Feb 06, 2020
Rachel Ertel, Mémoire du yiddish. Transmettre une langue assassinée. Entretiens avec Stéphane Bou (Paris: Albin Michel, 2019), 224 pages, $19.60
In France, Rachel Ertel has been one of the most prolific translators from Yiddish to French. In the last two years alone, two of her translated works have been published: Eli Chekhtman’s Erev: roman and H. Leivick’s Oyf tsarisher katorge. 1 1Erev… À la Veille de (Paris: Buchet Chastel, 2018) ; Dans les bagnes du Tsar (Paris: Éditions de l’Antilope, 2019). Much of the energy she dedicated to the transmission of her native language can also be seen in her past work as a Yiddish teacher in the American Studies department of the French university Paris 7. In Mémoire du yiddish: Transmettre une langue assassinée [A Memory of Yiddish: Transmitting an Assassinated Language], an interview with the French journalist Stéphane Bou published as a book in 2019, Rachel Ertel, who was born in July 1939, looks back chronologically on her life’s journey. 2 2 Rachel Ertel, Mémoire du yiddish. Transmettre une langue assassinée. Entretiens avec Stéphane Bou (Paris: Albin Michel, 2019). Subsequent references will be provided in parenthesis in the body of the text. In revisiting first the evenings of her youth when she eavesdropped on late-night Yiddish poetry readings in Paris, followed by her time teaching in university in the wake of May 1968, and finally reflecting on her ongoing translation work, she analyzes the roots, forms, and meanings of her dedication to Yiddish. Her memories make the reader learn and think about the history and fate of post-Holocaust Yiddish language and culture, of Holocaust memory and more particularly khurbn-literatur, as well as of twentieth century French Jewish history.
The interview begins with a discussion on Rachel Ertel’s early childhood in wartime Soviet Union and back to her country of birth Poland in 1946, a period of which she has no memory except its very end. The interview then follows her arrival in Paris at the end of 1948 with her mother, the writer Menuha Ram, her adoptive father the poet and journalist Moshe Waldman, and her two siblings. These pages immerse us into what Ertel calls the Parisian “phalanstery” of 9 rue Guy Patin, a building located near the Gare du Nord administered by French Jewish institutions since the very end of the 19th century. 3 3 In 1899, the baroness Adelaïde de Rothschild gave the building located 9 rue Guy Patin in order to create an “Israelite home for young girls”, known from 1904 on as the “Toit familial” (Family roof). From 1941 to 1944, the building was administrated by the General Union of the Israelites from France (UGIF) under the name “Centre Guy Patin” and started working as a children’s home in the Summer of 1942. On February 11, 1943, eleven children from the house were arrested and sent to Auschwitz, cf. Emmanuelle Polack, “Découvrir le Toit familial, foyer d’étudiants juifs à Paris, 1952-2000”, Archives juives. Revue d’histoire des Juifs de France, 37, no. 2 (2004): 127-129. In this five-story building where her family shared a single room for four years, many Eastern European Jewish post-Holocaust immigrants – among them prominent figures such as Chaim Grade and Shmerke Kaczerginski –resided from the late 1940s to the early 1950s. For the majority of these newcomers, Paris was then only a transitory place on their way to final destinations overseas. 4 4 A large group of Yiddishists later moved to Buenos Aires. See Malena Chinski, “Yiddish Culture after the Shoah: Refugee Writers and Artists as ‘Fresh Creative Energies’ for Buenos Aires”, in Splendor, Decline, and Rediscovery of Yiddish in Latin America, ed. Malena Chinski and Alan Astro (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2018): 42-68. These temporary stays nevertheless turned out to be highly fruitful. Recent scholarly research has indeed been, and is still being conducted, on Paris as a European postwar gathering center of Eastern European Holocaust survivors and on their productions created in this “Yiddish Mecca” and “hub of Holocaust memory”. 5 5 On the “Yiddish Mecca” and “hub of Holocaust memory”, see David Roskies and Naomi Diamant, Holocaust Literature: A History and Guide (Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2012), 94. On research on this postwar Parisian center, see David Weinberg, “A Forgotten Postwar Jewish Migration: East European Jewish Refugees and Immigrants in France, 1946-1947” in Postwar Jewish Displacement and Rebirth 1945-1967, ed. Françoise S. Ouzan and Manfred Gerstenfeld (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2014), 137-149; Julia Maspero, “French Policy on Postwar Migration of Eastern European Jews through France and French Occupation Zones in Germany and Austria”, Kwartalnik Historii Żydów/Jewish History Quaterly, 246, no. 2 (June 2013): 319-339; Eléonore Biezunski, Constance Pâris de Bollardière and Simon Perego’s contributions in the book section “Paris, a Center of the Yiddish world in the aftermath of the Catastrophe” in Premiers savoirs de la Shoah, ed. Judith Lindenberg (Paris: CNRS Editions, 2017), 273-334. See also the ongoing research of Nick Underwood on “Plural Jewish Communities: Yiddish Culture and Jewish Migration in Post-Holocaust France” and the forthcoming issue of Archives juives. Revue d’histoire des Juifs de France, 54, no. 2 (2020) on the “East European Jewish immigration to France in the aftermath of the Holocaust (1945-1954)” (preliminary title) directed by Constance Pâris de Bollardière and Simon Perego. With her recollections of 9 rue Guy Patin, Rachel Ertel adds to this knowledge by describing her experience of the intense Yiddish and khurbn-literatur creativity developed by residents as well as local Jewish visitors (new immigrants as well as interwar ones) in the overpopulated “bohemian” “beehive” which was her temporary home (p. 67).
According to Ertel, the 9 rue Guy Patin community was a place of intense mourning operated by exhausted, poor, and distraught people, victims of the Holocaust in search of shelter. This dark backdrop paradoxically produced an intense vitality and creativity, an unlimited and powerful “treasure of art and culture” to “find again the lost world and continue to carry on what had been annihilated” (p. 67). Fascinated by this peculiar environment, the young and lonely Rachel Ertel secretly followed the meetings and artistic performances of the adults surrounding her, absorbing both the beautiful, “magic” and grave “flood of words” which she then only partly understood (p. 68). Such an intense evocation of the rue Guy Patin household and its atmosphere is striking. 6 6 It is not the first time Rachel Ertel recalls her memory of the 9 rue Guy Patin experience. In 2015, she published the beautiful text “Les fantômes du 9 rue Guy Patin (En souvenirs)” in the French journal Les Temps modernes, 686 (November-December 2015): 21-54. The mention of the Parisian presence of literary figures such as Avrom Sutzkever, Reyzl Zychlinsky, and Mordkhe Shtrigler, to name only a few, and the references to the many plays, choirs, meetings, exhibitions, and poetry readings held within these walls merit further exploration of this place. 7 7 See the forthcoming contribution of Malena Chinski and Constance Pâris de Bollardière on “The 9 rue Guy Patin, Center of Yiddish Life and Culture for East European Jewish Migrants in Transit (1946-1952)” (preliminary title), Archives juives. Revue d’histoire des Juifs de France, 54, no. 2 (2020). It is also worth noting that, when describing this “profusion of spoken and written words” (p. 54) among Yiddish-speaking survivors, Ertel insists on the collective – rather than personal and familial – approach to Holocaust memory that her parents developed at rue Guy Patin and beyond at the end of the 1940s-early 1950s (p. 38; 87). 8 8 There have been many recent works on collective memory in the scattered postwar East European Jewish world. See for instance Laura Jockusch, Collect and Record! Jewish Holocaust Documentation in Early Postwar Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Jan Schwarz, Survivors and Exiles: Yiddish Culture after the Holocaust (Detroit: Wayne University Press, 2015); Premiers savoirs de la Shoah, ed. Judith Lindenberg, op. cit., and Aurélia Kalisky, Judith Lyon-Caen and Malena Chinski’s ongoing research on “Early Modes of Writing the Shoah: Practices of Knowledge and Textual Practices of Jewish Survivors in Europe (1942-1965)” (ANR PREMEC, EHESS/ZfL, Paris/Berlin). By doing so, she illustrates a memorial phenomenon that has been highlighted in recent historical research on the early aftermath of the Holocaust. 9 9 On that distinction between collective and familial Holocaust memory in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust in the French context, see Simon Perego, “Introduction. Première(s) mémoire(s) : Les Juifs de France et la Shoah, de la Libération à la fin des années 1960”, Archives juives. Revue d’histoire des Juifs de France, 51, no. 2 (2018): 4-17.
Throughout this published interview, Rachel Ertel also thinks about the influence that this Parisian place has had on her lifelong work. As she had already expressed in 2015 in the French journal Les Temps modernes, she now considers that it was indeed her experiences at 9 rue Guy Patin that shaped her true vocation:
“It is in this house, among the survivors […] that I became the one I have been all my life […]. That was born my deep-rooted attachment to Yiddish, to its language, culture, literature and my later pressing need to share them.” 10 10 “Les fantômes du 9 rue Guy Patin”, op. cit., 22.
Enriched by the four years she spent as a child in this peculiar communal Yiddish environment, she later developed a complementary passion for both French and American literature and culture. The high school French literature classes and university English studies she pursued for many years deepened her approach to literature in her mother tongue, and vice versa. Considering North American society to be more diverse and open to multiple identities than the centralist Republican French one (p. 118), Ertel observed a synthesis in the United States that she could not find in France, namely a literature that was at the same time fully Jewish and fully American. Her PhD and subsequent book published in 1980 thus explored the Jewish American novel and the “magnificent metamorphosis of Yiddish in American English” (p. 121). 11 11 Rachel Ertel, Le Roman juif américain : une écriture minoritaire (Paris: Payot, 1980). After this early research on the Western world, she would later turn her attention back to Eastern Europe. In 1982, she published Le Shtetl. This unique research outside of her specialty, literature, is a historical book concentrating on the “vitality” of Polish Jewish life at the turn of the 20th century. Dedicating initial research to the Jewish traditional way of life of shtetlekh and its modernization before the Holocaust was, she felt, a necessary stage before starting her long-term project on khurbn-literatur. This exploration of Polish Jewish culture nevertheless remained focused only on the pre-Holocaust period. Confronted with Polish antisemitism, Ertel purposefully remained distant from contemporary Poland. In fact, she only made one trip back to her native country in 1987 when she was invited to present Le Shtetl. During this visit, she was highly disturbed by Poles denying the extent of wartime local antisemitism and even the complicity of many with the Nazis during the Second World War. Resentful of the general misunderstanding of Jewish culture and Holocaust memory that she faced, she explains that she never wished to go back to Poland again. 12 12 For recent research on Poles and the Holocaust, see Les Polonais et la Shoah. Une nouvelle école historique, ed. Audrey Kichelewski, Judith Lyon-Caen, Jean-Charles Szurek and Annette Wieviorka (Paris: CNRS Editions, 2019).
While writing on the American Jewish novel and Polish shtetlekh, Ertel, along with other eminent French intellectuals such as the filmmaker Claude Lanzmann and the historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet, participated in the Cercle Gaston Crémieux during the 1970s and 1980s. The Cercle, a Leftist Jewish secular group, diasporic and critical of Israeli politics, was founded in 1967 by the Shakespearian scholar Richard Marienstras. Influenced by her Bundist father and by her Yiddishist early environment, Ertel still today expresses a leftist sensibility and claims to follow a conception of identity based on the simultaneous belonging to several cultures. Despite the fact that such references, rooted in early 20th century Austro-Marxism, are marginal in today’s French society, she claims they are still relevant in the face of contemporary and future worldwide mass migrations (p. 97-100).
The legacy of her rue Guy Patin childhood experience finally found its most accomplished expression in her former teaching work and her ongoing translations from Yiddish to French. Having spent her childhood surrounded by Holocaust survivors, she developed an early pressing need to make the fate of the victims and of their cultural world known and accessible to a larger audience. The fact that she regarded the decline of Yiddish speakers as inevitable only reinforced her resolve to teach the language and to translate its literature. To this end, she started directing translation projects in 1970 and intended these works for both Jewish and non-Jewish francophone audiences. At a period when, after May 1968, some young Jews were becoming interested in the language of their immigrant parents, she also started teaching Yiddish at the Parisian University for Oriental Languages (INALCO) in 1963 and created Yiddish language and culture classes for American Studies students at the Université Paris 7. The contrast between what these students were expecting to find in a Yiddish class – the rediscovery of an intimate “sanctified” language they thought they already had inborn knowledge of – and what the class was actually about – the academic teaching of the fundamentals of the language – was glaringly obvious (p. 164-165). She describes how, troubled by this experience, many of her students even felt that writing Yiddish “on the blackboard in a class open to all was a true sort of blasphemy” (p. 165). 13 13 See also Ertel’s thoughts on the fate of Yiddish and its descendants in Brasier de mots (Paris: Liana Levi, 2003).
Overcoming their initial confusion, some went on to take the translation classes their professor later created. Despite the intense pleasure this exercise created, it nonetheless presented a new doubly painful challenge: to testify about “what has been created in this disappearing language” and “to mourn this language” at the same time (p. 174). According to Ertel, the act of mourning through translation, because the language “is disappearing at the very moment when it is being translated”, is a phenomenon that is unique to Yiddish (p. 175, 202). 14 14 Rachel Ertel has also developed on the question of Yiddish poetry writing in an essay and collection of translated poems: Dans la langue de personne : poésie yiddish de l’anéantissement (Paris: Seuil, 1993). For another approach to the translation of Yiddish, see the current ANR funded research project on the translation of post-vernacular Jewish languages led by Arnaud Bikard (LJTRAD - La traduction comme enjeu de survie pour les langues juives en tant que langues post-vernaculaires). Unique also is the situation of this “exterminated language,” incomparable to Greek and Latin, dead languages that have progressively disappeared, been transformed and melted into new languages (p. 176). 15 15 Ertel considers that the Yiddish spoken in contemporary Haredi circles in New York and Israel “has nothing to do with the language of the disappeared speakers of secular Yiddish.” She further argues that this contemporary Yiddish only serves daily communication and does not develop any literary, esthetical creation (p. 176-177). Expanding these questions later on in the interview, she underlines the sanctified character of Yiddish after its extermination, this while Modern Hebrew is now the dominant Jewish vernacular (p. 209). 16 16 For another approach to the translation of Yiddish, see the current ANR funded research project on the translation of post-vernacular Jewish languages led by Arnaud Bikard (LJTRAD - La traduction comme enjeu de survie pour les langues juives en tant que langues post-vernaculaires).
Neither a mere activity nor a job, translation of both poetry and prose represents a lifelong true “spiritual exercise” for Ertel (p. 181). Among the dozens of books she has translated, she considers Leyb Rokhman’s Mit blinde trit iber der erd as standing apart. 17 17 Tel Aviv: ha-Menora, 1968. Published in French in 2012 after a five-year process during which she was mourning the death of her husband Marcel Ertel, she felt overwhelmed by Rokhman’s powerful work on Holocaust survivors and by his peculiar literary style between reality and hallucination (p. 188-189).
For her entire life, Rachel Ertel has been involved in the transmission of Yiddish. She did it for the Jewish readers who did not know the language as well as for the “Yiddish imaginary” to enter French literature and enrich it (p. 209). While she currently wonders about the future forms of the memory of the Yiddish world and of its extermination, she remains confident about their transmission. Throughout this interview, she certainly shared highly valuable thoughts to consider and prepare for such challenges.