"Tall Tamare"

by Abraham Karpinowitz, translated by Helen Mintz

Yiddish writing after the Holocaust is notably unsentimental about the world the Nazis destroyed. Many heartbroken people did write inexpertly about lost loved ones who appeared perfect in their absence; some of the yisker-bikher (memorial books for destroyed towns) gloss over painful details. But those same yisker-bikher present accurate maps, frank character sketches, and a realistic picture of the culture that was so brutally erased, and many expert writers—equally heartbroken—speak with great honesty about the world before the war.

Abraham Karpinowitz (1913–2004) is known to a small but discerning public as a writer of fine short stories set in interwar Vilna. He belonged to one of Vilna’s literary and artistic families: his father Moshe directed the Folksteater, and his sisters Rivka and Devorah were actresses. His brother Meylekh, after the war, co-edited the important Yiddish literary journal Di goldene keyt (The Golden Chain) with Vilna poet and hero Avrom Sutzkever. Abraham Karpinowitz spent the war in the Soviet Union and afterwards made his way to Israel, with a delay of two years in a British detention camp on Cyprus. Eventually he settled in Tel Aviv, where he worked as manager of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Karpinowitz recreates prewar Vilna with subtle artistry and painstaking accuracy: streets, businesses, libraries, people, slang. In “Tall Tamare,” the multilingual Mefitse Haskole was a real library containing 45,000 volumes on widely varied subjects; the Strashun Library had 35,000 uncatalogued volumes of Judaica, and its librarian, Khaykl Lunsky, knew where to find every book. Siomke Kagan was a journalist and ethnographer as well as a labor organizer. As for slang, klumpes, the Vilna Jews’ term of disparagement for Lithuanians, means “wooden clogs”—roughly equivalent to the English “clodhoppers,” as an insult for peasants in heavy shoes.

“Tall Tamare” is both sympathetically comic and painfully tragic in its presentation of Vilna’s poor and the unexpected dignity available to one woman through a chance contact with Yiddish literary culture. We are proud to present this fine translation by Helen Mintz, with thanks for the assistance of Sheva Zucker and the permission of Abraham Karpinowitz’s widow, Dr. Sara Lapickaja.

—Catherine Madsen

Originally published in Pakn Treger number 59, Spring 2009