Wandering Books and Wandering Jews
Sometimes a single book revivifies a well-known story by illuminating an obscure one.
Last fall, the Yiddish Book Center sent staff members to Mexico City to collect oral histories and to sort and examine the Yiddish library of the Colegio Israelita de México and prepare many of the books for the trip to Amherst. The books arrived a few weeks ago, and we've since begun to unpack and catalogue them.
Not all the books that arrived were published in Mexico. The library in Mexico City had a rich collection, with books from all over the world. Many of the books were common volumes published in the United States or by one of the more prominent publishing houses from pre-World War II Europe. Other books are much rarer: books from Australia, unusual translations from the Soviet Union, and beautiful volumes from South America. (Expect more reports on the trip to Mexico and the books we’ve found there in the months to come.)
One such book immediately caught my eye: Der hotel vos ekzistirt nit (The Hotel that Doesn’t Exist), published in two volumes in Montevideo in 1944. There is a scanned copy of the book in our Steven Spielberg Digital Library, and multiple physical copies in our collection. But the physical copies typically feature library binding, hardcovers for preservation purposes. They all hide the beautiful, striking, Yiddish cover.
Note the stylized Yiddish characters. Since Yiddish has no capital letters, the publisher decided to use a much larger font size to mark capitals. But why? While this mirrors the elongated “H” on the Spanish cover, it doesn’t explain the design. In particular, it doesn’t explain the dramatic height difference between the initial letters and those that follow. The heights of the letters better resemble the staggered buildings in the illustration above: the capital letters are towers, the title a skyline.
It only takes a page or two of the prologue to understand the novel’s title and the intense focus on the urban. Immediately we’re told that there are hotels that are known to everyone. After taking a room, people from abroad fill out two forms, a white one and a green one. The white one is sent to the police. The green one is also sent to the police, but it doesn't stop there; it then winds its way through the bureaucracy, sometimes reaching the heights of the ministries. We also learn that the hotel registrant “vayzt oys . . . zayn pasport oder enlekhe papirn, vos bashtetikn shvarts af vays zayn ekzistents un ongeherikayt tsu undzer velt.” He displays his passport or similar documents that confirm, black-on-white, his existence, and his connection to our world.
But there are other hotels, hotels that do not exist, where papers are not required, and where no one fills out forms, neither a white one nor a green one.
It’s Paris in the 1930s. The world of this novel is the world of Casablanca: refugees, shady operatives, people with no clear connection to society. The Spanish Civil War takes up more and more space in the novel. What is this book, and why was it published in Montevideo?
Thankfully, there’s a brief, authorial note.
I am writing these words for this reason: the manuscript was finished on the 31st of August, 1939, on the eve of the second World War, and it is being published now, after five years, on the eve of its conclusion. The manuscript experienced its own “novel”: it was shipped out of Nazi-occupied Paris, wandered to the south of France, and across Spain and Portugal, to the English censor in Trinidad. After a journey of several years, it arrived here [in Montevideo].
איך שרײַב די פּאָר װערטער אָט פֿאַרװאָס: דאָס בוך איז פֿאַרענדיקט געװאָרן דעם 31־טן אויגוסט 1939, ערבֿ דער צװייטער װעלט מלחמה, און עס דערשײַנט זיך אַצינד, נאָך פֿינף יאָר, ערבֿ דעם שלוס. דער כתבֿ־יד האָט אַדורכגעמאַכט זײַן אייגענעם ″ראָמאַן″: ער איז אַליין אַרויסגעשיקט געװאָרן פֿון דורך די נאַציס אַקופּירטן פּאַריז, האָט געװאַנדערט קיין דרום־פֿראַנקרייך און איבער שפּאַניע, און פּאָרטוגאַל צו דער ענגלישער צענזור אין ″טרינידאַד.″ נאָך אַ נסיעה פֿון עטלעכע יאָר איז ער אָנגעקומען אַהערצן.
And then the book wandered to Mexico before finding its way to Amherst. He continues
In truth? I spent almost a year writing in Spain itself. Before that my mind collected endless minor details, the kinds that no one writes about. . . . Let the reader be forewarned: he should not search for an extended history of the overall events. I was enticed by the “scum on the margin” and all those irrelevant details. Perhaps, over time, they’ll turn out to be important. In the meantime, this novel casts about like a sailing ship in a storm: without a set purpose, against the wind, bowing to one side.
דעם אמת? ־־ קרובֿ צו אַ יאָר האָב איך געשריבן פֿון שפּאַניע גופֿא. פֿאַר דער צײַט האָבן זיך אָנגעזאַמלט אין מוח אָן אַ שיעור קלייניקייטן, װעגן װעלכע מען שרײַבט ניט...זאָל דער לייענער זײַן געװאָרנט, בפֿרט זאָל ער ניט זוכן קיין פֿולשטענדיקע געשיכטע פֿון די אַלגעמיינע געשענישן. עס האָבן מיך געלאָקט דער ″שוים אויפֿן ראַנד″ און יענע זײַטיקע קלייניקייטן. אפֿשר װעלן זיי מיט דער צײַט זיך אַרויסװײַזן פֿאַר װיכטיק. דערװײַל יאָגט זיך דער ראָמאַן װי אַ זעגל־שעף אין שטורעם: אָן אַ באַשטימטן ציל, קעגן װינט, און געבויגן אויף איין זײַט.
The story of Jewish life over the last seventy years—as it was for the 2,000 years before it—is the story of Jewish wandering. The movement of Jews from Europe to the Americas and Israel was rarely linear. Ayalti’s metaphor for understanding his novel—a sailing ship in a storm—could easily be used to describe all the Jewish migrations.
Still, there’s something undeniably exhilarating about Ayalti’s book. At once, two frequently disconnected narratives come together: the geopolitical story of the run-up to World War II, and the displacement of the Jews. We read Spanish Civil War novels, like For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Holocaust novels, but rarely do we come across books that combine these narratives, that shape them into one. The Holocaust or the war: each a separate theme, rather than a component of a larger whole. Ayalti’s book is an accidental intersection of these narratives. It was written in 1939, on the eve of war and catastrophe—but its publication history, and story of its author, makes it an intersection nonetheless.
Hanan Ayalti was the pen name of Chonel Klenbort. He died in 1992, at the age of 81. He fled Paris on the eve of the Nazi invasion and lived in the south of France. He spent a brief period in a concentration camp run by the Vichy government before escaping to Uruguay in 1942. He made it to America in 1946, and he continued to have an active career as a writer in Yiddish and English. His books were published in America and in South America. An earlier book, Tate un zun (Father and Son), was first published in Montevideo in 1943 and republished in Buenos Aires in 1945.
The 1930s and '40s remained literary preoccupations for Ayalti. In 1950, he published a collection of stories, Der tshek un di eybikayt (Cash and Eternity). It was simultaneously printed in Montevideo and New York with a Yiddish cover and an English one. The Yiddish cover illustration returns us to Paris: we see the Eiffel tower, and a billboard ominously reads “Vichy.” A group of Jews huddles together by a streetlamp on a Parisian boulevard.
Perhaps most amazing about Ayalti’s life is the way it continues to encapsulate and personify the story of Yiddish in the twentieth century. His first book was written in Hebrew and published in Tel Aviv in 1934. Ayalti went to Palestine as a pioneer before returning (as so many others did) to Eastern Europe. Der tshek un di eybikayt contains a list of the places where its stories were first published. The same story appeared in magazines in New York, Paris, and Montevideo; or in New York and Australia; or in New York and Buenos Aires. Translations appeared in English and in German. The list underscores the international dynamism of post-War Yiddish publishing.
Every so often you find a book like The Hotel that Doesn't Exist, and stories you know mostly as facts come to life.