Dora Schulner’s Last Notebook

Nicholas Heskes

Last year, while visiting my parents in California, I discovered a slim, blue leather-bound notebook. They were cleaning the garage and offered me first pick of my grandmother’s old books, since no one else in my family could read Yiddish. The notebook lay on top of the stack and stood out because of its plainness. When I opened it, I found to my surprise a number of diary entries in Yiddish, written in a jagged handwriting with a broad, confident style. As I skimmed the pages, it became increasingly clear that the book had belonged to my grandmother’s mother, the writer Dora Schulner. Every entry was signed at the bottom with a wide swooping “ד,” with the exception of one where she signed “דאָראַ”. Over the following months, my mother would uncover more boxes of Dora’s manuscripts, letters, and drafts that had become my grandmother’s property after her mother’s death in 1964.

Dora Schulner was a memoirist at her core, with a very large personality. Though much of her output was fiction, like her novel Esther and a number of folktales, these were all grounded in her own life and experiences. Her first book, Azoy hot es pasirt (This is How it Happened), published in 1942, received an award from YIVO, launching her career as a Yiddish author. The book recounts her experience of struggle and survival during the rise of Communism, her work running a home for unwed mothers in Kiev while her own children were living in an orphanage, and her eventual, reluctant journey to the United States through Warsaw in 1924. Her second book, Miltshin, published in 1946, was a collection of short stories, poems, folktales, a play, and further autobiographical accounts of her emigration from Radomyshl’ to Chicago. In 1949, she published her not-so-subtly autobiographical novel Esther. Her publishing streak slowed after this until 1956, when she published Geshtaltn, a collection of short stories, more autobiography, poems, and aphorisms dedicated to her husband and family. The following year, her husband Henry died in Chicago at the age of 73 and she moved to Los Angeles to live near three of her children.

Dora had four children, Helen, Harry, Max, and Belle; all but Max lived in Los Angeles. Helen, my grandmother, was the eldest. Like Dora, she was quite gregarious. A naturalist and vegetarian until the day she died, Helen lived an independent life on the fringe of normative postwar American society. After the near-constant instability of her early years in Ukraine, she developed a wild and defiant personality. As a young adult, she worked very hard to remove her accent and become a part of the English-speaking world. In the early 1940s, she moved to Los Angeles, where my mother was born and raised. My grandmother owned a health food candy store in Echo Park and kept the company of the beat poets, artists, and proto-hippies of Big Sur, including artist and poet Emil White, cult leader Allan Noonan, and health guru Gyspy Boots. Her relationship with her mother was strained; though they were very close and shared a love of literature and art, their combined intensity could be explosive at times, and they fought often.

In 1963, while living in Los Angeles, Dora published her final book, Perzenlikhkaytn in yidishn lebn (Personalities in Yiddish Life), a collection of essays and character sketches of the various writers and friends who had influenced her over the course of her life. The end of the book features a letter in English to Helen from Emil White, recalling a Dora Schulner reading he attended around 1942. Helen was not in attendance, though she sent a telegram which was read aloud.

The dates of the blue notebook preserved in Helen’s papers overlap exactly with the publishing of Perzenlikhkaytn in yidishn lebn and Dora’s last few years in Los Angeles, with entries dated to August 28, 1962, December 31, 1963, February 18 and March 19, 1964. The undated entries likely begin earlier, including a brief eulogy to her late husband written upside down at the beginning (or end) of the book:

מײַן ליבער מאַן.

איך הייליק דעם אָנדיינק./ דו ביזט געווען דער/ גרעסטער מענטש וואָס/ איך האָב ווען עס איז/ באַגעגענט. דײַן נאָמען/ זאָל זײַן געבענשט./ דײַן פֿרוי וואָס וועט/ דיך טאָמעד דערמאָנען/ מיט ליבע און אַכטונג. ד.

My dear Husband.

I bless your memory. You were the greatest person I have ever met. May your name be blessed. Your wife, who will remember you always with love and respect. D.

Indeed, this is an appropriate beginning for the notebook. In subsequent entries, she worries about her own health and the health of her loved ones.

What compels me most about the notebook is not just what Dora says, but all that is missing. In her introduction to Perzenlikhkaytn in yidishn lebn, dated 1961, she expresses some of the discontents about life in Los Angeles that perhaps lay behind her cryptic notebook entries:

אָבער, […], דעם שרײַבער אָדער שרײַבערין ווילט זיך רעדן און שרײַבן נאַרישקייטן. פֿון לאַנגווייליקייט לאָז איך מײַן פּען שרײַבן, אַז איך האָב ליב רעגן און שטורעם. ווען עס דונערט און עס בליצט, זע איך גאָט ווי ער צאָרנט, דעמאָלט גיי איך אַרויס אין רעגן און וואַנדער, - דאָ וווּ איך בין איצט, איז ניט רעגנדיק, נאָר תמיד זוניק און שיין און אָט די שיינע טעג רופֿן ביי מיר אַרויס אַ פֿאַרקערטע שטימונג. 1 1 Dora Schulner, portrait from Perzenlikhkaytn in yidishn lebn (Shikago : Dora Shulner bukh-komitet,1963), p. 8.

But, […], the writer wants to speak and write foolish things. Out of boredom I allow myself to write that I like tempests and storms. When there’s thunder and lightning I see the way God rages, and that’s when I go out into the rain and wander. –– Here where I am now it’s not rainy, but always sunny and nice, and it’s nice days like these that make me feel contrary.

On the next page of Perzenlikhkaytn, Dora shares an anecdote about an acquaintance calling on the phone to urgently ask her why she wears such wide brimmed hats. She quotes her friend Yoni Rosenfeld, who said that when there are two dogs lying together outdoors, one always barks at a nearby person because people belong indoors. She considers the lives of other people, their peculiarities, and that there is so much strangeness between them.

In contrast to this volubility, an undated aphorism near the middle of the blue notebook reads like a token of Dora’s unrest:

דאָראַ שולנער/ אַ שלאָפֿלאָזע נאַכט

ווען אַ מענטש שלאָפֿט ניט/ בײַ נאַכט ליגט ער אין/ בעט און טראַכט.

Dora Schulner, A Sleepless Night

When a person doesn’t sleep at night, they lie in bed and think.

As a private note to herself, it’s like a prayer —a secret to put into the wall. Before and after this entry, Dora ripped out four pages. Maybe they contained more such secrets, or maybe she simply used them as notepaper. The notebook is also riddled with mysterious names and reminders. In the cover are two unexplained notes, “גאָגאָל גאָגאָל” and “הערעל פֿלין”. One page in the middle of the book has just one name: “מיילע באַביטש”. Several pages later there is a calculation of a bill from February with no year given that comes to a total of 70 dollars.

The longest entry is on August 28, 1962. It is also the only entry written in pen:

דעם 28 אגאסט (אויגוסט) 1962 דינסטאָג/

גאָט זאָל דײַן נאָמען זײַן/ געבענשט און געהייליגט,/ פֿאַר געבען מיר האָט די / מעגליכקייט (מעגלעכקייט) צו דער⸗/ גרײַכען מײַן ציל./ דער (דאָס) בוך איז שיין באַם אײַנבינדער דעם בעסטען לעדער⸗/ גוילדענע (גילדענע) אויסיעס (אותיות) באַשיינעם (באַשיינען) די טאָוולען. און אינעווייניק/ זאָלען מיינע לייענער/ מישפּעטען (מישפּעטן). עס וואָלט/ געקענט זײַן שענער ווען/ איך האָב הילף.

נײַן די נויטיקע (נייטיקע) מאָראַליכץ/ הילף האָט מיר אויס⸗/ געפֿעלט, אַלעס געמוזט/ אַליין טאָן, האָבער(אָבער) גאָט/ האָט מיר געהאָלפֿען./ נעכטען אַרויסגעגאַנגען/ מיט חבר וויטץ יאָ ער וועט/ מיר העלפֿען ער זאָגט אַז/ ער וועט בריינגען (ברענגען) מענטשען/ צום 14 אָקטאָבער/ לעפֿקאָוויטש האָט/ געמאַכט אַלעס פֿון/ שענסטען און בעסטען/

ערשט אַוועגעגעבען (אַוועקגעגעבען) צום/ פֿאָרווערטס אַ נאָטיץ./ עס וועט זײַן אין אַנדערע/ צײַטונגען אויך. ביזען 14 טען אָקטאָבער וועל איך/ ניט שרייבען. דעם 20/ פֿאַרלאָז איך שיקאַגאָ./ מײַן (מײַנע) פֿרײַנדען (פֿרײַנדין) נעדי איז זייער/ קראַנק און איך בעט אַז/ ביז מײַן יום-טויב און ביזען/ פֿאָרען זאָל זי מיר ווערען/ געזונט זייער אַ טײַערע נעשאָמע (נשמה). דאָראַ

Tuesday, August 28, 1962

God, may your name be sanctified and blessed for giving me the opportunity to reach my goal. The book is bound beautifully with a cover made of the best leather and gilded lettering. As for the inside, my readers will have to judge [for themselves]. It would have been better if I’d had help.

No, I had no help to keep up my morale; I had to do everything on my own, but God helped me. Yesterday [I] went out with my friend Vits. Yes, he will help me. He said that he will bring people October 14th. Lefkovitsh prepared everything excellently.

I just sent out an announcement to the Forverts. It will be in other newspapers as well. I will not write until the 14th of October. I leave Chicago on the 20th. My friend Nedi is very ill and I pray by my birthday and by the time I travel she will regain health. She is a very dear person to me. Dora.

The book she refers to must be Perzenlikhkaytn in yidishn lebn, which would be published a year later. Her trip to Chicago likely involved a reading, and she may have visited her son Max and his family there as well. The first paragraph of the introduction to Perzenlikhkaytn sets the tone for Dora’s own mental landscape around this time:

די לעצטע צײַט טראַכט איך ווידער פֿון מײַנע פֿאַרלאָפֿענע יאָרן.

וואָס איז, דוכט זיך, דאָ זו טראַכטן? אָבער עס טראַכט זיך פֿאָרט.

אָט לעב איך שוין דריי יאָר אין אַ וואַרעם לאַנד; מײַן צימער איז באַקוועם, איך קען שרײַבן וואָס איך וויל, איך בין מיט אַלץ צעפֿרידן, און דאָך זאָג איך ניט דעם אמת.

די לעצטע דריי יאָר זיינען שנעל פֿאַראיבער און איך גיי ווידער אַריין אין אַ נייער וועלט. די טראָפּישע היץ מאַכט מיך יונגער ווי מײַנע יאָרן און איך זע תמיד פֿאַר מײַנע אויגן אַלטע מענטשן.

איז, פֿאַרוואָס זיינען יענע אַלט און איך יונג? 2 2 Dora Schulner, portrait from Perzenlikhkaytn in yidishn lebn (Shikago : Dora Shulner bukh-komitet,1963), p. 7.

In recent days I’ve been thinking again about the years that have gone by. What, one might ask, is there to think? But I go on thinking. I’ve already been living in this warm land for three years; my room is comfortable, I can write whatever I want, I am content with everything, and yet despite myself I am not telling the truth. The last three years have gone by quickly and I go again into a new world. The tropical heat makes me younger than my years and yet I see only old people everywhere. Why is everyone so old when I am young?

But in fact, these were the last years of her life. In her entry on December 31, 1963, only a few years later, Dora is convinced that she will die soon:

מאָנטאָג דער 31טער דעצעמבער 1963/

גאָט דו האָסט מיר שוין געוויזען (געוויזן)/ אַזויפֿיל ניסים (נסים) ווײַז מיר/ נאָך דעם נעס (נס) פֿון גיין אויף/ מײַנע פֿיס. איך בעט דיך/ זייער פֿאַרשעם מיך ניט/ אויף מײַנע אַלטע יאָרען (יאָרן) ./ בלויז גיין אויף מײַנע פֿיס/ און מײַן האַרץ זאָל מיך/ קענען טראָגען אויף מײַנע/ פֿיס. ווײַטער האָב איך/ אַ גוט עלטער דאָס אַלטע/ יאָר זאָל גיין געזונט/ װען דאַנען מע װאַרבריינגען (פֿאַרברענגען)/ פֿאַר מײַנע קינדער און קינדס/ קינדער לאַנגע געזונטע יאָרן דאַנען / זאָל ביסלעך/ אַלטער קומען מיט [אַלץ?]/ און עס זאָל אױסן נאָך מײַן גאָט [זעליקען?] מײַן חייִם אהרן ער זאָל/ זײַן אַ גוטער בעטער פֿאַר/ אונדז אַלעמען אָמן ד

Monday, December 31, 1963

God, you have already shown me so many miracles. Show me once again the miracle of walking on my feet. I beg you not to bring me shame in my old age. Just let me stand on my own feet, so I can carry my heart on my own feet. As for the rest, I have a good old age. In my old age I will stay healthy, and as long as I spend my time for my children and their children, they will be long and healthy years. May old age come slowly with [everything that it entails?]. I can’t desire more than that, my God, other than to[?] my Khayim Aaron [her husband Henry] to intercede well for all of us. Amen. Dora

In the notebook entry dated February 1964 Dora continues to express concern for her own health and her children:

18 פֿעברואַרי 1964

שטאַרקער גאָט העלף מײַנע/ קינדער און קינדס קינדער/ זיך אײנאָרדענען. מער/ וויל איך ניט שיינק זיי/ לאַנגע געזונטע יאָרען./ און מיר נאָך עטלכע יאָר/ וויפֿיל דו גיסט איז מיר/ טאָמעד (תּמיד) גענוג האָבער (אָבער)/ מײַנע קינדער געב אַ דאַך/ זיי זאָלען האָבן וואָס/ וווינען מיט זייערע/ קינדער. ד.

February 18, 1964

Mighty God, help my children and children’s children get their affairs in order. I don’t want anything more than this. Send them long, healthy years. And, as for me, the few years you give are always enough for me. But as for my children, give them a roof so they will continue to have a place to live with their children. D

In the last entry, dated March 19, 1964, roughly one month before her death on May 12 at age 73, Dora wrote:

דעם 19טען מאַרטש (מאַרץ) 1964

איך וויל ניט זינדיקען./ דו מײַן שטאַרקער גאָט/ וואָס שיינקסט מיר יאָרען/ וועסט מיר נאָך געבען/ עטלעכע געזונטע יאָרען./ די אויפּט זאַך (הויפּט זאַך) ליבער/ גאָט זאָלען צו מיר מײַנע/ טײַערע קינדער און קינדס/ קינטער שיינקען/ לאַנגע געזונטע יאָרען/ אַמן. ד.

March 19, 1964

I will not sin. You, my powerful God, who gives me years, will only give me a few more healthy years. The most important thing to me, dear God, is that you give long and healthy years to my precious children and children’s children. Amen. D.

Helen was absent when Dora died. This remained a regret for her years later. Helen herself would live well into her nineties.

The blue notebook is ultimately a bittersweet document. It represents the private thoughts and prayers of someone who lived her life in public. For me, it is a precious and strange artifact of family history, at once shedding light on my great-grandmother’s final years and puzzlingly incomplete.

Heskes, Nicholas. “Dora Schulner's Last Notebook.” In geveb, May 2020:
Heskes, Nicholas. “Dora Schulner's Last Notebook.” In geveb (May 2020): Accessed Nov 30, 2023.


Nicholas Heskes

Nicholas Heskes is an artist and writer living in Philadelphia PA.