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Vilner Yidishistn in Their Natural Habitat

Saulė Valiūnaitė

If I could choose any time and place to visit for a day, it would be Vilne 1 1 The spelling of Vilne, rather than Vilna, reflects the Yiddishist milieu I am writing about. For more on In geveb’s approach to place names in Yiddish, see https://ingeveb.org/blog/vilne-vilna-wilno-vilnius-place-names-in-in-geveb. — today Vilnius — between 1934 and 1938. I would spend the morning in the fish mark listening to lively Yiddish curses and the shouting of Jewish fish sellers. In the afternoon, I would be at YIVO, admiring the modern building and working in its library and archive. And in the evening, I would go to Velfke’s restaurant.

If you were a Yiddishist living in interwar Vilne, Velfke’s restaurant was the place to be. It was a meeting place for Yung Vilne poets and other writers, actors from Yiddish theatres, and everyone who considered themselves a part of the Vilner Yiddish bohemian circle. In her memoir about a year spent in Vilne, historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz recalls her first visit to Velfke’s restaurant when Shmerke Kaczerginski (number 1 in the numbered photograph below) invited her to spend an evening with his friends. 2 2 Lucy S. Dawidowicz, From that Place and Time: A Memoir, 1938-1947 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989). Dawidowicz gives a detailed description of what the interior of this famous restaurant looked like. The place was divided into three sections: at the entry there was a saloon where the droshky drivers drank and swore. The next room was a bit more sophisticated and once in a while would attract middle-class families. Finally there was a third room, where the bohemian circle would spend their evenings:

“…you came into a place that was at least twice as wide as it was deep, like a banquet hall. I remember it as utterly plain, without attractive lighting or ornamentation. It was furnished with several long tables and benches and a few smaller tables and chairs. The floor was bare with space for dancing; a radio provided the music.” 3 3 Ibid., p. 121-122.

There was a saying: if you came to Vilne and didn’t visit Velfke‘s restaurant, you didn‘t know the city at all. 4 4 David E. Fishman, The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2017), 19. In his memoirs, Yiddish actor Pesach Burstein remembers that when he was performing in Vilne on a tour of Eastern Europe, there was one place in the city he couldn’t miss:

“Once again we ate at Velfke’s Restaurant; once more we sat at the long communal table, eating Velfke’s delicious herring. At supper there one night, after a show, we found ourselves sharing the long table with three couples. Based on their language we noted they were of questionable respectability. They had evidently just seen our performance; the men were already under the influence of a large amount of liquor. To prove their virility to their wives, they provoked us. One called out to Bomba Gurwicz, “Hey actor, come have a drink on us. We want a pleasure of feeding a hungry clown.” Hersh Hart, who sat next to me, egged me on, “We cannot allow that rogue to get away with this.” Hart carried a revolver. As a veteran of Pilsudski’s army he was the proud possessor of a theater concession, which we were renting in order to perform. With this strong man at my side I gained confidence. When the drunkard on the other side of me made a snide remark to his wife on my account, Hart prodded me, “Are you going to keep quiet?” I turned to the wise guy, whose embarrassed wife was trying to restrain him, grabbed him by the collar, and pulled him to his feet.” 5 5 Pesach Burstein with Lillian Lux Burstein, What a Life! The Autobiography of Pesach’Ke Burstein, Yiddish Matinee Idol (Syracuse University Press, 2003), 193.

The restaurant appears not only in memoirs but in fiction as well. For example, writer Avrom Karpinovitsh (Abraham Karpinowitz) spent a lot of time in the Folks teater, a Yiddish theatre directed by his father Moyshe Karpinovitsh (number 14 in the photograph) just around the corner from Velfke’s, so it’s no wonder that this legendary place appears in his stories. In one case, Karpinovitsh writes about his father going to Velfke’s, meeting actors from the Yiddish stage, and discussing which plays should be or could not be staged at the Folks teater. 6 6 Abraham Karpinowitz, “Der boym nebn teater,“ in Oyf Vilner Gasn (Tel Aviv: Farlag di Goldene Keyt, 1981), 103-107. In another instance Avrom Karpinovitsh gives a detailed description of the restaurant and its vibrant visitors:

“That’s where the devotees of Yiddish went to eat broiled kishke and chopped liver. Coachmen, who drove passengers around the city in their horse-drawn carriages, sat in one area. The hucksters, who dragged customers into the ready-made clothing shops on Daytshe Street 7 7 Today Vokieciu Street. , sat with them. The actors and writers sat in another area with the patrons who helped out in a pinch, during a bad theatre season or by providing whiskey for theatre celebrations. Shapely girls, fans of various artists, adorned the tables. Itsik Manger 8 8 You can hear more about Itzik Manger‘s antics at Velfke‘s restaurant in Benjamin Harshav‘s oral history interview for the Yiddish Book Center. imparted wisdom over a glass of slivovitz. Shimson Kagan, the reviewer for the Vilner tog newspaper, thundered against performing trashy plays. Avrom Morevski who had a huge appetite, tore pieces of meat from a duck and shouted hoarsely, “Velfke, I’m hungry.” A frying pan of latkes with griven immediately appeared.” 9 9 Abraham Karpinowitz, “Memoirs of a Decimated Theater Home,” trans. Helen Mintz, in Vilna My Vilna: Stories by Abraham Karpinowitz (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2015), 145.

Although I tried to find photos of Velfke’s restaurant after reading these texts, I never succeeded. After some time, I lost hope that any photos from one of these bohemian nights existed. And this is proof for all historians that the archival finds you have dreamed about might be just around the corner.

One day, I was looking through a Yad Vashem online photo archive and came across an interwar picture described as Zionists in a restaurant. What made me instantly question this description was the dreamy gaze of Avrom Sutzkever (number 7 in the photograph) in the back of this group photo. Although Sutzkever eventually moved to Israel after the Holocaust, during the interwar period he was absolutely apolitical and definitely not a Zionist. So I started to look at the other people in this picture more carefully. Soon I realized that this was the treasure I had lost any hope of finding. The company in the photograph and those long tables from Lucy S. Dawidowicz’s description couldn’t be in any other place! The photo archive provided the back side of the photograph with mostly illegible handwriting, but the part clarifying that this picture was taken in Velfke’s restaurant was absolutely clear. This photograph not only let me finally see what Velfke’s restaurant looked like, but it also had all of Vilne’s Yiddishist elite in it.

This photograph was taken in 1938 at the farewell party in honor of Falk Halperin (number 10 in the photograph). Although I couldn’t identify some of the people in the picture (unfortunately, I couldn’t name any of the women), I am able to tell you about most of them: 10 10 I assume that some of the people in this photograph are very well known, so my descriptions are very short. I provide longer biographical information for those who, I assume, are a little less known to the broader public. These descriptions are not meant to be detailed biographies, but rather to stress particular accomplishments of the people in the photograph.

  1. Shmerke Kaczerginski was a member of Yung Vilne. During the Holocaust he was a member of the famous Papirene brigade in the Vilne ghetto and risked his life to save Jewish cultural treasures. As a member of FPO (Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye), he left the ghetto to join the partisan unit in the forests. After the liberation, Shmerke Kaczerginski returned to his hometown and rushed to the malines where all the cultural treasures were hidden. Together with other survivors he tried to revive Jewish cultural life and established a Jewish museum.
  2. Artist Benzion Mikhtom was also a member of Yung Vilne. He created the group’s logo and the covers of Yung Vilne’s almanacs.
  3. Hirsh Abramowicz was an educator and worked as director of Hilf durkh arbet school. He also was a writer who published articles, reviews and translations in the Yiddish press in Vilne, Buenos Aires, and Riga and in famous publications such as YIVO bleter and the Forverts. He was the father of legendary YIVO librarian Dina Abramowicz.
  4. Moyshe Levin was a writer and a member of Yung Vilne.
  5. Chaim Grade was a member of Yung Vilne who is considered to be one of the most important writers of the post-Holocaust era. 11 11 For more from In geveb on Grade, see https://ingeveb.org/blog/briv-funem-arkhiv-vella-grade-fruit-and-vegetable-seller and https://ingeveb.org/texts-and-translations/jewish-towns-of-poland.
  6. Shloyme Beilis Legis was a writer and a member of Yung Vilne. He also wrote articles as a journalist and as a literary critic.
  7. Avrom Sutzkever. (I think this name speaks for itself.) 12 12 For more from In geveb on Sutzkever, see https://ingeveb.org/search?q=Sutzkever.
  8. Moyshe Shalit was a journalist and communal activist in Vilne. He was a member of the PEN Club and Union of Jewish Writers and Journalists in Vilne, the Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society and many other organizations. He also edited many publications on politics, culture and education.
  9. Zalmen Reisen was one of Vilne’s leading intellectuals. Although his brother, the famous Yiddish writer Avrom Reisen, is better known, Zalmen Reisen’s influence on Yiddish literature and culture was by no means any smaller. His “Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur, prose un filologye” was and still is a fundamental work. 13 13 For more from In geveb on Reisen’s Leksikon, see https://ingeveb.org/blog/eight-volumes-in-dour-maroon-josh-fogel-on-translating-the-leksikon. Working as an editor at the Yiddish daily Vilner tog, he also supported and encouraged young writers to publish their work and introduced Yung Vilne to a broader audience. Zalmen Reisen was also one of the leading figures in YIVO’s administration.
  10. Falk Heylperin (Halperin) was an instructor of Yiddish and Hebrew. He not only taught but also wrote textbooks and worked in various cities. Heylperin also wrote articles in the Yiddish, Russian, and Hebrew press and edited magazines, among them the famous Yiddish magazine for children Grininke Beymelekh published in Vilne, and for some time he was the president of the Yiddish PEN Club. This photograph was taken during his farewell party before Heylperin left for Erets Isroel.
  11. Arn Yitskhok Grodzenski was a writer and editor. He began writing quite young and published his first poem at the age of seventeen. He published articles in the local Vilne and international Yiddish press. Grodzenski also edited the newspaper Der ovnt kuryer, which was very popular and had a circulation of 4500-5000, a very high number for the Vilne Yiddish press. He also was a secretary of Union of Yiddish Writers and Journalists in Vilne for most of its existence. In 1939, Grodzenski edited “Vilner almanakh”, which turned out to be his last literary work. To this day, it remains a very important historical source.
  12. Leyzer Volf today is a little less known than his fellow Yung Vilne members, but he was one of the group’s founding members and was beloved by audiences in Vilne. 14 14 For a translation of Volf’s work, see https://ingeveb.org/texts-and-translations/evigingo.
  13. Eliyohu Yakov Goldschmidt was a member of the Union of Yiddish Writers and Journalists in Vilne. Although I didn’t manage to find biographical information about his professional achievements, he was obviously an important member of Yiddish Writers Union and can be found in group photographs with other Yiddish writers.
  14. Moyshe Karpinovitsh was a director of Yiddish theatre Folks teater and the father of writer Avrom Karpinovitsh.

One of YIVO’s leaders, Max Weinreich, wrote: “In Vilne, Jewish traditions match the Jewish present. Only from these two elements together can a Jewish cultural future be built.” 15 15 Max Weinreich, “Der idisher visenshaftlikher institut (YIVO),” in Vilne: A zamelbukh gevidmet der shtot Vilne (New York, 1935).

Weinreich was writing about earlier traditions, but this photograph nonetheless illustrates his quote. The picture bears witness to a less obvious characteristic of Vilne’s literary scene: older editors, writers, and communal and cultural activists are sitting at a table together with the new generation of Yiddishists. In fact, mentoring the next generation was a Vilne tradition. That is precisely what YIVO scholars did when they established the Aspirantur — a graduate training program to educate the next generation of scholars who could take over Jewish scholarship.

The same principle of mentorship was brought into literature. When Yung Vilne started their literary and artistic work, Zalmen Reisen (number 9 in the photograph), the editor of the Yiddish daily Vilner Tog, was the one to present them to a broader audience by publishing an article titled “Young Vilne Marches into Yiddish Literature” (Der araynmarsh fun Yung Vilne in der yidisher literatur). When Yung Vilne had built up a name for themselves, the group’s members Shmerke Kaczerginski (number 1 in the photograph) and especially Leyzer Volf (number 12 in the photograph) mentored and supported the next generation of Yiddish writers, who formed a group called Yungvald. Unlike Yiddish modernist literary groups in other cities, Yung Vilne did not rebel against the older traditions and generations. 16 16 For more on this, see Justin D. Cammy, “The Untold Story of Yungvald: Inside Harvard‘s Leyzer Ran Archive,” in Catalog of the Leyzer Ran Collection in the Harvard College Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Library, 2017), https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:436716126$1i. In Vilne, just as Max Weinreich pointed out, past and present aligned and tried to create a Jewish — in this case, Yiddish — cultural future together.

I am lucky enough to live in this city that I read about in books and archival documents every day. But unfortunately, I live in Vilnius, which is a very different place from the Vilne I read about. Despite my love for Vilnius, I long for the Vilne that is no more. I may never be able to travel in time and spent an evening in Velfke’s restaurant, but this photograph at least lets me imagine what would it be like.

MLA STYLE
Valiūnaitė, Saulė. “Vilner Yidishistn in Their Natural Habitat.” In geveb, January 2020: https://ingeveb.org/blog/vilner-yidishistn-in-their-natural-habitat.
CHICAGO STYLE
Valiūnaitė, Saulė. “Vilner Yidishistn in Their Natural Habitat.” In geveb (January 2020): Accessed Jul 06, 2020.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Saulė Valiūnaitė

Saulė Valiūnaitė is a historian working in Vilnius focusing on Lithuanian Jewish history.