A Tribute to Yakob Basner
12/8/1927 – 9/8/2021
My Yiddish Coach, Friend, and Holocaust Survivor
Photo courtesy of SoCal Arbeter Ring/Workers Circle
It is with sadness that I share the passing of Yakob Basner; an incredible teacher, Yiddishist, Holocaust survivor, and someone who was instrumental in helping me prepare for my concert of Yiddish Songs Written in the Jewish Ghetto. I had the honor of working with Yakob for two months as he patiently helped me fine tune my Yiddish accent and helped me understand (on a deeper level) what the writers of these songs were trying to convey. On September 10, at the request of Yakob’s family, I had the honor of singing the Yiddish song Oyfn Priperchick at Yakob’s funeral; a beautiful song about a teacher.
In the stove a fire burns and the room is warm, and the Rebe teaches little children the alphabet. Remember children, remember, dear ones what you are learning here. Repeat it again and yet again, komets alef is “o”…Mark Warshevsky
Click here for an audio recording of me, singing this song. You can also access the link here: https://bit.ly/3hNiT8g
When the Nazis invaded the city of Riga in Latvia in 1941, Yakob and his entire family were forced into the Riga Ghetto. Yakob’s mother, father and his seven-year old twin siblings, a brother and sister, were all killed, along with 40 other members of his immediate family. During the war, Yakob was deported to five different concentration camps and was the only one of his immediate family members to survive the Holocaust. Yakob was seventeen years old when he was liberated from Theresienstadt with typhoid fever. Alone in the world, he made the decision to survive.
After returning to Riga, Yakob was elated to find that his childhood friend Doba Taytz had survived. Doba and Yakob’s rekindled friendship grew and they were soon married. Their family grew with the birth of their two daughters Guta and Elizabeth. Yiddish was Yakob’s native tongue, but the Soviets forced him to learn Russian and discouraged him from speaking Yiddish and attending Yiddish activities. Although it was difficult, Yakob managed to emigrate with his wife to Long Beach, CA in 1980. Their daughter Elizabeth had arrived earlier in 1978, and her sister Guta came in 1982. Yakob was finally free to speak his beloved language and began teaching Yiddish.
Yakob was a very kind, gentle (he never raised his voice), and generous man who would not take one penny from me the entire two months that he coached me. My husband Joe, who speaks Yiddish fluently, frequently spoke with Yakob on the phone (in Yiddish of course) and attended his monthly lectures. My husband drove seniors (who also knew Yiddish) to Yakob’s lectures ensuring that Yakob would have a receptive audience. Yakob delighted my daughters with Chanukah stories and poems at our annual Chanukah party. His stories are forever engraved in our hearts and memories.
May his name be that of a blessing.
To see a full interview with Yakob Basner with the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project, visit: https://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/…/yakob-basner-2016