JUNE 27, 2011
Illustration: Spring in Go?cieradzu by Leon Wyczó?kowski
ON MY TRIP TO POLAND this past winter, I brought the perfect book as my traveling companion. The Glatstein Chronicles was written in 1934, after the author, celebrated American Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein, was summoned home from New York to his dying mother’s bedside in Lublin, Poland. Recently retranslated, edited, and published in English by Yale University Press, the poet’s travel narrative is both first-rate reportage and a fever dream of Europe on the brink of disaster.
Glatstein (named “Yash” as the book’s narrator) travels back to the Old Country by trans-Atlantic steamer. “The ship seemed to be carrying me back to my childhood,” he writes, “as though we were sailing back in time.” His is a half-forgotten, mythical childhood, where, “in the center of the synagogue, the fearful shadow of a hanging lamp swayed back and forth, like a body dangling from a rope.” These sometimes ominous, sometimes joyous memories are both interruption and counterpoint to Yash’s encounters with an international cast of characters as he crosses the ocean and travels across Europe by train.
As I picked at bland fare on the Lufthansa flight from Los Angeles to Munich, I savored Glatstein’s Eastern European culinary metaphors: a man “chooses his words as if he were sorting chickpeas, and rejecting the inferior ones,” a head is propped on a man’s neck “like a cabbage,” and a pair of eyes are “cloudy like herring milt.”
One of the ship’s passengers lauds Yash for being such a great listener. “You have golden ears,” he says. “Your ears are worth a million dollars.” I resolved to follow his example. The pale young man with spiky dark hair next to me had asked me to wake him up when dinner was served. After nudging him awake at dinnertime, I listened to his tale and learned he was traveling to Sofia, Bulgaria, to the bedside of his sick mother. A journey of return. I was returning as well — if it’s possible to return to a place where one has never lived. I was returning to the little town of Radomsko, Poland, where my grandparents were born. After six visits, I’m practically an honorary citizen of this homely but heimish town in the hinterlands between Częstochowa and Łódź
On the second or third morning of his ocean crossing, Yash learns of alarming news from the ship’s paper. Hitler has purged his paramilitary force and murdered its leader, Ernst Röhm, along with at least 60 of his associates. It is the Night of Long Knives. Yash’s buoyant mood is shattered. He goes in search of fellow Jews, certain they will understand what Hitler’s grab for power bodes for their brethren.
The first passenger he buttonholes “stops in his tracks like a stunned rooster.” It’s not the news, however, that alarms him: “‘How did you know I was Jewish?’ he asked, as if some misfortune had befallen him.” The stunned rooster then admits that he is indeed Jewish, but “not one of those common Polish Jews. I’m Dutch.” Yash also embarrasses the single Jew among four stalwart young Bolsheviks traveling home to the workers’ motherland, by blurting out the compliment ” Yevreyskaya golova, a Jewish head!” As the others smile in discomfort, his new comrade apologizes for Yash’s use of an expression “that was a relic from tsarist days.”
Why have we never heard of Jacob Glatstein, a modernist whose prose is as mordantly humorous as Philip Roth, as eerie as Kafka, as weighty as Bellow? The answer is obvious: Glatstein wrote in Yiddish, and as Ruth Wisse, the editor of this volume, reminds us, “to a writer, language is fate.” Though he published more than six hundred essays in the New York socialist-Zionist weekly Yiddisher Kempfer and won the most prestigious prize for Yiddish literature (for this very work), the fate of Glatstein’s oeuvre was inextricably bound to the dire fate of the speakers of his language.
Over the last several years of research for my own book about Poland’s Jewish past (and present), I’ve been increasingly impressed by the profound consequences of that severed link to the vital language of Glatstein’s poetry and prose, to the language in which my grandparents conversed, joked, and read. I grew up knowing nothing about the Polish town my mother’s family came from, imagining it as some kind of Dogpatch. Before my first trip there, I Googled its name and came up with a 600-page memory book, the Radomsk Yizkor. I was astonished.
The memorial books ( yizkor bukher) were all written in the wake of the Shoah, and few of them were translated from the original Yiddish and Hebrew. This is one of the main reasons why descendants of Polish Jews — who, like me, aren’t versed in those languages — have been cut off from our ancestral past, our Polish-Jewish cultural patrimony. Translations from Yiddish to English now make it possible to reconnect with a lost history, both personal and literary. The Radomsk Yizkor offered tantalizing fragments of stories, which I have been fleshing out by using archival research and interviewing Jewish survivors and Polish rescuers.
Now I can at least imagine a prewar evening at the famous meeting hall of the Warsaw Literary Union at T?omackie 13, where, on any given afternoon, I might have seen the aesthete Yosef Heftman eating marinated herring, the essayist J.M. Neuman drinking tea with challah, or the poet Y. Segalowitch sitting in a corner with a “literary supplement” (as the young women who attached themselves to the writers were called).
The recent translation of The Glatstein Chronicles — a yizkor bikh in its own right — enabled me to continue reading Glatstein, the best author I’d never heard of, on the narrow bed of my Communist-era hotel in Kraków. I read him in the chilly train compartment en route to Warsaw as we chugged through the frozen Polish landscape of small towns and fields. I read him in Radomsko, while the snow piled up outside the windows of the workers’ hotel. Glatstein’s descriptions of what Wisse calls “the incongruity between the divine promise and humiliating realities” of prewar Jewish life held haunting resonance throughout my Polish sojourn.
Book One of The Glatstein Chronicles ends as a conductor announces the train’s arrival in Lublin. Book Two opens just after the death of Yash’s mother’s at a Jewish sanitarium in the old Polish spa town of Na??czów. The milieu is Sholem Aleichem meets Thomas Mann. (Incidentally, the spa’s most voluble guest is a modern Hasidic master named Steinman, whose colorful stories, as one listener exclaims, “could cure the hardened arteries of a thousand Jews.”) At the spa, the grieving Yash receives visits from cousins, former teachers, and other importunate guests who beg him to carry letters to kin and possible sponsors in America: “But the main thing is, don’t forget to look up my crazy son. If he yells at you, yell back at him, and you have my permission to slap him. Don’t waste words on him. Just tell him: Father, bread, eat, eat!”
These plaintive stories spiral off into Glatstein’s luminous recollections of his childhood in Lublin, where the strata of Jewish society were “divided like Hindu castes, from the Untouchable paupers to the Jewish rajas, who rode around in carriages drawn by fiery horses.” Lublin Castle, a fortress/prison under tsarist rule, looms over the entire city and is “visible from every Jewish street.” He remembers roving bands of revolutionaries aided by Polish socialists, torches flashing in windows, Cossacks firing into the air.
Among these redolent and affecting recollections, the one that most perceptively distills the vanished world of Polish Jewry is a story about the brilliant Reb Levi, one of Yash’s boyhood tutors in Lublin. Incurably ill and confined to his bed, the young rebbe remains a captivating and inspiring teacher. Yash is allowed to sit on a small stool at the scholar’s bedside, all the while observing Levi’s last audiences with visiting rabbis, saintly mystics, Gentile university professors, and famous writers. The rebbe begins his lessons with a verse from the Bible, then adorns it with commentaries, questions, answers, and comparisons, setting off “so many trains of thought that it seemed to provide wisdom for a whole generation. You could imagine being born, growing up, getting married, and attending the weddings of your children, all the while feeding on the wisdom of that profound verse.”
While Reb Levi languishes in his father’s house, propped up on white pillows, another man is dying in the courtyard outside, “a freak chained to one of the boards in the shed … who rolls back and forth uttering screams, all the more terrible because they were not ordinary human cries but the desperate efforts of a mute to speak.” The children mockingly call him Reb Zelig. When the mystic rabbi dies on the same day as the destitute mute, young Yash understands that the two deaths are somehow connected: “I watched and heard them die, the one in the shed near the privies and the other in his comfortable bed. The one went in silence, the other with luminous words on his lips.”
Samuel Beckett couldn’t have said it any better.
On my last day in Radomsko, I listened with “golden ears” — to use Glatstein’s figure — to a dignified eighty-one-year-old retired Polish carpenter named Marian Bereska. There were four of us at the table in the hotel dining room, including my translator and Mr. Bereska’s grandson. We listened to a harrowing tale of how, during the German occupation, Marian and his mother Janina hid five Jewish refugees from the Radomsko ghetto in a bunker constructed beneath their little wooden house. Marian was nine years old when the war began and his father, a Communist suspected of an anti-German attack, was taken to Auschwitz, never to return.
Marian carefully sketched out the dimensions of the bunker on a page of my little black notebook: the trapdoor in the kitchen, the second door to the potato cellar. He placed a spoon on the table to mark the spot where he stood and a fork to indicate the position of a Gestapo officer. After four hours, we fortified ourselves with steaming bowls of hot borscht and shots of vodka, then bundled into my translator’s car and drove through thick snow to where the little house, now demolished, once stood.
Marian walked the footprint of the house, leaving his tracks in the snow. The flurries intensified, soaking my wool scarf and gloves. In minutes, all traces had once again vanished.