Review of Fear and Other Stories by Chana Blankshteyn, translated by Anita Norich

Brigitte McFarland

Fear and Oth­er Sto­ries by Chana Blankshteyn, trans­lat­ed by Ani­ta Norich. (Wayne State Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2022). 138 pages, $34.99.

In her review in this journal of Fradl Shtok’s From The Jewish Provinces, Sonia Gollance opens by noting the recent profusion of novels and short stories by women who wrote in Yiddish. The newfound availability of these works owes, of course, to the efforts of translators, and this “sea change” is particularly evident, Gollance writes, in the short story genre. Among the recently published collections Gollance cites is Chana Blankshteyn’s Fear and Other Stories, translated by Anita Norich and published in 2022. Blankshteyn (1860?-1939), though widely read and well-connected in her day—Max Weinreich wrote the introduction to the original collection of these stories—is now, in Norich’s words, “almost entirely forgotten” (x). Norich’s translation retrieves Blankshteyn’s stories for non-specialists and English-language readers. Her detailed introduction contextualizes the author and her writing in the social and literary worlds of the 1930s.

With the translation of this collection we gain a glimpse into the intimate and everyday lives of Jews in Polish and German lands (and elsewhere) during the interwar period. The stories were originally published periodically in the press, then compiled and released as a collection, Noveles, in July 1939. Norich has rearranged the order of the stories in Noveles for this collection. 1 1 Norich provides the original order of the stories in her Note about the Translation. “Fear” is placed first, foregrounded and given the titular spot to underscore this feeling as it is experienced by many of Blankshteyn’s characters and, Norich suspects, the stories’ readers as well (xvii). Along with fear, however, one of the most powerful experiences that emerges as recurrent in Blankshteyn’s work is that of her characters’ place-finding and world-making efforts in spite of, or in response to, such pervasive fear and uncertainty.

Norich acknowledges in her introduction that it is difficult to read this collection, one of the last Yiddish-language books published in Vilna before the Second World War, without reflexively situating it in the context of the violence and terror that came next. “Yiddish literature is often subjected to such distorting retrospective views,” Norich writes (viii). I tried to keep this in mind as I read—to at least resist using the dawning World War as an interpretive lens, and fix my gaze instead on the interwar period, treating these stories as a (mediated) window into that unstable and tumultuous era.

Perhaps because death, or the fear of death, pervades many of these stories, the desire to live—to feel alive and to make a life—occupies and drives Blankshteyn’s characters with equal power. The men and women in these stories search for meaning, connection, and a sense of belonging in each other, in art, in their work, and—most strikingly—in the natural world. It is nature, in its many forms, that most consistently accompanies our characters across this collection of stories. The natural world here is almost fantastically stable. It is enduring and eternal, bringing joy and reassurance even as it marks the passage of time. The natural world is not, however, merely a backdrop. It emerges in these stories as another living being, an active companion, animated through the use of anthropomorphic metaphors or literal woodland spirits. This animation gives the natural world an ambivalent quality wherein it is also, and significantly, a source of fear and foreboding.

In some stories, nature is presented as a soothing foil to the chaos of urban modernity. Nature performs this role most explicitly in “Director Vulman.” Returning from the city to his factory estate, Director Vulman finds his sense of home by “the green grass of the meadow, whose flowers seemed like a colorful carpet” (54). Shaded by linden trees and gazing at his flower beds, “Vulman thought about the city’s turbulent but deadening, stifling life… With all his being, he took in the surrounding beauty and calm and the joy of being at home again” (55). By contrast, the “first hand” in the story of the same name finds herself left behind in Paris as thousands leave the city for recreation during the summer months. Unable to do the same, the first hand seeks refuge elsewhere in the city, finding friends at the Louvre, “among the magnificent beings in their heavy gilded frames,” and among the children “in the small world at the benches” of the public square (16, 24).

In other passages, nature or its representatives—trees, blooms—are presented as constants, as a means to mark the passage of time. By looking to the eternal life surrounding our characters, Blankshteyn conveys a sense of the reassurance and permanence that inhere in nature’s presence, of the idea that temporal affairs will inevitably be dwarfed by the march of the seasons. The narrator in “Our Courtyard” reflects:

An old linden tree is growing opposite me on a hill behind the wall. Its top bows over the roof. I love that tree. As early as the month of Nissan its many buds tell me the rich, fragrant summer will soon arrive. And here it is, the summer, and here, winking to me from the roof, are sweet flowers swaying on the festively dressed branches. And soon, very soon, summer passes and the withered leaves cling with all their might to the naked, black branches, swaying and shivering in deathly fear. The cold wind rustles and bends the strong tree. It grumbles, seethes, and laughs brazenly. ‘Yes, the end of summer. The end.’ (90)

As suggested by the above passage, much of the power of these depictions of nature derives from a certain ambivalence they carry. While nature provides comfort and beauty, it is also often a source of fear and mystery. In “Who?” the quiet proceedings of the natural world are enough to overwhelm even an armed soldier: “A breeze caresses the small trees, bending and twisting the thin branches, dreamily sharing secrets with them. The soldier looks around, afraid of the secretive stillness, puts his rifle on his shoulder, and leaves” (69). The soldier’s reaction to “secretive stillness” serves to make more real what may have otherwise been interpreted as an entirely metaphorical sharing of secrets between non-human actors. The reader is left, as always, highly aware of the life that teems in the natural world.

The anthropomorphization of nature contributes significantly to both this power and this ambivalent quality. Sampling just from the passages already included, we see a breeze sharing secrets with branches, a tree grumbling, seething, and laughing, summer winking at our narrator, and branches alternately festively dressed and shivering in fear. The natural world seems to be animated with a life force all its own, constituting a realm that lives and breathes in parallel to that of urban, modern human civilization. This realm is represented most literally in “Do Not Punish Us,” as nymphs, sprites, satyrs, and gnomes emerge—along with the woodland king and queen—to surround a young woman resting under a tree.

Just as our unnamed protagonist in “Do Not Punish Us” crosses the boundary between the mundane and the fantastic, Blankshteyn writes in blurred boundaries between her characters and the forces of nature that surround them. There is a kind of eerie otherworldliness with which nature reaches out to our human characters. In “Who?” a young girl steps out of her house and into the woods. As she does so, “The sun pouring over her wraps itself around her and she becomes one with the surrounding light as she disappears behind the trees. All that can be seen is her tulle shawl snaking among the trees, fluttering like a pair of white wings” (72). As the sunlight brings the girl into itself, the girl in turn takes on animal qualities, seeming to sprout translucent wings as she enters the forest. Similarly, in “Colleague Sheyndele,” “blue evening shadows weave a magical net” around the characters as they stand in a field, presenting the threat of captivity in beautiful, ethereal language (86).

Blankshteyn takes up a number of powerful themes in her stories: the gendered dynamics of professional and romantic relationships, the poverty and insecurity of the interwar period, and the impact of repeated invasion and occupation by foreign armies. In light of these serious themes, it may seem strange to use this review to highlight Blankshteyn’s descriptions of the natural world, an ostensibly frivolous motif. But at a time when Jews in Eastern Europe were growing increasingly uncertain of their future in the region, attending to questions around belonging and connection to place seems essential. With this collection, Blankshteyn shows us how people forged homes in spaces both natural and fantastic, dialogued with and loved their trees and flowers, and passed fluidly into and out of sunshine, shadowy nets, and fairy realms. Throughout the collection, plants and people reach into one another’s worlds again and again—linden trees murmur through hospital windows, and city dwellers set their flowerpots outside to catch the rain. These exchanges constitute and affirm life, highlighting the spaces within which Jews felt that they belonged to the Polish lands, and vice versa. As Director Vulman “again recognized the aroma of the quietly growing flowers, again heard the rustle of leaves on the old fir trees, again took in the magical evening orchard,” he felt alive. He says to himself: “Aha! Once again alive. Among the living. Alive again,” however briefly (61).

McFarland, Brigitte. “Review of Fear and Other Stories by Chana Blankshteyn, translated by Anita Norich.” In geveb, April 2023:
McFarland, Brigitte. “Review of Fear and Other Stories by Chana Blankshteyn, translated by Anita Norich.” In geveb (April 2023): Accessed May 23, 2024.


Brigitte McFarland

Brigitte McFarland is a PhD student in modern European history at the University of Chicago.