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.Read More
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.”Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
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”).Read More
off the shelf: Short-story collections breathe new life into lost worlds Read the Original Review 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 […]Read More