Holocaust Literature and Autorevision: Shaye Shpigl’s Ghetto Stories Written in, and Rewritten after, the Lodz Ghetto

Sven-Erik Rose


This arti­cle exam­ines the process of autore­vi­sion in prose fic­tion by Shaye Shpigl (also known and pub­lished as Yeshaye Shpigl and Isa­iah Spiegel), among the most pro­lif­ic writ­ers in the Lodz ghet­to. Although many of the sto­ries Shpigl wrote in the Lodz ghet­to were lost, he was able to recov­er six­teen of them, the vast major­i­ty of which he went on to revise and pub­lish in the ear­ly post­war years. Shpigl’s six­teen Lodz ghet­to man­u­scripts con­sti­tute one of the most exten­sive extant cor­po­ra of wartime writ­ings by an author who sur­vived, and his post­war revi­sions thus afford us a rare win­dow onto the dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives and demands of wartime and post­war writ­ing. I focus on two exam­ples of autore­vi­sion that rich­ly high­light how the over­rid­ing con­cerns of Shpigl’s prose fic­tion writ­ten while events of the Holo­caust were still unfold­ing are not always con­tin­u­ous, or even com­pat­i­ble, with his ret­ro­spec­tive van­tage point. In his post­war rewrit­ings of his wartime sto­ries, Shpigl quite evi­dent­ly endeav­ored to make the orig­i­nal texts palat­able for post­war Yid­dish read­ing audi­ences. Where­as, as Nao­mi Sei­d­man has argued, the dis­crep­an­cies between Elie Wiesel’s Yid­dish mem­oir Un di velt hot geshvi­gn (1954) and La nuit (1958) pro­vide a par­a­dig­mat­ic instance of trans­la­tion of Holo­caust dis­course out of a Yid­dish cul­tur­al con­text into a major lan­guage that would reach a pre­dom­i­nant­ly non-Jew­ish read­er­ship, Shpigl’s Yid­dish-Yid­dish autore­vi­sions pow­er­ful­ly exem­pli­fy an author’s felt com­pul­sion to rewrite wartime writ­ings from a post­war per­spec­tive even when no change of lan­guage — no lit­er­al trans­la­tion — was involved.

Click here read a pdf ver­sion of this article.

As many scholars have underscored, wartime writings give us a unique window into the mindset and experience of victims of what subsequently came to be called the Holocaust while the events were still unfolding. 1 1 See for example, Alan Mintz, Popular Culture and the Shaping of Holocaust Memory in America (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001), 65; Samuel Kassow, Who Will Write our History?: Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), 206; and David G. Roskies, The Jewish Search for a Usable Past (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 30-33, and “Did the Shoah Engender a New Poetics?” in Eastern European Jewish Literature of the 20th and 21st Centuries: Identity and Poetics, ed. Klavdia Smola (Washington, DC: Otto Sagner, 2013), 347-363; in particular 350. (To refer to these texts as works of Holocaust literature is thus in a sense anachronistic, for the chaotic, terrible, and always local events to which these writings directly and indirectly respond could be conceived of as “the Holocaust” only post factum, at a certain historical and conceptual remove.) For survivors, the shift in perspective was in part epistemological—looking back, they could see—could not not see—where the terrifying but only ever partially scrutable events they had lived through had been heading. But this shift also included ethical and political dimensions. While many writers deemed it appropriate or necessary, from their limited vantage points during the war years, to critique the behavior of fellow Jews, for example, to do so after Jews had been indiscriminately murdered by the millions seemed to many to be a moral obscenity. Literature written during the Holocaust and literature written to memorialize the Holocaust served profoundly different needs. Attending carefully to distinctions of time, place, language, Weltanschauung, social and political context, and so forth, remains a necessary corrective to the tendency to lump together all writings having to do with the Nazi genocide of European Jews—from any period, in any language, from any place—in a vague category of “Holocaust literature.” 2 2 James Young was among the first to call for and elaborate such nuanced readings of the multiple factors that mediate Holocaust discourse; see James E. Young, Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988). Alan Mintz’s assessment that what he theorized as the “constructivist” model (versus the then-dominant “exceptionalist” model) was only rarely pursued in the study of Holocaust representation (with the notable exception of David Roskies’s pioneering work) has, thankfully, begun to change in recent decades, as scholars working in different fields, including but not limited to Nicholas Chare, Barbara Engelking, Alexandra Garbarini, Amos Goldberg, Laura Jockush, Samuel Kassow, Jacek Leociak, Katarzyna Person, Hannah Pollin-Galay, Naomi Seidman, Zoë Waxman, and Dominic Williams, have published richly nuanced work on writings by Holocaust victims during and (mostly shortly) after the war. See Mintz, Popular Culture and the Shaping of Holocaust Memory in America, Chapter Two, “Two Models in the Study of Holocaust Representation.”

I wish to be explicit that I in no way make the claim that literature written during the war years is superior, more important, or necessarily more factually accurate than postwar texts by survivors; my point is rather that we need more fully to appreciate the different natures of these corpora. Yechiel Szeintuch was the first literary scholar to insist—emphatically—on a fundamental distinction between literature written by victims during the time of the Holocaust, and any writings written or revised thereafter. I would not, as Szeintuch does, distinguish between wartime texts as “authentic Holocaust texts” and postwar texts, by implication, as inauthentic Holocaust texts since I see nothing necessarily less authentic in the ongoing literary reckoning with the Holocaust beyond its end date—a date which, moreover, was itself ambiguous for a great many survivors who remained caught in precarious and dangerous circumstances for years. Nor is the during-versus-after temporal axis the only meaningful one, as the scholarly, political, and popular reckoning with and representation of the Holocaust has evolved and continues to evolve constantly. Nonetheless, the importance of Szeintuch’s point that the wartime writings reflect a “very different pattern of experience” and a “different structure of consciousness” than frequently comes through in the subsequent published versions of such texts can scarcely be overstated. 3 3 See Yechiel Szeintuch, “Ghetto Literature and I. Spiegel’s Ghetto Manuscripts,” in Yechiel Szeintuch and Vera Solomon, Yeshaʻyahu Shpigel: prozah sipurit mi-geṭo Lodz’ : shishah-ʻaśar sipurim mefuʻnaim ʻal pi kitve-yad she-nitslu be-tseruf mavo ṿe-reʼayon ʻim ha-meaber [Isaiah Spiegel: Yiddish Narrative Prose from the Lodz Ghetto] (Yerushalayim: Hotsaʼat sefarim ʻa. sh. Y.L. Magnes: ha-Universiṭah ha-ʻIvrit, 1995), III-XIV; here, VIII. Hereafter quoted parenthetically in the text.
This is particularly true in light of the “deep need” Szeintuch points up “to attribute to the Holocaust period texts written or edited after 1945,” a need that, Szeintuch suggests, is rooted in “the psychological needs of the survivor generation” (“Ghetto Literature,” VII-VIII). Such reworking of wartime texts, whether by editors or the authors themselves, should not be seen as “mere” editing or revision but rather, much more fundamentally, as rewriting of Holocaust-era discourse (to use André Lefevere’s influential term) in response to various social, political, and psychological pressures of subsequent decades. 4 4 See André Lefevere, Translation, Rewriting and the Manipulation of Literary Fame (New York: Routledge, 1992). For an analysis of the editorial interventions that resulted in significant discrepancies between the original versions of three literary works preserved in the Warsaw ghetto Oyneg Shabes archive and the versions published in the 1950s by the Warsaw publisher Yidish Bukh, see Katarzyna Person and Agnieszka Żółkiewska, “Edition of Documents from the Ringelblum Archive (the Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto) in Stalinist Poland,” in Growing in the Shadow of Antifascism, ed. Stephan Stach, Peter Hallama, Kata Bohus (Vienna: Central European University Press, 2021), 21-38. Person and Żółkiewska note that the editorial censorship of these Yiddish literary texts from the Warsaw ghetto not only responded to political pressures within the context of Stalinist Poland but also strove to manipulate the image of life in the Warsaw ghetto for a postwar Yiddish reading audience by removing numerous passages that would have been acceptable to state authorities but that the editors (above all Ber Mark) deemed “‘controversial,’ ‘shameful,’ or ideological unsound” (37).

One of the most compelling ways to appreciate the difference in Holocaust and early post-Holocaust paradigms is to examine texts by authors who wrote in both contexts, authors who wrote during the war years and also survived and continued to write about the Holocaust from a retrospective vantage point. In this article I examine the process of autorevision in prose fiction by Shaye Shpigl (also known and published as Yeshaye Shpigl and Isaiah Spiegel), one of the most prolific writers in the ghetto established in Lodz (Lodzsh [Yiddish], Łódź [Polish]) or Litzmannstadt, as the occupying German regime renamed the city). 5 5 General Karl Litzmann (1850-1936) led the German forces in the WWI Battle of Lodz (November 11-December 6) and later became a member of the Nazi Party. Although many of the stories Shpigl wrote in the Lodz ghetto were lost, he was able to recover the manuscripts of sixteen of them, the vast majority of which he went on to revise and publish in the early postwar years. Shpigl’s Lodz ghetto manuscripts and his postwar revisions of them afford us a rare window onto the different perspectives and demands of wartime and early postwar writing. The vast majority of those who wrote in ghettos or camps or in hiding did not survive. Moreover, by virtue both of its scope and accessibility in a modern critical edition, Shpigl’s corpus of ghetto manuscripts stands out as singular even within the small group of authors who, like Shpigl, did survive and later reconstituted or rewrote their wartime texts. Chava Rosenfarb, Leyb Rokhman, and Avrom Sutzkever, to name only three prominent Yiddish authors, all engaged in postwar revision of their wartime writings, yet in the case of all three, the wartime versions of their works are not easily accessible (if they exist at all), making it difficult to analyze their revision process.

Although Rosenfarb wrote “hundreds upon hundreds of poems” in the Lodz ghetto, and read her poetry to the literary circle that formed there around the Yiddish poet Miriam Ulinover, the bundle of her poems she took with her when she was deported to Auschwitz was torn from her hands by a kapo and discarded. She later inscribed some of her ghetto poems from memory on the ceiling of her barracks at Sasel, a forced labor camp near Hamburg, while lying in her top bunk at night. Shortly after the war she published some of these reconstructed poems. Because her manuscripts were seized and destroyed at Auschwitz, however, there are no manuscript versions to compare to the published texts. 6 6 See Chava Rosenfarb, “Confessions of a Yiddish Writer” in Confessions of a Yiddish Writer and Other Essays, ed. Goldie Morgentaler (Chicago: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), 3-25; here, 4-7. Rokhman’s stunning diary of his years in hiding 1943-1944 was also at least lightly revised before it was published, first serially in the New York newspaper Der Tog and in the Buenos Aires newspaper Yidishe Tsaytung, and then in book form as Un in dayn blut zolstu lebn (tog-bukh, 1943-1944) (Paris: Friends of Minsk-Mazowiecki, 1949). An examination of Rokhman’s revisions to his manuscript, which he deposited in the Yad Vashem Archives in 1975, would be a worthwhile undertaking. 7 7 In her introduction to the French translation of Rokhman’s diary, Maya Dover Daffan writes (Daffan wrote the introduction in Hebrew, and it was translated into French by Claire Darmon): “L’édition en yiddish [of Rokhman’s diary] et la traduction en hébru sont extrêmement fidèles au manuscrit parce qu’elles parurent à l’initiative de Rochman et à une époque proche de la date des événements racontés. Dans ces éditions, Rochman décida de leur titre et de leur forme, liés et resultant d’une source unique—un manuscrit authentique—et de l’époque du l’écriture, entre la vie et la mort, dans des cachettes.” Maya Dover Daffan, “Introduction” to Leïb Rochman, Journal 1943-1944, trans. Isabelle Rozenbaumas (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 2017), 9-15; here 14. Even if the published Yiddish version generally remains quite faithful to the manuscript version, it would be worth investigating what changes Rokhman did opt to introduce. The status of Sutzkever’s poems written in the Vilna ghetto is also more ambiguous than often appreciated. Although Sutzkever’s landmark 1945 volume Di Festung is subtitled “lider un poemes geshribn in vilner geto un in vald 1941-1944” (The Fortress: songs and poems written in the Vilna ghetto and in the forest 1941-1944), the published texts it comprises are in fact nearly all revisions of the texts written in the ghetto and forests. 8 8 See Di Festung: Lider un poemes geshribn in vilner geto un in vald 1941-1944 (New York: Ykuf, 1945). Szeintuch notes, “Sutzkever’s poetry composed during the Holocaust in the Vilna Ghetto and in the forests comprises (as far as we know) about 100 poems. Of these only a few poems and fragments of poems were deciphered from original ghetto manuscripts. His Vilna Ghetto poetry is known today mainly from the post-war edited and published versions. From conversations with Sutzkever on the topic it becomes apparent that literary and aesthetic considerations greatly influenced his decision not to publish the vast majority of his own rescued ghetto manuscripts.” See Yechiel Szeintuch, “Ghetto Literature,” X-XI. As in the case of Rokhman, a comparative study of Sutzkever’s Vilna ghetto and forest manuscripts against the revised published versions of these poems remains a desideratum.

The question of autorevision of wartime texts by surviving Yiddish authors, let alone the range of authors who wrote and revised in the various languages of the Holocaust and its postwar receptions, clearly far exceeds the scope of one article. A full account of the changes Shpigl made in revising his extensive writings from the Lodz ghetto is in itself more than I can pursue here. Instead, I will focus on two rich examples of autorevision that highlight salient discrepancies—incompatibilities, even—between the overriding concerns of Shpigl’s prose fiction written while events of the Holocaust were still unfolding, and those that governed his retrospective revisions. 9 9 Szeintuch enumerates and analyzes differences between a number of original ghetto manuscripts and the revised published versions in his “Introduction” to Isaiah Spiegel, Szeintuch, and Solomon, Yeshaʻyahu Shpigel: prozah sipurit mi-geṭo Lodz’, 32-39. For Szeintuch’s analysis of the revisions to the two stories I focus on in this article—“Di letste tvey”/ “Likht fun opgrunt” and “Der Toyt fun Anna Yakovlevna Temkin”/ “Niki,” see Yeshaʻyahu Shpigel: prozah sipurit mi-geṭo Lodz’, 33-36. There is some inevitable overlap between Szeintuch’s incisive but brief remarks on these texts and my readings of them here. I thank Yael Teff-Seker for translating for me the most pertinent portions of Szeintuch’s Hebrew-language introduction to the edition he co-edited of Shpigl’s Lodz ghetto manuscript stories.

Shpigl’s status as an author who wrote above all prose fiction in a Nazi ghetto poses certain questions regarding how to understand the nature of literature or literariness in the context of wartime texts. Perhaps the most salient argument James Young makes in his classic Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust is that there is an irreducibly literary component to any written document (narrative structure, style, allusion, recourse to archetypes, etc.), even those that are often taken to approach unmediated recording of events, like ghetto diaries. Young’s related argument that wartime texts written by victims can tell us precious little about empirical facts strikes me as overdrawn, perhaps influenced by the prevailing theoretical moment of the 1970s and 80s when deconstruction and other currents in literary theory indebted to the bracketing of reference in Sausurian linguistics were at their most influential. But Young’s more salient point is well taken: that we must attend to what Holocaust writings can tell us not only about historical facts but also about the texture of their authors’ knowledge and consciousness, how they perceived, experienced, and made sense of events. Yet Young consistently theorizes the literary aspect of (even) wartime texts as telling elements for us—scholars or at any rate later critical readers—to unpack, but about which the authors themselves remained largely naïve. 10 10 As for example when Young writes that “when we turn to literary testimony of the Holocaust, we do so for knowledge—not evidence—of events. Instead of looking for evidence of experiences, the reader might concede that narrative testimony documents not the experiences it relates but rather the conceptual presuppositions through which the narrator has apprehended experience.” See Young, Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust, 37; emphasis added. Literariness for Young provides a means for us to analyze what amounts to a priori modes of perception, webs of cultural associations, narrative structures, and other modalities of sense-making that organized the ways authors perceived, experienced, and understood the time of the Holocaust as it was unfolding; yet in bringing to light how literary codes, techniques, and structures filtered and organized an author’s experience and rendered it meaningful, we unearth precisely what the author themself remained largely unaware of. To approach the literariness of Holocaust discourse in this way is justified in many cases and can be quite fruitful, as Young’s own readings of Holocaust diaries amply show. Yet Shpigl as a self-consciously literary author draws our attention to ways writers in ghettos were not only subject to governing literary structures but also, at times, deployed literary structures, generic conventions, symbols and other devices in highly self-conscious ways. Fictional narratives of the sort that Shpigl wrote, while they often incorporate historical events great and small that he witnessed in the Lodz ghetto, make no claim to documentary facticity. As Shpigl insisted, “Ikh bin nisht keyn khroniker, ikh fir nisht keyn pinkes” (I’m not a chronicler; I don’t record annals) (Szeintuch-Shpigl interview, 375). The literariness of Shpigl’s writing is not something that allows us to trace the structural presuppositions of his thought even as he thinks he is documenting brute reality; rather, it is his project itself. Indeed, reading the discrepancies between Shpigl’s ghetto and postwar texts does not point up “falsifications” of the “true” originals but rather underscores how the ghetto texts were very much a literary project all along. In the ghetto as after the Holocaust, Shpigl was the author of, and not merely subject to, literary structure and form. At both moments, he was thinking with literature and trying to distill and structure individual and broader social experiences of the Holocaust years in resonant, symbolically meaningful ways. But during and after the Holocaust he did so in sometimes radically different ways. 11 11 Among the most compelling scholarship in recent years to analyze wartime Holocaust authors as active, rather than merely passive, in their recourse to literariness is Nicholas Chare’s and Dominic Williams’s work on the so-called Megiles Oyshvits (Scrolls of Auschwitz). Chare and Williams subtly and patiently show how the authors of the Sonderkommando writings in Auschwitz-Birkenau reflected on their situation and, through literary means including “style, imagery, chronology” and “representational and narratological” strategies, sought to shape and deliver to future audiences the experiences which they witnessed and in which they were caught. See Nicholas Chare and Dominic Williams, Matters of Testimony: Interpreting the Scrolls of Auschwitz (New York: Berghahn, 2016); here, 16.

Born in 1906, Shpigl was a native of Balut, the impoverished, predominantly Jewish suburb of Lodz where the ghetto was eventually established. In fact, he had married Rebeka Ungier and moved with her into an apartment near the center of Lodz only a few months before the outbreak of WWII. The establishment of the ghetto forced him to “return” with his family to his old neighborhood, where his parents still lived. Shpigl spent over four years in the Lodz ghetto, from its inception in May 1940 until its end. He had various jobs under the auspices of the ghetto administration including a position in the statistics department, which helped him and his family evade deportation until the very last transport from the ghetto in August 1944, to Auschwitz. 12 12 As was often the case with writers in different ghettos, many writers in the Lodz ghetto had a certain, if inherently fragile, level of protection. In an enormously rich series of extensive interviews that Szeintuch conducted with Shpigl, Shpigl speaks of how the lawyer Henryk Naftalin used his considerable influence to provide writers in the Lodz ghetto with relatively favorable jobs, and more than once managed to remove writers’ names from lists of people marked for deportation. For these interviews, see Szeintuch and Solomon, eds. Isaiah Spiegel: Yiddish Narrative Prose, 244-386; here, 311-312. Page references to this interview (“Szeintuch-Shpigl interview”) are cited parenthetically in the text.

13. See Szeintuch-Shpigl interview, 316-317. See also Shpigl’s text “Mayn tekhterl” [My little daughter]. Yeshaʻyahu Shpigel: prozah sipurit mi-geṭo Lodz’, 213-240. Shpigl wrote this text in the Lodz ghetto and dedicated it “lezikorn mayn eyntsik kind Evele, vos hot gelebt un geshtorbn in Litsmanshtat-geto—un tsum ondenk fun ale di, vos zenen mit zeyer heylikn toyt ir nokhgegangen [to the memory of my only child, Evele, who lived and died in the Litzmannstadt ghetto – and to the memory of all those who followed her with their sacred death]. Yeshaʻyahu Shpigel: prozah sipurit mi-geṭo Lodz’, 213. Shpigl published a significantly revised version of this text in 1955; see “Epistol far meyn toyt tekhterl” in Vint un Vortslen: noveln (Nyu-York: Alveltlekhn Yidishn Kultur-Kongres, 1955), 48-60. Shpigl also dedicated his 1948 story collection Shtern ibern geto to his daughter Eva’s memory: “Geheylikt dem ondenk fun meyn tekhterl Eva, vos iz oysgegangen in geto.” Yeshaye Shpigl, Shtern ibern geto (Yidishe folks biblyotek: Paris, 1948).
Shpigl’s infant daughter died of starvation in the ghetto only months after it was sealed. His parents and three of his sisters were murdered in Auschwitz, and his wife died in Stutthof. Shpigl, however, survived and returned to Poland, first to his native Lodz. Before the war he had earned his livelihood by teaching Yiddish and Yiddish literature in the Bund’s secular Yiddish school system, TSYSHO (Tsentrale Yidishe Shul Organizatsye/Central Yiddish School Organization), and from 1945-48 he taught in the I. L. Peretz School in Lodz. He lived in Warsaw from 1948-1950 before moving to Israel in 1951. In Israel, he continued to write prolifically in Yiddish until his death in 1990. 13 13 For information on Shpigl’s biography, in addition to the rich Szeintuch-Shpigl interviews mentioned above, see for example, Noah Gris, Fun finsternish tsu likht: Yeshaye Shpigl un zayn verk (Tel Aviv: Farlag Yidish Bukh, 1974), 9-12, David H. Hirsch, “Introduction to the Ghetto Stories of Isaiah Spiegel” in Isaiah Spiegel, Ghetto Kingdom: Tales of the Łódź Ghetto, trans. David H. Hirsch and Roslyn Hirsch (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998), vii-ix, and Julian Levinson, “Translator’s Introduction” to Isaiah Spiegel, Flames from the Earth: A Novel from the Łódź Ghetto, trans. Julian Levinson (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2022), ix-xxx.

Shpigl had published a book of poems, Mitn ponem tsu der zun (facing the sun), in 1930 and continued to publish poems, as well as his first prose pieces, in Yiddish newspapers throughout the 1930s. He had completed a Yiddish translation of Byron’s “Cain” and had two further books of his own ready for publication when the Second World War broke out—a second book of poems and a collection of stories about Jewish weavers in Balut, a milieu he knew well as his father had been a Balut weaver. All of these manuscripts were lost (Szeintuch, “Ghetto Literature,” XIII).

While interned in the Lodz ghetto Shpigl continued to write both poetry and, especially, short stories about ghetto life. Indeed, no other writer in any ghetto wrote as many literary stories as Shpigl. Many of these manuscripts were destroyed in various ways. Shpigl took a number of his ghetto manuscripts with him when he was deported to Auschwitz, where they were taken from him and destroyed (Szeintuch, “Ghetto Literature,” XIII). However, he was able to recover some of his ghetto manuscripts after the war. Shortly before being deported, Shpigl and his father buried many of his manuscripts in the basement of his parents’ building. 14 14 In his introduction to his postwar book of poetry Un gevorn iz likht, Shpigl pays tribute to his murdered father, Moyshe Beer Shmuel Shpigl, for burying his manuscripts—both poems and stories—for him in a ghetto cellar. (He does not say, however, that his poems were not in fact recoverable.) It was his father who “mit halb-opgeshtorbene hent, beys der likvidatsye fun geto, [hot] bagrobn meyne ksovim, di lider un noveln, in a blekherner pushke in a finstern geto-keler. Er hot zey arayngeleygt in der fintsternish fun der erd azoy vi men fargrobt a zoymen, vos darf amol oyfgeyen unter gute, likhtike himlen.” Yeshaye Shpigl, “Araynfir-vort” to Un gevorn iz likht (lider) (Warsaw: Farlag “Yiddish bukh,” 1949), 4.
Upon his return to Lodz, he managed to recover sixteen of them. Recovering them was not as simple as returning to the cellar of his parents’ old parterre flat and digging them up, however. When Shpigl returned to Lodz in mid June 1945, a Pole was already living in the apartment. Shpigl asked for permission to go into the cellar, and the Pole replied “‘We’ve already looked; we thought you had hidden gold or money, but we found only some papers with writing we couldn’t read.’” 15 15 “‘Mir hobn shoyn gezukht, mir hobn gemeynt az du host bahaltn dort khotsh gold, gelt, ober dervayl hobn mir ongetrofn epes papirlekh ongeshribn un men hot nisht gekont iberleyenen’” (Szeintuch-Shpigl interview 384). On non-Jews in Eastern Europe searching, both during and after the war, for gold and other valuables they believed Jews had buried, see Jan Gross and Irena Grudzińska Gross, Golden Harvest: Events at the Periphery of the Holocaust (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). Jan Grabowski attributes the “absolute conviction and deep belief about the universality of ‘Jewish gold’” among Poles to “the influence of prewar nationalist and Church-led antisemitic propaganda and the German efforts in the same direction.” Jan Grabowski, Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 109. Shpigl spent “a few days,” with a brother who had also survived, combing through the trash heap in the courtyard, where the new occupants of his parents’ apartment had discarded his manuscripts, recovering as many pages as he could. 16 16 Some pages were not found or were too damaged to salvage (Szeintuch-Shpigl interview, 384). Shpigl relates the following rich anecdote, in which the personal and the general historical importance of documents recovered after the war clash strikingly: Knowing that he likely would not survive, Shpigl left a note in the Lodz ghetto Archives indicating where his manuscripts were buried. Shortly after he had finished recovering what he could of his papers from the trash heap, Shpigl ran into his friend Nakhman Blumental, a member of the Jewish Historical Commission, then based in Lodz. Blumental was in fact on his way to Lagevnitske 9, the address of the Shpigls’ old apartment; he had just found Shpigl’s note in the Archives. Shpigl implored him to let him have the note, but Blumenthal insisted on keeping it for the Archives, as it could be of historical importance! (Szeintuch-Shpigl interview, 385).

All of the manuscripts that Shpigl was able to recover date from the early period of the Lodz ghetto, before the first mass deportations to Chelmno between January and May 1942. They do not refer to any events that occurred after the summer of 1941. Since numerous other manuscripts Shpigl wrote in the ghetto were destroyed, we cannot be certain whether he wrote stories while still in the ghetto that were set after summer 1941. 17 17 Several ghetto stories that Shpigl published after the war depict the period of 1942-1944, but it is unclear whether these are rewritings of stories he originally wrote in the ghetto, or new creations dating from after the war.
Only two of these wartime texts were written in something like immediate proximity to the events they depict: the story “Abrashe geyt tsum Nieman” [Abrashe goes to the Nieman river] and (parts of) Shpigl’s address to his daughter, “Mayn tekhterl” [My little daughter]. 18 18 On the time and circumstances of writing “Abrashe geyt tsum Nieman,” see Szeintuch-Shpigl interview, 358-59 and 367-68; on the time and circumstances of writing “Mayn tekhterl,” see ibid, 368. The sixteen extant ghetto manuscripts bear no date, so we cannot be certain of when precisely during his years in the ghetto Shpigl wrote them; but according to Shpigl the other fourteen stories were written at a temporal remove from the events they depict, most in 1943 or early 1944, a period of relative calm after the deportations of 1942 and before the final liquidation of the ghetto in August 1944. 19 19 See footnote 19, p. 29 in Szeintuch’s Hebrew Introduction to Yeshaʻyahu Shpigel: prozah sipurit mi-geṭo Lodz’ (hereafter Szeintuch, “Introduction”).

Shpigl published most of the sixteen recovered manuscripts, usually after very significant revision, in the years after the war, beginning with the story collection Malkhes geto: noveln (Ghetto Kingdom, Lodz, 1947), and continuing with Shtern ibern geto (Stars Over the Ghetto, Paris, 1948); Mentshn in thom: geto-noveln (People in the Abyss, Buenos Aires, 1949; the first anthology of Shpigl’s ghetto stories, Likht funem opgrunt: geto-noveln (Light from the Abyss, New York, 1952); and Vint un vortslen (Wind and Roots, New York, 1955). 20 20Malkhes geto: noveln [Ghetto Kingdom] (Lodz: Dos Naye Lebn, 1947); Shtern ibern geto [Stars Over the Ghetto] (Paris: Yidishe folks biblyotek, 1948); Mentshn in thom: geto-noveln [People in the Abyss] (Buenos Aires, Farlag Ikuf, 1949); Likht funem opgrunt: geto-noveln [Light from the abyss] (New York: Tsiko, 1952); and Vint un vortslen [Wind and Roots] (New York: Alveltlekhn Yidishn Kultur-Kongres, 1955).
Shpigl reconstructed other stories from memory, but surely also revised and rewrote them in the process. 21 21 Shpigl also published a book of poems in 1949, Un gevorn iz likht [And there was light] (Lodz and Warsaw: Yidish Bukh, 1949), some of which, he indicates in his introduction, he wrote in the Lodz ghetto (Shpigl, “Araynfir-vort” to Un gevorn iz likht.) Although Shpigl dates a section of poems in this book 1940-1944, he was not in fact able to recover manuscripts of any poems he wrote in the ghetto (see Szeintuch, “Introduction” p. 24fn3). These are thus postwar reconstructions from memory—and surely revisions—of the poems he wrote in the ghetto. In the above-mentioned volumes of ghetto stories that he published in the late 1940s and 1950s, Shpigl was not forthcoming about what he had written in the ghetto and what he had written or rewritten after the war. Beginning with his second volume of stories, Shtern ibern geto, he also adopted the practice of assigning a date between 1940 and 1944 to virtually all of the ghetto stories he published, including those stories for which no manuscript was preserved and that he thus not only revised but completely reconstructed (or possibly composed) after the war. 22 22 Shpigl continued to ante-date even later stories such as those in the 1976 two-volume collection Shtern laykhtn in thom: gezamelte dertseylungen (1940-1944) (Tel Aviv: Yisroel-bukh, 1976).
Shpigl’s postwar books indeed gave the distinct impression that the stories as published were in fact the texts he was able to recover. The unsigned introductory text to Malkhes geto (1947), for example, states that:

Di noveln, velkhe geyn arayn in dem bikhl, zaynen geshribn in lodzsher geto in di troyerike yorn 1940-1944.

Oygust 1944, beys der likvidatsye fun geto, hot der shrayber zey, tsuzamen mit fil andere literarishe arbetn, fargrobn in a keler.

Zumer 1945, ven der mekhaber hot zikh umgekert fun Oshvientshim un farshidene andere lagern, hot er zayne shriftn oyfgegrobn un teyl fun zey gefunen in a tsushtand, vos git undz di meglekhkeyt zey aroystsugebn.

Dos iz dos ershte proze-bukh, vos dersheynt in banaytn poyln. (Malkhes geto, 1)

The stories included in this little book were written in the Lodz ghetto in the sad years 1940-1944.

In August 1944, during the liquidation of the ghetto, the author buried them, together with many other literary works, in a cellar.

In summer 1945, when the author returned from Auschwitz and various other camps, he dug up his writings and found a portion of them in a condition that affords us the possibility of publishing them.

This is the first prose book to appear in the renewed Poland. 23 23 Publishing in “the renewed Poland” would become increasingly ideologically freighted. Already in the preface, signed Warsaw, 1949, to his 1949 book of poems Un gevorn iz likht, we find Shpigl having to apologize for the “minor, hopeless” key in which his poems of the ghetto and the immediate postwar years were written, as well as voicing obligatory optimism about the new People’s Poland and the future of Yiddish culture within it (“Araynfir-vort” to Un gevorn iz likht, 3, 4).

Similarly, a note on the table of contents page of Shpigl’s next volume, Shtern ibern geto, states: “Di noveln, vos geyen arayn in dozikn bukh zaynen a hemshekh fun noveln-bukh “Malkhes geto”, geshribn in di yorn 1940-44 in Lodzsher geto” [“The stories that this book comprises are a sequel to the story volume Ghetto Kingdom, written in the years 1940-44 in the Lodz ghetto”]. While Shpigl’s statements and silences certainly blurred the distinction between texts written (at specific moments) during the Holocaust and texts written or rewritten thereafter—a distinction that looms large for many scholars today—it is important to appreciate that Shpigl was responding, to a great extent, to esthetic imperatives. Revising his stories to be what he felt was the most perfect literary works they could be was for him paramount, the specific time and circumstances of his efforts to this end secondary.

In his introduction to Un gevorn iz likht (1949), Shpigl comes close to articulating such an esthetic imperative:

Di groyl-yorn hobn yedn yidishn dikhter gemuzt farvandlen in a Yirmiyahu. Aza iz s’gesets fun dikhtung. Af lange, lange yorn vet in di adern fun yedn yidishn shrayber zidn dos blut mit sine tsu di felker-merder. Er vet nisht opshteyn fun zukhn dem veg, kedey durkhn opkloyb fun filtrirtn royen shoyder-shtof tsu gebn a kinstlerishn tikn undzer beyzer tekufe.

The years of horror necessarily transformed every Jewish writer into a Jeremiah. Such is the law of literature. For many, many years, the blood in the veins of every Jewish writer [yidishn shrayber] will boil with hatred of the perpetrators of genocide. He [the Jewish writer] will not cease to seek the way, through a selection of the filtered raw material of horror, to render an artistic redemption of our evil era [tsu gebn a kinstlerishn tikn undzer beyzer tekufe]. 24 24 Shpigl, “Araynfir-vort” to Un gevorn iz likht, 4.

Shpigl here sees it as the duty of Jewish writers to pursue esthetic amelioration—one could almost say esthetic redemption (kinstlerishn tikn)—in the wake of the genocide, an artistic transformation of the suffered evils. The “law of literature” is thus not only that each writer must bear witness, as the prophet Jeremiah did to the destruction of Jerusalem, but also that they must strive to help repair the evil, suffering, and death on a genocidal scale through artistic means. This “law” to which Shpigl clearly felt bound as a surviving Yiddish writer, and the awesome demands of such an ethicized esthetics, for him, trumped demands of transparency or historical rigor regarding exactly when given texts were written and revised.

Esthetic concerns, however, were not the only ones that bore on Shpigl’s decisions about which stories to publish and which to withhold from publication, or about which stories to revise and how to revise them. And even though I expect that Shpigl weighed esthetic concerns at every turn, as literary authors of course do, such concerns can never be neatly disarticulated from other factors including the ethics and politics of Holocaust memory (as the above quote already makes clear) and Shpigl’s own reputation as a postwar Yiddish survivor writer. Regarding the latter, one must suspect that the highly positive reception Shpigl received from leading Yiddish literary critics in the 1950s made him reticent to be frank about which of his stories had been composed in the Lodz ghetto and which he had (re)written after the war. For the idea that the artful literary gems they were reading and reviewing had been written by Shpigl in the almost unimaginably difficult circumstances of the Lodz ghetto, and then disinterred after the war, profoundly impressed Shpigl’s reviewers, including the esteemed poet and literary critic Jacob Glatstein, the preeminent Yiddish literary critic Shmuel Charney, and the prolific columnist and literary critic Alexander Mukdoni (penname of Alexander Kappel). 25 25 Shmuel Charney published under the (obviously problematic) pseudonym Shmuel Niger. For an argument for why we should refer to him by his family name, see Eli Bromberg, “We Need to Talk about Shmuel Charney.” In geveb (October 2019): Accessed Mar 11, 2023. To these critics, Shpigl’s artful stories bore authentic and astonishingly elegant testimony to the humanity of the Jews during the Holocaust.

The masterful poet Glatstein could muster only faint praise for Shpigl’s poetry, but he held him in the highest regard as a prose writer. Glatstein even ventured to say that the “likhtikeyt in der khashkhes” [“luminosity in the total darkness”] evident in Shpigl’s stories was comparable to the “likhtike ferzn” [luminous verses] that Avrom Sutzkever “hot undz oykh, af zayn shteyger, oysgegrobn fun der kelerdiker tifenish” [had also, in his way, dug up for us from the cellar-like depths]. 26 26 Jacob Glatstein, “Yeshaye Shpigl’s lider,” review of Un gevorn iz likht, by Yeshiah Shpigl, in In tokh genumen: eseyen 1949-1959 (Buenos Aires: Farlag Poeli tsiyon, 1960) 279-286; here 281.
In his review of Shpigl’s first collection of stories about the Lodz ghetto, Malkhes geto (1947), Glatstein highlights Shpigl’s artistry as the collection’s most surprising feature:

Yeshaye Shpigl’s malkhesdik kinstlerish geduld, in Malkhes-geto, iz dos same iberrashndikste in zayne dertseylungen. Zayn kenen masber zayn tif gemit un zayn geduldiker un ruiker ton zaynen nisht nor a kinstlerisher triumf, nor a groyser nitsokhn fun mentsh iber der gantser khayishkeyt, vos hot gebushevet arum im.

Yeshiah Shpigl’s regal artistic patience in Ghetto Kingdom is the most surprising thing in his stories. His ability to elucidate profound spirit and his patient and calm tone are not only an artistic triumph but a great victory of the human being over the bestiality that raged around him. 27 27 Glatstein, “Yeshaye Shpigl,” review of Malkhes geto and Mentshn in thom, by Yeshaye Shpigl, in In tokh genumen: eseyen 1948-1956 (New York: Farlag fun yidish natsyonaln arbeter farband, 1956) 453-465; here, 458. Glatshtein’s review of Shpigl’s Malkhes geto and Mentshn in thom was originally published in Yidisher kemfer on July 7, 1950.

In this review Glatstein continues to play on the word malkhes (kingdom) in Shpigl’s title, repeatedly using the word “aristocratic” to evoke the elevated—and elevating—esthetic quality of Shpigl’s ghetto stories. Glatstein writes, for example, “Faran in di gemostene shures an aristokratishkeyt, vos derheybt dem nomen ‘malkhes geto,’ iber dem oybnoyfikn bateyt fun dem farpestetn shtik erd, vos iz opgegebn gevorn vi a toyt-shetekh tsu a gants folk.” [“There is, in the measured lines, an aristocratic quality, which elevates the name ‘Ghetto Kingdom’ above the superficial meaning of the poisoned bit of earth that was given like a burial plot for an entire people.”] 28 28 Glatstein, “Yeshaye Shpigl,” 453-54. What Shpigl did and did not wish his (story and collection) title “Malkhes geto” to connote is a point of scholarly debate. Szeintuch flatly rejects the possibility of seeing in this phrase an allusion to Chaim Rumkowski, the controversial head of the Jewish administration in the Lodz ghetto, who was widely perceived by inhabitants of the ghetto as a megalomaniacal self-styled king. While Szeintuch points to the story’s overriding concern with the ghetto as a realm of hunger, and lack of any direct allusion to Rumkowski (Szeintuch, “Ghetto Literature,” xiii), David H. Hirsch, in his introduction to his and Roslyn Hirsch’s English translation of Lodz ghetto stories by Shpigl, notes that where such literary images are concerned, one association need not exclude another. See David H. Hirsch, “Introduction to the Ghetto Stories of Isaiah Spiegel,” in Isaiah Spiegel,Ghetto Kingdom: Tales of the Łódź Ghetto, trans. David H. Hirsch and Roslyn Hirsch (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998), VII-XXIV; here XVII-XVIII. For an account of how the public performance in the Lodz ghetto of a satirical poem by Shpigl roused Rumkowski’s anger and put Shpigl in considerable danger, see Julian Levinson, “Translator’s Introduction,” xviii-xx. The prevalent uplifting, redemptive thrust of Shpigl’s esthetics is indeed crucial to his project and is indicative of his relationship to literature as a humanistic cultural edifice. With characteristic insight, Glatstein notes that what distinguishes Shpigl’s prose from the “kines, geshrayen, kloles, gezangen, pinkes-fartseykhenungen” [“laments, cries, curses, songs, [and] chronicle entries”] that have come down to us from ghettos and camps is “a hoykh fun a kinstlerishn shtolts, vos iz eybik” [“an aura of artistic pride, which is eternal”]. “Faran in zayne zatsn a gedikhtkeyt, an oventikeyt, a gemostene tsurikgehaltnkeyt un a tsikhtikeyt. Faran oykh in zayne noveln a geduldike oyfgeboytkeyt, vi di geto-yorn voltn im nisht geshtanen afn kark un in im nisht arayngeshnitn yeder tog.” [“In his sentences, there is a density, an elegance, a measured restraint, and an immaculateness. In his stories there is also a patient construction, as if the ghetto years had not pressed their boot against Shpigl’s neck and not cut into him each day.”] 29 29 Glatstein, “Yeshaye Shpigl,” 456. Glatstein sees Shpigl’s literary approach to life in the ghetto as both a buffer against the naked brutality and as a purifying, refining lens: “Faran in Shpigl’s dertseylungen an aristokratish geveyn, vi er volt undz alemen gevolt farshporn di groyse, shendlekhe eyntslheytn; vi er volt gevolt reynikn dos dertseylerishe tsu alts vos lozt zikh dertseyln un ken vern an oysgeeydlter un eybiker simbol” [“There is in Shpigl’s stories an aristocratic lament, as though he wanted to spare us all the course, shameful particulars; as though he wanted to purify what was to be told into what could be narrated and could become a refined and eternal symbol.”] 30 30 Glatstein, “Yeshaye Shpigl,” 457.

Charney likewise emphasizes Shpigl’s singular ability to transcend the dire conditions of the ghetto in his lyrical stories. He grants that in Shpigl’s Malkhes geto there is something of “der shverer tunkeler element fun der geto-khronik” [“the heavy dark element of the ghetto chronicle”] and that the “roystof” [“raw materials”] is not always completely “farshlungen un fardeyt fun dem dertseyler’s [sic] lirishkeyt. Ober zi dominirt, ot di lirishkeyt, un zi tsind shtern oyf’n nakhtign himl…” [“swallowed and digested by the story teller’s lyricism. Yet that lyricism predominates, and lights up stars in the night sky…”]. 31 31 Shmuel Charney, “Shtern ibern geto: vegn Yeshayahu Shpigls ‘Malkhes geto’ (Lodzsh, 1947) un ‘Shtern ibern geto’ (Pariz, 1948),” in Yeshayahu Shpigl in likht fun der farloshener pen (yoyvl-bukh), vol. 2 (Tel Aviv: Yisroel Bukh, 1986), 7-14; here 13. In a 1953 review originally published in Di Tsukunft, Mukdoni describes Shpigl in the Lodz ghetto in ways that likewise highlight his artistry in the midst of hellish circumstances. Shpigl “geyt arum in der oysshtarbndiker shtot un shnirt kinstlerishe perl, finkldike mentshlekhe dimentn in dem khoyshekhdikn kaltn mord durkh oyshungerung, durkh dershisenishn vi a shpilkhl, vi a shpasiker tseyt-fartreyb…” [“goes about in the moribund city and strings artistic pearls, sparkling human diamonds amid the dark cold murder by starvation, by shootings [undertaken] as if a little game, an amusing pastime….”]. 32 32 Alexander Mukdoni, “Y. Shpigls noveln,” review of Likht funem opgrunt (1952) by Y. Shpigl, in Yeshayahu Shpigl in likht fun der faloshener pen (yoyvl-bukh), vol. 2 (Tel Aviv: Yisroel Bukh, 1986), 19-23; here 19-20. Mukdoni stresses that Shpigl is not a simple scribe but an artist who “iz gekumen fun gehenem tsu undz a geleyterter kinstler, a subtiler kinstler, a kinstler a gantser, mamesh on keyn shum pgime. Un keyn vort fun dem reykhn oytser fun dem yidishn loshn iz im nit farlorn gegangen, er hot dem oytser opgehit, vi er hot opgehit zayn kinstlerishe reynkeyt” [“came to us from hell a refined artist, a subtle artist, a total artist, truly without blemish. And no word of the rich treasury of the Yiddish language was lost to him; he preserved the treasury just as he guarded his artistic purity.”] 33 33 Mukdoni, “Y. Shpigls noveln,” 23. The extremely high regard in which these prominent Yiddish critics held Shpigl’s stories owes much to their literary elegance, by which all three critics were impressed; yet their reception of Shpigl was undeniably inflected by their mistaken notion that the texts they were reviewing were the very texts that Shpigl had written in the ghetto and recovered upon his return to Lodz after the war. 34 34 This is evident at multiple points in the various reviews. Charney even refers to a letter from Shpigl to Glatstein (which Glatstein presumably shared with Charney), in which Shpigl says he buried thirty stories (roughly 300 pages) in a cellar. Charney reckons based on the six stories published in Malkhes geto and a seventh, “Goldene yoykh,” published in Y. Opotoshu’s and H. Leyvik’s zamlbukh for 1948, that approximately half of the recovered pages had not yet been published. Glatstein and Charney clearly had the impression that all thirty of the buried stories had been recovered, and that the ghetto stories Shpigl had published up to that point were directly from this corpus of thirty. It does seem true that Shpigl wrote some thirty stories in the ghetto, but as I have mentioned, he was only able to recover sixteen of them. See Charney, “Shtern ibern geto,” 9.
Indeed, it was precisely the ostensible fact that such stunning artfulness seemed to hail in an unmediated way from the Lodz ghetto—that Shpigl’s exquisitely rendered stories were recovered artifacts from those hellish years—that so impressed and astonished Shpigl’s critics. Reviewing Shpigl’s work under the assumption that the published texts were identical to the ones written in the Lodz ghetto and later recovered, these critics highlighted certain elements as quintessential to Shpigl’s ghetto stories that are arguably more characteristic of his revisions and postwar writings than of his extant ghetto manuscripts. 35 35 For example, Charney astutely observes that Shpigl’s Malkhes geto was a realm of dreams; Shpigl’s protagonists, that is, sought to transcend their hellish reality through various forms of dreams, a dynamic that aptly characterizes how Shpigl’s stories themselves in their artistry and esthetic elegance tend to transcend the dehumanizing conditions of the ghetto. Yet most of the texts on which Charney bases this conclusion were in fact written after, not during, the war years. The story “Heinz Friedrich Levi,” a kind of Künstlernovelle about a Berlin violinist in the Lodz ghetto, struck both Mukdoni and Charney as paradigmatic of the way that Shpigl himself transforms death and hopelessness into fine art; i.e., they read it as a self-reflexive text in relation to Shpigl’s own esthetic. Yet “Heinz Friedrich Levi” and several other stories that especially Charney and Glatstein point to as quintessentially Shpigl were not written in the ghetto, but rather after the war. What these critics saw as an incredible ghetto-era esthetic was shaped to a great extent by Shpigl’s postwar perspective, one that, not surprisingly, meshed very well with these critics’ own postwar memorial needs.

While questions of his own professional reputation likely encouraged Shpigl to prevaricate about whether he reconstructed, re-wrote, or simply wrote his Lodz ghetto stories for publication after the war, questions of the ethics and politics of Holocaust memory also guided his postwar reworking of his stories. Unsurprisingly, many of the ways Shpigl revised his recovered ghetto manuscripts for postwar publication served to bring them into alignment with postwar circumstances. One salient difference between the wartime and postwar corpora of Holocaust writing concerns their anticipated audience. While certain texts written in Nazi ghettos were read to friends privately, shared in small groups, or read or performed in more public ways, many were also written for a very ambiguous and uncertain audience indeed. The radical contingency of whether the texts they were writing would survive the ravages of war and genocide, and what sort of readers they might find if they did, likely relegated questions of audience in any concrete sense to the background during the years of chaos, flux, and extreme danger. 36 36 Kassow’s remarks on the reports that Peretz Opoczynski wrote for the Oyneg Shabes archive in the Warsaw ghetto are apt for many other Yiddish writers as well. “These reports were unlike anything Opoczynski had written before the war. Then he knew who his audience was and when they would read his piece. Now there was no newspaper, no guaranteed audience, and no certainty of personal survival. Yiddish, the very language that had bound writer and reader in a circle of mutual understanding, was itself being destroyed.” Kassow, Who Will Write Our History?, 188. In the postwar era, audiences lost their abstraction and reemerged as empirical realities, and literary production could once again find—and had to negotiate—venues for publication, and critical reception. Inevitably, both knowingly and unknowingly, authors shaped their writings accordingly. Closely examining the original and post-war versions of two of Shpigl’s Lodz ghetto stories highlights some of the most salient differences in the authorial perspective that distinguishes literature written during and after the war. In his autorevisions, Shpigl quite evidently strove to make his original stories more palatable for postwar Yiddish reading audiences.

Shpigl’s ghetto manuscript “Di letste tsvey” (The last two) tells the story of a mother and daughter freezing and starving in the ghetto. Unlike postwar texts that look back at the Holocaust as a devastating rupture in Jewish history, Shpigl’s manuscript dramatizes confinement, starvation, and ultimately death in the Lodz ghetto as continuous with the recent history of pogroms. Zelde and her mother are the last two of their family, and in a long anamnestic passage Zelde sees the “umheymlekhe zeyungen” (uncanny visions) of the family’s traumatic past. 37 37 “Di letste tsvey” is among Spigl’s manuscripts published in Szeintuch and Solomon’s edition.Yeshaʻyahu Shpigel: prozah sipurit mi-geṭo Lodz’, 116-121. Subsequent page references in parenthesis in the body of the text are to this edition. The family of five have been the victims of no fewer than seven pogroms. The first victim was the father, Henokh Shteyn, who was taken from his home and never seen again. In the course of years of intermittent pogroms, the oldest son and youngest daughter are also killed. In the end, only the mother and Zelde remain. They flee and become refugees in an unfamiliar Polish city, carrying all they own in packages under their arms, and with no relatives to turn to (117). They eventually achieve a modicum of security in the city, but with their evacuation into the ghetto the family’s dark fate seems to pick up where it left off. “Dos vos iz geshen mit yorn tsurik—iz vider geshtanen far zeyere oygn un zey hobn af s’nay alts ibergelebt. Der goyrl hot vider ongehoybn alts fun onheyb un ver veys vuhin zey geyen” [What happened years ago—appeared again before their eyes and they experienced everything once again. Fate has commenced everything again from the beginning and who knows where they are heading”] (118). Having sold all the jewelry they were able to salvage upon being forced into the ghetto, the mother and daughter, like their entire hoyf, begin to starve and, in the terrible first winter in the ghetto, also to freeze. During a heavy winter storm, Zelde tries to save her mother by chopping up the only wood left in their room, the bed. However, the axe blade sinks deeply into the wood and she is unable to extract it (120). Mother and daughter can only lie in bed together in an embrace. When the storm subsides and a neighbor comes to check on them, he finds them both dead in the bed. “Un fun betventl shtekt aroys di hak, mit der sharf ayngegesn tif in holts. Di hak mitn hentl, vi di sharfe hant funem goyrl” [“And the axe sticks out from the headboard, with the blade sunk deep in the wood. The axe with the handle, like the sharp hand of fate”] (121).

The story evokes an ineluctable fate to which the Shteyn family is subject, “Iber der shtub fun di Shteyns iz gehangen a shverer, umfarmaydlekher goyrl” [“a heavy, ineluctable fate hung over the Shteyn home”] (117), a fate that bridges the Shteyn family’s persecution in pogroms and the fate of the last two remaining family members in the ghetto. The ghetto seems to replicate or continue historically precedented forms of Jewish persecution, familiar in the case of the Shteyns from their own personal and familial experience. It is significant, too, that the deadly “fate” evoked in this story destroys a family but not a people. The Shteyn family is representative of a wider collective Jewish experience of violence and tragedy, yet there is no sense of murder on a genocidal scale.

The reworked version of this text that Shpigl published, under the title “Likht fun opgrunt” (“Light from the Abyss”) in Malkhes geto, his first postwar collection of ghetto stories, omits the familial backstory and makes no mention of Zelde’s father or any siblings. 38 38 References to the story, published in Shpigl’s 1947 volume of stories Malkhes geto, will be provided in parenthesis in the body of the text. Instead, Shpigl adds a more narrowly conceived backstory that reshapes the entire plot. Zelde had been engaged to Leybush before the war broke out, but the Germans occupied Lodz before her wedding day. A carpenter, Leybush had built what was to be their nuptial bed. The bed and a few clothes from Zelde’s trousseau are all that Zelde and her mother are able to salvage when they are forced into the ghetto. Leybush himself disappears with the many refugees fleeing the city, and they never hear from him again and presume him dead. Whereas in “Di letste tsvey” it is the familial fate that is continued in the ghetto, in “Likht fun opgrunt” it is the tragic romantic plot. Zelde and her mother hear cries and the reciting of psalms through the wall, and eventually Zelde goes next door to pay their troubled neighbors a visit. There she finds Reb Asher and his sick son, who is confined to a makeshift bed of old clothes on the floor and who, by coincidence, is also named Leybush. In this second Leybush Zelde mysteriously (re)finds her lost groom. “Leybush? Vi oysterlish…eyn reyge bloyz hot ir a blits getan in ponim di oygn fun ir khosn, vos iz ergets farfaln gevorn. Epes umzebarere vareme hent hobn zi ongenumen far di dare akslen un tsugefirt nenter tsum geleger” [“Leybush? How strange…for a mere second she saw the eyes of her groom, who had fallen somewhere, flash in his face. Some invisible warm hands took her by her withered shoulders and led her closer to the bed”] (71-72).

Asher goes out to search for wood to warm some food for his dying son, leaving Zelde and Leybush alone. Leybush extends his warm, moist hand from under the blankets and lets it rest a long while on Zelde’s knee. She immediately feels an intimacy with Leybush that surpasses even that which she feels with her mother. “Zelde aleyn hot gefilt vi der doziker mentsh, vos iz biz itst geven ir fremd un vos vet avade bald oysgeyn—iz ir mit eynmol gevorn noenter vi di mame” [“Zelde herself felt how this person, who until now had been unknown to her and who would clearly die soon, suddenly became closer to her than her mother”] (72-73). In this version, it is indeed Leybush, her ersatz groom, and not her mother, that Zelde tries to warm by chopping up her bed. In this version her efforts are more successful; she is able to remove a cornice from the bed and chop kindling and light a fire for Leybush. In the final scene, Reb Asher is again reciting psalms, and Zelde has a vision.

Zi hot oyfgehoybn ire oysgeloshene oygn un ir hot zikh oysgevizn, az zey zeyen naye, vunderlekhe zakhn. Di shtub iz gevorn ful mit gezang fun tilem zogn. Af di vent hobn di tseblite blumen geminyet mit zumerdike toy-perl, vos zogn on dos oyfgeyn fun a likhtikn zumerdikn tog. Un funem altns tilem-zogn un fun di kalte blumen af di vent hot zikh in di vinklen tseshart a varemkeyt, vi flaterndik, kishefdik likht iber an opgrunt. (Malkhes geto, 74-75)

She raised her extinguished eyes and it seemed to her that they were seeing new, marvelous things. The room filled with the chanting of psalms. On the walls the blossoming flowers shimmered with summerlike drops of dew that announced the beginning of a bright summerlike day. And from the old man’s psalm chanting and from the cold flowers on the walls a warmth spread throughout the room, like a shimmering, magical light over an abyss.

The ultimately ineffectual attempt to care for her mother in the ghetto manuscript is displaced in the revised version by Zelde’s passionate sacrifice for Leybush. The story’s new ending no longer emphasizes death and the harsh fate that hovers over the Shteyn family but rather celebrates an ecstatic vision within the broader tragedy, a transcendent moment filled with connection, nurturing, warmth, and the singing of psalms. It is a moment when light flickers over the abyss, one that provides a modicum of hope and that celebrates Jewish tradition and the love and comfort that Jews selflessly provided each other in the darkest times. This “timeless” moment—and the action of “Likht fun opgrunt” in general—is severed from the continuous narrative of Jewish historical experience that was such a prominent feature of the original version, and the text indeed seems crafted to provide an image serviceable to postwar memory of the recent catastrophe. The temporal continuity no longer lies in a familial narrative spanning the pogroms and the period of the ghetto but rather in the “usable” past that the story provides for Jews living on after the Holocaust. The knowledge of the extent of the Nazi genocide rendered impossible the original historical and narrative arc that cast the ghetto as a further iteration of the pogroms, and the retrospective weight of memory called for love and light.

Shpigl modified a number of his ghetto writings to a comparably significant degree. Other texts such as “Abrasha geyt tsum Nieman,” “Durkh a shpare”/ “Broyt,” “Shtroy”/ “In a toytn gesl,” and “Der Yid Yosi-Ber fun Dolne Yari”/ “Erd” underwent relatively fewer changes, although in some cases, as Szeintuch convincingly shows, the change of a small number of elements in a story can profoundly change the meaning of the whole. 39 39 See, for example, Szeintuch’s discussion of the significance of the changed ending of “Di drite partye” in its published form as “In der finster” [“In the Dark”] in Shtern ibern geto (1948); Szeintuch, “Introduction,” 38-39. Shpigl’s by far most radical postwar rewriting of a story for which we have a ghetto manuscript, and one that helped shape Shpigl’s image among English readers, was of the ghetto story “Der Toyt fun Anna Yakovlevna Temkin.” This story served—albeit only very loosely—as the basis for the story “Niki” that Shpigl published in 1949 in Mentshn in thom and that appeared in English in 1954 as “A Ghetto Dog” in A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg. 40 40 Page references for “Niki,” cited parenthetically below, are to Shpigl’s 1949 story collection Menthsn in thom. Shpigl also included “Niki” in his 1952 collection Likht fun opgrunt and in volume one of Shtern laykhtn in thom (1976). Page references for “A Ghetto Dog” are to Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, eds, A Treasury of Yiddish Stories (New York: Viking Press, 1954). Although the text of the manuscript story “Der Toyt fun Anna Yakovlevna Temkin” was not published until 1990 (in the preeminent postwar Yiddish literary journal Di Goldene keyt), it was in fact the first of Shpigl’s ghetto manuscripts to be published. The publication of all sixteen of the manuscripts followed in 1995 in the Magnes Press edition edited by Szeintuch and Vera Solomon. 41 41 Szeintuch and Solomon indicate in their introduction to the first Yiddish publication of “Der Toyt fun Anna Yakovlevna Temkin” in 1990 that Shpigl had agreed some ten years earlier to allow his Lodz ghetto manuscripts to be published. See Szeintuch and Solomon, “Fun Yeshaye Shpigls umbakante ksav-yadn fun lodzsher geto,” Di goldene keyt 130 (1990), 37-39; here, 38. While in many cases it is not entirely evident why Shpigl chose to revise the way he did (always an overdetermined undertaking, to be sure), a comparison between the two different narratives “Der Toyt fun Anna Yakovlevna Temkin” and “Niki”—for they are indeed different narratives and not simply different versions of the same story—illuminates aspects of ghetto existence and inter-Jewish relations that were of central concern to Shpigl during the early years of the Lodz ghetto but that he clearly preferred not to highlight after the war.

In the postwar narrative “Niki” (“A Ghetto Dog”), Anna Yakovlevna Temkin is visited in the opening scene by a German soldier who has come to force her out of her apartment into the ghetto. Anna Yakovlevna Temkin’s husband has been dead for years, and her only company in the apartment is her aging dog Niki. Perhaps it was “derfar, vos Niki hot zikh yorn arumgeringlt mitn balebos un vi yeder hunt geven greyt tsu shtrekn s’lebn far im” (“Niki” 8-9) [“because Nicky had been close to his master for so many years and had been ready to lay down his life for him,” (“Ghetto Dog” 615)], that the dog’s moist eyes, lax mouth, and soft tread increasingly recall, to Anna Yakovlevna Temkin, those of her late husband. 42 42 Note that Bernard Guibert Guerney’s English translation leaves out “vi yeder hunt” (like every dog) when describing “Nicky’s” willingness to give his life for his master. The deletion tends to suggest that this particular dog was not only completely devoted (as described in Shpigl’s text) but also exceptionally devoted to his master. Anna Temkin is able to grab only a photo of her husband, his silver-knobbed cane, and Niki on her way out of the apartment.

Anna Yakovlevna Temkin, we learn, had been estranged from Jewishness since her childhood and has lived for years apart from the Jewish community. Her apostate son married a Christian girl. However, as she is forced out of her apartment by the German and herded along with fellow Jews into the ghetto, the widow Temkin experiences a Jewish reawakening and a return to her people.

Ersht der daytsh, vos hot haynt oyfgepralt ba ir di tirn, hot di altitshke oysgevekt fun der farglivertkeyt un zi dermont, az eygentlekh iz zi dokh a yid un az itst zaynen gekumen shvere, shvere tsaytn far ir un farn gantsn yidishn folk

Un khotsh di altitshke hot zikh durkh di tsendliker yorn fun ir lebn gefilt opgerisn fun yidishkayt un yidn hot zi dokh oyfgenumen dem plutsimdikn groyl mit hakhnoe un eyngebrokhnkeyt, grod vi epes an umzebarer fodem volt zi gehaltn di ale yorn farbundn mit ir folk. (11)

When the German had opened it [her door] that morning, he had aroused the little old woman from her torpor and had reminded her that she was a Jew and that heavy days had come for her and all other Jews.

And though the old woman had during so many years been cut off from Jewishness and Jews, she had accepted the sudden misfortune with courage and resignation, as if an invisible thread had connected her to her people all through the years. (“Ghetto Dog” 617)

Walking in the crowded street among traditional Jews with beards and skullcaps (whom her husband had ridiculed during his lifetime) and women with headkerchiefs and wigs, the widow Temkin recognizes the faces of her youth and feels “epes a freydiker varemkeyt in ir kalt harts” (12) [a kind of peaceful warmth in her cold heart (my translation)].

In the ghetto, Anna Yakovlevna Temkin first takes refuge in a barn in a squalid Balut neighborhood, home to “teamsters, porters, and thin Jewish streetwalkers” (“Niki,” 12). The prostitutes are kind and nourishing and bring in treats baked of white flour. “Di yidishe gasn-meydlekh hobn akegngetrogn gut veys gebeks. S’zaynen geven di ershte teg, ven di gevelblekh zaynen geven nokh ibergefult mit shpayz, ersht shpeter hot der gantser baluter shetekh gezolt opgetsoymt vern fun der orumiker velt” (“Niki” 13) [“The Jewish streetwalkers brought them baked goods of white flour. It was the first days, when the shops were still full of food; only later would the entire Balut area be fenced off from the surrounding world”]. 43 43 My translation. The sentence “It was the first days, when the shops were still full of food; only later would the entire Balut area be fenced off from the surrounding world” is silently omitted from the English translation. This is interesting because the sentence betrays a retrospective vantage point: the narrator knows that, later, the ghetto will be fenced off and food will become scarce. This retrospective knowledge does not in itself betray a postwar perspective—while we know the story to have been written after the war, its English translator Bernard Guilbert Guerney, and the editors of the anthology in which the translation appeared, Howe and Greenberg, may not have. Shpigl assigned the story the date 1943, and many of his actual ghetto manuscripts, all of which were written months or years after the events they depict, signal in one way or another their position of narrational retrospect. While it is impossible to say with confidence why this particular sentence was omitted from the English translation, one may nonetheless speculate that precisely this sentence mitigated the feeling of immediacy that the text otherwise effects. That is, even though the narrational distance from the events could easily be reconciled with a later moment still within the ghetto, even this distance tended to disrupt the literary effect of immediate immersion in the depicted events. In a word, Shpigl’s postwar efforts to offer a postwar reading audience a version of the ghetto community with which they could immediately identify (in contrast to the ghetto community as he depicted it in his ghetto manuscripts) may have been completed by his English translator. When she is finally assigned quarters, Anna Yakovlevna Temkin shares the room of an old prostitute known as “Big Rosa” [Hoykhe Royze], above the brothel she runs. Despite a good deal of initial tension between Anna and Big Rosa, the two eventually grow fond of each other.

It is the dog Niki who brings them together. Niki develops the habit of disappearing in the morning and returning only in the evening. One night he returns with his back badly bloodied, and they realize that he has been leaving the ghetto each day and has injured himself crawling under the newly installed barbed wire. The bitterness Big Rosa had initially felt for Niki melts away and it is she who washes and dresses his wounds. “Fun demolt on hot zi zikh oykh ingantsn gebitn tsu der almone Anna Yakovlevna Temkin” (18) [“From that day her attitude toward the widow had undergone a complete change” (“Ghetto Dog” 621)]. When the order comes for Jews in the ghetto to surrender all their animals—including horses and cows, which are distributed to Germans, and dogs, which are immediately shot—the old prostitute and the widow walk Niki to the pound together. They stop before the German who expects Anna to give him Niki’s leash. Instead, she “nokh fester es arumgeviklt ba ir hant-gelenk un oykh hekher ibern grobn fleysh. Zi hot es geton mit farshlosene oygn, azoy vi dos tun yidn beysn arumviklen di tefiln-retsues af di hent” (21) [“wound the leash still tighter about her wrist and even her forearm. She did this with her eyes closed, the way a Jew winds the straps of a phylactery on his forearm” (“Ghetto Dog,” 623)]. Ultimately, Anna accompanies Niki into the pound and out into the field where the dogs, and Anna Yakovlevna Temkin, are to be killed.

“Niki” is a tale of an estranged Jewish woman’s return to the Jewish fold. Despite having had no contact with Jews for decades, Anna Yakovlevna Temkin’s feeling of reconnection is immediate. Walking with her fellow Jews into the ghetto, it is, as we have seen, as if “epes an umzebarer fodem volt zi gehaltn di ale yorn farbundn mit ir folk [an invisible thread had connected her to her people all through the years].” Germans play crucial roles in the action that directly brings about the transformation in the widow Temkin’s inner life and identity. It is after all the German soldier, in driving her out of her apartment, who reawakens her feelings of Jewish belonging. If anything, the English translation tones down the emphatic statement in the Yiddish that it was “[e]rsht der daytsh” [“only the German”] who awakened Anna Yakovlevna Temkin from her slumber and made her overcome her estrangement from her own people (“Niki” 11; “Ghetto Dog” 617). The postwar story is also one of the overcoming of intra-Jewish divides in culture and social station: the well-off widow Anna Yakovlevna Temkin and the prostitute Big Rosa ultimately unite in friendship and solidarity.

Conspicuously, Shpigl has the dog Niki, an embodiment of Anna Yakovlevna Temkin’s estrangement from Jews and Jewishness, serve as the element that facilitates Big Rosa’s and the widow Temkin’s eventual communion. It was uncommon for Jews in eastern Europe (and remains relatively uncommon to this day among observant Jews) to have dogs, and Anna Yakovlevna Temkin’s relationship to Niki is one (of many) indices of how far she had moved from the Jewish community. 44 44 In his memoir of his childhood in Apt, Poland before 1934, Mayer Kirshenblatt comments on how he and his uncle were atypical among Jews for having dogs: “I loved dogs. I loved animals. Very few Jews had dogs. Christians were the dog fanciers in town. My uncle Yankl and I were nonconformists. We had dogs.” Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland before the Holocaust (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 87. When they are being forced into the ghetto, “di durkhloyfndike yidn hobn af ir mitn hunt tsugevorfn fun der zayt beyzlekhe blikn” (12)] [“the fleeing Jews cast surly sidelong looks at her and the dog” (“Ghetto Dog” 617)]. The forcibly displaced Jews are obviously put off by the sight of the dog. Big Rosa, for her part, initially found it bad enough that she was being forced to take in “a meshumedes” [an apostate], and wanted nothing to do with a sick old dog: “tsu vos darf ikh nokh an altn krankn hunt af mayn kop?” (13) [“what do I need a sick old dog around my neck for to boot?” (my translation)]). Big Rosa at several points refers to Niki with kelev, a Yiddish word (derived from Hebrew) for dog that has strong negative connotations—cur, vicious dog—and that is associated with evil (kelev is also a term for a wicked man, for example). Yet not only do Anna Yakovlevna Temkin and Big Rosa eventually bond over Niki, Anna’s devotion to Niki ultimately renders her a Jewish martyr. Even Niki’s leash coils around Anna’s arm in a manner reminiscent of tefillin straps on the arms of pious Jewish men. It is in choosing to go to her death with her faithful dog that Anna Yakovlevna Temkin completes her return to her people.

The postwar text “Niki” is a story about return to Jewish community and how even the embodiment of one’s estrangement from Jewishness can serve as the means for returning to it. The narrative also places great emphasis on solidarity across intra-Jewish social and cultural divides. In stark contrast, Shpigl’s wartime manuscript “Der Toyt fun Anna Yakovlevna Temkin” focuses centrally on intra-Jewish strife, deception, and violent abuse. Key elements from this story—Anna Yakovlevna Temkin’s name and socio-cultural background, her status as a widow, her silver-knobbed cane, her fraught interactions with Balut prostitutes, and her ultimate death—are carried over into “Niki.” Yet in the wartime text, all of these elements signal and amplify roiling and never-transcended conflict. Moreover, whereas Germans played key roles in “Niki,” and the cruelty of Germans aided greatly in unifying Jews of different backgrounds in communal solidarity, Germans are barely present in the earlier story. 45 45 The unsigned preface to Shpigl’s 1949 collection of ghetto stories Mentshn in thom, published in Buenos Aires, underscores how Shpigl’s esthetic departs from the prevailing ways of depicting the Holocaust in both memoirs and fiction, which, this preface contends, focus on “Nazi cruelty, the beastly condition to which the administrators of the human race reduced [people], the pain and suffering of their victims.” Shpigl, by contrast, is “one of the few Jewish writers [yidishe shraybers] who do not depict those human beasts and their bloody work directly. In his stories the Germans are as good as absent. He picks out particular types of Jews and portrays them as he sees them in particular moments of the terrifying time. He has the ability and the talent, however, to let us constantly see indirectly the nightmarish environment and the bloody atmosphere in which his protagonists move, live, suffer, and die; are dominated by petty greed, by egoism; or rise to quiet, astonishing heroism and reveal the infinite beauty of the human soul” (Unsigned preface to Mentshn in thom). While it is indeed true that Germans play relatively minor roles even in Shpigl’s postwar stories and postwar revisions of wartime stories, Shpigl significantly changed aspects of the presence and importance of Germans in the revised versions of several stories. He assigned Germans greater roles in the revised versions of “Vedibarta bam” (published under the same title) and “di drite partye” (published as “In der finster”), for example. On the significance of the changed role of a violent drunken German in the published version “In der finster,” see Szeintuch, “Introduction,” 38.

We first see Anna Yakovlevna Temkin in “Der Toyt” through the eyes of the story’s narrator. Something of a ghetto flâneur (“In mayn tog-teglekhn arumvandern iber di geslekh fun geto (ikh hob dos gemakht tog-ayn tog oys bay yedn veter) 139 [“In my daily wanderings through the streets of the ghetto (rain or shine, I never missed a day”) 16]), 46 46 Page references to the Yiddish text of this story are to “Der toyt fun Anna Yakovlevna Temkin” in Szeintuch and Solomon, eds, Yeshaʻyahu Shpigel: prozah sipurit mi-geṭo Lodz’, 139-146. When no page reference is given, the English translation is my own; otherwise, page references to the English translation are to “The Death of Anna Nikolayevna Temkin” in Isaiah Spiegel, Ghetto Kingdom: Tales of the Łodź Ghetto, trans. David H. Hirsch and Roslyn Hirsch (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998), 16-23.
this unnamed narrator relates to us the “bizarre spectacle” of Anna Yakovlevna Temkin, whom he first spots in a little side street and mistakes for a man because she is emaciated and is wearing a long, baggy, and shabby man’s coat. She is also barefoot. The narrator says he cannot tell us much about Anna Yakovlevna Temkin because, unlike her, he, the son of a Balut weaver, comes from a humble working class background. His role as the narrator of this story is thus essentially accidental; he is no closer to Anna Yakovlevna Temkin personally or socially than several others who also heard her story, he insists. 47 47 The narrator stresses that “aza parshoyn vi Anna Yakovlevna Temkin iz geven zeyer vayt fun mayn mishpokhe un az dos vos ikh dertseyl fun der perzon Anna Yakovlevna Temkin—iz poshet a tsufal, vayl akhuts mir hobn es oykh gehert fil andere” (140) [“such a person as Anna Yakovlevna Temkin was very distant from my family and that what I relate about the person Anna Yakovlevna Temkin is simply a [matter of] coincidence, because besides me, many others heard it too.” With this gesture, the narrator at once vouches for the veracity of his account, and dissociates himself from Anna Yakovlevna Temkin as someone from a decidedly different background and milieu. His act of narrating Anna Yakovlevna Temkin’s story, the narrator is at pains to underscore, must not be mistaken for proximity or solidarity with her.

The flashback story begins on May 1, 1940, the day the Lodz ghetto was sealed. Anna Yakovlevna Temkin is walking down a ghetto street wrapped in a black silk shawl with a package under her arm. She is wearing a cape, a gold pince-nez, and a green chiffon hat with a black veil: she is still in mourning for her late husband who had died one month earlier in one of the ghetto’s hospitals. She walks with her late husband’s silver-knobbed cane. The widow Temkin is on her way to someone she believes to be a wealthy Russian merchant, Sergei Semyonovitch. When she asks people on the street for directions, she first addresses them in Russian, then translates her words into what strikes the Balut Jews as a highly affected Lithuanian (not Polish) Yiddish. The first person she asks heaps abuse on the “dame” [lady], who never would have deigned to enter the Balut neighborhood before.

Ven iz dos aza dame ahergekumen do a mol in der gegent? Gebn khotsh a kuk vi s’lebn di eygn brider un shvester, he? Keynmol nisht. {M’hot gekont oyslebn a gantsn lebn.} Ober itst! A sheyne reyne kapore af zey. Shtendik iz dos gelegn dort in di hoykhe shtokn, un keynmol hot men nisht gekont onkumen tsu zey. Di hoykheparadne tirn farshlosn, un farn toyer der goy yemakh shmoy. Ober atsind? {[gemekt kumen!]} –izvinit gospodin, -- krimt yener nokh Anna Yakovlevnas shtim, --gdye tut Krutkoy Zaulek? A sheyne reyne kapore af zey!

Der yid mitn leydikn top hot oysgeshpign in a zayt un zi gelozt shteyn nokh a bad fun verter. (141)

When did such a grand lady ever come here before? Did she ever come to see how her own brothers and sisters were living? Huh? Never. You could have gone a whole lifetime. But now! To hell with the whole pack of them. They always lived high on the hog up there in their swell places, and you could never get anywhere near them. The high fancy doors were always locked, and in front of the gate was the goy, may he be cursed. But now? A hearty welcome to you! Izvinitye Gospodin,’ he says, mimicking Anna Nikolayevna’s voice, ‘Gdye is Krutke Alley? Blast them all to damn hell!’

The Jew with the empty pot turned aside and spit, leaving her there drenched in his torrent of invective. (18)

Unfortunately for Anna Yakovlevna Temkin, the prostitute she next asks for directions is far from the nurturing type that brings baked goods of white flour to the new arrivals from Lodz to Balut in “Niki.” Sizing up Anna Yakovlevna Temkin as an easy mark, the prostitute offers to accompany her to her destination. The widow Temkin is delighted to accept this offer and remarks that “men zet bald, az ir zent fun unzere mentshn (141) [“one sees immediately that you’re one of our people”]. She does not thereby express a shared Jewish identity but rather a specific social identity; she sees the girl as well-mannered, as opposed to the verbally abusive first person she asked for directions. Anna Yakovlevna asks the girl to carry her package, and she happily obliges, imagining what valuables it might contain. “‘Epes harte, shvere zakhn hot ze do, di makhesheyfe,’ iz ir adurkhgelofn in kop. ‘Ver veys vos aza makhesheyfe kon do hobn: tsirung, brasletn, brilyantn, efsher gold, zilber’” (142) [“‘The old witch has some kind of hard, heavy things in here,’ she thought. ‘Who knows what kinds of things and old witch like her might have: jewelry, bracelets, diamonds, maybe gold or silver?’” (19)]. The girl sees Anna Yakovlevna Temkin as part of a wealthier class recently forced into the ghetto, from whom people like herself can profit. “Zint es zenen ongelofn fun der shtot di sokhrem un fabrikantn, hobn di meydn gevart af a plutsemdik raykh vern. {Zey hobn dokh mitgebrakht in geto arayn dos bisl opgeratevet tsirung, brilyantn, dimentn} (142-143) [“When the merchants and manufacturers had been forced into the ghetto, all the girls started figuring there would be opportunities to make a quick killing. When they were herded into the ghetto, the rich brought with them whatever wealth they were able to conceal and hang on to: jewelry, diamonds, and other precious stones” (20)].

The prostitute pretending to aid Anna Yakovlevna Temkin quickly realizes that the would-be Russian merchant Sergei Semyonovitch she is seeking out is in fact one of the personalities a notorious Balut con man and pimp, Peysekh Mamele, assumes in order to swindle people. She makes up a story about the good Sergei Semyonovitch lying on his death bed. Only yesterday he had been distributing alms to the needy—Sergei Semyonovitch with his kind Russian heart! (it is noteworthy that in appealing to the widow’s sensibilities, the girl emphasizes not his Jewish but his “Russian” heart and soul)—when someone approached him and told him that his beloved mother had just died. Sergei Semyonovitch collapsed on the spot! On the way to “Sergei Semyonovitch’s”—in fact to the brothel run by Peysekh Mamele—the prostitute surreptitiously hands off Anna Yakovlevna’s package to a fellow-prostitute in the street. When they arrive and Anna Yakovlevna asks for her package, the prostitute feigns ignorance: “‘Voser pekele? Mumeshi! Ir hot gehat epes a pekele?’” (144) [“‘What package, Granny: Did you have a package?’” 21] and makes herself scarce. The distraught Anna Yakovlevna seeks help from some (working) women sitting on the stoop of Peysekh Mamele’s brothel, but receives only more abuse. “‘Ale viste khaloymes fun der nakht un yener nakht zoln oysgeyn tsu dayn kop mumeshi,’ hot a royte moyd zikh tseshrign. ‘Az ir zent meshuge, geyt in a meshugoyem-hoyz’ (144) [“‘May every demon of the night haunt your every sleep, Granny,’ shouts a brash redhead. ‘If you’re a nut-case go to the nuthouse’” (21)].

Anna Yakovlevna Temkin faints. When she comes to, she has been robbed of her green hat, her cane adorned with the silver knob, her cape, her pince-nez, and her shoes. She is left barefoot in her undergarments. Nor does she elicit much sympathy. A street urchin takes her by the hand and, along with a crowd of children who have gathered, leads her out of the alley, “mit a katsn-yomer, a vild fayferay” (145) [“to a chorus of hoots and howls” (22)]. Such is the backstory behind the emaciated androgynous figure that the narrator had discovered in a side street. After her trauma, Anna Yakovlevna lost her memory and subsequently roamed the ghetto barefoot and near-sighted in an old coat that someone must have given her. She takes to crossing the footbridge next to Holy Mary Church, crossing it in one direction, mingling with the crowd, and recrossing it in the opposite direction, over and over again, tens of times a day. 48 48 The symbolic possibilities engendered by the fact that the neo-gothic St. Mary’s Assumption’s Church was enclosed within the Lodz ghetto clearly fascinated Shpigl. Churches feature in important ways in other stories Shpigl wrote during the war as well, such as “Malkhes geto” and “Vedibarta bam.” On the role of a (fictive) church within the Lodz ghetto in Shpigl’s 1966 novel Flamen fun der erd, see Julian Levinson, “Translator’s Afterward” to Isaiah Spiegel, Flames from the Earth: A Novel from the Łódź Ghetto, trans. Julian Levinson (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2022), 141-142. She meets her end one day when she leans over the bridge railing and falls (or lets herself fall: “vi azoy dos iz geshen veys keyner nisht” (145) [“no one can say exactly how this happened” (22)]). She dies a highly symbolic death, impaled on the bayonet of a German soldier patrolling under the bridge, who “{pamelekh, vi men tsit aroys a meser fun a broyt,}aroysgetsoygn dem bagnet fun Anna Yakovlevnas brustkastn” (146) [“slowly withdrew the bayonet from Anna Yakovlevna’s rib cage, the way you would pull a knife out of a loaf of bread” (23)]. In the story’s final paragraph, the narrator tells us that in his daily wanderings in the ghetto, if he happens by the bridge near the Holy Mary Church, he lingers near the railing. “Efsher vet mir gelingen oprateven a neshome” (146) [“Perhaps I will be granted the good fortune to save a human soul” (23)].

While the narrator’s final statement—the last words of the text—express concern for saving human lives and thus to a certain extent allow for a reading of “Der Toyt fun Anna Yakovlevna Temkin” as a cautionary tale, this expression of human empathy is very little very late. The story is dominated by relations of mutual contempt from beginning to end, and we get no indication that the narrator, for his part, ever tried to come to the distraught widow’s aid while she was alive. Her case is something that he has stumbled upon in his ghetto wanderings and that he seems eager to share as a curiosity. In death, too, Anna Yakovlevna Temkin hardly appears as a Jewish martyr. Indeed, the religious symbolism in which Shpigl’s two stories of Anna Yakovlevna Temkin culminate functions in nearly opposite ways in the two texts. Whereas in the postwar “Niki,” the leash wrapped around Anna Yakovlevna Temkin’s arm evokes tefillin straps and thus reconciles the religiously estranged woman to a form of distinctly Jewish holiness, in the version written in the Lodz ghetto, the symbolism is distinctly if unconventionally Christian, and underscores Anna Yakovlevna Temkin’s failure to find a place among her people. In the ghetto, she walks day after day, hour after hour, with the crowd of Jews crossing the footbridge near the church. Yet even as she crosses and recrosses the bridge endlessly, she yet never manages to become integrated into this group. She remains an outsider to the Jewish community of the Lodz ghetto, and the symbolic details of her death drive home how she also found no ultimate refuge in the Christian world that she had moved in throughout most of her life. The description of her corpse suggests that in death she undergoes something approaching reverse transubstantiation. Whereas in the Eucharist the host becomes the body of Christ, Anna Yakovlevna Temkin’s body is converted into a desiccated loaf of bread when she falls from the footbridge adjacent to Holy Mary Church and is impaled on the German soldier’s bayonet. While the implied author certainly sympathizes with Anna Yakovlevna Temkin’s sad fate, there is precious little sympathy or solidarity with her to be found in the hearts of any of the story’s diegetic characters. She spends the final period of her life walking in Jewish crowds in the vicinity of a Christian Church, reconciled to neither.

Whereas “Niki” dramatizes how the experience of the ghetto joins two women at opposite ends of the social spectrum in friendship and solidarity, “Der Toyt fun Anna Nikolayevna Temkin” shows Anna Nikolayevna putting on airs and the streetwise members of the Balut underworld brutally taking advantage of her, in no small part by appealing disingenuously to her “Russian” sensibilities. The ghetto does not serve as a common plane on which all Jews come together as Jews but rather as the site where longstanding intra-Jewish tensions and resentments erupt in roiling conflict and violent crime. One can understand why Shpigl chose not to publish “Der Toyt fun Anna Nikolayevna Temkin” in the early postwar years and preferred to write a vastly different text—“Niki”—that was more serviceable to the emerging terms of Holocaust memory. (One can even wonder whether the role of the lovable dog in “Niki” contributed to Howe and Greenberg’s selection of this story for inclusion in their landmark anthology of Yiddish stories aimed above all at American readers. A Treasury of Yiddish Stories was published in 1954, the same year that the American TV show Lassie was launched.)

The juxtaposition of “Der Toyt fun Anna Nikolayevna Temkin” and “Niki” powerfully demonstrates irreducible differences between wartime and postwar writings, and it does so in a manner that comes as close to a controlled experiment as is likely ever possible where cultural actors and contexts are concerned. 49 49 In “Invention or proclamation: Jewish identity in the stories of Bernard Malamud and Isaiah Spiegel,” Hilary Siebert and Begoña Sío-Castiñeira mistake the dates Shpigl assigned to his published stories and retained in the anthology of his ghetto stories in English translation by David H. Hirsch and Roslyn Hirsch for the dates when Shpigl wrote the texts. They thus read them all as having been written in the Lodz Ghetto (1, 4, 6). Of the four stories by Shpigl they analyze –“Earth,” “Ghetto Kingdom,” “Enchanted Fruit,” and “Blossoms”—there are extant manuscripts only of the first two; the latter two were written (or reconstructed and rewritten) after the war. Siebert and Sío-Castiñeira read the characters in Shpigl’s stories as having a sense of self that “is given continuity and integration by its place in the community. Spiegel conceived of his work as a way to portray the extermination of the Jews in Poland and to leave testimony of their struggle to keep their spiritual identity and integrity, despite its annihilation. Spiegel’s characters always know who they are, where they come from, and where they belong. They show a tenacious attachment to the land where they were born, and, where that land is physically missing, to the community they belong to” (19). This idealized conception of old-world organic Jewish community is a cliché (which Siebert and Sío-Castiñeira largely deploy as a foil for the problematic American Jewish individuals of Bernhard Malamud’s stories, who lack such a communal grounding), and does not do justice to the world depicted in Shpigl’s stories, which prominently features social tensions and betrayals (e.g. in “Der Toyt fun Anna Yakovlevna Temkin,” “Vedibarta bam”) and individuals experiencing isolation, despair, or madness (e.g. in “Stivl,” “Der Toyt fun Anna Yakovlevna Temkin,” “Abrashe geyt tsum Nieman,” and “Ite bentsht iber di kandelyabres”) or indeed committing suicide (in “Fir, vos zenen gegangen”). It is telling that Siebert and Sío-Castiñeira interpret the non-Jewish Polish peasants who are fleeing the advance of the German army in the story “Earth” as so many “Jewish peasants” (8), thus manufacturing an organic Jewish community where Shpigl’s story depicts one married couple of Jewish peasants living “a quiet isolated existence alienated from Jewishness” (“Earth,” 5). Hilary Siebert and Begoña Sío-Castiñeira, “Invention or proclamation: Jewish identity in the stories of Bernard Malamud and Isaiah Spiegel,” Journal of the short story in English (1999). By this I mean Shpigl himself undertook the revisions in question (rather than, say, an editor), and his autorevision remained within Yiddish and did not involve (or involved only subsequently) translation into other languages. Probably the best known instance of autorevision within Holocaust discourse concerns not a case of the postwar revision of wartime writing but rather two different versions of a postwar memoir: Elie Wiesel’s 1954 Yiddish memoir Un di velt hot geshvign [And the world remained silent], which he rewrote for publication in French as La nuit (1958). 50 50 As is well known, another equally famous work of Holocaust literature—Anne Frank’s diary—also involved autorevision on Frank’s part: she rewrote her diary after hearing Dutch minister-in-exile Gerrit Bolkenstein’s call in early 1944 via the BBC for people to preserve letters and diaries relating to the Dutch experience under German occupation for publication after the war. But while Frank’s autorevision was significant, it tends to pale as a form of rewriting to the fate her text met at the hands of its postwar publishers, editors, and translators. For an analysis of these various forms of rewriting of Frank’s diary, see Lefevere, Translation, Rewriting, and the Manipulation of Literary Fame, Chapter 5, “On the construction of different Anne Franks.” It was the French edition that would go on to be translated into dozens of languages and become canonized as a, if not the, quintessential Holocaust survivor’s memoir. In her widely read analysis of the differences between the Yiddish work, published as volume 117 in Mark Turkow’s series “Dos poylishe yidntum” (Polish Jewry), and the French version written for a wider, predominantly non-Jewish audience and with a preface by the French Catholic author and Nobel laureate François Mauriac, Naomi Seidman underscores the profoundly different cultural coordinates within which each of Wiesel’s texts situates itself. 51 51 Naomi Seidman, Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Chapter 5, “The Holocaust in Every Tongue”; on Wiesel’s Un die velt and La nuit/Night, esp. 216-236. See also Seidman’s earlier article on Wiesel’s Yiddish and French memoirs, “Elie Wiesel and the Scandal of Jewish Rage,” Jewish Social Studies 3, no. 1 (1996): 1-19.

53. This is not to say that the question of translation may not be important in its own right in the case of Shpigl’s related texts “Der Toyt fun Anna Yakovlevna Temkin,” “Niki,” and “A Ghetto Dog.” It is certainly striking that, of all of Shpigl’s ghetto stories, it was “Niki”—his most radically reworked text—that found its way to an English reading audience in the 1950s. It is surely not coincidental that Howe and Greenberg as editors and/ or Bernard Guilbert Guerney as a translator selected precisely this text for inclusion in the widely reprinted anthology A Treasury of Yiddish Stories. However the selection was made, and what role Shpigl may or may not have played in guiding Howe and Greenberg and/ or Guerney to precisely “Niki,” the result was that the sole story included in this English-language anthology that was set during the time of the Holocaust was Shpigl’s “A Ghetto Dog,” a translation of “Niki,” which, of all of Shpigl’s postwar (re)writings of Lodz ghetto stories, is the most radically irreconcilable with the related narrative written in the Lodz ghetto.

The conventions of Yiddish memoir called for cultural detail and comprehensiveness, whereas this documentary impulse is missing from the French version; the meaning of silence in the Yiddish version, as even its title makes clear, is accusatory and has a political thrust, whereas in the French rewriting it becomes existential, politically defanged and, as Mauriac’s preface demonstrates, broadly compatible with Christological interpretations of the Holocaust; the enraged survivor at the end of Un di velt rejects and literally smashes the ghostly semblance of himself he encounters in the mirror, whereas this haunting revenant will forever remain the most profound truth of the survivor of La nuit; and so on. Yet it is in some sense unsurprising that a work like Wiesel’s Un di velt would be significantly transformed along the way to becoming the iconic classic La Nuit/Night: precisely because of the movement into French, it had to orient itself toward a radically different and predominantly non-Jewish reading audience. Of course, we might say, a universal tale of (silent) existential and theological torment as far more likely to resonate with late 1950s French reading audiences than the tale of an enraged Jew who is enraged, as a Jew, at the silence of the world about the genocide of the Jews.

While the example of Wiesel demonstrates how crucially translation from a minor Jewish language to a major, predominantly non-Jewish one inflects how Holocaust discourse is articulated and received, the case of Shpigl’s autorevisions demonstrates how profoundly different contexts inflect what has been sayable about the Holocaust even where the contexts and audiences involved remain Yiddish and thus, needless to say, thoroughly Jewish. If Wiesel provides a paradigmatic example of, in Seidman’s phrase, the “politics of translation” as it pertains to Holocaust discourse, Shpigl’s Yiddish-Yiddish rewritings of his own Lodz ghetto tales help and require us to appreciate the equally and in some ways more arresting issue of how radically wartime perspectives of victims of the Nazi genocide diverge from the retrospective vantage point of survivors. To be sure, this divergence has been made more acute by the fact that survivor discourse has reached global audiences only in translation, but Shpigl’s autorevisions show us the vastness of this divide even when the bridge across it does not involve translation.

Even though Shpigl wrote in Yiddish both during and after the Holocaust, and thus it was not any imperative to adapt his narratives to non-Jewish languages and audiences or to universalizing or Christianizing paradigms that drove his process of autorevision, the internalized pressure he clearly felt to revise was no less great. Shpigl’s postwar revisions of his own wartime texts show us that the need to adapt Holocaust writing to changing sensibilities—the authors’ own and their audience’s—was profound even when this adaptation was carried out within Yiddish. Authors writing in the ghettos tended to write either for audiences presumed to consist to a significant extent of people who had likewise experienced the ghetto, or for an abstract and tenuous posterity. As a result of the reach and effectiveness of the Nazi genocide of European Jews, after the war, Shpigl did not write primarily for readers who had experienced the ghettos, but only about them. Shpigl’s process of autorevision responded to the burden of representing the murdered to the living, including himself.

Rose, Sven-Erik. “Holocaust Literature and Autorevision: Shaye Shpigl’s Ghetto Stories Written in, and Rewritten after, the Lodz Ghetto.” In geveb, March 2023:
Rose, Sven-Erik. “Holocaust Literature and Autorevision: Shaye Shpigl’s Ghetto Stories Written in, and Rewritten after, the Lodz Ghetto.” In geveb (March 2023): Accessed Apr 19, 2024.


Sven-Erik Rose

Sven-Erik Rose is an associate professor of German and Comparative Literature, and an affiliate of the Program in Jewish Studies, at the University of California, Davis.