Jewish youngsters, members of the Bund, on an organized trip to the ruins of a castle, Kazimierz nad Wisłą, Poland, 1930s. Photograph by Lokieryk. (YIVO)

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Founded in 1926, Landkentenish (Pol., Krajoznawstwo), the Jewish movement to promote touring the countryside, brought together two disparate ideological strands: the ideal of the French Physiocrats, who extolled agricultural labor as being most productive, and the new nationalism that laid exclusive claim to the land and its historic landmarks. Because Jewish membership in the Polish Touring Society was severely restricted, and because the Poles made no effort to preserve Jewish landmarks, Jewish historians, ethnographers, novelists, poets, and other engagé intellectuals formed their own society and issued their own publications: Land un lebn (1927–1928), edited by Yitskhok Lejpuner, as well as the bilingual Landkentenish / Krajoznawstwo (1933–1935) and Landkentenish: Yedies fun Yi. G. F. L. / Krajoznawstwo: Wiadomosci Z. T. K. (1936–1938), both edited by Emanuel Ringelblum.

Participants in a hiking trip to Hala Gąsienicowa in the Tatra Mountains, organized by the Kultur-lige, a cultural organization in Warsaw, 1930. (YIVO)

One strand of the movement upheld the original Enlightenment mandate. In 1935, Hirsh Mats produced a detailed Yiddish guide, Kurerter un turistik in Poyln (Health Resorts and Tourism in Poland), complete with advice from 16 medical doctors about which Polish spas and regions were best suited to cure particular ailments. Meanwhile, Zalmen Szyk, chair of the Vilna branch of the Landkentenish Society, set out to rescue “Yerusholayim de Lite” (i.e., Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania) as a universal Yiddish memory site. His lavishly illustrated and thoroughly professional guidebook 1000 yor Vilne (One Thousand Years of Vilna) was designed to serve people into the next millennium.

In the 1930s, the novelist Mikhoel Burshtin became the movement’s major public figure. Studying and touring the historic Polish shtetls, he argued, would bring urban Jews back to nature, would close the gap between intellectuals and the folk, would counteract the geographical fragmentation of the Jews, and would even offer a secular alternative to the older religious faith.

The most ideologically focused expression of this movement was regionalism, which defined itself in direct opposition to its three major competitors: the rising nation-state, with its desire for hegemony and centralized power; the Zionist movement, with its negation of the Diaspora; and the left, with its messianic hopes for industrial labor. Regionalism, by contrast, celebrated “the aesthetics of everyday life” far away from the nation’s capital and from the great industrial melting pots. Informed by a regionalist mandate, Naftoli Vaynig (Weinig) issued “Organizatsye un arbet fun an etnografishn krayz” (The Organization and Work of an Ethnographic Circle; Landkentenish 2 [1934]: 5–17), advancing a sophisticated program of ethnographic study.

The main attractions of the Landkentenish movement were its summer and winter resorts, and its hiking, skiing, and kayaking expeditions that appealed to a small but growing urban middle class. But if every region of Poland could boast its own Yiddish dialect, synagogue architecture, Jewish crafts, and arcane customs, not to speak of flora and fauna, then here was an inexhaustible font of inspiration for writers, painters, historians, ethnographers, and social scientists. This meeting of literature and locus had a significant impact on Yiddish literary creativity, whether through the prose fiction of Rokhl Korn, Mikhoel Burshtin, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, or the reportorial fiction of Rokhl Oyerbakh and Perets Opotshinski. Like Burshtin, Singer saw the shtetl as a unique repository of layered folkways and national distinctiveness.

It was behind ghetto walls that Landkentenish was transformed into a rescue operation of national scope. In the first months of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, the Oyneg Shabes archive, under the directorship of Emanuel Ringelblum, set itself the monumental task of studying, chronicling, and memorializing the life-and-death struggle of European Jewry in wartime. Indeed, the reportage, refined by such seasoned journalists as Oyerbakh and Opotshinski, became the genre of choice as Ringelblum divided the ghetto into its constituent neighborhoods, courtyards, refugee centers, workshops, markets, and places of recreation, worship, schooling, and smuggling. So too it was in the Vilna ghetto, where students were instructed to collect ethnography produced under Nazi occupation.

Founded in 1950 upon the dual mandate of a return to nature and a reclamation of national landmarks, the Ḥevrah le-Haganat ha-Teva‘ (Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel) is the direct heir of the Landkentenish movement. In a country riven by political and ethnic tensions, the society brings together all Israelis, offering them courses in geography and nature studies, organized tours, and lessons in nature preservation.

Suggested Reading

Mikhl Burshtin, “A nayer faktor in yidishn lebn,” Landkentenish 1 (1933): 9–13; Philip Friedman, “Regyonalizm,” Landkentenish 23 (March 1937): 3–7; 24 (June 1937): 1–3; Hirsh Mac, Kurerter un turistik in Poyln (Warsaw, 1935); Emanuel Ringelblum, “Fun der redaktsye,” Landkentenish 1 (1933): 3–8; Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Concerning Yiddish Literature in Poland (1943),” trans. Robert Wolf, Prooftexts 15.2 (1995): 113–127; Zalmen Szyk, 1000 yor Vilne, vol. 1 (Vilna, 1939).