Briv funem arkhiv: Wulf Winokur, Hebrew Seminarian and Yiddish Humorist in Vilna

Ri J. Turner and Ania Szyba


In gevebs briv funem arkhiv (let­ters from the archive) series high­lights archival finds that are too good not to share. You can learn more and sub­mit your own briv here, or see all briv posts here.

In February 2019, when I (Ri) was studying at the Paris Yiddish Center in its Yiddish Immersion Program, one of my teachers asked me if I would like a small freelance gig, translating several family letters for a young man named Simon who had recently stopped by the Center in search of assistance. I agreed to take a look at the letters — and I was immediately hooked.

The letters were written to Raja Ajdenbaum (Simon’s great-grandmother) by one Wulf Winokur between 1925 and 1927. At the time, Winokur was a teacher in training in Vilna, studying at Dr. Shalom Yona Tsharno’s Teachers’ Seminary (Prywatne Koedukacyjne Seminarium Nauczycielskie Doktora J. Czarny 1 1 Archives pertaining to the seminary are held by the Lithuanian Central State Archives (Collections 200, 223, 1100). ). Ajdenbaum’s brother Velvl was also a teacher in training, in his case at the Tarbut Hebrew Teacher’s Seminary.

Vilna, 10 Dec 1925 / Thursday 23 Kislev 5686

To my dearest Raja Ajdenbaum!

[...] Regarding what you asked me about the details of our “Mizrahi” seminary — I think I already told you everything. What I have left to add is a bit about its financial situation. There are teachers, of course; most of them are new, ones we didn’t have last year. I don’t know if they receive all the money they’re owed; obviously I can’t swear to it, because, in general, even though the situation has improved, still it often happens that there’s not enough to pay the teachers their monthly salary — and maybe not “often,” but rather almost always. But despite all that, the studies aren’t going badly now, and we have all of the most necessary teachers. Regarding the Tarbut Seminary, I met Velvl a few times (he visited me at home twice), and he complained to me that he is not greatly enjoying the courses, but later someone told me that the program is by now well-organized and the situation is much improved in general.

In his way, Winokur, a regular contributor to the Vilna dailies Di tsayt and Ovnt-kuryer, was also a literary wit:

10 Dec 1925 / Thursday 23 Kislev 5686, continued

Dearest Rayetshke! [...] I’m sending you a poem from Di tsayt that was printed last Friday. The poem can be sung to the melody of Kulbak’s “Shterndl,” if you know it. Here you’ll see that I’m a contributor there of the highest rank ([printed] right underneath the headline). I write all my poems under the same pseudonym (V. Ben-Ali).

As it turns out, Winokur is at his funniest when he means to be serious: many of his letters contain paragraphs that could have come straight out of a monologue by Sholem Aleichem, as, for example, when he complains at length about Ajdenbaum’s failure to tell him exactly when she’d be getting back from a trip so that he could write to her without fear that her parents would intercept the letter, or when he explains in great detail his decision to address her using the more formal “ir” instead of the “du” pronoun.

Vilna, 26 June 1925

To my dear unforgettable Rayetshke! [...]

Although I was still somewhat busy this week (also the reason why I didn’t write), thoughts of you never left my mind [...] Among all the fantasies and images that arose [...], our friendship appeared to me in its most beautiful forms. [...I]n a small (yet neat and tidy) chamber, a pair of young people sat by a little lamp, engrossed in something… You were there, it seems, and I was too, probably, and two hearts beat together quietly, two minds thought as one, and from time to time words were heard in the room: “The cube of the sum of a trinomial equals…” and someone repeated the words in a whisper, and they drifted through the darkness.

The letters are interesting not only because of Winokur’s unique voice, but also because we know very little about Dr. Tsharno’s Seminary, one of three Jewish teachers’ seminaries in Vilna (apart from Dr. Tsharno’s Seminary and the Tarbut Seminary, the TSYSHO Yiddish Teacher’s Seminary was also located in Vilna 2 2 See Jerzy Doroszewski, “Powołanie, rozwój i funkcjonowanie seminariów nauczycielskich w Polsce w latach 1918-1937” (Acta Scientifica Academiae Ostroviensis. Sectio A, Nauki humanistyczne, społeczne i techniczne (2020), No. 1-2), 166-167. One of the few things we know is that after the TSYSHO Seminary was closed by the Polish authorities in 1931, some of its students transferred to Dr. Tsharno’s Seminary, including Yisroel Likhtnshteyn, who would go on to be one of the organizers of the Oyneg-Shabes Archive in the Warsaw Ghetto. See L. Bayon, “Likhtnshteyn, Yisroel,” in Lerer-yizker-bukh: Di umgekumene lerer fun TSISHO-shuln in Poyln, ed. Kh.Sh. Kazdan (New York: Komitet tsu fareybikn dem ondenk fun di umgekumene lerer fun di Tsisho shuln in Poyln, 1952-1954), 214. ).

Vilna, 27 December 1927

Dear Rayetshke!

[...] We’ve been “free” since Thursday, but I’d wish this kind of “freedom” on my enemies: we don’t have time for anything except studying. I’d already decided that as soon as they freed us, I’d write you a letter, but the Hanukkah event that the seminary organized for us got in the way, and I was busy preparing material for a “live newspaper.”

The Hanukkah evening was quite a success because in addition to the latkes and sweet snacks, there was a rich program and, best of all, the live newspaper, which was a fine adornment for the holiday. From my humorous material which I read aloud, one thing bothers me a bit now. I poked too much fun at one of our teachers, imitating one of his lessons. It was a big hit and the audience laughed a lot when I imitated all of his idiosyncratic phrases and sayings, and to the content of his lesson I added a humoristic, comic effect regarding the fact that he mixes together all three of the subjects which he teaches (general history, Hebrew [history], Bible). So, for example, I made an alliance between Luther the Reformer (16th century) and Deborah the Prophetess in the Book of Judges, and asked questions, for example, about whether Isaiah the Prophet prophesied the Renaissance, and whether Mendelssohn the philosopher was an adherent of Kabbalah, and on and on… If you had been at the event, you’d doubtless have enjoyed it along with the rest of the friendly audience. But it seems to me that in my imitation of his lecture I oversalted and overpeppered a bit, because someone told me that he was a bit hurt when he heard my “lecture” in his style (he was present at the event with other teachers).

Winokur’s letters comprise perhaps the only surviving first-person account of daily life at Dr. Tsharno’s Seminary. The letters might help to answer questions such as when exactly institutional conflict caused Dr. Tsharno to leave his prior post as director of the Tarbut Seminary and found his own private seminary, 3 3 Mordechaj Unger speaks cryptically of an “erroneous policy pursued by the Tarbut headquarters” to which Dr. Tsharno “fell victim.” According to Noach Pniel, Dr. Tsharno left his position because, after he alienated the Polish authorities by speaking to them not in Polish but in the languages of Poland’s erstwhile occupiers, Russian and German, Tarbut leadership decided that he should be replaced by a director fluent in Polish. The seminary students, among whom he was very popular, mounted a protest, and a compromise was reached: Dr. Tsharno would be allowed to stay on at the seminary, not as director but as a teacher of psychology and pedagogy. However, Dr. Tsharno declined to remain employed by the seminary under those terms. See Noach Pniel, “Al parasha aguma be-toldot seminar ‘Tarbut’ be-Vilna (Parashat D”r Shalom Yonah Tsharno, Vilna 1878-1932),” Shvile hainukh 1, 44 (1985), 28–31; and Mordechaj Unger, “Błp. dr Szalom Jona Czarno. Zarys monograficzny,” Almanach Szkolnictwa Żydowskiego w Polsce (Trzeci Zeszyt Okazowy, Warsaw, 1937), 50. In the latter publication it is also interesting to note the short profile of Dr. Tsharno’s wife, who took over the seminary as well as some of Dr. Tsharno’s other pedagogical projects after his death in 1932 (“Dyr. Penina Czarno. Zarys monografii,” ibid, 100). and what the relationship was between Dr. Tsharno’s Seminary and the Mizrahi political movement, which Winokur mentions several times in his letters.

Vilna, 12 Sept. 1927

[...] I think I wrote to you in my last letter that something has changed for me in the last period. I wrestled for a long time with the question of what I should do next. Should I continue my studies in the seminary, or should I find a post in a provincial school? I had to consider both options in depth in order to know what to do about my further pedagogical work. However, neither option seemed to me to be at all easy [...] because 1) in order to continue my studies, I’d have to go to Dr. Tsharno’s courses [...] and I’m compelled to attend the courses for three consecutive years, which involves difficulties both regarding the fact that it’s become a five-year program, and material [difficulties as well]. 2) If I get a job in a provincial school — a question arises, first of all, of where to find such a job when there are as many teachers as students. Secondly, it’s very difficult for me to find a job at this point because I don’t yet have a certificate from an official stating that I completed a practicum in a [state-]licensed school last year, and third, in the unlikely event that I do find a job, it would only be for a year, because after that I’ll have to “qualify,” i.e., I’ll have to take an examination (in Polish, obviously) in Polonistics and pedagogics and that is — while working in a school for six hours [a day], where I’ll have to prepare for each of the lessons (at least on the pedagogical side), and one needs to rest a bit too — completely impossible, even just for the reason that in most of the provincial towns it’s difficult to find the necessary textbooks or receive guidance from anyone in preparing for the qualification exams. And moreover: the exams are administered by the regional school board [shul-kuratorium], who attempt to make it even harder for examinees. 4 4 Regional school boards (kuratoria oświate) were unenthusiastic about Jewish schools, particularly those whose language medium was not Polish, due to a desire to encourage linguistic and cultural assimilation among national minorities. Thus, they created administrative barriers that slowed or prevented the accreditation and licensing of Hebrew and Yiddish teachers’ seminaries and their graduates. The TSYSHO Yiddish Teachers’ Seminary confronted similar difficulties. See Anna Szyba, “Prywatne Żydowskie Koedukacyjne Seminarium Nauczycielskie Żydowskiego Centralnego Komitetu Oświaty w Wilnie (1921-1931) i jego rola w tworzeniu świeckiego szkolnictwa żydowskiego w Polsce” (Jidyszland: Nowe przestrzenie, ed. Monika Adamczyk-Garbowska et al., Warsaw: Jewish Historical Institute, 2022), 522-527, and Kamil Kijek, Dzieci modernizmu. Świadomość, kultura i socjalizacja polityczna młodzieży żydowskiej w II Rzeczypospolitej (Wrocław 2017), 123-182.

Winokur’s fate is not known; we were unable to find any information on what happened to him after 1927, and Simon’s family doesn’t know further details. The letters themselves provide plenty of evidence that Wulf anxiously hoped to win Raja’s favor, but, considering that he did not end up becoming Simon’s great-grandfather, we can assume that she ultimately spurned him. Whatever twists and turns his literary and personal paths may have taken later on, Winokur’s letters offer a colorful snapshot of student life in Vilna between the world wars.

To see the full scans of Wulf Winokur’s letters, click here.

Acknowledgments: Thank you to Simon and his mother Emmanuelle for their support of this research and their generous permission to write about these letters and to make them available in full to the public. Thanks also to Shiri Shapira for providing access to sources housed at the National Library of Israel.

Turner, Ri J, and Ania Szyba. “Briv funem arkhiv: Wulf Winokur, Hebrew Seminarian and Yiddish Humorist in Vilna.” In geveb, May 2023:
Turner, Ri J, and Ania Szyba. “Briv funem arkhiv: Wulf Winokur, Hebrew Seminarian and Yiddish Humorist in Vilna.” In geveb (May 2023): Accessed Jun 05, 2023.


Ri J. Turner

Ri J. Turner is a doctoral student in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Ania Szyba

Anna Szyba lives in Warsaw and is a translator and Yiddish teacher.