Jewish Autobiographies in Polish Translation: An Interview with Joanna Degler

Agnieszka Ilwicka and Joanna Degler


Since 2017, Joan­na Degler, lit­er­ary schol­ar, trans­la­tor, and Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor at the Taube Depart­ment of Jew­ish Stud­ies of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wrocław, has been he chief execu­tor of the Kanon lit­er­atu­ry wspom­nieniowej Żydów pol­s­kich” (The Lit­er­ary Canon of Mem­oirs by Pol­ish Jews) project and for which she serves as series edi­tor as well as a con­tribut­ing translator. 

The pur­pose of this project is to intro­duce a canon of Jew­ish mem­oir lit­er­a­ture as a sig­nif­i­cant but as yet almost entire­ly unknown his­tor­i­cal source and ren­der it acces­si­ble to Pol­ish acad­e­mia, in gen­er­al, as well as to inte­grate this body of works into the cur­rent think­ing on issues in Pol­ish his­to­ry and cul­ture, specif­i­cal­ly. The project will pro­duce a 27-vol­ume crit­i­cal edi­tion based on 25 of the most impor­tant mem­oirs culled from a larg­er col­lec­tion of Pol­ish Jew­ish mem­oirs and auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal sources. The vol­umes will include trans­la­tions from Hebrew, Yid­dish, Russ­ian, and Ger­man. The series will include mem­oirs dat­ing from the ear­ly sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry to the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, rep­re­sent­ing diverse geo­graph­ic regions and var­i­ous socio-cul­tur­al stra­ta, and will take into con­sid­er­a­tion gen­der-based per­spec­tives. This is a list of pub­li­ca­tions and future pub­li­ca­tions in the series.

Pol­ish-born Yid­dishist and oral his­to­ri­an Agniesz­ka Ilwic­ka spoke to Degler about the project. This inter­view was con­duct­ed in Pol­ish lan­guage on Fri­day, Feb­ru­ary 11th 2022 online and it was trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish by Agniesz­ka Ilwicka.

Agnieszka Ilwicka: Could you please say more about the origin and goals of the project you are currently editing?

Joanna Degler: Our goal is to publish our subjective perspective on the canon of memoirs written by Polish Jews. Our understanding of this canon encompasses Jewish life broadly speaking in the pre-WWII territories.

The origin of the project came, at least in my life, from informal teaching. As you know, I am also an activist and I was involved in the project “Yidish Far Ale” organized by Bente Kahan and her foundation. That was a two-year Yiddish language program. The people who attended this program were not academics; the vast majority were middle aged, and some of them were teachers. They came after work hours once per week to study Yiddish. After two years, the attendees said that they would like to study more. Bente Kahan allowed the meetings to take place at the synagogue in Wrocław, and gave us permission to use the women’s gallery (in Polish: babiniets). I wanted to do something more attractive, so I came up with the idea for us to all work together on translating various memoirs from before World War II. In Poland we talk a lot about the Holocaust but not enough, in my opinion, about Jewish life before the destruction. So everyone was working on a different literary piece from before 1939. Later we came up with the idea to publish all these pieces in an anthology. So I spoke with prof. Marcin Wodziński and told him that I have some money to publish it, but would need more. Marcin stopped me and responded that it was a genius idea and that it shouldn’t be an anthology, but a project of something like thirty volumes. It turned out that a similar project was born during the creation of the main exhibition at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. What was needed, however, was an impulse for its implementation and extensive cooperation of translators, researchers and editors from all centers of Jewish studies in Poland. I was surprised, because I only wanted to satisfy the translators from my group and publish useful material, yet suddenly I found myself entangled in a gigantic project.

AI: What was the next step?

JD: We started with building a team of professionals. What was really important to me was for some of the people who studied Yiddish on non-academic courses in Wrocław to remain part of it. I didn’t want to break the connection that was already there. Very soon we will publish Malka Lee’s memoirs translated by Katarzyna Lisiecka, who studied Yiddish with me as part of this group. The same is true for Inka Stempin’s translation of Rakhel Faygenberg’s memoirs. Why am I emphasizing this? Because often people say that language programs during festivals or outside of academia are a waste of time, that there are no outcomes and so teachers don’t want to get involved in such projects. But I think if even one person among twenty participants becomes a translator, that is a lot.

There are currently over thirty people involved in this project. We split into three groups; prof. Agnieszka Jagodzińska coordinates the work of translators from Hebrew, prof. Marcin Wodziński coordinates the translators from Russian and German, and I coordinate those who translate from Yiddish.

We are also cooperating with the POLIN Museum on this publication, and we have a partnership with the large academic publishing house PWN. Each volume of our series is preceded by an extensive introduction, and the texts of the ego-documents themselves are published critically, with numerous footnotes.

For us it was very important to reach an audience that isn’t necessarily already interested in Jewish culture, but we wanted to popularize these memoirs among various readers, like students at schools. I know that our series has found its place at school libraries. But we wanted to also make it available for people who like to read autobiographical literature; I am convinced that personal writing is powerful, and does have an impact in deconstructing some stereotypes in the process of reading when we get to know a certain person from their perspective, their individual history, and feelings. To me this is the best way to provide exposure to a minority culture. It is an opportunity to meet with someone, to get to know their real life problems, but also to learn about historical events through their individual experience and as a result become familiar with the story of the Jewish minority in Poland.

AI: Joanna, could you please tell us more about the criteria you are using to accept certain authors into your series? I noticed the diversity of your choices.

JD: I am distancing myself from the word “canon” because I am well aware that any canon is a structure that can be deconstructed, either from the feminist perspective or any other. The term canon can be exclusionary. But at the same time we had to somehow frame these as an essential collection of the memoirs that we feel have to be translated into Polish and language, or just published in it, because without them Polish culture and our understanding of Polish history is incomplete, and that was very important to us.

It was important to us to create a collection that will be representative of the diversity of Jewish life, encompassing various identities, people who were religious and those who decided to live a secular life, hasidim and misnagdim, women and men. We also paid attention to geography. I mentioned that we wanted to present Jewish culture from Poland before World War II. Jewish life in Galicia was different from Jewish life in, for example, Poznań. Also, language plays a significant role. Some researchers claim that a Jewish autobiography is one that was written in the Jewish language, such as Yiddish or Hebrew. We are more inclusive and we want to present a variety of Jewish languages. The same for social status: we wanted to include people who were already famous and those who didn’t play any significant role in public or social circles during their lives. We have I.L. Peretz and Mendele Moykher Sforim, but next to these famous characters we also have Hinde Bergner, who wasn’t famous during her lifetime but who wrote fascinating memoirs, just to name a few. Another example is Rakhel Faygenberg, who was quite a well-known author in the interwar period, particularly in Poland, and later she was barely recognized, until she passed away in Israel. She is among the few writers who wrote both in Yiddish and Hebrew and was equally forgotten in both languages.

AI: I noticed that every volume has a substantive preface, and I would like to know more about the cooperation between translators, editors, and academics who are responsible for bringing the knowledge about the text to a broader audience.

JD: For me, communication and cooperation within the team is a priority. And I think that this is an interesting set-up, where one person translates the text and someone else writes about it. That way we are creating a space for discussion. I myself translate and write about different texts, but I found it useful to have someone who will read my translation first. I am in favor of thought exchange, discussion, constructive dialogue, and listening to advice. It is not always easy, especially when there is some disagreement regarding the translation, questions about the texts, but it is always a fruitful and necessary discussion, an added value from two people who know the text in depth.

AI: What about the impact of the pandemic on the work of people responsible for the preface? Did COVID-19 influence their work too?

JD: Yes, of course. We also had cases of COVID-19 in our team, including myself, despite vaccination, and I was unable to work for quite a bit. It slowed down the work. As you know, I planned meetings for this project in person. We were lucky to start this project before the pandemic when we had a two-day intensive workshop about the texts, discussions about the Jewish texts and our approach to them. Due to the pandemic such meetings weren’t possible, and I see it as a loss for us. But immediately after our gathering I began to work at the archives in Israel and New York, and I was actually preparing materials for translators.

AI: That must have required a lot of trust within the team.

JD: Yes, absolutely. I stayed in touch with everyone. People were contacting me at the time during my research regarding their work and to find out what was available. Also I contacted them when I found something I thought would be interesting for their research. I think that it was just another aspect of our team work.

AI: Do you know any other such case of the team work currently taking place in the world in which the goal is to work together in a large team on Jewish texts?

JD: Bialik publishing house had something similar, but nonetheless I think that our project is so unique due to its diverse components. We are translating texts from so many languages, and as of now we are planning to publish twenty volumes critically edited with an introduction. Perhaps I just don’t know about it, but I cannot provide you with an example of something similar.

AI: Would you like to say a few words about the fact that this unique project, which is so strongly related to Yiddish, found its origin in Wrocław, which is not a town necessarily associated with Yiddish history?

JD: Yes, this is the stereotype about Wrocław. Wrocław is located at the crossroads between East and West. As we know, there was both Eastern and Western Yiddish. The first sentence in Yiddish that we know of comes from the thirteenth century. Western Germany was the birthplace of the language. So I don’t see it as strange that in the town formerly known as Breslau, there is Yiddish studies. Even in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, Yiddish books were published in Breslau. Later, due to various factors, there was less interest in Yiddish here. But after the Holocaust, right after the war, there was an interesting period when many Jews from the East came to Wrocław and brought with them the Yiddish language and Yiddish books. They created a large Yiddish library and a Yiddish publishing house known as Nidershlezye. We experienced a short but nonetheless intense revival of Yiddish culture here. And I think that despite the stereotypes, Wrocław already has its own history of Yiddish. We are in continuity with it.

AI: Could you please tell us more about the women’s memoirs that are part of your series? I was listening to the Polish radio station TOKfm and heard with great joy the news that Esther Rochl Kamińska, Kadie Molodowsky, Adele von Mises, and Rakhel Faygenberg’s memoirs are already available. And soon we will also have Malka Lee’s, Sarah Schenirer’s, Puah Rakovsky’s and Pauline Wengeroff’s.

JD: I would like to begin by saying that to me, an especially important part of this series is memoirs written by Jewish women. Why? Because women’s history very often is not represented in archival documents and when we are trying to understand women’s history based solely on archival documents, we might fail. The archives are also reflective of the social order and way of thinking. Thanks to these women’s autobiographical writings, we are able to recreate the forgotten, omitted, and lost world of various Jewish women’s activities within the Polish territories. For me, one thing that is very interesting but still not understood well enough are the differences between women’s and men’s autobiographies. We can already see that women’s memoirs are primarily in Yiddish; we don’t have any single woman’s writings translated from Hebrew. To me, very interesting research questions are whether gender influenced the language of writing, what strategies of self-representation shape the text, how the space of the shtetl is presented in women’s stories, whether there is such a thing as a women’s Judaism, whether women present Polish-Jewish relations differently than men, and relations between Jews and non-Jews. Women’s memory is very important. I would like to write a book at the end of this project about the differences between self-representation in Jewish memoirs written by men and women.

In the case of Rakhel Faygenberg, it was written by a very young woman, and that is already unique. Usually we have this stereotypical image of an elderly person writing about their life, but she was a twenty-something woman, who had closed a chapter in her life and wanted to describe it. She changes the names of real people and places to ensure that those who are still alive won’t complain. She presents a completely different image of the shtetl than we are used to. The image of the shtetl in Jewish literature is common, but it is important to note that it was constituted based mostly on texts written by men. And here we have something that again is typical of women’s writing: there is a girl who wants to study, because at some point she tasted the joy of education, she had great ambitions, but nobody in her family thinks that it is important for her to get an education. There comes a time when she needs to take care of the home, while her younger brother is given an opportunity for further education. Rakhel’s mother is slowly dying, and she is left with the responsibility of care-taking and running the store. She has trouble dealing with it so she hurts herself. It is shocking, even today, to write so openly about this subject and it is a rare motif in Yiddish literature. For me, the most interesting thing is what she uses as a basis for creating her own world. Her writing is based on the work of Shomer, known as a shund novelist. She is reading this popular Yiddish literature which gives her access to an alternative reality. At some point, she begins to be involved in this fictional world to the extent that she fashions herself as a character from the novel. She tells her friend about a fiancé that doesn’t exist but is actually based on one of Shomer’s characters. She even writes pretend love letters from him to herself. When her friend feels sad that she doesn’t have anyone to write her such letters, Rakhel tells her: You know what, my fiancé has a friend. And then she also writes letters in the voice of the imaginary fiancé’s friend to her friend. That works well until her friend tells her family that she is practically engaged to a lawyer from a big city, though of course in fact, unbeknownst to her, the letters were all fictions of Rakhl’s imagination, drawing upon popular fiction. This story is proof to me that the role of popular literature is still underestimated. Classical literature and literary critics were fighting shund, the popular literature, but meanwhile it played a significant role in the social revolution. Faygenberg’s desires and literary aspirations are also influenced by reading Shomer. She wants to marry a doctor or a lawyer because in Shomer’s texts this is a positive type of literary hero. She is not interested in marriage with a boy from the shtetl. So this is an example of a revolution in the province, where there was a vast audience for popular literature.

AI: I read an article once about the therapeutic work that was provided by reading Harlequin Romance Books. 1 1 Renata Sawicka, “Biblioterapia w procesie rehabilitacji” (Bibliotherapy in the rehabilitation process). Borgis - Medycyna Rodzinna 1/2020, s. 26-29 | DOI: 10.25121/MR.2020.23.1.26 Do you think that shund played a similar role for people?

JD: Absolutely, yes. When we look at the impact of this literature we could come to the conclusion that yes, it was a form of therapy with which to manage daily issues and challenges. Today we use TV shows for the same purpose, just to turn off our everyday life for a moment and transfer our thoughts somewhere else. Of course, people could read more high-brow literature, but popular literature played a therapeutic role which we can observe in the case of Rakhel Faygenberg.

AI: Will we have access to more texts of this kind in this series?

JD: Yes. We published the text of Adela von Mises from Brody (translated by Lidia Jerkiewicz, with an introduction by Maria Antosik-Piela). It is an unknown, never-published piece of writing. It is a great text from an ethnographic perspective. When we read Kadia Molodovsky (translated and edited by Bella Szwarcman-Czarnota), we have a different approach. She was a well-known writer, popular in the USA and in Israel, and she doesn’t write about everyday subjects. Meanwhile, in Adela’s writing we find multiple elements that we otherwise wouldn’t have any access to. I really appreciate the autobiographical writings and especially ones that touch on various aspects of daily life. Based on that we can get a glimpse into their challenges and joys and also rituals that were often typical only of women, and which don’t have any rabbinical codification but were an important part of daily routine, by tradition.

We also have texts of people from the time before they became famous and I have an appreciation for such literature. Of course, I am thinking here about Sarah Schenirer’s diary, which together with Dariusz Dekiert we have been preparing for publication for a long time. This is a memoir that was written entirely in Polish. Short pieces that were published in Hebrew translation were censored to a high extent. And this is an image of a different Sarah Schenirer than the mythologized mother of Bais Yaakov movement. She is very honest in her diary, because it is not a memoir but her irregularly written diary. During the course of this text we can observe the depression that accompanied her for a while. She was tragically married, she didn’t want to get married. At that time people were writing about Halley’s Comet and Sara is pointing out that most likely the Messiah will not come to save her from this marriage but at least this comet has the power to do so. Unfortunately, nothing of this kind happens and she needs to fulfill the marriage. That brings to mind Bertha Pappenheim, a completely different woman, an important leader of the Suffragette movement, who became famous as Anna O, Freud’s patient. She went through a deep nervous breakdown before she became an activist. This is evidence that the society expected Jewish women to expend their energy on home tasks but meanwhile, that wasn’t enough for them. Under influence from the broader world, they actually wanted to use their energy in a creative way. This frustration pushed them to begin public activism. This applies to both Bertha Pappenheim and Sarah Schenirer. During her breakdown she seriously considered emigration to the USA. She also tried working as a social worker; for example, she signed up for a nursing program in search of an occupation that could lead her to feel socially useful. At the same time, she attended philosophy courses and Polish Suffragette programming. Those are known facts, but they actually shaped the way in which she, along with other women, created Bais Yaakov schools. She was inspired by the people’s university created by Polish social activists, and she used these ideas when she was founding her school, for example. the idea of common access to informal education. I sincerely hope that her diary will present how an Orthodox path to social activism is not as obvious and clear as one might expect. Today, Sarah Schenirer is a well-known figure, thanks to the efforts of scholars such as Naomi Seidman, but we still know very little about Sarah Schenirer’s life before World War I, and this is the period that shaped her personality and her social involvement. I am fascinated by this beginning, the genesis of her path to activism. During the course of her diary I discovered that she felt curiosity, and protested against the social order.

AI: Everything that you have said is really fascinating and I am looking forward to reading the book once it will be published.

I am curious to know, what has the reception been like for the books that were already published in Poland?

JD: I do not have much data about this, so it’s hard to know. But I do collect the responses that I encounter. We publish these volumes with an academic publishing house, PWN, and an interesting fact is that our books are marketed very well in their media and in the bookstores also, because they noticed that the books are selling well. Once I spoke in a radio interview about one volume that wasn’t yet printed, and the publishing house received many emails inquiring about it so they asked me to be careful with advertising too far in advance. Also, I came across several reviews that were published outside of Jewish-oriented publications and that is a positive sign.

AI: I asked you about it because I still have a vivid memory of your interview for the Polish radio station TOKFM in which you talked about the series of Jewish autobiographies for over an hour with an enthusiastic journalist.

JD: Yes, this was my second time talking about the books that we published and after it I received a lot of positive feedback from people that listened to it. I want to say a word about the other publication, Moja dzika koza, a volume of Yiddish poetry in Polish translation, that was a real breakthrough for Yiddish literature in the Polish bookstores. It created a new wave of readers interested in Jewish literature, including young women in their twenties who even got tattoos based on the illustrations by Aleksandra Czudżak who now is a famous artist. Back then, when we asked her to participate in our project, she had only just graduated from the Art school in Wrocław. It was her first big project. The fact that it became part of the fashion of Poland also changed the reception of Yiddish here. And that was a great bridge for our further publications, including the biographies. Interestingly, Moja dzika koza was listed as one of the ten most important books of 2019 presented by the Polish edition of Vogue magazine, a publication that of course usually has very little to do with literature, and Yiddish literature especially.

AI: In that interview I heard very interesting information about your plans to publish Yiddish women in prose. Can you please describe this other project?

JD: Yes, we already have our selection of texts and we will, again, work collaboratively: me, Bella Swarcman-Czarnota, and Karolina Szymaniak. Right now, I am deeply immersed in the Jewish autobiographies and I don’t have time for this other project. But in due course we will be working on this project and again, we would like to invite Aleksandra Czudżak as our illustrator. We are planning to publish famous authors as well as those who are not known like Chasia Kuperman and Chana Levin, a writer from the Soviet Union, whose literature is marginalized and undermined. Once I was surprised when a first year student revealed that she decided to study Jewish Studies because of the writings of Chana Levin that I had introduced to her. That is the kind of moment when one can feel that our teaching work is meaningful.

AI: Thank you for this conversation and for all your great projects that you have been working on.

Ilwicka, Agnieszka, and Joanna Degler. “Jewish Autobiographies in Polish Translation: An Interview with Joanna Degler.” In geveb, January 2023:
Ilwicka, Agnieszka, and Joanna Degler. “Jewish Autobiographies in Polish Translation: An Interview with Joanna Degler.” In geveb (January 2023): Accessed Jun 25, 2024.


Agnieszka Ilwicka

Agnieszka Ilwicka is a Polish-born Yiddishist and oral historian. She holds a BA in Classical Studies (Mediterranean Culture and Languages) and a Masters of Research in Jewish Studies from the University of Southampton and a Masters of Art in Polish Literature, with a specialty in Jewish Studies from the University of Wroclaw.

Joanna Degler

Joanna Degler (Lisek) is the Associate Professor at the Taube Department of Jewish Studies of the University of Wroclaw.