Who was Elkhonen Zeitlin, and what was this arresting volume, In a literarishe shtub (In a Literary Household) that bore his name?
Zeitlin was a name I was already familiar with in the context of Yiddish literature. Hillel Zeitlin was a Yiddish and Hebrew writer and a prominent contributor to the Yiddish newspaper Moment. Influenced by both haskole writings and the traditional Lubavitch community in which he was raised, he went on to become an intellectual leader for Polish Yiddish culture, writing about philosophy, politics, religion, literature, and more. He was also the father of another Yiddish writer, Aaron Zeitlin.
The younger Zeitlin is known for his avant-garde writing, which ranges from a book-length cycle of apocalyptic poems to a monologue about post-Holocaust Jewish life in America, ridden with English words written in Yiddish characters. When my friend and co-Center fellow, Zeke Levine, introduced me to Zeitlin’s spoken-word monologue, “Monologue in Plain Yiddish” (which he then translated along with Raphi Halff), I was floored by the way it shifts between registers, moving from levity to profound grief in a matter of minutes as Zeitlin remembers Warsaw and deals with the paradoxes of immigrant Jewish life and survivorship in America. At first, his English-peppered speech is amusing (“Sure, ikh bin a landsman,” meaning “Sure, I’m a landsman”); later, it is devastating (“They say: Majdanek... everything burned... Really, I can’t understand! I can’t! Just plain burned?”).
But previously unbeknownst to me, there was yet another Zeitlin who was a Yiddish writer—Elkhonen, the author of In a literarishe shtub, was Aaron’s brother. Both Hillel and Elkhonen died in the Warsaw Ghetto, killed by Nazis. Only Aaron survived, having moved to America in 1939. After the deaths of his father and brother, he saw to the publication of his brother’s writing. This volume, which I found by chance in the repository, with its beautiful, painted cover of an open book, a quill pen, and a lit candle (perhaps reminiscent of a yortsayt candle), all rendered in deep blues and oranges, was many things: a posthumous collection of poetry, a memoir, a love-letter—a tribute to a family who had an outsize impact on Yiddish literary culture, and in particular, a man whose contributions to that milieu were cut short all too soon.
Elkhonen captured the experience of growing up in a house that doubled as a meeting place for writers and literary types. It is, no doubt, an invaluable literary-historical record for those interested in Yiddish culture in Poland before the Holocaust. Indeed, it is part of the 175-volume Poylishe yidntum (Polish Jewry) series, a project of the “Tsentral farband far Poylishe yidn in Argentine” (Central Agency for Polish Jews in Argentina) that sought to, in the words of Avrom Novenshtern, “provid[e] a literary and scholarly chronicle of the complex, centuries-old civilization of Polish Jews which the Nazis had just destroyed.” But what interests me most is not the memoir itself, nor its historical value, but rather the multiple layers of commitment to literary creativity that it represents.
First, it showcases Elkhonen’s written remembrances and his poems, serving as a chronicle of Elkhonen’s own development as a writer. Second, it represents an act of literary fidelity: Aaron Zeitlin made certain that his brother’s literary creations could be read by the world, publishing In a literarishe shtub in only 1946. In that way, it forms a part of his broader cultural project of creating literature in response to—or in defiance of—tragedy.
The poetry with which he enriched his brother’s book is no exception. In the afterword he contributed to the book (joining the ranks of Shmuel Niger, the eminent literary critic who wrote the foreword), Aaron presents tender recollections of his murdered brother: the way he walked (“energetic steps”), his eyes (“the look from under his glasses—good-natured, but sharp, penetrating, life-wise”), his unique hands (“‘I have never,’ she said, “seen hands like Elkhonen’s. Do you remember his hands?”), how he sang opera from a young age. His recollections are disjointed, impressionistic; some of them take the form of poetic free verse.
But perhaps the most poignant way In a literarishe shtub displays the Zeitlin family’s commitment to the literary is the fact of the book’s existence as a published work at all. It is amazing—almost unthinkable—that Aaron Zeitlin could take on a project like this just a few years after suffering such a loss. What strength, what commitment to one’s community, to cultural memory, and to one’s art, must drive the impulse displayed here: the impulse to create in the wake of destruction, to make art from the ashes of the khurbn. Some of the most creative, ingenious works in Yiddish literature were written after the Holocaust. The Nazis wanted to destroy not just Jews but Jewish and Yiddish culture; thus, to create Yiddish culture in spite of them is, itself, a profoundly brave act of resistance. (Indeed, Jan Schwarz calls the Poylishe yidntum series “a heroic attempt to commemorate the destruction, and continue the creation, of modern Yiddish literature.”) Of course, such a line of thought is not new to literary scholarship and certainly not to Jewish literary scholarship, but it is a phenomenon that, even after years of studying Jewish culture, has not ceased to impress and move me. In a literarishe shtub is merely one tangible, excruciatingly personal example of this phenomenon.
It is a phenomenon that is true, too, of the genre of Yizkor books, of which the Yiddish Book Center has a collection (making it one of the only institutions in the world that does). Though some are physically brittle, perhaps worn throughout the years by survivors perusing the only remaining pieces of their histories, these books represent remarkable resilience. Compiled by those who were left, they contain vast amounts of photographs, names, and information that provide glimpses into the lives of Eastern European Jewish communities before their destruction. In that sense, In a literarishe shtub is a personal Yizkor book, both for the Zeitlin family and for Polish Yiddish literary culture.
Then again, perhaps choosing art, choosing creativity, choosing remembrance, is all a survivor could do. As Aaron Zeitlin writes in his afterword, which begins with a poem of sorts (the translation is my own):
Be strong, my hand, do not tremble!
I command you to write.
People say: a gravestone is erected—a gravestone of words.
No, I do not have the words…