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.”