Jan 31, 2016
This is part five, and the concluding post, in a series about an autobiography of a Polish youth from the 1930s found in the YIVO archives. For links to all the articles in the series click here.
RJ’s autobiography was one of hundreds sent to YIVO’s competition. When I began looking through the files for a single work to focus on, the choice felt arduous. Even discounting the autobiographies written in Polish and Hebrew, there was a huge number to look at and thousands of pages to read—all handwritten! Ultimately, it came down to RJ’s story for the following reasons:
- It was an interesting and entertaining read.
- RJ’s experience seemed to be similar to many others, so I felt it would serve as a good approximation of some common experience.
- The Yiddish was comprehensible. (I’m a native Yiddish speaker of Hungarian descent and found it harder to decipher the pieces in Slavic-accented Yiddish.)
- It was legible. Illegibility was a bigger problem than I’d expected.
There were a number of questions I kept in mind when writing these blog posts, though as you will see, I didn’t succeed in answering most of them to my satisfaction.
Firstly, since all memoirists are selective and what they choose to include or omit must, in some way, reflect their personalities and/or agendas, could I—by analyzing RJ’s key motifs—form a theory about his personality and/or agenda? As it turns out, RJ didn’t imagine his life within certain categories but rather sought to relate the key events and milestones of his life up to the time of his writing. He lists the standard benchmarks in the shtetl child’s life: birth, the start of cheder, the start of Talmud study, and later, attending yeshiva. Other turning points include getting his first job (at age 16; not discussed in these blog posts) and joining one of Hillel Zeitlin’s organizations, a fledgling neo-Hasidic group called “Retungs farband,” which was subsequently disbanded due to lack of funds. In my previous posts, I’ve elaborated on some particulars of RJ’s personality and attempted some educated guesses, but I couldn’t actually form a definitive theory about RJ’s personality or possible agenda.
Secondly, how much of RJ’s autobiography arose from his interiority—his personal life and private thoughts—and how much was informed by the external Jewish communal life and its impact on him? The community was of particular interest in this case because RJ was Hasidic, and as Martin Buber posits, Hasidism is a movement chiefly of community. In his landmark The Origin and Meaning of Hasidism, Buber writes, “The whole personal attitude of faith that constitutes the essence of this life, works to form community … the core of the movement—the formation of community and the spiritual begetting of disciples who form communities and who therefore neither enter into seclusion nor break off the traditions.” 1 1 Martin Buber, The Origin and Meaning of Hasidism (New York: Horizon Press, 1960), 25-26. However, RJ says little about the community he was born and raised in. Besides his mention of the Talmud Torah he attended during the famine years and the Warsaw community’s assistance with food, there is almost no mention of the Jewish community at all. We learn nothing of its customs, the beys medresh isn’t touched on, and townspeople play no role. RJ does describe some bits about yeshiva life and gives a brief account of Zeitlin’s short-lived organization. The Hasidic community and its structures do not seem to interest him.
Furthermore, RJ’s very act of writing this autobiography implies that he had become a part of another broader community, the one that provided both the knowledge of and the impetus to participate in YIVO’s contest. Yet, as readers, we get only a hint of this community when RJ discusses Bressler’s library, and we hear very little else about how the general secular Jewish community functioned and how RJ fit into it, if at all.
Thirdly, did RJ follow the archetypal path of the maskil, as typified in Shmuel Werses’ “Portrait of a Maskil”? 2 2 The Werses model is elaborated on in A Hasid turns Modern, part 4. Shmuel Werses, “Portrait of the Maskil as a Young Man,” in New Perspectives on the Haskalah (2001), 128-43. Although the Haskalah was over by the 1930s, its legacy still influenced young men and women who sought to leave their religious upbringings behind. Did RJ perceive himself as an adherent of maskilic ideology? Since a fundamental part of treading the maskilic path was affiliation with the Haskalah movement’s specific literature, I took note of the texts RJ was reading—or, at least, the texts he mentions in his memoir as his literary influences. RJ’s course from Hasidic life to the modern world correlated with Werses’ model in most ways. He traversed the expected path: he adopted a hero, embraced the maskilic and post-maskilic literary canons, became enamored of poetry, and sneered at his past naïvete and the naïvete of those who had remained devout. If there was a community that RJ wanted to join, it appeared to be a literary one.
Finally, how might RJ’s psychological disposition be defined, and what could be gleaned from it? RJ appears to be somewhat of a misanthrope. He derides women in detail and with much vitriol, but after offering the reader his opinion of female ignobleness, he adds, “Not only women do I judge, but men too.” In fact, other than Bressler and Zeitlin (and the authors whom he reveres), he doesn’t seem to have a high opinion of anyone at all. He makes very little mention of friends he made in yeshiva, doesn’t list a single friend or group with whom he joined up to make the break from yeshiva life to modernity, and when he attempts to join a Zionist organization, he finds its members shallow and immature. Not surprisingly, he leaves the organization in disgust. His greatest pleasure appears to come from studying and reading. Whether studying the Talmud or secular literature, such solitary activities appear to be the only parts of his life that gave him joy.
Was his thirst for knowledge the impetus that led him to embrace a maskilic school of thought? Was it his search for compatible comradeship? Based on his memoir, it is possible to draw a hypothetical psychological sketch of RJ, but impossible to know with certainty what in his particular nature, family background, environmental influences, and life experiences may have caused him to reach the conclusions he did, take the path he did, and end up in whatever emotional state he was in at the time of his writing. What we get instead is a glimmer—a peek—into the life of an individual who lived in a time and place that is no more.
In positing all these questions now, I am not forgetting that humans, being human, are prone to portraying themselves in a positive light. However trustworthy and intriguing sources such as RJ’s autobiography may be, I acknowledge that the writers may have exaggerated or modified certain aspects of their life stories, either to fit the criteria for entry YIVO had laid out or to protect the authors’ identities. 3 3 In looking through the autobiographies, I found notes in some of the files asking the YIVO editor to please be discreet about the writer’s identity. Some went so far as to give an alternate address for YIVO to contact should they win the contest. It’s also possible that some of these autobiographers included untruths and hyperbole or imposed various literary conventions on the narratives of their lives in order to make their stories more entertaining or to make themselves appear more intelligent, well-read, kind, or courageous. Understandably, no fact-checking was done on this group of autobiographies.
Nevertheless, these autobiographies are amazing primary sources depicting life of the hoi polloi at that time. Even if some details have been embellished or great gaps left unfilled, the works have tremendous value in and of themselves.
I chose to focus on RJ’s autobiography, but throughout my research the specter of those other yellowed papers in YIVO’s sturdy file boxes lurked, like a shadow, behind me. What impelled so many young men and women to undertake the monumental task of recording their life stories? Marcus Moseley, who oversaw the selection and translation of fifteen of these autobiographies, attests that many of the authors had to write under challenging conditions: some after a long, hard day of physical work; some in secret so that their families wouldn’t find out; some in rooms that thudded with the noise of siblings and neighbors. All the contestants, most of whom were poor, had to mail the manuscripts at their own expense. 4 4 See Marcus Moseley, “Life, Literature: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Interwar Poland,” Jewish Social Studies 7, no. 3 (Spring 2001): 1-28. Their reasons for overcoming these obstacles to write relatively lengthy memoirs (some submissions were 500 handwritten pages long!) varied, in all likelihood, from monetary to solipsistic considerations and perhaps even to the desperate need to confide in someone anonymously.
Like memoirists Gluckl of Hameln and Hinde Bergner, 5 5 Gluckel of Hameln (1646-1724) kept a diary, beginning in 1689. She described various Jewish and world events, including the Sabbatai Zevi phenomenon. Zikhroynes Glikl Hamel (Frankfurt am Main: J. Kauffmann, 1896). Hinde Bergner (1870-1942) wrote a Yiddish memoir, published posthumously by her son Melech Ravitch. In di lange vinternekht: mishpokhe zikhroynes (Montreal: M. Ravitch, 1946); English translation: On Long Winter Nights: Memoirs of a Jewish Family in a Galician Township, 1870–1900 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005). none of YIVO’s contestants, including RJ, could have expected that their memoirs would be read and analyzed by strangers more than a half century after they’d written it, and that they would hold such sociological and anthropological significance. When Hinde Bergner’s memoir was published post-WWII, her son opined in the introduction that the work had “no social or scientific value.” Clearly, he was mistaken. Her work has contributed to our understanding of matchmaking and marriage conventions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in particular, and to our knowledge of traditional Jewish family life in general. So, too, does RJ’s autobiography, along with the others in the YIVO collection, offer us detailed, if incomplete, sketches of the families, homes, institutions, customs, and even the loners of Jewish life in the shtetlekh and cities of interwar Eastern Europe.
Often, when trying to understand the lives of the Jewish youth of Eastern Europe, we depend on postwar memoirs that complicate historical memory with nostalgia and mourning for a lost world. With RJ’s autobiography, we are in possession of an incredible primary source, relatively untouched by such a distorting lens. Such a narrative is incredibly vibrant and feels almost contemporary. The translation and examination of such primary documents are vital. We owe it to the young autobiographers; we owe it to history. Together, these individual stories create a portrait of a living community, made up of the days and lives of people like us.