December 2017: Handpicked

Each month, the Yiddish Book Center asks a member of our staff or a special friend to select favorite stories, books, interviews, or articles from our online collections. This month, we’re excited to share with you picks by David Mazower.

Prior to joining the Center, David Mazower was a senior staff journalist with BBC News in London and deputy curator of the Jewish Museum London. He writes for the Digital Yiddish Theatre Project and is the author of Yiddish Theatre in London. David has also published several articles on his great-grandfather, Sholem Asch. He graduated in history from Cambridge University and has a postgraduate diploma in Russian.

As the Yiddish Book Center’s Bibliographer and Editorial Director, David is constantly making new discoveries, and he’s surfaced some fascinating items from our collections this month. In addition, David also serves as co-editor of Pakn Treger, the Center’s English-language magazine, allowing him to draw from all of the Center’s media, including digitized Yiddish books, archival recordings, oral histories, and articles.

After delving into his selections, scroll down to read a short interview with David about his choices.

Handpicked:

Geven amol varshe (Vanished Warsaw)

Ber Kutsher was a brilliant reporter and sketch writer for Warsaw’s main Yiddish daily, Haynt (Today). Endlessly curious as a journalist, he also turned his hand to pulp fiction, serious novels, satirical revues, and comic opera. His memoir of 1920s Jewish Warsaw is a cinematic feast of vivid anecdotes and personalities.

Bialystok Bilder Albom (Bialystok Photo Album)

A panoramic photo book of Jewish Bialystok in its heyday and emigration, this work is an extraordinary compendium of circus artists, factory owners, pogrom victims, striking factory girls, the Habima Theatre troupe, Bundists, bankers, butchers, and so many more. Just magical.

Goldie Morgentaler’s Oral History Interview

Goldie is the daughter of Yiddish writer Chava Rosenfarb, and this interview is a fascinating tribute. It’s also extremely moving. I love how she talks about her mother—“my haven in times of trouble”—who first turned to her for translation help when Goldie was thirteen!

Librarians by Rachel Auerbach

Women writing in Yiddish have been doubly marginalized. It’s extraordinary to me that someone as remarkable as Rachel Auerbach isn’t as well-known as Hannah Senesh or Hannah Arendt, or Avrom Sutzkever for that matter. Thanks to translations like this, and new research on her, it seems as though her time is finally coming.

Itzik Manger

Manger was a sophisticated ‘folk poet’ who himself became the subject of legend. He was complex, tortured, whimsical, drunken, and brilliant. This compilation is a great introduction to him, and makes me want to read the rest of Manger’s poems and ballads.

Q&A

David Mazower talks to Eitan Kensky, the Yiddish Book Center’s director of collections initiatives, about his Handpicked choices.

Eitan Kensky: For those who don't know, who are you, where did you come from, and how did you get so interested in Yiddish books?

David Mazower: I was born in London and grew up in about the most secular Jewish family you could imagine! Although with deep Jewish roots on both my parents' sides—a very active Bundist grandfather on my father's side, and my great grandfather Sholem Asch on my mother's side. 

So maybe it was inevitable that I would get interested in Yiddish books sooner or later. That happened in my 20s, when I worked for a few years in what is now the London Jewish Museum. I spent two years researching, writing, and curating an exhibition on Yiddish theater in London. The first Yiddish book I bought was a volume of Zalmen Zylbercweig's Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre—the fabulous six-volume reference work containing thousands of names of Yiddish actors, musicians, composers, and others. I bought that from the Yiddish Book Center in 1985.

After a while, I began to buy Yiddish books from a used bookdealer in London who had bought what I eventually realized were the personal libraries of veteran London Yiddish writers and journalists. I would go there every month or so and pick up signed books by writers who had spent time in London and dedicated their books to friends and colleagues—writers like Itzik Manger!—for 2 or 3 dollars.

EK: Was there still an active Yiddish cultural world in London when you started to get interested in Yiddish? Institutions, journals, etc.?

DM: Just about, but it was a shadow of what it had been. There were still meetings of the shabbos afternoon Yiddish literary circle that had been started during World War II by the writer Avrom Nokhem Shtensl. The Yiddish theater was down to its last three professional artists—Anna Tzelniker, Bernard Mendelovitch, and Harry Ariel. They had quarreled so they no longer performed together. The rich world of secular Yiddish publishing in London had ended a few years before. And there were just a few people like me who were interested in all of this. 

EK: Were any of the publishers still alive? Did you seek out the older generation? 

DM: I looked for, and eventually found, one of the sons of the major London Yiddish publisher, Yisroel Naroditsky. He had published hundreds of Yiddish and Hebrew books from about 1900 through to the 1960s and had told his four sons—who continued the family business as Narod and Sons—to keep on publishing and subsidizing Shtensl's journal Loshn un lebn (Language and Life) for as long as it continued. I met the son of the writer and publisher Ben A. Sochachewsky and a daughter of the writer, poet, and Yiddish cultural philanthropist Moyshe Oved. And a few others.

But my main mentor and inspiration was the scholar Leonard Prager. Prager and Dovid Katz were almost the only two Yiddish scholars to take a serious interest in London—its Yiddish writers, publishers, and actors. Both of them were there for its twilight years—the 1960s and '70s.  Leonard Prager encouraged me to explore the world of London Yiddish culture, which I began to do.

EK: Are there any great Yiddish novels or short stories about Jewish life in London?

DM: Great is a high bar! 

EK: Somewhat better than middling?

DM: There are certainly some interesting stories and poems. Much of Shtensl's poetry is really a lifelong love song to the London ghetto of Whitechapel. The humorist A. M. Kayzer has some good stories about Jewish life in London. Katie Brown (born Gitel Bakon) is a fine writer, I think. She lived in tremendous poverty, but wrote theatre sketches and songs, and many gently satirical stories about immigrant life in Whitechapel. She published them in two books in the '50s. Much later her nephew did a fine job of translating some of them under the title Life is a Dance: You Should Only Know the Steps. And of course there's Esther Kreitman, who spent much of her later life in London and wrote about it in many of her stories.

EK: What did your family think when you first became interested in Yiddish?

DM: They were pleased; I think it seemed like a natural interest, given our family history. My grandmother was particularly pleased, as it meant we could speak Yiddish together, and she could rekindle the language she remembered from her youth. Well, speak is maybe putting it a bit strongly! I read haltingly and she helped me! 

EK: Nathan Asch, one of Sholem Asch's sons and an American modernist writer, once wrote an essay for Commentary on not knowing Yiddish. He said that Yiddish was completely absent in the Asch family home. 

DM: I think that was maybe true for him, but it's not the whole story. Certainly his first language seems to have been Polish, but then Nathan grew up in the 1900s at a time when Sholem Asch was absent for long periods traveling. And Nathan's mother's family spoke Polish mainly. Later on, Nathan seems to have blamed his father for not teaching him Yiddish, but then he had a lot of anger towards his father in general! 

My grandmother's experience was somewhat different. She was around her father in the 1910s and '20s and remembered many of Asch's circle of Yiddish writer and journalist friends in New York, so she picked up much more Yiddish than her brothers.  

"The Center's collections, of course, are a reflection of a particular time and place. Mainly, they reflect the reading habits of early- and mid-twentieth-century American immigrants. But then some books were so popular they were read to shreds and hardly survived, or they were printed on very poor quality paper in the first place."

EK: Your list of selections for this month's handpicked is dominated not by London but by another city: Warsaw. Does your interest in Warsaw predate your interest in Yiddish? Are the two mutually informing? Indistinguishable? 

DM: Actually, I hadn't thought of that until you pointed it out. It's true that I am more and more fascinated by the richness and complexity of Yiddish culture in Poland. I suppose my view of the Yiddish world has Poland right at the heart, and I feel that we are only just beginning to understand the sheer range of the literature and popular culture produced there. (Although Galicia comes a close second in my affections!) 

EK: So something like Kutsher's memoir is a major source for you, a way of learning more about Yiddish life in Warsaw?

DM: Yes, absolutely. Kutsher's memoir, though untranslated and little-known, is, for me, an out and out classic. I think of him as a kind of David Remnick of interwar Warsaw. He was a newspaperman from his late teens, a brilliant reporter, interested in everything that was happening in the city, and he writes beautifully. He has a fluent pen and a great eye for detail. He's also a fascinating character. Apart from being a staff journalist on the Yiddish daily Haynt, he also turned his hand to pulp fiction, serious novels, satirical revues, and comic opera! And the memoir is this almost cinematic record of 1920s and '30s Warsaw. It's full of great anecdotes, and he's gone to great trouble to include wonderful line drawings of most of the leading writers and cultural personalities done by contemporary artists like Feliks Frydman, Henryk Berlevi, and others. 

My favorite anecdote in the book is about the Warsaw show by the legendary strongman Zishe Breitbart, the "Iron King." Breitbart was there around 1925, and everyone who could afford tickets turned up at the Warsaw circus for his show. Esther Rokhl Kaminska, the great Yiddish actress, is there. As is Julian Tuwim, the Polish Jewish poet. And Sholem Asch. And dozens of other celebrities. Kutsher describes it all, and puts you right in the middle of the spectacle, with the crowd going crazy for this vision of Jewish strength, and women shrieking, 'Isn't he gorgeous?' as Breitbart finally appears! 

EK: Why isn’t Kutsher’s book better known?

DM: Well, Kutsher isn't well-known as a writer of Yiddish fiction; he did most of his work for the Yiddish press. Also, Yiddish memoir literature in general is such a neglected field. There are so many outstanding memoirs waiting to be translated. Daniel Charney, Melekh Ravitsh, Avrom Zak, Segalovitsh's book about the Yiddish writers club, Ester Rozntal Shnayderman's multi-volume chronicle of Soviet Yiddish life, and so many more. Kutsher's book is up there with the best of them. Every time I dip into it I notice something new. 

EK: Does he mention Itzik Manger in the volume? Manger's arrival in Warsaw is a famed moment in Yiddish literary history. 

DM: There's a passing reference to Manger but not much about him. Kutsher's main focus is on the early '20s, and I think Manger turned up in '28. 

EK: I asked because you highlighted Manger in your selections. Do you think of him as a Warsovian author?

DM: No, not really. I think Manger resists rootedness and that sort of categorization. Or at least, I think of him in connection with Czernowitz, Warsaw, and London, and then some other places. He spent about 10 years in London. Hard to think of anyone less suited to navigating the class-ridden, snobbish, and Yiddish-despising world of Anglo-Jewry than Manger and, not surprisingly, he seems to have struggled there. He depended on the generosity and support of a bookseller called Margaret Waterhouse to survive. I have a few books dedicated 'To Margaret' from him. He really was a troubadour, wandering the Jewish world, offering his songs and ballads, and forming these deep but temporary attachments. 

I chose the Manger link because I love these compilation pieces on the Center's website. They are a great introduction to these authors, allowing you to hear their works, see oral history interviews about them, and listen to musical works based on their writing. They do what the best teachers do—they inspire you to learn more, to discover more, to read more deeply. 

EK: I've put together (or helped assemble) most of those. One of the things that I've discovered in so doing is how uneven our collections are. For example, we have very extensive holdings by and about Sholem Aleichem, and far fewer about Mendele. Pakn Treger, our magazine which you now co-edit, has only ever run one translation of Mendele—and only one of Sholem Asch. 

DM: Yes, it's fascinating to try and understand why this is. The Center's collections, of course, are a reflection of a particular time and place. Mainly, they reflect the reading habits of early- and mid-twentieth-century American immigrants. But then some books were so popular they were read to shreds and hardly survived, or they were printed on very poor quality paper in the first place. 

Speaking of translation, I like the fact that we are now publishing a much wider range of authors than ever before, including many unjustly neglected names. The recent Berditshevski translations were a revelation, too. I loved the short sketch "Liar."

EK: And the translation of Rokhl Auerbach, which you also selected.

DM: Yes, another bizarrely neglected figure. Fascinating, complex, and incredibly heroic. I can't wait for someone to write her biography. I was attracted to that piece (Librarians) because, of course, I am passionate about Yiddish books and their precarious fate through the 20th century, but especially during World War II. The fate of those librarians and those books in the darkest days of the war is unbelievably poignant, but it's also consoling and inspiring because of what it says about the human need to read, and let the mind expand, even in the worst of times, even when all hope is dwindling. 

Auerbach lived several lives, all of them remarkable. She was a noted literary figure before the war and helped launch Bruno Schulz's career when she was living in Lemberg/Lvov. Then of course she joined the Ringelblum group of archivists in the Warsaw ghetto. She was one of the very few survivors of that extraordianary group. After the war she was obsessed by the task of remembering and was unbelievably single-minded in the way she approached her work. And of course she was Manger's lover/partner for a time. Not very happily. Samuel Kassow has a great section about her in his book Who Will Write Our History? She is right up there in my pantheon of Jewish heroes. 

EL: One selection that I enjoyed immensely was the oral history with Goldie Morgethaler. Did you read Chava Rosenfarb along with the Yiddish Book Center Book Club?

DM: No, but I wish I had. I chose that for a number of reasons. Rosenfarb shares some qualities with Rokhl Auerbach, I suppose. Both were survivors who managed to surmount the trauma and suffering of their wartime experiences, who managed to do great creative work in the postwar decades. 

I was in Lodz a few months ago and visited the house where Chava Rosenfarb lived in the Lodz ghetto. That sent me back to some of her early poems, the ones that she lost and then recreated in her concentration camp bunk, and later in London in the late 1940s. But I also loved the mix of the literary and the personal in Goldie's interview. 

You get such a strong sense of her mother's personality... her warmth, but also her impatience with small talk, her ability to focus so deeply on her work, her artistic side with all those paintings, tapestries, sculptures, and so on. Goldie is a friend, and we've spoken about her mother several times, but I learned so much from this interview that I didn't know. 

And then, of course, I'm interested in the legacy of being related to a Yiddish writer, and how that can guide and inspire children, grandchildren or great-children. Or simply be a burden in some cases. There's a wonderful bit of that interview where Goldie talks about the first time her mother asked for her help translating her work into English. She was 13, just a child! But she knew her mother depended on her. And as an adult, she has done an extraordinary amount to ensure her mother's writing isn't forgotten. I admire that enormously. 

I wish I could have done much more with Asch. I have written a few articles, I take part in the Asch Festival in his Polish hometown of Kutno every two years and help them as much as I can, but I have a sense that I should have done much more—written a biography, or promoted more translations of his work, and so much more besides. But the truth is that I never felt able to just focus on Asch in terms of my Yiddish interests. Asch's archives are only two hours down the road in New Haven. I need to block out a few days to go through the archive properly. There's a lot there.

EK: How many times have you visited Poland?

DM: I've lost count. Probably 10 or 12. To Warsaw and Kutno repeatedly. Zamosc, Peretz’s birthplace, is a gem of a town, unexpectedly beautiful and intact. Lublin is still very evocative, although the prewar Jewish area was entirely destroyed. But I haven't been to Bilgoray, Radom, and so many similarly storied names! On each visit, I leave regretting the places I haven't had time to see. 

EK: One city you didn't mention: Bialystok. 

DM: Yes, I've never been there, but it's definitely on the list. I love browsing the yizker bikher, and this was one I just happened to come across. But I suppose I was curious in the first place because I am fascinated by the intensity of Jewish life in towns and cities where Jews were a majority of the population. Bialystok was basically a Jewish city, with up to 70% or so Jewish population for much of its modern history, full of Jewish-owned industry with large Jewish workforces. Hotbeds of socialism, Bundism, leftwing Zionism, and anti-Tsarist discontent. And at the same time rich in Jewish culture of all sorts. 

The Bialystok memorial book is a reflection of this rich daily life, with all sorts of random juxtapositions. You move from a page about Jewish women aristocrats, to a list of the 1906 pogrom victims, to a photo of a Bialystok Jewish strongman, to the early history of the Habima Theatre which was born in the town. 

My favorite is an article about the long-serving Soviet foreign minister Maxim Litvinov. Litvinov was from Bialystok, but he came from a very religious family. So the article is basically an interview with his brother, who was a rabbi in the city, about how the family feels having this Godless apparatchik as a world-famous politician! 

But the other thing that shines through the memorial book, and also the photo album I selected—the Bialystok bilder albom fun a barimter shtot—is an enormous sense of attachment to birthplace, origins, roots. And great pride, too. It meant something to be a Bialystoker. Whether you were in New York, Chicago, Buenos Aires, London, or Paris, it was a common bond among the first generation of immigrants. And that bond allowed them to work together and overcome obstacles of geography, political orientation, class, and so on, to create these wonderful records of their towns and cities. 

EK: David—I think you've given us a master's degree in the history of Polish Yiddish speakers, Yiddish London, and regional Yiddish identities. Thank you!