Seeds in the Desert
Translated by Heather Valencia (White Goat Press, 2019)
Available for the first time in translation, Mendel Mann’s stories follow his life in reverse, from Israel in the 1950s to his experiences in the post-War Soviet Union and his childhood in Poland. With psychological insight and a focus on the tension between remembrance and reinvention, Mann provides indelible portraits of survivors as they confront the past and struggle to create a meaningful existence in the fledgling state of Israel.
The early years of the State of Israel are usually associated with a precarious military situation, waves of immigrants, the idealistic kibbutz movement, and the atmosphere of a hard scrabble society trying to find its footing. But the country was also home to a new wave of Yiddish literature, often written by refugees who had arrived from Europe after the Holocaust. This is the setting of the opening stories in Seeds in the Desert.
“The presence of the ancient landscape pervades the first group of stories, and within that landscape the characters are living out their own traumas,” Heather tells Pakn Treger. “He doesn’t in any sense draw any kind of rosy-colored picture, but shows the darker sides of the development of the state. He shows the ambiguities and the difficulties of life in that time.”
As the collection progresses, the stories move backward chronologically, taking the reader through Mann’s experiences in the postwar Soviet Union and prewar Poland, a structure that mirrors the characters’ experiences of dealing with their own traumatic histories and changed circumstances.
What the Critics Say
"Kerner in midber: dertseylungen (1966), the volume of forty short stories written in the 1950s and early 1960, from which Valencia translated, is a fine choice to introduce Mann’s writing to a wide audience in English, because this volume shows the range of his stories and experiences, as well as his unique narrative style. These stories take place in Israeli cities, towns, and villages, in the post-war Soviet Union, and in Poland of the interwar period. However, it is often very difficult to tell where the stories actually take place, because they express an experience of dislocation and total disorientation.
—Shachar Pinsker, In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies
"In these stories of disorientation and yearning, Mendel Mann traces the life of a survivor working backward—from coping, to trauma, to naiveté—in a Yiddish- language trajectory across time and place."
—David Stromberg, author of In the Land of Happy Tears: Yiddish Tales for Modern Times
"'You must hear me out.' The urgent need to tell their stories drives several characters in this collection to force listeners into hearing something they would rather not know. Acclaimed Yiddish writer Mendel Mann tries to make sense of his own experience and that of his troubled twentieth century in these haunting accounts of men and women under pressure of love, war, vengeance and memory in places as far afield as the German-Russian war zone and a Bedouin desert encampment."
—Ruth Wisse, Emerita Professor of Yiddish Literature, Harvard University
About the Author
Mendel Mann (1916–1975) was born in Płonsk, Poland. When World War II broke out, Mann was forced to abandon his plan to study art in Warsaw and fled to the Chuvash Soviet Socialist Republic, where he worked as a teacher before enlisting in the Red Army. His War Trilogy, published between 1956 and 1960, evokes his wartime experiences. With his wife and small son he emigrated to Israel in 1948, and Mann became editorial secretary of Avrom Sutzkever’s influential literary journal Di goldene keyt (The Golden Chain). Mann’s final homeland was France: in 1961 he moved to Paris to work for the Yiddish newspaper Undzer vort (Our Word). His literary work flourished there. Mendel Mann’s poetry, novels, and short stories draw on his own turbulent life but also vividly reflect and contemplate the various troubled strands of Jewish life and fate in the twentieth century.
About the Translator
Heather Valencia was a lecturer in German language and literature at the University of Stirling, Scotland. She began studying Yiddish in the 1980s, wrote her doctoral thesis on the poetry of Avrom Sutzkever, has published widely on Sutzkever and other writers, and has translated a wealth of modern Yiddish literature. Her published translations include Shmuel Harendorf’s play The King of Lampedusa (2003), stories by Lamed Shapiro in The Cross and Other Stories (2007), the novel Diamonds by Esther Kreitman (2010), and a bilingual edition of Sutzkever’s poetry, Still My Word Sings (2018). She has taught at Yiddish summer programs and teaches a Yiddish class in Edinburgh.