As I am drawn more and more to Yiddish Literature I am also reading books and articles focusing on the culture from which this arose, Eastern European and Russian Jews. I have listened to numerous podcasts of lectures from academic authorities (Your best source for this are Yivo Institute Lectures on YouTube). Most authorities suggest the primary reason most read Yiddish Literature is to help preserve important aspects of Jewish history. For many, and I very much respect this, it is a way to let the world know the Holocaust failed, that the values exemplified in Yiddish Literature will never be destroyed.
Yiddish was once the language of the “ordinary people”. It was considered more “high class” to speak German, Russian, Polish or Hebrew. Writing in Yiddish was even before the German invasion of Poland in 1939 almost a political statement.
There are three (at least) commonly believed myths about Yiddish Literature, four years ago I would have accepted them.
- Yiddish Literature stopped being produced in 1939
- Yiddish Literature is all “Fiddler on The Roof” type works
- The writers are all men.
I first began to read Yiddish Literature when, in November 2013 Yale University gave me their nine volume Yiddish Collection. I avidly read these books, discoveries all to me, new writers, new culture, new to me history. Since then I have been reading Short Stories and some poetry by Yiddish Language writers. I found a culture devoted to the Reading Life, many concetration camp inmates at once asked for books upon liberation. Of 3000 literary works I have posted upon since I began my blog among the very greatest works of art are is a story wriiten in Yiddish in in the Lodz Ghetto in Poland, “The Ghetto Dog” by Isaiah Spiegel. I would now say much the same thing about “Correspondents” by Blume Lempel.
Lempel’s stories refutes all three of the “Myths of Yiddish Literature”. Her work was written after she moved to New York State and they are about the experiences of women of Yiddish ancestral history. The settings very from NYC, Israel, Yosemite National Park, Paris, a box car headed for a death camp, and an abortionist office. Her stories are often highly compressed, played out in the memory of the narrators.
As “Correspondents” opens a woman, a Holocaust Survivor, is writing a letter to a younger woman with whom she is emotionally involved. In this story we see memories of The Holocaust flood in on the consciousness of the narrator as she rides the subway. Near her a young man is carrying a violin case. She wants to explain how this made her feel to her friend:
““I raised my eyes and saw how the violin or the violoncello beneath the blue silk was shaped like a dancer waiting for her cue for her first step. Or perhaps it was the power of the young man’s eyes which looked into mine and awakened octaves from a hundred-year sleep. I don’t know how long I held his gaze, but when I turned my head towards the window through which the dark tunnel looked in, two hot tears fell from my eyes.”
“With his violin under his arm, he stood on the bottom step of the panting Express. The violin wept as we exchanged our last kiss. He kept waving his handkerchief for a long time. The wheels began to turn. A rain beat down. For three days and two nights the train wheels sang the Song of Songs to me: “I love you. I love you.” All the way from Lemberg to Paris and the Gare du Nord. After the Shoab, I couldn’t conceive of these three words. I avoided all musical sounds. I would stop up my ears against the songs of street singers who milked tears from passersby over their betrayed loves. The love which had forced us to separate was betrayed by the world: the world that knew but pretended it did not know when it burned, systematically exterminated, not hundreds, not thousands, but an entire people to the beat of Beethoven’s Ninth.”
This story for me reaches the sublime, I really wish I could just quote the entire four page story.
“Usually I’m not the type who cries. The last Jewish destruction had sealed the well of my tears. The summer after Liberation, I couldn’t talk to people. I shared my sorrow with a felled tree which peered at me over my neighbour’s fence. I became close with a cat who had lost her newborn kittens. A murderous tom had gouged their throats and leftthem on the threshold of her den. The cat didn’t shed any tears. She just followed the tracks of the murderer, only sought revenge. She didn’t touch the milk I put out for her. When I tried to pet her, she clawed me. What the cat did to me, I did to my friends. I didn’t want, nor could I tolerate, any comfort. I just wanted to remain mute, or to scream the same cries that come from a violin or violoncello … . Seated this way near the young man, the violin between us, I saw another violin under another sky in another time. The symphony of that other violin has remained unfinished........
murderers without horns, without drums, the descendants of Goethe, Mozart, Kant”
I read this story in Found Treasures: Stories of Yiddish Women Writers. The translator was Irena Klopfisz.
This is a Master work, a Short story elevated to High Art.
Blume Lempel was born in the Ukraine in 1907. In 1929 she moved to Paris to be with her brother. She loved Paris, married there, and in 1939 she and her husband moved to Long Island, New York. She stayed there until her death in 1999. She had three children and began to write short stories in Yiddish, was widely published and won many awards. She was fluent in English, French, and had a working knowledge of Russian. She choice to write in Yiddish to speak for those lost in the Holocaust and to defy those who wanted the language wiped out.