Archive for Jacob Glatstein

Yizkor Bucher (The Glatstein Chronicles)

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Literature, Poetry, Poland with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 27, 2011 by Louise Steinman

[published in the Los Angeles Review of Books]

27th Jun 2011

Louise Steinman

Spring in Gościeradzu by Leon Wyczółkowski

Jacob Glatstein
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…)

Neither Black nor Gray

Posted in Poland with tags , , on December 14, 2010 by Louise Steinman

Many journeys yesterday, first the train from Krakow to Warsaw past hundreds of kilometers of white fields and forests. I shivered waiting on the platform in Krakow and was glad to see the train puff into the station. Several gallant Polish gentleman helped me onto the train with luggage and I had a window seat for the view, Jacob Glatstein’s novel for company. I read his description of traveling as a young boy with his grandfather by train from Lublin to Warsaw: “En route, he would untie his kerchief and take his refreshment– a hard-boiled egg, a hunk of bread, a purple plum, and a golden pear that dripped juice down his beard, all the while conducting a conversation with me.” The gentleman around me did not drip pear juice down their beards, rather they spoke briskly into their cell phones or listened to their ipods but I was traveling in my mind in another time.

Dear Gosia met me at the platform at Warsaw Centralny and later that evening hosted a little soiree for me at her flat in Kubaty– herring and pates, salads and cheeses, dark bread and Spanish wine and vodka. I ventured out to her place by Metro, another transportation adventure (but there’s only one line in Warsaw, which makes it easy) and she met me at the station with a bounding Akita at her heels. Her dog savors the snow, of course, inquisitively reading canine narratives in the snowdrifts, and we walked in the chilly night around the new city out to the edge where the forest begins.

Gosia (Malgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk) is a playwright and her home is overflowing with books which made me feel right at home. Joanna Klass, my dear host from Adam Mickiewicz Institute joined us, and Andreas, Gosia’s German translator. We laughed and told stories and argued about plays and art until nearly midnight, drank good vodka, and thus missed the last Metro and– following Joanna’s lead–jumped onto a wayward bus that wended its way through the streets of Warsaw, picking up other frozen souls along the way. Back to the hotel an hour later in fine spirits. Shades of Jim Jarmusch’s “Night on Earth.”

(Glatstein, after he arrived in Warsaw: “I could scarcely fall asleep, filled as I was with the excitement of the trian ride and of finding myself in a strange city, far from home.”) I am also filled with my grandmother’s tales of passing through Warsaw en route to the U.S. from Ukraine, waiting at the Belgian Legation for her visa, hiding the family valuables in a little pouch secured to my aunt Ruth’s pinafore with a diaper pin. (that’s the term she used, always loved that..)

I ventured out for a walk this morning. These Warsavians are very hearty because it is REALLY cold and they stride briskly about their business. To warm myself I bought a Polish wool hat and when i carried it to the daylight by the shop window to ascertain just what color it was, the saleswoman said, “It is not black it is not gray” which is so apropos to thinking about Polish history and memory.

I feel very Polish wearing my new hat.

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