Literature from Atlantis: 8 Remarkable Yiddish Books from Poland
Several centuries of Yiddish literature in Poland brought about an amazing body of literature that is however mostly known to specialists. We've asked Yiddishists and lovers of Yiddish literature to name their favorite books of Yiddish literature. Here's what they told us.
The world of Polish Jews may have shared the fate of the legendary Atlantis as it had almost completely vanished from the surface of the earth. The huge body of Yiddish literature written across centuries in Poland is often the most tangible trace of the amazing richness and scope of the Jewish Yiddish civilization in Eastern Europe. Here's a list of some real literary treasures from this lost time-space, remarkably modern they're still worth reading today.
1. Miryem Ulinover, Der bobes oytser (My Grandmother’s Treasure), Warsaw, 1922.
Born in Łódź in 1890(?), Miryem Ulinover authored just one volume of poetry. Published in Warsaw in 1922, Der bobes oytser featured themes and images of traditional shtetl life expressed in seemingly traditional poetics of Yiddish folk poetry. As a consequence, Ulinover was for a long time considered an “authentic” naive folk poet, while in fact her poems owe much the modern sensibility and projected nostalgia.
"In her only volume of poetry, Der bobes oytser, drawing on the mythical memories of childhood, Miryem Ulinover shapes the image of a Jewish town, archetypical home and intimacy. To her contemporaries, lost in the dynamic landscape of “City, Mass, and Machine”, Ulinover offers a return to the spiritual roots – an attempt at the reconstruction of the lost identity." – Natalia Krynicka (Paris Yiddish Center - Medem Library)
2. Itsik Manger, Megille-lider (Songs of Megillah), Warsaw, 1936
Born in 1901 in Chernowitz (Bukovina), Manger spent the most productive years of his literary career in Warsaw. The Songs of Megillah, which he wrote in 1936, is a drama written in the vein of the Yiddish folk theatre tradition of the Purim-shpil – a comic dramatization of the biblical narrative from The Book of Esther performed by non-professional actors around Purim.
In his version, Manger added another parodistic dimension to the already subversive genre, as he transposed the protagonists of the story - Mordekhai, Ahasuerus, and Esther – from the Biblical Persia into the political and economic reality of the 20th century Eastern Europe. As Jacob Weitzner explains, it’s a peculiar Jewish world where Mordkhai sells shoelaces in the street and the king wears gatkes.
Manger's play was not staged in Poland before WW2. In fact, it was not performed in the Yiddish theatre until 1968 when it became a hit on the Israeli stage. As Dr. Weitzner explains, The Songs of Megillah is precisely the kind of literature that can be brought to life on stage only. Another problem is the utterly sophisticated language of Manger's text, which calls for readers not only extremely well versed in Yiddish literature, but also sensitive to all shades of Manger’s irony.
3. Der Nister, Di mishpokhe Mashber (The Family Mashber), Kiev, 1939
Der Nister (The Hidden One) is a pseudonym of Pinkhas Kahanovich, an author and philosopher, born in 1884 in Berdychiv. This town, now in Ukraine, but for a long time part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, was throughout the centuries far more than only a Jewish shtetl. In Kahanovich’s best-known work, Di mishpokhe Mashber it is the scene of a monumental realistic family saga about the different life paths taken by three brothers growing up in Berdichiv at the end of the 19th century. But, as Bella Szwarcman-Czarnota suggests, The Mashber Family is only only seemingly a realistic family saga.
Just as the name of its author is hidden behind the facade of a pseudonym, so does his realistic novel conceal a great metaphysical tale of individual lives and fate. Mashber in Hebrew means crisis, but it's also the moment when not all is yet lost. The same word was also used for a chair used by women during chilbirth to facilitate labour. And we're suspended between life and death, as the author seems to tell us. Perhaps we will choose life that will be continued through Jewish spiritual revival, represented by the youngest brother.
Although Der Nister survived WW2 and enjoyed some creative freedom in Soviet Russia, he was eventually exiled to Birobidzhan. He reportedly died on 4 June 1950 in an unknown prison hospital. The second volume of his magnum opus came out only in 1948 in New York, while the manuscript of the third was lost.
4. Yitskhok Leybush Peretz, Khsidish (Hassidic Tales), 1908
Undoubtedly the most famous Yiddish writer from Poland, Peretz’s entire literary career was spent in Warsaw, where he lived from 1888 until his death in 1915. During this time, in part much thanks to his own literary contribution, the Yiddish literature was transformed, taking a route toward European modernist literature while tying onto the themes of traditional Jewish life.
Born in the stronghold of the Jewish Enlightenment (Zamość) Peretz may have lacked first-hand knowledge of Hasidism, still his vision of the religious idealism of charismatic rabbis (tsadiks) which he had encapsulated in Khsidish turned out very powerful. In fact, Peretz was likely the first Jewish writer to present this mystical movement in a new, positive light. As Natalia Krynicka notes,
“While throughout the whole 19th century it was thea norm to portray Hasids as fanatics, dumb crowd of simpletons intoxicated with alcohol, and see the tzadiks as ignoramuses and liars (this model itself was constructed by the representatives of the Haskalah), Peretz saw the metaphysical and ethical depths of the movement, and made it the departure point of his own spiritual and artistic quest.”
In this respect, Peretz can be surely seen as predecessor to similar but more famous position on Hasidism taken later by Martin Buber.
5. Kadye Molodovski, Geyen shikhlekh avek: Mayselekh (Little Shoes Go Away: Tales), 1930
Kadye Molodovski was one of the most prolific and public of the Yiddish poets and editors to live in Warsaw in the inter-war period. Born in in 1894 in Bereze (Bereza Kartuska, today in Belarus) Molodovsky lived in Warsaw from 1921 until 1935, when she decided to immigrate to New York. Bella Szwarcman-Czarnota:
Like none other author Kadia Molodovski had a tremendous understanding of childrens' needs. She worked as a teacher in schools with Yiddish language and she also took care of children at the Otwock orphanage. She wrote her poems for children in Poland but after moving to New York, she traded Ochota and Muranów – poor districts of Warsaw – for Brownsville, a poor district of Jewish migrants in New York. In the creative mind of a child any voyage is possible, Molodovski seems to be saying, even if the child is raised in a poor family and has not seen the world beyond the couple streets in their quarter. Simple style and masterful language of these pieces is why many Jewish children started their education with the poems of Molodovski.
Geyen shikhlekh avek: Mayselekh is Molodowsky’s second book. The book won a prize from the Warsaw Jewish Community and the Yiddish Pen Club.
6. Yisroel Shtern, Gezamlte Lider (Collected Poems), 2014
Born in 1894 in Ostrolenke, Yisroel Shtern may be one of the most important unrecognized poets of the Yiddish language. He spent much of his life in Warsaw living a life of a recluse and trying to support himself by writing. He wrote mostly about the poor and suffering, and to a large extent he shared their lifestyle, suffering from hunger and deprivation, many a time being treated in local hospitals. One of such stays became then the inspiration for his most famous poem Spring in the Hospital (read it in English). Bella Szwarcman Czarnota:
Yisroel Shtern can hardly be pigeonholed - neither as a man, nor as a poet. Always on the margin of society, clumsy in his daily struggle for survival, and living in utmost depravation and neglect, at all that time he was also in the highest regions of poetic inspiration. He published in left-wing press, but prayed with the Braslaver Hasidim. He wrote about all those who were excluded from society, yet he phrased his poems in a highly sophisticated language of modernism. It is said that while in the ghetto and not long before his death, he awoke from his dreamlike isolation and opened up on others. In those days, the readings of his poems attracted crowds of people and he Shtern was somehow able to raise the spirits of his fellows. Unfortunately, no poems from this period survived.
Shtern perished in 1942 in the Warsaw Ghetto. During his lifetime he did not publish eeven a single book of poems. The Collected Poems (2014) which includes the entirety of the poet’s output found in the newspapers and manuscripts, appeared some 70 years after its author's death.
The English translations of Shtern’s poems can be accessed at www.yiddishpoetry.org.
7. Yisroel Rabon, Di gas (The Street), 1928
“It is a slim volume. Rabon’s two major works are novels and this is one of them. Rabon was born in 1900 and was shot in 1941 in Ponar. Di gas is set on the streets of Łódź just after World War I. A Jewish soldier who fought in the Polish army wanders the streets destitute, homeless, and hungry. The text hovers between dream and nightmare, hallucination and reality. This is Rabon at his most experimental. The result is a kind of magic realism.”
–- Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (Program Director of the Core Exhibition of the Warsaw Polin Museum).
8. Kalman Segal, Der tayvl in shtetl (Devil in the Shtetl), Warsaw, 1967
Contrary to what may be thought, Yiddish literature in Poland didn't end with the Holocaust. It continued in Communist Poland with poets like Binem Heller, Hadasa Rubin, and Dawid Sfard, and prose writers like: Lili Berger and Kalman Segal.
The latter may be of particular interest. According to Magdalena Ruta, a Polish scholar specializing in Post-war Yiddish literature, Segal's prose oeuvre epitomizes all of the important components of Post-war Yiddish literature (and Polish-Jewish literature) in Poland: its entanglement in the memory of Shoah, survivor syndrome, a sense of attachment to the destroyed world gone by - as well as problems of cultural identity in thw world after the war: the world without Jews, yet still hostile to them.
But Segal's importance lies also in his role as a bilingual writer incessantly mediating between the two cultures close to him. In fact, Segal wrote in both Yiddish and Polish and translated his own books from one language into the other.
“Der tayvl in shtetl (1967) seems particularly important in the context of salvaging the memory of the pre-war Jewish life. In its humor and depiction of the world of average Jewish people with their vices and virtues, Segal's novel may be reminiscent of Sholem Aleichem's prose. At other times it may draw comparisons with the literary world concocted by I.B. Singer. Der tayvl in shtetl remains a literary monument erected by the writer in the memory of his native town of Sanok along with all its Jewish dwellers.” - Magdalena Ruta
Segal's book was published in 1967. A year later, when the Communist regime provoked a mass exodus of Jews from Poland, the several centuries-long project of Yiddish literature came to an abrupt end.
Based on recommendations from Bella Szwarcman-Czarnota, Magdalena Ruta, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Natalia Krynicka and Kobi Weitzner.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 16 December, 2015