Reviewed by Ellen Cassedy
Prostitutes, thieves, racketeers, and gangsters populate the short stories of Abraham Karpinowitz. But as translator Helen Mintz points out, the main character in his work is the city itself. “Vilna” to the Jews, “Wilno” to the Poles, “Vilnius” to the Lithuanians, it was a polyglot city, the site of multiple “crossings” of cultural divides. The fifteen stories in Vilna My Vilna, selected from three Karpinowitz collections published in 1967, 1981, and 1993, preserve for posterity a place where people from different walks of life rubbed elbows. The book includes a foreword by Justin Cammy, an introduction by Mintz, illustrations, maps, a bibliography, and a supremely helpful glossary that contains not only terms but information about places, customs, and historical figures and events.
Karpinowitz (1913-2004) grew up in the city during its heyday as “the capital of Yiddishland.” (Today, it’s the capital of Lithuania.) As a hub of Jewish scholarship, politics, and cultural life, it boasted 60,000 speakers of Yiddish, the Germanic tongue written in Hebrew characters. Karpinowitz left the city in 1937 and spent the war years in the Soviet Union. By the time he returned seven years later, more than 90% of Vilna’s Jews had been murdered. The city was bereft of Jews – “Vilna without Vilna,” as he put it. He settled in Israel, which was not a friendly environment for a Yiddish writer. In the early years of the new nation, Yiddish was denigrated as a language of oppression and shame. Nonetheless, Karpinowitz and others, not only in Israel but around the globe, continued to write in the language that once resounded in alleys, kitchens, and meeting halls on both sides of the Atlantic.
Bringing prewar Vilna back to life on the page was Karpinowitz’s goal – his “sacred duty,” in Justin Cammy’s words (ix). His subject was not the scholars and rabbis who had made the city famous. Instead, he shined his light on the likes of Tevke the Tapeworm, Orke the Lucky Seven, Shmuel the Organ Grinder’s Twin, Tall Tamara, and Itzik the Hare. He brought to his task a finely tuned ear for slang, an eye for evocative detail, a talent for blending fact and fiction, and an abiding affection.
Karpinowitz’s style is one-of-a-kind. As Mintz writes, “Karpinowitz’s stories include extensive vocabulary and grammatical syntax that are not to be found in Yiddish dictionaries or texts on Yiddish grammar” (9). His colorful characters speak a language designed to elude and exclude – a challenge for Mintz and also, no doubt, for those who previously translated Karpinowitz into Hebrew, Polish, Russian, German, and Lithuanian. To deal with the difficulties posed by the text, Mintz travelled to Vilnius and plumbed the linguistic memories of elderly Yiddish-speakers. She also enrolled as a fellow in the translation program at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.
As all translators know, capturing the literal meaning of a word or a phrase is not even half the battle. Mintz had to make clear to her English-language readers that Karpinowitz was writing in a patois, a coded in-group language, and to render that code in a way that was naturally colloquial without being inappropriately trendy. No easy job. The saying “seykhl darf men zukhn in teler,” for example, literally means “wisdom must be sought on the plate.” Mintz renders it thus: “If you want to know what matters most, look at what’s sitting on the dinner plate” (60). These are not words you’re likely ever to hear anyone actually say, but they’re satisfying on the page. In another example, a fishwife named Ruzshke “hot gelernt bolek mit a yidene” – literally, “Ruzshke was teaching a harsh lesson to a Jewish woman.” Mintz’s translation: “Ruzshke was giving a housewife what for” (54). Today, no English-speaker would talk about “giving someone what for,” but here, by perfectly conveying the flavor of yesterday’s colloquial speech, it seems just right.
Especially piquant are Karpinowitz’s accounts of interactions between members of the intelligentsia – including actual historical figures – and denizens of the underworld. Tall Tamara, a prostitute with a strong sense of ethics, is a fervent reader of romantic novels and stories by the eminent I. L. Peretz. She seeks out audiences with librarians for suggestions as to what to read. And in 1941, she behaves with striking dignity at the killing field of Ponar. Berke, a small-time thief, credits his elementary school principal with teaching him the three R’s that enable him to survive: “If we, hooligans that we were, left the school knowing how to write a letter from prison or give an accounting to a fence, we had only our teacher Mr. Ayzikov to thank” (82).
In “The Folklorist,” a linguist named Rubinshteyn visits the fish market in search of curses and other earthy expressions. (Karpinowitz himself used to do the same thing.) He finds plenty of material:
An umbrella should open in your stomach.
They should call a doctor for you in an emergency, and when he arrives, they should tell him he’s no longer needed. (67)
May they carry you and sing. (58)
Rubinshteyn takes a special shine to one of the fishwives, Chana-Merka. Will romance flower between the linguist and his research subject? The two sit together in the park. Alas, Chana-Merka is disappointed. “Anyone else would have put an arm around her shoulder or tried something even naughtier. But Rubinshteyn was only worried about one thing: how to keep track of what she was saying so he didn’t forget even the tiniest word” (60).
As sketched by Karpinowitz, the underworld has its own sense of ethics and even its own rabbi. “Vladek,” a particularly pungent tale, takes place in the late 1930’s, when anti-Semitism was on the rise in the city. Berke (Jewish) and Vladek (not) pursue various illegal schemes together and wind up in prison. Then Vladek decides to go straight. How? For the first time in his life, he manages to bring in a steady salary – by joining the toughs who get paid to warn customers not to shop at Jewish stores. Berke is crushed. “I’d recruited Vladek into the profession and made something of him,” he says. “And after all that, he went and joined the hooligans” (86). But that’s not the end of this complex tale. Vladek goes on to surprise his friend again by helping him escape from the ghetto, at great cost to himself. The twists and turns of the story confound the reader’s expectations, offering a deeply textured portrait of a world that is no more.
Karpinowitz, Abraham. Vilna My Vilna: Stories by Abraham Karpinowitz. Tr. Helen Mintz. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2016.
Vilna My Vilna
Syracuse University Press 2016
224 Pages $19.95
Review by Peninnah Schram
Vilna My Vilna, a remarkable book of Yiddish short stories by Abraham Karpinowitz (1913–2004), has now been translated into English by Helen Mintz. This collection demonstrates that Karpinowitz deserves to be counted among the great Yiddish writers.
Born in Vilnius (“Vilna” in Yiddish), Karpinowitz survived the Holocaust in the Soviet Union and returned briefly to the city in 1944. After several years, he went to live in the State of Israel. In this collection, Karpinowitz introduces us to the Vilna that he loved and sought to keep alive through his writing.
These fascinating stories are filled with common folk, the amcha, various types of criminals, a fishwife at the market, actors, a folklorist, a teacher, prostitutes, barbers, a tavern owner, and others. The theatricality of the stories reveals the influence of the author’s background in the Yiddish Theater. Through the characters such as Zevke the Little Mirror, Tevke the Tapeworm, Shmuel the Organ Grinder’s twin, and Hirshke the Canary, the reader becomes acquainted with the whole city and begins to feel the pervasive poverty, the lack of luck, and the lost dreams of Vilna’s inhabitants. Because these stories take place between the two World Wars—and some, set in the Vilna Ghetto and Ponar, take place just at the brink of World War II—the endings of these tales are often poignant.
One of Karpinowitz’s major contributions is his intertwining of actual historical and contemporary figures with fictional characters. For instance, in “The Lineage of the Vilna Underworld,” Napoleon enters the story-within-a-story of how Leybe’s wife once saved the emperor’s life—explaining how Mishke, who was a great-great-grandson of Leybe the Fence, became known as Mishke Napoleon. Dr. Max Weinreich, the Yiddish linguist and director of YIVO, is a character in “The Folklorist” and “Chana-Merka the Fishwife.” Through this technique, the author gives the sense that the fictional stories actually happened.
Translator Helen Mintz captures the distinct Vilna Yiddish through a colloquial and vivid English. Karpinowitz’s metaphors are well preserved: “Libke lay next to him, her pointy belly covered with a cotton blanket like a cholent waiting for tardy guests”; “A tavern has open eyes.” Mintz’s skill is also particularly evident in her translations of Chana-Merka’s curses: “May you speak so beautifully that only cats understand you”; “You should swallow an umbrella and it should open in your stomach.”
Helen Mintz’s introduction and the foreword by Professor Justin Cammy of Smith College give the reader a solid foundation to explore Vilna through Karpinowitz’s stories. The background on the author, especially the connection of his father to the theater, the city’s geography, and an introduction the motley cast of characters of street and underworld characters all prepare the reader to know that the Vilna in these stories is not the Vilna so widely associated with Torah scholars, such as the Vilna Gaon. Indeed, this is not the Vilna respectfully referred to as “The Jerusalem of Lithuania.”
To further help orient the reader, there is an extensive and valuable glossary of people, places, terms, and events at the back of the book. Two detailed maps of Vilna are also included, as is a bibliography of the books referenced throughout the collection.
A strong Jewish moral sense pervades the stories, making the reader care what happens to the characters and to the book’s central character—Vilna the city. In the final story, “Vilna, Vilna, Our Native City,” the author writes with deep emotion, “I must confess in the name of the survivors . . . in the name of all those who escaped from the hellfire through ghettoes, through forests, through camps, combat zones, and battlefronts . . . I must confess that we were in love with Vilna . . . And when the string of memory is plucked, that world sings for us as though still pulsing, as though it hadn’t been taken from us forever.”
off the shelf: Short-story collections breathe new life into lost worlds
Abraham Karpinowitz’s “Vilna My Vilna” re-creates fragments of a lost world — the Jewish Vilnius that would be decimated by the Nazis. Karpinowitz (1913-2004) left Vilna in 1937, survived World War II in the Soviet Union and moved to Israel afterward. While serving as the manager of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, he wrote numerous elegiac works in Yiddish capturing his native city — which was frequently referred to as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” for its high Jewish culture.
Readers who have been introduced to Vilna through the works of the great writer Chaim Grade will be struck by the very different cast of characters in Karpinowitz’s stories. This is the world not of the yeshiva and synagogue, but of the street and the marketplace. We meet pickpockets, beggars and fish vendors, all memorialized with dignity in these fine stories.
“Vilna My Vilna” — A Moving Memorial to the Lodestar of Yiddish Culture
In longing and loss, through the mouths of those he wished might speak still, Abraham Karpinowitz offers a salutation of the heart to his beloved city of Vilna.
The stories in Vilna My Vilna take the form of first-person narratives related in an artful, seemingly conversational style. They are each remembrances of Vilna while it was under Polish rule. While anti-Semitism rises there are poignant parallel growths in Jewish poverty and cultural life. The characters in Karpinowitz’s tales are blends of real and imagined figures, no doubt skillfully reshaped by the emery of memory. The confrontations, relationships, and events in these stories are infused with the energies of various ideologies. The underworld and the street are sites for colorful encounters that in less rigorous hands might have come off as stereotypical — but here they feel all too plausible. One is tempted to believe even the most causal (NOT ‘casual’) fiction.
In reality and myth Vilna, the ‘Jerusalem of Lithuania,’ has for hundreds of years been remembered as the center of Ashkenazic Jewish philosophy, aesthetics, and political inspiration. The aphorism was: ‘Go to Lodz for work, to Vilna for wisdom.’
I want to share my pleasure in and admiration for Vilna My Vilna: Stories by Abraham Karpinowitz. Mintz’z translation is wonderful. It’s firm, convincing, and sure of itself and, at the same time, so warm and playful. I love the warmth of Karpinowitz’s storytelling, his real compassion for his characters, his lack of bitterness. Also, Mintz’s introduction is both lyrical and informative, an important guide and addition to the stories.
Katherine Silver, Literary translator, former Director of Banff International Literary Translation Centre
Feature: Tales of two cities
By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman
The desire to recreate a place that lives only in memory: that phrase summarizes short story collections by Helen Maryles Shankman and Abraham Karpinowitz. The two works of connected tales recall a Europe and a reality that no longer exist. Their approach to the material, though, is very different. In “Vilna My Vilna” (Syracuse University Press), Karpinowitz uses heightened realism to portray his former hometown in Lithuania. Shankman, on the other hand, adds a touch of magical realism to the tales her parents told her of Poland in “In the Land of the Armadillos” (Scribner). (The paperback version of the book, due out in October, will have a different title: “They Were Like Family to Me.”) While most of Karpinowitz’ stories take place before World War II, Shankman recalls tales of heroism and horror that occurred during the war and after.
Shankman allows readers to see her characters through a variety of lenses – not only in different tales across the book, but within individual works. For example, in the title story, an S.S. officer is not only a cold-blooded killer, but a loving father who tries to protect the Jewish artist who wrote and drew his son’s favorite book. Max Haas views himself as a kind, caring man, although once in a while he’s forced to face a different version of himself. The mix of good and evil within a single individual makes the story extremely powerful, as does its surprising and moving ending.
The contradictions inherent in most human beings is also clearly shown in “The Jew Hater,” when an informer is forced to pretend that a young Jewish girl is his relative. Its element of magical realism (a talking dog) heightens the tension, as does the question of whether or not forgiveness is ever truly possible. That theme plays a major role in the post-war tale “They Were Like Family to Me,” when a priest tours Poland to uncover secrets hidden in small villages. He approaches an old man, who speaks for the first time of events that still chill his soul. Other tales focus on men who do horrible things during the course of a day, and, yet, also take risks to save the lives of the few Jews they’ve taken under their wing.
My favorite story, “The Messiah,” is a wonderful and funny tale with a bitter note in its center. When this messiah arrives in town, he claims his purpose is not to save lives. Only after the Jews of Europe serve as a sacrificial ram – much like the one Abraham sacrificed in place of Isaac – will they return to the Promised Land. The question of whether or not he is truly the messiah matters less than the awe-inspiring events that do occur. My second favorite story is “The Golem of Zukow,” which shows how man’s inhumanity to man can create golems. Yet, this lovely, moving tale also allows us to see how great miracles can occur in the midst of despair. All the stories in “In the Land of the Armadillos” are beautifully written and emotionally heartrending. My hope is that the paperback version brings even more attention to this outstanding work.
While Shankman learned her tales second-hand, Karpinowitz writes of people he knew. This collection of his stories, translated from the Yiddish by Helen Mintz, focuses on life in Vilna. The tales were written after the war when Karpinowitz lived in Israel and blend fact and fiction, except for the two memoirs at the end of the book. Those tell of his father’s obsession with the Yiddish theater – an obsession not shared by his wife.
The stories somehow manage to feel a touch nostalgic while still clearly portraying how difficult life could be for the poorer Jews of the town. The title tale shows the amazing transformation of the narrator from Itsik the Hare, a small time thief, to Mr. Jack Grossman in Canada, a “big shot” in the hotel business. When visiting Vilna after the war, Grossman looks for the city he knew – focusing more on what’s not there than what’s actually before his eyes. Although the past was far from perfect, he believes something special has been lost.
Although Abke the Nail Biter doesn’t understand political theory, he finds himself in prison after helping a radical throw a red flag over an electric wire in “The Red Flag.” Abke learns that while theft is not really a problem (he’s been in and out of prison before), an act against the government must be punished by a longer sentence. Abke’s actions impress his lawyer and his fellow prisoners, who discuss politics with him even though he has no real understanding of the arguments and theories they debate.
Other stories include the interconnected “The Folklorist” and “Chana-Merka the Fishwife,” which serve as lovely tales of misunderstanding and love. “Vladek” focuses on two boys – one Jewish and one not – who grow up together, although their friendship is strained by nationalist forces. The Vilna underworld is explored in several stories, including “The Lineage of the Vilna Underworld,” which tells of a group of very odd gangsters trying to exist under Soviet rule.
“Vilna My Vilna” contains a glossary, which not only offers translations of Yiddish and Hebrew phrases, but notes which characters and events are based on real life. Some tales felt slightly familiar, if only because others have written about the colorful characters of this period. The stories serve an important purpose, though, by allowing us to glimpse this lost Jewish time and space.
Editor’s note: “Vilna My Vilna: Stories by Abraham Karpinowitz,” translated by Helen Mintz, is the winner of the 2016 J. I. Segal Literary Awards of the Jewish Public Library’s translation award for a book on a Jewish theme.
It is a master storyteller who can make you feel like you’ve met someone you never knew, visited a city to which you’ve never been, make you long for a people, place and culture you’ve never experienced but from a generation, location and language once, twice or thrice removed. Abraham Karpinowitz (1913-2004) is such a writer. And, thanks to local master storyteller and translator Helen Mintz, more of us can now visit Karpinowitz’s Vilna – a city full of colorful characters, both real and not, and share in a small part of their lives.
Vilna My Vilna (Syracuse University Press, 2016) is a collection of 13 short stories and two brief memoirs by Karpinowitz, translated from Yiddish into English by Mintz. For context and a better understanding of Karpinowitz and his work – notably one of the main “characters” in his writing, Vilna – there is a foreword by Justin Cammy, an associate professor of Jewish studies and comparative literature at Smith College in Massachusetts, and an introduction by Mintz. These two scholarly essays are invaluable, but if you’re completely unfamiliar with Karpinowitz, perhaps jump ahead and read a few of the stories before heading back to these parts of the book. It’s kind of a Catch-22, in that their insight enhances the enjoyment of the stories, but the stories enhance the understanding of the analysis and history.
Romantics will appreciate most the linked stories of “The Folklorist” and “Chana-Merka the Fishwife.” In the first tale, Rubinshteyn heads to the Vilna fish market to collect material for YIVO (the Yiddish Scientific Institute) because he knows that, if the “genuine language of the people” is not documented, “it would be a great loss for the culture.” Dedicated to his work, and a dedicated bachelor, he fails to notice that Chana-Merka has fallen in love with him and, once his research is complete, he stops visiting the fish market, much to her – and his – sadness. In the second tale, Chana-Merka heads to YIVO herself to make sure that Max Weinreich, its director, knows from whom all of Rubinshteyn’s material came: she makes lists of curses for Weinreich, such as “May you speak so beautifully that only cats understand you,” and “May you be lucky and go crazy in a more important city than Vilna.”
Weinreich is one of the real people who appear in this collection where fiction and non-fiction meld. Yoysef Giligitsh, a teacher at the Re’al Gymnasium, is another. Most readers will not be able to identify all of these people and, while there will be added realism for those who can, the characters stand on their own. Besides, these people are secondary to the protagonists, who are the fishwives, the prostitutes, the criminals, the poor.
Despite that everyone is trying to eke out an existence, even the criminals follow a moral code. For example, Karpinowitz notes, in “Vilna, Vilna, Our Native City” that the Golden Flag criminal organization’s constitution includes the admonition, “Our members should behave properly and not forget that even though we are who we are, we are still Jews,” and that “[t]here was a directive for the general treasury to provide dowries for poor brides.”
Karpinowitz pokes fun at communism, capitalism, politics in general. His descriptions put readers right into the scene, almost as if they’re standing on the opposite street corner watching events unfold. And he has some wonderful turns of phrase. In “Shibele’s Lottery Ticket,” for example, Sheyndel’s husband goes off to fill the water bucket and never returns: “Sheyndel missed her husband, the shiksa chaser, less than the bucket.”
Or, in one of the two memoirs, “The Tree Beside the Theatre,” Karpinowitz writes about his father’s choice to sell his print shop to run a theatre, “If he’d stayed in the print shop, he’d be a rich man. My mother reminded him of this every time she couldn’t cover expenses. But everything in the print shop, including the machines and the letters, was black, and everything in the theatre was colorful, even the poverty.”
Karpinowitz’s characters have self-dignity and hope. They are not passive, for the most part, but are actively trying to change their situation for the better or to help someone else. Not surprisingly, many of the stories have bleak endings, with the narratives going from charming and/or humorous to horrific, illustrating just how abruptly and brutally this world came to an end.
These stories that turn on a dime are so moving. They emphasize just how little people at the time understood that most of them would soon be murdered. As Karpinowitz writes in “Vilna, Vilna, Our Native City”: “For years, a Jew with blue spectacles stood on Daytshe Street begging, ‘Take me across to the other side.’ His plea was so heartrending that, rather than asking to be taken across the few cobblestones separating Gitke Toybe’s Lane from Yiddishe Street, he sounded like he needed to cross a deep and dangerous abyss. Maybe he was the first Jew in Vilna with a premonition about the Holocaust. Just the name of the street, Daytshe Gas, German Street, drove him from one side to the other. We could all see the little water pump and Yoshe’s kvass stall on the other side of the street, but through his dark spectacles, that Jew saw farther. Fate didn’t take him to the safer side. He ended up in the abyss at Ponar with everyone else.”
Karpinowitz survived the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, having left Vilna in 1937. He briefly returned in 1944 and then, after two years in a displaced persons camp in Cyprus, moved to Israel. Mintz notes that he wrote seven works of fiction, two biographies, a play and five short story collections. He was awarded the Manger Prize (1981), among several other honors.
In the stories of Vilna My Vilna, the geography of the city is integral, and the maps included are useful in situating the action. The glossary is also an essential part of the book: kvass, for example, is a “fermented beverage made from black or regular rye bread.”
Adding even more value to this collection are three illustrations by Yosl Bergner that were in the original 1967 Yiddish publication of Karpinowitz’s Baym Vilner durkhhoyf and the painting “Soutine Street” by Samuel Bak is the cover of Vilna My Vilna. Both artists (and the Pucker Gallery, in the case of Bak’s painting) gave permission for their work to be used at no charge, which is an indication of the translation’s import beyond entertainment.
Mintz’s acknowledgements are many, and that she accepted so much input into the book speaks volumes about her integrity and the quality of her work. “Translating these stories brought me great joy,” she writes. “While never swerving from the truth, Abraham Karpinowitz answered genocide with love: love for his characters and love for his craft as a writer.” With Vilna My Vilna, Mintz adds her love, and that of many others, to ensure that Vilna, its people and its stories will not be forgotten.
Center for Literary Publishing, Colorado State University
As a language virtually extinguished along with its speakers during the Second World War, all Yiddish literature bears great resemblance to eulogy. Yiddish books certainly exist as individual, standalone works of art, but as a group they are also powerful symbols of a world destroyed. So reading Yiddish literature today has the unique capacity to revive the people who once spoke the language, give them a new life, and allow the dead and their individual stories to stand in contrast to the anonymous wall of genocide.
Abraham Karpinowitz’s collection of Yiddish stories, Vilna My Vilna, reminds us of this history and its unique cultural elements with a masterful and unerring sense of the liminal (even vanishing) status of Yiddish. His town, Vilna, now Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania, was once a vibrant Jewish city were Yiddish played a prime role in both literature and life. Jews were a central part of the city for more than five hundred years, until the Germans exterminated most during World War II.
In the first story, “Vilna without Vilna,” the narrator returns to the city in 1989 for the first time since the war, only to find that “[a]bsolutely nothing remained.” But in his memories, every street corner and doorway is a reminder of a vanished Jewish world. The narrator’s memory places long-dead characters onto a strange gentile cityscape. This sense of discontinuity is jarring. The streets and buildings no longer align with memory—during the war they had “been mowed down like grass in a meadow . . . [and] [t]he new buildings don’t match their surroundings.” Vilna is Vilna—but erased of its Jewish past.
The stories wrestle with the intractable yet slippery line between reality and memory. In “The Amazing Theory of Prentsik the Shoemaker,” the main character experiments with crossbreeding animals to create a new kind of menagerie. Swayed by exotic scientific theories, Prentsik wants to teach God a lesson about beauty: “God himself would take notice. Prentsik argued that if the Creator wanted to, He could create animals as adorable as dolls. He even had the ability to reshape Prentsik himself so that one of his eyes would no longer be closer to his ear than to his nose.”
Of course, God does not change Prentsik’s appearance, and his experiments with beautifying the world’s creatures become literal monstrosities. In the end, Prentsik understands that “nature did indeed have its own laws . . . and his own life was controlled by a cruel law.”
Nature’s cruel law is also at play in the next story, “The Red Flag.” Abke—a well-known, petty Vilna thief—is punished for a moment of compassion. He feels sorry for a malnourished Jewish boy trying and failing to hang a Communist flag from a pole. Because “this is a Jewish child,” Abke hangs it himself and is promptly caught. He is accustomed to jail but has no experience as a political criminal. Unless he can prove his innocence to the anti-communist government of Poland, he will suffer for his show of Jewish solidarity.
In “Shibele’s Lottery Ticket,” two down-and-out musicians receive a ten-zloty handout from a famous pianist. Instead of using the money to buy new clothes or food, they purchase a lottery ticket. They win, but the ticket promptly disappears, and the entire Jewish community searches for it without success. Meanwhile, the two musicians fade away, falling into the cracks of obscurity, poverty, and exile as the lost ticket becomes a symbol for far greater catastrophes that await the Jews of Vilna.
In “The Folklorist,” Rubinshteyn ventures into the Vilna fish market to collect the sayings and curses of the fishwives for his research. He falls in love with a colorful fishmonger named Chana-Merka, and the two begin an unlikely love affair that briefly captivates all of Vilna. But it is not to be: with or without love, the folklorist and fishwife will share an equal place in death.
Karpinowitz’s fiction also explores Vilna’s vibrant Jewish criminal underworld, a lonely young woman trapped in a life of prostitution, and the colorful Yiddish theater. In the penultimate story, “Memories of a Decimated Theater Home,” the young narrator relates the highs and lows of his father’s theater. After all the drama and life he has witnessed, he asks:
What happened to that world? The Germans converted my father’s Folk Theater into a garage for military tanks. They tore down the balcony. Before they left the city in 1944, they destroyed the theater, tearing it down to the ground . . . He went to a mass grave at Ponar with his audience, the loyal Vilna theater.
In the final story, “Vilna, Vilna Our Native City,” the narrator attempts to disentangle his memories from nostalgia. He says that “[w]e should be careful not to idealize Vilna. . . . As well as light, there was plenty of shadow.” But Karpinowitz can never quite get away from painting a picture of Vilna as a Jewish paradise: “In Vilna, we lived a full-bodied Jewish life.” According to Karpinowitz’s fiction, in part because they were unaware of the coming storm: “We didn’t know that a day would come when we would be flung across the globe, forlorn and orphaned . . . and that of all of Vilna, only a pale memory would remain.”
Jewish Vilna is forever gone, but this translation of Vilna My Vilna does much to keep its pale memory alive. Helen Mintz renders Karpinowitz’s slangy, colloquial Yiddish into a lively and idiomatic English and graces both Karpinowitz’s stories, and even Jewish Vilna itself, with a second life.
Stories Set Against the Backdrop Of Prewar Vilna
You may have heard that Yiddish is a dead language. I.B. Singer had the best comeback for that sentiment: “so was Hebrew called for 2,000 years.” Singer, of course, had most of his stock in the business of writing in Yiddish, even though he was among the few postwar Yiddish writers who became influential in the English-language mainstream.
Sholom Aleichem’s North American audience was guaranteed by the popularization of his Tevye stories in Fiddler on the Roof. But after him, who, aside from the most avid reader of Jewish writers, even thinks of I.L. Peretz today, the culture hero of Polish Jews, whose funeral in 1915 attracted over 100,000 mourners?
From Singer, one gets a portrait of Warsaw’s crowded Krochmalna Street, alongside the Manhattan streets embraced by Yiddish-speaking newcomers. Peretz’s writing offers another portrait of Yiddish-speaking Warsaw, but his narrators travel further afield into the Polish countryside. Sholom Aleichem’s terrain is village life in western Ukraine.
Without Abraham Karpinowitz’s stories, one misses Vilna, the Polish-Lithuanian cultural and religious centre whose character and flavour is unlike that of other Yiddish centres of the language’s heyday.
Karpinowitz, the son of a theatre impresario, grew up in Vilna in the early decades of the 20th century. He survived the wartime destruction of his native city by fleeing east. His career flourished in Israel under the guidance of other major Yiddish figures such as Avrom Sutzkever. Karpinowitz’s stories have been published in German, Hebrew, Lithuanian, Polish, Russian and Spanish translation. But they awaited Vancouver-based Helen Mintz’s excellent English translation to find their way to North American readers.
Mintz’s collection, Vilna My Vilna: Stories of Abraham Karpinowitz, provides an uncanny portrait of prewar Vilna, and it is – as was much of Karpinowitz’s writing – a paean to lost Vilna, to its street life, its cast of unusual characters, its cultural ferment and its underworld. As Mintz writes in her introduction, “The central character of Abraham Karpinowitz’s… stories, lovingly rendered, is the city of his childhood and early adulthood, the Jewish city of Vilna (present-day Vilnius, Lithuania) in the period between the two world wars.”
Karpinowitz’s stories offer detailed social backdrops as the context for sketches of a single character. This method is best exemplified in Tall Tamara, which appeared in the 1993 collection Vilna mayn Vilna (the volume’s relatively recent appearance from a Tel Aviv publisher reflects the resilience of Yiddish culture in the contemporary era). Tall Tamara depicts a young woman’s transformation from streetwalker to sweatshop worker and leftist agitator, and is underwritten by an intimate portrait of Vilna’s working class neighbourhoods and women’s work on the fringes of mainstream society. Like many of Karpinowitz’s characters, one expects that in Tall Tamara (Tamare di hoykhe) we meet an actual character from prewar Vilna, presented as an archetypal figure who, despite poverty and “pressure from all sides… contributed with creativity and enthusiasm to Jewish culture and to Jewish continuity.”
Karpinowitz is at his most heartfelt in his portraits of his father’s successes and failures in popular Yiddish theatre. Presented as a kind of mad genius – clownlike and saintly at the same time – Moyshe Karpinowitz brought Poland’s leading Yiddish actors to Vilna audiences. The titles of the plays he mounted, once much-loved and discussed, are forgotten oddities today: Khashie the Orphan, Cry Out, China, Bar-Kochba, The Yeshiva Student, Shulamit. Among these, only The Dybbuk, a Vilna perennial, has maintained a modern audience in English and other languages.
In Memories of a Decimated Theatre Home, Karpinowitz tells the full story of his father’s dedication to the Yiddish stage, and to making sure that the “common people could also afford to buy tickets.” This memoiristic piece concludes with an account of what happened to his father’s world of theatre under the Germans. They converted his “father’s Folk Theater into a garage for military tanks. They tore down the balcony. Before they left the city in 1944, they destroyed the theatre, tearing it down to the ground. Not a single one of the beams that my father had so lovingly placed in the building remained intact. He went to the mass grave at Ponar with his audience, the loyal Vilna theatregoers.”
The war intrudes on Karpinowitz’s sketches in this abrupt way. But his stories veer back, again and again, to the way things were when his father’s “dream about a theatre’s actors, performances, scenery, the stage,” was fully intact. Beside the theatre was a garden, a kind of gan Eden, where his father walked, “searching between bushes for inspiration for the next hit to keep the theatre going.”
Norman Ravvin is a writer and teacher in Montreal.
YIDDISH VILNA BEFORE THE DESTRUCTION
COLORFUL SKETCHES FROM THE INTERWAR YEARS
by Martha Roth
From the Autumn 2016 issue of Jewish Currents
Discussed in this essay: Vilna My Vilna: Stories by Abraham Karpinowitz, translated from the Yiddish by Helen Mintz. Syracuse University Press, 2016, 216 pages.
WHAT A PLACE it must have been — the Jerusalem of Lithuania, the Paris of the Jews, cradle of the Yiddish theater. When Ben-Gurion said that Israel wouldn’t be a real country until there were Jewish whores on the streets of Tel Aviv, he must have been thinking of Vilna and women like Tall Tamara from Stovepipe Berta’s brothel on Yatkover Street, who tried to start a sex workers’ union — as reported by Abraham Karpinowitz, one of the city’s Yiddish bards.
The son of a printer-publisher turned theater impresario, Karpinowitz wrote stories about the raffish poor, street musicians, gamblers, drinkers, and scroungers — the likes of Abke the Nail Biter, who “had expert hands. Not for working, of course, but for shuffling cards. He was famous for his shuffling; he always held onto two aces” (“The Red Flag”). Karpinowitz writes, too, about the women who tolerated and fed these men.
Money is scarce in his stories, not least in the story of a man who wants to create beautiful currency for a future Jewish state. He draws and paints individual bills but doesn’t know what to call them, so he goes to the library. Khaykl Lunski the librarian tells him about shekels, and after a short while begins “to understand why the man was so preoccupied with Jewish money. The furniture in his head had been moved around a little” (“Jewish Money”).
Like many other characters in Vilna My Vilna, Lunski was a real person. So was Mr. Gershteyn the music teacher in “The Great Love of Mr. Gershteyn,” in which Karpinowitz tells of Gershteyn’s unconsummated love for the actress Dina Halperin, also a real person. (Halperin and her husband Samuel Bronetsky emigrated to the United States, where she divorced Bronetsky and married Danny Newman, a theatrical press agent whose marriage didn’t keep him from pursuing my own Aunt Violet.)
Through his stories, Karpinowitz charts the tragic fate of Vilna’s Jews, most of whom were slaughtered by the Nazis. Karpinowitz lived in the Soviet Union during the war, then briefly returned to Vilna before emigrating to the new state of Israel, where he lived until his death in 2004. In “Vilna, Vilna Our Native City” he bemoans the terrible loss:
…in the name of all those who escaped from the hellfire through ghettoes, through forests, through camps, combat zones, and battlefronts; in the name of them all, I must confess that we were in love with Vilna. To this very day that love pierces our hearts like a broken arrow that can’t be removed without taking part of us with it.
HELEN MINTZ, translator of these stories, is a scholar, performer and accomplished Yiddishist. Her research places Karpinowitz’s Vilna in time and geography: between world wars, in an uneasy Eastern Europe. Vilna has become Wilno, a Polish city, after centuries of being Lithuanian or Russian. But the people of Karpinowitz’s stories live in a vividly remembered past, speaking Yiddish and concerning themselves only with survival, the great theme of 19th- and 20th-century Jewish literature.
Mintz has done more than translate these rich sketches of a city in transition during the interwar years. She has edited the contents of Vilna My Vilna from several collections of Karpinowitz’s short pieces and arranged them so as to provide a moving chronicle of Jewish life in one of its centers. She has also provided maps of Vilna and a glossary of “people, places, terms and events” to help the contemporary reader. Finally, she has added two pieces of memoir that Karpinowitz wrote long after his stories, but they cast a warm light back:
Where else in the world could you find jokers like the guys in Vilna? The hucksters on Daytshe Street with their expressions, their jokes, and their ridiculing of the entire respectable world. They could convince a peasant to buy a tuxedo jacket to match a pair of striped pants. Only in Vilna could those oddballs have paraded around in all their outlandishness. Every Vilna Jew possessed their own peculiarities, so they could understand the fantasies of others. The Jews of Vilna didn’t only relish the tasty meals at Usian’s restaurant . . . but also their own wild and expansive dreams.
That restaurant, belonging to Volf Usian and called Velfke’s, features largely in Vilna My Vilna as a place where almost everyone goes when they have a couple of coins to rub together. Usian, Mintz says in a note, “regularly fed various actors on credit and loaned them money.” Its delicacies may not appeal to 21st-century tastes, but the stuffed spleen (miltz) and broiled kishkes sustained the Jews of Vilna.
Vilna (now Vilnius) has been the capital city of Lithuania since the late Middle Ages, and over the centuries it has seesawed from Poland to Russia and back. In the 18th century Vilna became a hub of Jewish intellectual, spiritual and cultural life within the Russian empire. When Poland achieved independence it included Vilna. In the 20th century both the Germans and the Russians occupied Vilna, but in Karpinowitz’s work, none of these occupations — or languages — matter to his Yiddish-speaking characters, many of whom scrape together their livelihood on the edge of legality no matter who is making the laws.
Martha Roth moved to Canada a year after George W. Bush was reelected in her native U.S. She is a founding member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada.