As Victor Klemperer showed in his WWII diaries and in “The Language of the Third Reich,” the words we use in our daily lives create the conditions under which we think (or even can think) about reality — and these words, our language, is subject to manipulation.
Names are central to Jewish tradition, not only in the genesis of Genesis but also in the story of Passover, which we are commanded to retell personally, as if we had been delivered from Mizraim. It’s important to call things by their true names, to enumerate the plagues one by one, to bear witness and not be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of tragedy. It is this form of attention that makes it possible to draw distinctions between one thing and another and wrong from right, not to mention truth and justice.
As the AJT continues to cover the story of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and our community’s inspired response to the devastation, I have done my best to call things by their proper names, avoiding passive construction that threatens to confuse who and what is responsible and clarifying the subject of every sentence: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, not the “war” or the “conflict in.” People — children, teachers, doctors — not a “death toll.”
Schreibt un farschreibt, as historian Simon Dubnow implored the Jews of the Riga ghetto. Write and record, inscribe. Do not forget. We must remember how this invasion began and who began it, so that one day, when it’s finally over and we’ve gotten to the other side, the story of this tragedy can at least be told, even if we are no longer personally here to tell it.
Daniel Elkind is the associate editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times.