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Daughterhood

Helen Mintz

A sturdy woman with a broad, open face waits for me at her apartment door. Nervous, I walk down the lushly carpeted hallway to meet her. “Liba,” she says, extending her hand. I automatically translate her name into English — love — and extend my own hand. She gestures for me to join her at her dining room table, the tea freshly brewed and steaming. Smiling, she asks, “So how can I help you?”

“I’m having problems with some of the vocabulary in Avrom Karpinovitsh’s stories. Can you help me please?” I ask timidly.

Avrom Karpinovitsh - mayner a ben ir, an emeser Vilner,” (Avrom Karpinovitsh is from my hometown, a real Vilner), Liba responds enthusiastically. “Mit fargenign.” (With pleasure). She answers all my questions, both the klotz kashes (imbecilic questions) and the more thoughtful ones, with warmth and precision, frequently augmenting her explanations with memories from her childhood. Like Avrom Karpinovitsh (also known as Abraham Karpinowitz), Liba grew up during the Thirties in Vilna, Poland (present-day Vilnius, Lithuania). Liba’s laughter flows easily. My nervousness dissipates.

I’d come to Montreal from my home in Vancouver to support my mother as she confronted the challenges and indignities of dementia. Between 2006 and my mother’s death in 2013, I traversed the country often — three, four, and sometimes five times a year. While in Montreal, I continued to turn to Liba for help with translation challenges, developing a strong emotional connection with her. As both my mother and Liba moved ever closer to their final days, Yiddish translation became my consolation.

*

The thought of translating from Yiddish hadn’t occurred to me in 2005 when I enrolled in an intensive summer Yiddish course at YIVO in New York. I had just turned fifty and felt a visceral need to reconnect with the Yiddish of my childhood. Both my parents were fluent Yiddish speakers, and the language circulated noisily in our predominantly English-language Montreal home.

But in the three decades since leaving home, I’d rarely heard Yiddish. I hoped the YIVO course would help revive my Yiddish language skills, reigniting the feelings of intimacy and emotional intensity I experienced as a child. During the course, gradually and ever so slowly (much too slowly for me), my Yiddish improved.

Soon after the Yiddish course began, I flew from New York to Montreal to attend my mother’s ninetieth birthday. Despite her recent diagnosis of dementia, at the birthday dinner she was her lively, sociable self.

I rushed back from the birthday celebration to attend a workshop on literary translation given by Jeffrey Shandler. I was stung by the translation bug. And so, for my final project, I translated the beginning of a short story by Avrom Karpinovitsh. My teacher, Professor Margolis, insisted, “You have to translate the entire collection.” My response – in Yiddish of course, as all communication had to be in Yiddish — was immediate. “Ikh ken dos nisht ton. Mayn yidish is nisht genug gut.” (I can’t do that. My Yiddish isn’t good enough.)

Professor Margolis (‘Rivke’ as we students called her) would not be deterred. “Du host nisht keyn tsayt. (You don’t have time.) To translate Karpinovitsh, you’ll need help from native Yiddish speakers who lived in the world of his stories. And we’re rapidly losing them. Heyb on. Mitn rekhtn fus.” (Get going. Immediately.)

Rivke’s logic made good sense. Pairing determination with naivete, I relished Karpinovitsh’s vivid descriptions of interwar Vilna, his poignant portrayals of its quirky inhabitants: poor Jews surviving in the economic and legal margins. Karpinovitsh’s stories and short memoirs are a praise song to Jewish life in Vilna during the interwar period. He describes the Jewish world of his childhood on the eve of its destruction, before nine-tenths of the city’s Jewish inhabitants were murdered by the Germans and the city’s most important Jewish landmarks were destroyed by the Nazis, and then, after World War II, by the Soviets.

I experimented with different strategies for transporting Karpinovitsh’s lively and telegraphic Yiddish prose into English, frequently struggling to understand the Vilna dialect and particularly, Vilna street Yiddish. The list of Yiddish words and phrases I didn’t understand grew steadily longer. I turned to the yidish keners (people who know Yiddish) who’d been my teachers. Eliezer Niborski and especially Sheva Zucker helped, solving many of my challenges. But there were words in Karpinovitsh’s literary lexicon even they could not trace. Remembering Professor Margolis’ advice, I asked the head reference librarian at the Jewish Public Library, Eddie Paul, to recommend a native Yiddish speaker from Vilna. He directed me to Liba Augenfeld.

Liba was eighteen years old when the Nazis invaded her native Vilna in June 1941 – the day before her scheduled graduation from the Real Gymnasium, a Yiddish speaking high school. The graduation was, it goes without saying, abruptly canceled. Liba and her parents were interned in the Vilna ghetto. She escaped the ghetto and survived the genocide as an anti-fascist partisan fighter in the Narotshe forest near Vilna. After the war, Liba and her husband, David Augenfeld, also a partisan fighter, emigrated to Montreal.

*

During my first visit with Liba, as the tea gradually cooled, I focused on the story “Di Groyse Libe fun Lerer Gershteyn” (“The Great Love of Mr. Gershteyn”) about the doomed romance between two historic individuals: Yankev Gershteyn, a music teacher in the Real Gymnasium, and Dina Halperin, a well-known Yiddish actress who performed in Vilna for a theatrical season with her romantic and theatrical partner, Sam Bronetsky. “What does tsyokh mokh mean?” I asked Liba.

“It means hanky panky,” Liba chuckled, adding, “Mr. Gershteyn was one of my teachers at the Real Gymnasium.” I was thrilled to learn that Liba knew one of the characters in Karpinovitsh’s story. I asked hopefully, “Did you and your classmates ever hear anything about a romance between Mr. Gershteyn and Dina Halperin?”

Liba laughed heartily. “Yes, we kids heard rumors. We teased him about it. He conducted the student choir in a song that went, ‘Di netsn in shifl’ (The nets in the little boat). We’d sing, ‘Di na-a-a-a Hal-per-in’ to the same melody.” Not only had Liba known one of Karpinovitsh’s characters, she’d played a role, akin to being a member of a Greek chorus, in the action of one of his stories.

For Avrom Karpinovitsh, as for many Yiddish writers, the membrane between fact and fiction was porous. Liba showed me exactly how porous.

There are striking similarities between Liba’s life and Avrom Karpinovitsh’s. Both born in Vilna ten years apart (Karpinovitsh in 1913 and Liba in 1923), they were both raised at the center of the city’s flourishing Yiddish intellectual and cultural world. They both attended the Re’al Gymnasium where Yankev Gershteyn taught.

Avrom Karpinovitsh’s father, Moyshe Karpinovitsh, was an impresario in the Yiddish theatre. He arranged tours for Yiddish actors and writers and ran a number of popular Yiddish theatres in Vilna attended by Jews from every social and economic class.

Like Avrom Karpinovitsh’s father, Liba’s father, Yisroel Maharshak, nurtured important Yiddish intellectuals and artists. He was a teacher and then a principal at two Yiddish language schools: the Devorah Kupershteyn Folk Shul for Girls and the Lazer Gurvitsh School. One of his students at the Lazer Gurvitsh School was Chaim Grade. Liba remembered the youthful Chaim arriving at their family home to give her father an autographed copy of his first published book of poetry.

Like so many other Vilna Jews of the time, Liba and her parents participated actively in the city’s Yiddish cultural life. Liba recalled sitting on her father’s shoulders to witness the inauguration of the YIVO Institute building in Vilna in 1929. After the second world war and the takeover of Lithuania by the Soviets, YIVO established itself in New York, where it eventually ran Yiddish courses including the one where I began translating Karpinovitsh’s work.

Both Liba and Avrom Karpinovitsh were exposed, through their parents’ work, to the Jewish criminal world of Vilna, the subject of many of Karpinovitsh’s stories. Avrom Karpinovitsh knew many underworld figures – they were regular theatergoers. As Liba laughingly explained, her mother served as a private nurse for a major unterveltnik (underworld character). “Whenever her services were needed, a bodyguard would arrive to accompany her, holding an umbrella over her head in the rain.”

*

My mother was determined to remain in the apartment she’d moved to after my father’s too early death. And so, with neither training nor expertise, my sister and I tried to assess her constantly changing needs and to supervise the battalion of dedicated workers who cared for her. For me, there was an emotional urgency to these visits. I hoped, in the final years of my mother’s life, to build the cozy, loving relationship I’d craved my entire life.

Frequently overwhelmed by the tragedy and pressures of my mother’s illness, I found respite in the meditative experience of translating, in the restorative work of transporting the world of Yiddish Vilna into contemporary North American English. I sought sanctuary in the basement of the Montreal Jewish Public Library amidst stacks of dusty, out-of-print Yiddish books and bronze busts of Montreal Yiddish writers who were, by then, oyf yener velt (in the next world).

My mother’s attitude towards Yiddish was conflicted. The eldest child of Yiddish-speaking immigrants who arrived in Montreal at the beginning of the twentieth century, she spoke only Yiddish until she entered the Protestant public school system at six years old. “I don’t really speak Yiddish,” she’d say with a self-depreciating chuckle. “Ikh red nor kikh yidish.”(I only speak kitchen Yiddish.) And while she extolled the works of Yiddish writers and was an avid supporter of Yiddish cultural institutions like the Jewish Public Library, she never learned to read the language. Her command of Yiddish was simple and utilitarian.

When her father died at thirty-nine, while my eleven-year-old uncle continued his schooling, my mother, at thirteen, was expected to quit school to help her mother, who was illiterate in English, in their tiny storefront family grocery store. My mother viewed the journey from her impoverished immigrant childhood to both material comfort and ease in the English language as a journey away from Yiddish. She became a voracious reader of literature in English, much of it translated from major European languages, and pinned her frustrated scholastic ambitions on me.

My mother responded to my translation work with a mixture of bewilderment and begrudging pride. When I showed her my first published translation, Avrom Karpinovitsh’s Tamare di Hoykhe (Tall Tamare), in Pakn Treger, her response was muted. Stroking the glossy journal with twisted arthritic fingers, she asked disparagingly, “But is anyone really interested in reading Yiddish stories?”

As my mother’s dementia progressed, she seemed to forget about her frustrated ambitions for me. Sitting in her living room, I would look up from a book and find her looking at me with unadorned love. But her command of Yiddish became increasingly unpredictable — there were hours, even days, when she had a comfortable command of the language. And then, for no discernible reason, she was unable to produce a simple Yiddish sentence. And so, as my facility with Yiddish improved, my mother’s became more erratic.

I continued, slowly and painstakingly, to translate Karpinovitsh’s stories. With an updated vocabulary list, I arranged to see Liba a second time. As I walked down the carpeted hallway towards her apartment, I rehearsed my greeting and initial queries in Yiddish. I was now reading with more fluency, but I had few opportunities to speak Yiddish. I felt uncomfortable moving the sounds of the language from my brain, through my body, and out into the world. My tongue felt like it was twisted into a knot.

When I arrived at the open door of Liba’s apartment, she greeted me like a dear friend. She was as generous with my spoken Yiddish as she’d been with my vocabulary questions. She waited patiently when I hesitated, tactfully helping me when I faltered. Her warmth untied the knot in my tongue.

I asked Liba about the vocabulary from Karpinovitsh’s story “Yidish Gelt” (“Jewish Money”), which illustrates the influence of the Zionist dream on ordinary Vilna Jews during the 1930s. The main character, a nameless anti-hero, manufactures Jewish currency in his attic apartment as an important step toward the creation of a Jewish state. “Libe,” I asked, “Vos meynttsedrumshkete’ (Liba, what does ‘tsedrumshkete’ mean) in “Der gantser shulhoyf hot gevimlt mit tsedrumshkete parshoynen?”

“Tsedrumshkete’ means ‘mixed up’. The entire courtyard was crawling with mixed up characters.” She read the next sentence, “Yudke di Mad iz nokhgelofn, say zumer say vinter, ale meydlekh un vayblekh, vos zenen adurkh dem hoyf.” And translated it: “All year long, Yudke the Maid-Chaser ran after all the young ladies who walked through the courtyard, whether they were married or single.” Laughing, Liba told me how frightened she and her teenaged friends had been when they walked by Yudke, who invariably chased them.

When I contacted Liba to organize a third visit, she asked me to make the arrangements with her daughter, Rivka. I arrived at Liba’s closed door. Her voice, in response to my knock, was considerably weaker than I remembered it: “Kum arayn.” (Come in.) Liba sat hunched over her formica kitchen table. She raised her head and greeted me quietly. What had happened since I’d last seen her? She seemed so diminished in vitality, even in spirit.

Liba’s response to my “Vos makhstu?” (How are you?) belied the truth. She seemed far from “gants fayn” (perfectly well). I wanted to ask what was wrong, but I didn’t want to impose. Uncertain, I opened my notebook and focused on my translation questions.

Liba’s memories of her childhood and youth were as vivid as before, her command of Yiddish as fluent and sophisticated, but the bridge between Yiddish and English had grown shaky and she had difficulty traversing it. Her laughter was muted. She frequently sighed deeply.

I came to the end of my translation questions and folded my hands on the unforgiving formica tabletop. Liba began to speak. “Dos lebn . . . dos lebn in geto . . . iz geven shreklekh. Shreklekh.” (Life in the ghetto was horrible. Horrible.) And she sighed — a wrenching sigh. “I told my mother I was going to leave the ghetto and join the partisans fighting in the woods. She encouraged me to go.”

I tried to imagine this final conversation between mother and daughter, to imagine Liba’s mother encouraging her daughter, only recently graduated from high school, to take up arms against the formidable Nazi army. I wanted to wrap my arms around Liba. I moved towards her and then stopped; my arms awkwardly perched a few inches off my body. Would she welcome my touch, or would she be offended? What solace could I offer in the face of so much tragedy?

My formal relationship with Liba had come to an end. I had translated all the stories for the collection. I thanked Liba profusely and said my goodbyes. I thought about asking if she’d like me to visit again, but said nothing, ignoring the calling of my own heart.

A few months later, I was back in Montreal. My mother had fallen and fractured her hip. When I arrived at the gerontology ward of the Jewish General Hospital, I was surprised to see that her roommate in the less than palatial room was an elderly man. Even more surprising than the integration of genders was the integration of individuals from opposite sides of the French-English language divide. With four languages between them (he conversed with his wife in Italian and with the hospital staff and his adult children in French), these two Quebecers had barely five words in common.

To maintain privacy, my mother and I now spoke Yiddish. Her fluency, ignited perhaps by morphine, was in full flower. “Er iz in gantsn iberbotl.” (He’s completely senile), she told me, adding with a chuckle, “A shod - er iz nisht far mir.” (Too bad he’s not my type.) In his confused state, after a trip to the bathroom, her roomie had tried to crawl into her bed. I marveled at my mother’s ability to find humor in this challenging situation.

My mother, ever determined, refused to be felled for long by a simple hip fracture. Three weeks after her fall, she walked down the hospital corridor without assistance from a walker or crutches. The young doctor shook his head in disbelief and arranged for her to be discharged. With my mother was back at home with her caregivers, I was able to attend a lecture about Chaim Grade given by Avraham Novershtern at the Jewish Public Library .

Liba’s daughter, Rivka Augenfeld, was sitting in the front row. Rivka looks remarkably like her mother – the same broad, open face, the same sturdy build. The chair beside Rivka was conspicuously empty. “You probably noticed when you saw my mother that she finds it difficult to concentrate,” she explained. “It’s gotten worse. She isn’t well.” I commiserated with Rivka. Both of our mothers — once determined, highly intelligent, and articulate — were now aging and weakened.

When my mother died two years later, she remembered little and suffered much. I had grieved her departure in teaspoonfuls, grateful for the moments of intimacy we’d shared in the final years of her life. In the immediate aftermath of her death, I felt mainly exhaustion and relief. My grief at her passing came later, at unexpected moments.

One evening I arrived home to a tightly packed box from Syracuse University Press containing ten copies of Vilna My Vilna: Stories by Abraham Karpinowitz. To my great surprise, the book garnered three literary awards. With each award, I felt gratitude towards the many people who’d helped me birth the translation, in particular, gratitude for the time I’d spent with Liba. I was painfully aware of my mother’s absence fun der velt, sad that she wasn’t alive to celebrate with me. I wondered whether the success of the translation would have satisfied her ambitions for me. Would it have helped her to embrace her native Yiddish more wholeheartedly?

In March of 2018, I received an email from Rivka: “Sad news – my mother Liba has passed away,” read the subject line.

I paused at the sentence in Rivka’s email, “I hope you know how much pleasure and satisfaction my mother got from your visits,” and felt the full weight of my regret. I had repeatedly quashed my feelings of affection for Liba, restricting my role to “translation researcher.” Approached for language assistance, Liba had shared the fullness of her experience, both the flowering of Yiddish cultural life in Vilna and the genocidal assault against it. With Liba’s openness, my own heart had opened.

Rivka’s email continued, “Your book lay on my mother’s night table for many months.” This surprised me. Liba had read Karpinovitsh’s stories when they were published in Yiddish between 1967 and 1993. I’d noticed the books on her overcrowded and disordered bookshelves. Why did she keep the English translation in such a privileged place?

I visited Montreal again to speak on a panel about Yiddish translation at the Jewish Public Library and took Rivka up on her invitation to “get together and share some memories.” “I was very sorry to read about your mother’s passing,” I told her. “Though I only met your mother a few times, I felt very close to her.”

Rivka nodded. “Thank you. Yes, at the funeral I talked about how perfectly suited my mother’s name was. I can think of few people as beloved.” Rivka and I were silent for a few moments, remembering Liba. Images of my own mother came to mind.

I broke the silence. “Do you know why your mother kept the English translation of Karpinovitsh’s stories on her bedside table, rather than the original Yiddish publications?”

“In her final years,” Rivka explained, “she rarely read Yiddish. She was much more comfortable reading English.”

I thought about Liba Maharshak Augenfeld. After incalculable losses, she built a rich life for herself in Montreal, increasingly transferring her linguistic home from Yiddish to English. Did she feel the translation of Karpinovitsh’s work accurately brought the world of her childhood and youth into her adopted language? Did she feel I had, in the translation, honored the time we’d spent together, the confidences she shared? I hope so.

*

I continue to translate from Yiddish, continue to seek help from people whose Yiddish is stronger than mine. But Professor Margolis was right: native Yiddish speakers who lived in Europe before the Holocaust are almost all oyf yener velt. Liba was one of the last survivors. The connection I maintained mit der amoliker Vilne (with the Vilna of long ago) through Liba and mit der farshnitener yidisher velt (with the annihilated Yiddish-speaking world) through other Holocaust survivors has been severed. The generous, learned individuals who help me with translation have not experienced pre-Holocaust Yiddish-speaking life in Eastern Europe. Yiddish literary works from this world are no longer directly mediated by the survivors. The responsibility for maintaining the literary bridge falls increasingly to us, the translators.

And I have to stand on my own, without direct mediation from the forces of my mother’s judgment and love. Hoping I am up to the challenge, I thank Liba for her loving and wise guidance.

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Laura Esther Wolfson, who offered me an entire course on writing creative non-fiction, and to Rivka Augenfeld, who generously shared her own and her mother’s experiences and offered helpful editing suggestions. I also want to thank Ellen Cassedy, Dara Culhane, and Rachel Mines for reading and commenting on this piece.

MLA STYLE
Mintz, Helen. “Daughterhood.” In geveb, May 2023: https://ingeveb.org/blog/daughterhood.
CHICAGO STYLE
Mintz, Helen. “Daughterhood.” In geveb (May 2023): Accessed Jun 16, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Helen Mintz

Helen Mintz’s translation of Vilna My Vilna: Stories by Abraham Karpinowitz (Syracuse University Press, 2016) garnered three literary awards.