Jun 07, 2020
Benny Mer, Smocza: A Biography of a Jewish Street in Warsaw (Jerusalem: Beit Shalom Aleichem and Magnes Press, 2018), 79 NIS print, 57 ebook.
“So why davka Smocza?” asks Benny Mer in the opening chapter of his book Smocza: A Biography of a Jewish Street in Warsaw. Why indeed? Why does one choose a place, a person, a phenomenon, as a subject of research? Why put time, effort, and resources into breaking down one historical movement and not another, one influential figure and not their influential contemporary? This is a question that any scholar must engage with at some point; in academic committees, with journal editors, or in friendly conversation, someone is going to ask: but why this one? Mer, a well-known Israeli translator of Yiddish literature, 1 1 Among his translations to Hebrew are works by Sholem Aleichem and Avrom Sutzkever, as well as a collection of children’s songs. notes that the question “why davka Smocza” resonates with another commonly asked question: “why davka Yiddish?” and in many ways, he says, Smocza is to Warsaw streets what Yiddish is to European languages. “Smocza may not have been the most respected street, and certainly not the most beautiful street in Warsaw. Nevertheless, it was a microcosm of life, especially Jewish life, in the interwar period” (3).
Smocza (סמאָטשע), 2 2 I chose this transliteration following the one made in the English title of the book, which itself follows the Polish name of the street; in Hebrew, it’s still called סמו’צֶה; See p. 4. a predominantly, almost exclusively Jewish street in Warsaw, wasn’t as famous as Nalewki. Nor was it like Krochmalna Street, home to Bashevis Singer and his family. Instead, the street was known (perhaps unjustifiably) as a center of conservatism, poverty, and crime. And still, Mer dedicates his book to Smocza. With an impressive (and sometimes exhausting) persistence, Smocza goes from building n. 1 to building n. 62 and, thanks to a combination of sources including the Yiddish press, oral histories, and forgotten poems, Mer is able to identify and locate tenants, homeowners, small businesses, and petty criminals, as well as the sites of socialist strikes and theatre premieres. On page after page, Mer’s work paints a vivid picture of interwar Jewish life in Poland.
Against the common image of Smocza among its contemporaries and later recollections, the book is able to locate a wide range of people and activities that occurred within its borders. The Jews who lived in Smocza were not all Orthodox, poor, or, as the stereotype entails, close-minded; secular-communist activities lived alongside Zionists parades. There were also a number of Jewish residents with unexpected histories. Consider for example the story of the so-called “Arab from Smocza”: Moshe Peppermintz. Peppermitz learned Arabic during his military service in World War I. In early 1933, in order to bypass the limited available certificates for migration to Palestine, he suggested that local Jews enroll in a short course in Arabic language and customs, so they could join the annual group of Polish Muslims traveling to Nebi Musa, near Jericho. In addition to being a colorful story of Zionist legend, Peppermintz’s life offers further evidence for Mer that Smocza and, by extension, Polish Jewry, were not homogenous entities.
And that is precisely the point. To be sure, Smocza makes a number of interesting arguments about the general character of the street, its stereotypical portrayal as well as the examples that counter those stereotypes. But, beyond specific case histories, there is a much more important claim being made. Namely, if Smocza is to the streets of Warsaw what Yiddish is to European languages, then the history of Smocza should not be the story of the world-renowned figures, but rather of every person who ever lived or died there, including those who are lost to our collective memory.
Microhistorical studies of Yiddish culture are no novelty. Perhaps since Steven Zipperstein’s pioneering work on the cultural history of Odessa Jewry, 3 3 Steven J. Zipperstein, The Jews of Odessa: A Cultural History, 1794-1881 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985). scholars have long realized that one must look beyond the big names and official institutions in order to understand a culture based on a language that was never a state language and was spoken by those who, for the most part, lacked positions of power. The drive to reconstruct the lost life of Eastern European Jews, “to bring to life the everyday struggles and triumphs of Kiev’s Jews, from the market trader to the commodities broker to the sugar baron” in the words of Natan M. Meir on his work on Kiev Jewish history, has led to extensive research of selected Jewish communities. 4 4 Natan M. Meir, Kiev, Jewish Metropolis: A History, 1859-1914 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 6. At their best, these monographs use the fabric of cultural, social, and daily life to offer a window onto various kinds of Jewish experiences, without losing sight of the wider historical process. Smocza aims to provide an even more detailed snapshot of interwar Warsaw, as if nothing has occurred before or after. This is a weakness of the book, but Mer’s approach does not let him fall into the trap of microhistories that describe a lot and explain a little. Instead, his limited subject choice informs both the content of the book and its style.
Choosing a davka subject to explore is not a one-time act but rather an ongoing, conscious approach. When flipping through a historical newspaper it’s easy to focus on the big headlines and main editorials and look past all the other sections. For Mer, in writing Smocza, there can be no such thing as an irrelevant piece of paper: a report on an illegal red flag hanging over the house at Smocza 24, an ad for the new shund play in the theatre at Smocza 30, the tragic suicide of an elderly woman named Rachel Rog from the window of Smocza 8, and the sensational marriage of Feige Licht from the same building, are all equally important in the jigsaw puzzle Mer is building. Even if at some points, most notably in the chapter about the Yiddish theatre of Smocza, Mer slides toward a more traditional style of cultural history of the who’s who, and even though he admits that the work suffers from an underrepresentation of women due to their erasure in the primary materials, ordinary residents of the street are made visible on every page. This approach affected the editorial decisions made in Smocza as well: The author names each street resident he can identify, and lists them in the index, where we don’t usually expect to find them. The visible presence of Yiddish is also kept throughout the book, by situating the original poems alongside the translation, bringing form and content together.
The presence of the usually unnamed Polish Jews in Smocza is a painful reminder of the unbridgeable abyss caused by the horrors of the Holocaust that separates us as contemporary readers from the not so distant past. The fluent, fascinating, and touching pages of Smoczna may be edifying to read, but the task of reading is a fraught one; readers are left unable to ignore the shadow that follows them, the shadow of the tragic fate of those unrecognizable masses long erased from existence.” The dead are destined to be forgotten” Mer suggests, quoting the famous Talmudic saying, and adds a heartbreaking note: “this book is a desperate attempt to fight this destiny.” [“אכן, גזרה על המת להישכח, אבל סמוצ’ה הוא ניסיון נואש להילחם בגזרה הזאת”]
Smocza thereby serves as an example not just for historians and Yiddish scholars, but for anyone who tries to justify their chosen subject of interest and to make it matter in an era of overwhelming information. It calls on readers and scholars to respect their subjects, to work creatively and tirelessly to learn more about them, and to make sure that the metaphoric Rachel Rog of each study is present in the outcome; choosing davka the forgotten is a not a task to take on lightly.