Love! Vengeance! Espionage!

Shund Stories Escape a Fire

In Yiddish literature, there was the “high culture” of Sholem Aleichem and I. L. Peretz, and the “low culture” of shund. The shund or shmate genre has been translated into English as “trash” novels but is relatively comparable to pulp fiction. The “pulps” were named after the cheap, high-acid-content paper on which they were usually printed. Pulp literature was extremely popular in North America from the 1920s to the 1950s. The books were affordable, portable, disposable, and often sensational. Pulp authors tended to write anonymously or under pen names. They were frequently paid by the word, and their books were issued in weekly installments.

While similar in nature, Yiddish shund literature developed even earlier, first becoming popular in Eastern Europe in the 1870s and later spreading to North America and Israel. Although not printed to last, a few fascinating examples of this genre have made their way to the Yiddish Book Center. Like most books at the Center, these volumes tell a story not only within their texts but also through their journeys here. These particular copies naturally have especially dramatic histories. The donor of Regine and Di elende mame brought them from Eastern Europe, where he has been researching his family history. These novels had been reverently preserved by a Ukrainian family, who sought to save a remnant of local Jewish culture. After surviving a war, these shund stories then narrowly escaped a fire in the attic where they were stored. They came to us in pieces, with blackened pages…  

Blackened pages

Published in the interwar period in Warsaw, Regine tells a tale of tragic love. Translations of chapter titles include “Who Sends the Flowers?,” “Sweet Hopes,” “The Temptation,” “On a Slippery Path,” “In Dire Straits,” and “A Scary Night…”

Regine: tragishe libe fun anorim Yudish meydel (Regine: The Tragic Love of a Poor Jewish Girl)

From 1937 Warsaw comes the story of a lonely mother. In its opening scene a storm rages, rain pours unceasingly, thunder resounds, lightning flashes, and all living creatures seek shelter—all except a young woman, alone in a dark forest, running farther and farther from the frightening dream that has become her reality. . . .  

Di elende mame: roman fun a umgliklikh leben (The Lonely Mother: A Novel of an Unfortunate Life)

Klara consists of twenty-seven weekly installments, all of which have been received by the Yiddish Book Center. It was published in Israel in the mid-twentieth century. This novel is about love and espionage. In the first few pages, the heroine discovers that she has been orphaned as a result of a plane crash. On her way home, after receiving this news, she is closely followed by a man. Once at home, she bursts into tears, but then there is a knock on her door. . . .

Klara, di naye olah: shpanender roman in plonter fun libe un shpiyonazsh (Klara, the New Immigrant: An Exciting Novel of Entangled Love and Espionage)

The last page of text in Klara is followed by an advertisement for another pulp fiction title, Rutke. This pulp’s plot involves love, passion, and vengeance. The advertisement promises it will be available in every kiosk each Thursday.   

Rutke cover
Rutke: in flamen fun libe, laydnshaft, un nekome; an emese pasirung fun hayntikn Yisroel-lebn (Rutke: Blazing with Love, Passion and Vengeance; a True Story of Contemporary Israeli Life)

—Elissa Sperling