[published in the Los Angeles Review of Books]
27th Jun 2011
The Glatstein Chronicles
Translated by Maier Deshell and Norbert Guterman
Edited by Ruth R. Wisse
Yale University Press, November 2010. 432 pp.
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 Tłomackie 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).
LISTEN to Jacob Glatstein reading his poem, “Goodnight, World” (thank you Kostek Gebert for pointing me here…)