1913- Born Vilna, Lithuanian
1937 - moves to the Soviet Union
1944 - he returns to a nearly destroyed Vilna with most of the Jewish residents murdered by the Germans. From “Vilna Without Vilna”- “the German murderers came to our city to slaughter the Jews.”
1949- after time at a displaced persons camp in Cyprus, he moves permanently to Israel. For thirty years he was director of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. He wrote many stories in Yiddish set in the city he loved, Vilna. Intellectually he wrote about the role of Yiddish as a marginalised language in Israel.
2004- He dies in Israel
In its day Vilna was the cultural center of Jewish Europe. Vilna had the greatest scholars, the most beautiful temples, The finest schools, marvellous libraries, a vibrant Yiddish theatre and numerous publishing houses. It was the home to the Vivo Institute, now relocated in New York City. It was often called the Jerusalem of Europe. On Yiddish heritage tours of Europe, it is a leading destination.
This being said, the world Karpinowitz brings to life in his wonderful stories is the Vilna of gangsters, pick pockets, whore houses (his term). Here are the words of the narrator of “Vilna Without Vilna”
“I was at home from Sophianikes Street, with the whorehouses crammed with shiksas and a few Jewish girls”.
The narrator, in his late teens when we meet him, has returned to Vilna after years in Canada, where he has become rich, he owns two hotels, married into s good family. It is now 1993, over fifty years since he moved to Canada.
In his youth in Vilna, he learned to be a skilled pick pocket from a Fagin like figure who ran a College for crime in Vilna. Through sheer luck just before the Germans invaded he made it to Canada. Now it is 1980 and he is back in Vilna. Only Vilna he loved is no more, he goes to his old haunts and they are long torn down. He tries to trace old friends but they either have moved to Israel, were killed in the Holocaust or nobody seems to have ever heard of them. He knows people seem him now as a rich older Jewish tourist, not the pick pocket and street urchin he once was.
“And what’s left on Yiddishe Street, just opposite my street? Nothing, as though the street had never existed. Gone is Velfke Usian’s restaurant where all the actors from the Yiddish theater used to come and eat. I knew them all. Moyshe Karpinowitz with his little beard ran the theater on Ludvizarske Street. He used to let me in to watch the performances, but he’d warn me, “Itsik, go up to the balcony. And keep your hands to yourself.” Gone is Yoshe with his kvass stand. Gone is Osherke the Herring’s bar. They were all on Yiddishe Street. At Osherke’s, people ate all the different kind of herring, starting early in the morning. They also played billiards there. Before my eyes, I see the entrance to Velfke’s restaurant. One sunny day, Avromke the Anarchist was sitting on the steps with something to say to everyone. He certainly never let a young lady, whether married or single, pass by without comment. I’d just left Osherke’s bar and I saw everything. I saw Dovidke the Cheat appear out of nowhere and stab Avromke in the heart with a knife. Avromke managed to stand up, grab Dovidke by the arm, and cry out, “You too, Dovidke?” Then he hit the ground, a dead man.”
This is a marvelous story. An elegy for a lost city, a nearly destroyed way of life.
I look forward to reading the remaining stories and I offer my great thanks to Helen Mintz for these elegant prize winning translations.
I wish i knew a bit more about his life but maybe I will learn.
Helen Mintz is an internationally acclaimed solo artist, storyteller, translator (Yiddish to English) and teacher based in Vancouver British Columbia.
Helen’s work bridges traditional storytelling and contemporary solo performance, moving between past and present, between comedy and pathos. Helen brings stories and poems from the rich Yiddish tradition to a non Yiddish speaking audience. Committed to social justice and reconciliation, she shares inspiring tales of individual and social healing, leaving her audience with a renewed feeling of hope.
Helen has toured her one woman shows in Canada, the United States, and Lithuania.
Helen teaches storytelling workshops to children, youth, and adults in large and small groups.
Helen’s performance is rooted in her Jewish identity and her involvement in social justice work. She shares stories of forgiveness and reconciliation. She tells inspiring tales of individual and social healing, shining light into darkness and leaving her audience with a renewed feeling of hope. The healing stories Helen tells include traditional tales, memoirs of the Holocaust, stories about both the rebuilding of South Africa and the movement for peace and human rights in Israel and Palestine, and stories about the struggle for gay and lesbian rights.
Helen began performing to share Eastern European Jewish experience with both Jewish and non Jewish audiences, telling family stories she learned as a child. She then set out in search of the stories she was never told, doing research, studying the Yiddish language and working with Jewish seniors. Helen’s original versions of traditional Jewish stories have been published, recorded, and are told my many other tellers.
Helen’s career as a performer was launched in a “cupboard” when she performed as a last minute entry in the 1993 Vancouver Women in View festival. There she was “discovered” by Barbara Crook, the Vancouver Sun theatre critic. Crook wrote, Helen Mintz’ solo show is a beautifully written tribute to human survival in general and to the strength of women in particular. Mintz blends moments of humour with images of unity and empowerment.
Helen has undertaken intensive study of the Yiddish language including study at the University of Vilnius in Lithuania and at the YIVO summer Yiddish program in New York. She translates Yiddish literary works into English.
Helen has toured in Canada, the United States, and Lithuania. Helen performed in New York at a conference on Women in Yiddish; at the 11th annual Gay and Lesbian Theatre Festival in Seattle; and at the British Columbia annual provincial restorative justice conference at Ferndale Correctional Institution She has been a featured artist at numerous storytelling festivals in Vancouver, Toronto, Sechelt and Seattle and enjoyed three different runs at the Vancouver Women in View festival where she played to sold-out audiences and standing ovations. Helen’s work has been broadcast on radio and television both in Canada and the United States.
Helen has taught storytelling to countless adults, youth, and children in schools, colleges, and at conferences and festivals. She was an artist in residence for the Vancouver School Board for four years. She regularly teaches a storytelling class in the continuing education department of Langara College.