedia will certainly be invaluable to scholars and those with a special interest in the Holocaust and Jewish history, but it may also be of particular interest for people interested in tracing their family histories and the places they've come from. One frustration in looking up European places is often the confusing spellings, but the editors wisely anticipated this and provide an index of communities that includes alternative spellings.
If there is a criticisim, it is that the title is somewhat misleading. I expected this to be a history of Jewish life through the ages around the world rather than one that specifically relates to the Holocaust. The book does contain some history on communities that does not relate directly to the Holocaust, but it is essentially a book about the impact of Hitler's extermination campaign on Jewish communities, large and small, that fell within his control. The size of the encyclopedia is depressing because it gives a sense of the magnitude of the catastrophe that befell the Jewish people. It is not the numbers, however, that are important. As with so much about the Holocaust, it is easy to cite statistics and lose sight of the impact of the Nazis on day to day life and institutions, but this encyclopedia makes clear the lasting damage they did not only to individuals but to communities.
Sources: Mitchel Bard is the Executive Director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise