Fear and Other Stories: Reading Resources

Fear and Other Stories: A 2022 Great Jewish Books Club Selection

Chana Blankshteyn almost didn’t make it. Until translator Anita Norich discovered one of only two surviving copies of her book, Blankshteyn (1860?–1939), née Schur, was virtually unknown. Before the Holocaust she had been a writer and activist of some renown, writing fiction as well as essays on political, social, and cultural themes in her native Vilna. Born the youngest child of a wealthy family, she was educated in French and German and studied in Germany and France. She was married and divorced twice, the second time to a diamond merchant with whom she had two children and lived for a time in Kiev. During the First World War she served as a nurse in the Russian army and at age 60, impoverished, she moved back to Vilna where she began writing in Yiddish, a language she had to learn for the purpose. Most of her known work dates from this period.

In Vilna Blankshteyn took particular interest in questions of feminism and women’s rights. She helped found the Froyen fareyn (Women’s Association) in 1924 and edited the journal Di froy (Woman). She was active within the broader socialist left as a supporter of the Folkspartey, which championed Yiddish and Jewish cultural autonomy, and the leftist-Zionist Poaley Tsiyon. She twice ran as a candidate for city council, though she lost both times. When she died in 1939, two weeks after the publication of her only book, she was widely eulogized as a champion of women’s rights and the poor. That book, the collection of stories titled Noveles (Novellas) and translated by Norich as Fear and Other Stories, received a brief introduction by linguist Max Weinreich, a founder of the YIVO institute in Vilna, who praised the broad life experience Blankshteyn brought to her writing and her tendency to write only when she had something meaningful to say.

Blankshteyn did not live to see the deadly privations of the Vilna Ghetto nor the shootings and mass graves of Ponary forest, where most of Vilna’s Jews were murdered. But whatever posthumous reputation she may have enjoyed was cut short by the war. As Norich describes in her introduction, it was only by immense good fortune that even two copies of her book made it to America and were thus saved. Today one of these copies is in the possession of the Yiddish Book Center, and the other is at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Manhattan. It is safe to say that neither of these copies was read by anyone for decades.

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The stories preserved in this book reveal not only a talented writer of short fiction but a sensibility that spanned Europe. In some of Blankshteyn’s stories we see the clash between old and new, tradition and modernity, that is typical of Yiddish fiction. Most of these stories are set during the interwar period or during the First World War and its related conflicts, when all certainties about Jewish life in Europe seemed to vanish overnight. In “The Decree” we witness the clash between the new Communist ideology, as upheld by one of its true believers and ideologues, and the traditional Jewish values with which even he must contend. In the masterful final story in the collection, “Our Courtyard,” we see how the war and its aftermath affected every inhabitant of one Vilna courtyard, enriching a few while impoverishing most others. At the beginning of “An Incident” we read: "This morning, control of the city once again changed hands. One set of occupiers retreated, another took over, but it didn’t make much of an impression. People were used to such changes. In a few days the steel helmets would surely return."

As Norich points out, “For those living under such conditions, alienation is not a trope or even primarily a philosophical or psychological state, but rather a political reality: they are aliens in their own homes.”

While change and upheaval is present in many of these stories, unlike other Yiddish writers Blankshteyn did not set out to memorialize the Jewish life of the shtetl that existed before the First World War. Instead her writing embraces modernity in all of its complexity. Thus we have the travails of an orphaned Parisian garment worker in “The First Hand”; the small pleasures of a young female biologist and single mother in “Colleague Sheyndele,” and the predicament of the unnamed protagonist in “Fear,” whose near loss of identification documents inspires a panic anyone who has ever lost their passport abroad might empathize with. Rather than limiting herself to the life of the Jewish town or even the Jewish city, Blankshteyn expands her view to take in Jewish life across Europe. Her stories encompass the cosmopolitan center and the provincial periphery, the humble laborer and the young professional, the soldier and refugee, women and men, young and old, children and adults.

Blankshteyn’s style reflects her broad concerns. Her stories straddle genres, from the patchwork portrait of a community that comes together in “Our Courtyard” to the surprisingly straightforward ghost story of “Who?” As Norich indicates, Blankshteyn makes effective use of free indirect discourse, the literary technique in which an author slides in and out of a character's point of view without explicitly signaling the shift. Throughout her work Blankshteyn demonstrates an impressive descriptive skill, effectively using anthropomorphization (“the clock on the wall yawns out long gray hours”), synecdoche (“the steel helmets”), and summoning with a few words the image of a character or setting. In “Do Not Punish Us” we receive the indelible image of “Pretty Max,” who “sat down and stretched out one foot in its lavender sock, exactly the same color as his enormously wide handkerchief in the breast pocket of his elegant brown summer suit.” Here the outstretched leg, the lavender sock, the wide handkerchief, and the brown summer suit combine to describe a minor and soon discarded character, but one whose image leaves its imprint long after he has left the stage.

As Norich said in a following interview, in translating Blankshteyn she felt that she really was reviving the dead. During the period of Blankshteyn’s greatest creativity European Jewry underwent some of its most destructive upheavals, and Blankshteyn may well have been permanently forgotten. But it was also a period of immense activism and creativity, and Blankshteyn was an energetic contributor to both. In this translation Blanksheyn, her characters, settings, and entire world have been brought to life anew.. 

 

Q&A with Translator Anita Norich 

Yiddish Book Center: How did you find Blankshteyn?

Anita Norich: I was looking for prose works, for novels by women. Because they were said not to have written them, and that just didn’t make sense. I came across this name in the Leksikon [biographical encyclopedia of Yiddish literature]; I’d never heard of her, and YIVO happened to have one volume with her name on it. So I asked for it. I saw that it was a collection of short stories, and I wasn’t interested in short stories in particular. Then I looked more closely, and I saw that it was published in Vilna in 1939 with an introduction by Max Weinreich, and that seemed worth pausing over. Then I read it.

What was your first reaction to her work? Did it feel like a major discovery?

This is the only thing I’ve ever done that really feels like tkhiyes hameysim (revival of the dead). Almost nobody’s heard of her. Maybe half a dozen people have heard of her. And in my view she’s a very interesting modern writer. She was active for women’s rights, she was active politically, she was active culturally, but I thought the stories would speak for themselves.

A lot of people who work in Yiddish feel like this, that here’s this unknown treasure, and I’m bringing it to the world. I’ve translated before, but I somehow couldn’t believe that she wasn’t known.

Do you have a sense of how widely she was known or read during her lifetime?

She was published primarily in Vilna journals and newspapers, and I have no sense of how widely these were read or shared or disseminated. All I do have are obituaries when she died, all of which mention her writing. It’s not that there are so many of them, but the ones that do exist refer to her writing with some praise.

One of the distinguishing aspects of the collection, which you mention in your introduction, is its expansiveness in terms of setting and subject matter. Why do you think this is the case?

Biographically she was all over. She lived in the places that she’s writing about. She lived in Vilna, she lived in France, she lived in Germany. She really was a cosmopolitan modern Jew, in the positive sense. She had a worldview.

Is there a reason you decided to translate the collection as a whole rather than just individual stories?

I published two of these separately, but given how little she’s known and how little fiction she wrote, I thought it made sense to let people read the whole thing, to see the range. It was part of the tkhiyes hameysim theme—you don’t resurrect the arm but not the leg.

Do you know what the reception to the book has been like from readers? Or from other Yiddish enthusiasts?

I gave this book to one of my friends who reads everything, and whom I admire, and she came back with, “I wasn’t expecting this. This isn’t like anything else I read in Yiddish literature.” The Yiddish people are just surprised, I think is a fair word for it.

How do you think this translation will affect Blankshteyn’s place in Yiddish literary history?

I hope that she won’t be ignored. That she can’t be ignored anymore. Not that I’m that well known, but nobody who is really knowledgeable about Yiddish literature can ignore the fact that she wrote. And I don’t know what the pantheon of Yiddish literary figures means anymore given how much is being translated now and how much of that work is by women. I think it changes what we think we know about Yiddish literary history. I very much want this to be a part of that conversation.

Did Blankshteyn pose any unique translation challenges?

One of the things I think I learned doing the translation was how to pay attention to shifts in point of view. She goes into free indirect discourse, into the thoughts of the character, and in the same paragraph sometimes into the thoughts of another character. And trying to distinguish the language that each of them would have used, to make that kind of distinction, was interesting and a challenge.

You found this collection while searching for novels. Did it satisfy your purpose, or are you going back to novels now?

I am going back to novels. There are more people translating short stories, which is great, but I’ve always studied novels. My degree is in the history of the English novel. I’ve always been drawn to them; I like the expansiveness of novel writing, particularly because women were said, in Yiddish, not to have had that kind of command of the broader world. They were said to write memoirs, or domestic novels, meaning “girls’ stuff.” But there’s a lot more out there than what we’ve given credit for.

It sounds like Blankshteyn’s expansiveness did satisfy that purpose, even though she wrote short stories.

I’m sure it’s one of the things that drew me to it. Although when I started the translation I only thought this was historically interesting. Nineteen thirty-nine, July, Vilna, Max Weinreich. I wanted to figure out what this person was about. I began it for historical reasons, literary historical reasons. But the more I translated, the more fascinated I became with who she was as a writer. Somebody asked me which was my favorite story, and I said, it’s like asking somebody which is your favorite child. You get so close to them and you’re so invested in them. You may have a favorite but it feels wrong to impose that on anybody. 

Fear and Other Stories Web Resources

Watch an oral history interview with translator Anita Norich

Listen to a 1978 lecture (in Yiddish) on the social and cultural makeup of the Vilna Jewish community before the Holocaust

Watch a discussion between translator Anita Norich and professor of Yiddish and comparative literature Chana Kronfeld, hosted by YIVO: Institute for Jewish Research:

Watch an oral history interview with Baruch Shoob, native Yiddish speaker and former Jewish partisan fighter, about the schools he attended in prewar Vilna

Read about Yiddish modernism in the early twentieth century

Watch an oral history interview with Holocaust survivor William (Volfke Zev Gdud) Good about the Zionist movement in prewar Vilna

Read a review by Louis Finkelman of Fear and Other Stories in the Detroit Jewish News

Read a review by Aviya Kushner of Fear and Other Stories in the Forward

Four Questions

To get you started while you crack open the collection, here are four questions to keep in mind while you read.

  1. Which is your favorite story in the collection? What about it appeals to you? Is there a story that you like the least, and why?
  2. Were there any particular images or descriptions that jumped out at you? What techniques did Blankshteyn use to achieve those effects?
  3. Did the stories in the collection change your view of interwar European Jewry? Does Blankshteyn’s work alter your impression of Yiddish literature? Why or why not?
  4. Most of these stories take place in very different settings. Is there anything that binds them together? Taken together do they form a whole that is more than the sum of their parts?

Ezra Glinter