Texts & Translation

געשטאַלטן װאָס זוכן תּיקון: העלענאַ פֿראַנק

Figures in Need of Rehabilitation: Helena Frank

Jacob Glatstein

Translation by Aharon Varady


The fol­low­ing sketch records mere­ly the impres­sions of a short excur­sion, under­tak­en about two years ago, into the land of Jar­gon, or Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture. I should be hap­py could I per­suade oth­ers to make the jour­ney for them­selves. Part­ly for my sake, that I may have some­one with whom to com­pare expe­ri­ences. Part­ly for their own, because there must be many who would enjoy it as much as I, and prof­it by it more. Part­ly for the sake of the land, which is in great mea­sure igno­rant of its own trea­sures, and allow­ing its unique and frag­ile mon­u­ments to crum­ble away in the atmos­phere of present-day civil­i­sa­tion.” (Hele­na C. Frank, The Land of Jar­gon, 1904).

As the found­ing direc­tor of the Open Sid­dur Project, I fre­quent­ly pre­pare texts for exhi­bi­tion in its libre Open Access archive of Jew­ish litur­gy and prayer lit­er­a­ture. For every prayer, prayer-poem, and song I tran­scribe, I do my best to pre­pare a short bio of its author and ear­li­est trans­la­tors. While search­ing for the orig­i­nal Yid­dish text of Mor­ris Rosenfeld’s ca. 1897 poem דיא חנוכה ליכט” (lat­er adapt­ed as a pop­u­lar Hanukkah song), I found two Eng­lish trans­la­tions, from 1914 and 1921, both by Hele­na Con­stance Frank (July 31, 1872 – Feb­ru­ary 181954). 1 1 The 1914 trans­la­tion was made in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Rose Har­ri­et Pas­tor Stokes (née Wies­lan­der; 1879 – 1933) the social­ist labor activist, birth con­trol advo­cate, and fem­i­nist writer. Rosenfeld’s text with trans­la­tions by Fei­wel and Frank can be accessed at the Open Sid­dur col­lec­tion. I learned from scat­tered pub­lished pieces that Frank was a pio­neer­ing fig­ure in the his­to­ry of mod­ern Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture, both Yid­dish and Hebrew. 2 2 This includes the dis­cus­sion in Vol 11.002 of The Mendele Review: Yid­dish Lit­er­a­ture and Lan­guage, pub­lished on 27 Feb­ru­ary 2007. The lit­tle that I found about her piqued my curios­i­ty, and I present here what more I was able to learn through sub­se­quent research.

More than a trans­la­tor, Hele­na Frank was a cham­pi­on of Yid­dish. Her 1904 essay, The Land of Jar­gon,” com­mu­ni­cates much of the same urgency that I hear among Yid­dishists pro­mot­ing the lan­guage today. 3 3 Hele­na Frank, The Land of Jar­gon,” in The 19th Cen­tu­ry (Octo­ber 1904), pp. 652 – 667. Not only had Frank pub­lished the first Eng­lish trans­la­tion of Rosen­feld, she lit­er­al­ly intro­duced Rosen­feld, Y.L. Peretz, and oth­er Yid­dish and Hebrew poets and writ­ers of the late nine­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry to an Anglo­phone audi­ence. After Hen­ri­et­ta Szold dis­cov­ered one of Frank’s trans­la­tions of a Peretz sto­ry pub­lished under the pseu­do­nym Golde” in the New York Jew­ish Dai­ly News, Frank was select­ed by the Jew­ish Pub­li­ca­tion Soci­ety as the trans­la­tor of Sto­ries and Pic­tures (Peretz, JPS 1906) and her career in trans­la­tion began in earnest. 4 4 Jonathan Sar­na, JPS: The Amer­i­can­iza­tion of Jew­ish Cul­ture 1888 – 1988 (2021), p. 84, ftn. 116. Just read the Table of Con­tents to her Yid­dish Tales (JPS 1912): forty-eight works by Asch, Berdy­czews­ki, Berkowitz, Berschad­s­ki, Blinkin, Braudes, Frischmann, Jehalel, Lern­er, Lib­in, Naum­berg, Perez, Pin­s­ki, Rai­son, Rosen­thal, Schapiro, Sholem Ale­ichem, Spek­tor, Stein­berg, and Tashrak – all with a short intro­duc­tion for Eng­lish read­ers who were hear­ing their names for the first time. While work­ing on Yid­dish Tales, Frank also found­ed an orga­ni­za­tion, the Anglo-Jew­ish Yid­dish Lit­er­ary Soci­ety, which pro­vid­ed Yid­dish lan­guage read­ing mate­ri­als to patients in Lon­don hospitals. 5 5 Israel Abra­hams, The Anglo-Jew­ish Yid­dish Lit­er­ary Society”in The Book of Delight and Oth­er Papers (1912), pp. 255 – 258.’ In the year after Frank’s death, in a review of Howe & Greenberg’s Trea­sury of Yid­dish Sto­ries, Josef Left­wich wrote, One should recall Hele­na Frank as the pio­neer of Eng­lish trans­la­tion from Yiddish.” 6 6 Joseph Left­wich, Book Review: A Trea­sury of Yid­dish Sto­ries (ed. Irv­ing Howe and Eliez­er Green­berg),” in The Jew­ish Chron­i­cle (14 Octo­ber 1955) p. 9

Despite Frank’s role as a pio­neer­ing trans­la­tor and pas­sion­ate advo­cate of the Yid­dish lan­guage, a com­pre­hen­sive biog­ra­phy and a full bib­li­og­ra­phy of her trans­la­tions remains to be com­piled. Among the longest exist­ing dis­cus­sion of Frank’s work is an essay in Yid­dish, writ­ten by the acclaimed Yid­dish poet Jacob Glat­stein (1896 – 1971). Not only does this essay elu­ci­date Hele­na Frank’s place (or lack of it) in the Jew­ish lit­er­ary world, it is the last (and most recent) treat­ment of her among Yid­dishists, and I share it in order to revive Glatstein’s call to action to prop­er­ly hon­or Frank’s name and locate her final work. Up to that point, only a few short pieces about Frank had been writ­ten before and after she died alone in Hasle­mere, Sur­rey. Glat­stein, writ­ing six­teen years after Frank’s death in 1970, might not have read them all but appears to be famil­iar with the same out­line of her life that they describe. In the para­graphs that fol­low, I will attempt to sketch as com­plete a por­trait of Hele­na Frank’s life as can be drawn from these works. 

One piece in par­tic­u­lar, Por­trait of a Lady at Eighty,” pub­lished in 1952 in the UK Eng­lish peri­od­i­cal The Jew­ish Chron­i­cle, a cou­ple of years before Frank’s death, pro­vides cru­cial details on Frank’s jour­ney to Yid­dish. Jour­nal­ist Joseph Fraenkel writes that when Hele­na was about twen­ty years of age she learned that she had a Jew­ish grand­fa­ther, and the dis­cov­ery led her to take an inter­est in Jews and Jew­ish teach­ing. She became deeply absorbed in the peo­ple’s his­to­ry and lit­er­a­ture, stud­ied Hebrew in secret, and took an active part in the Hov­evei Zion move­ment, at that time under the lead­er­ship of Colonel Goldsmid.” Hele­na became close friends with the British-Jew­ish suf­fragette Hen­ri­et­ta Lowy (18661953), and con­nect­ed with oth­er high soci­ety Jews at the Ben­twich Salons orga­nized by Lowy’s fam­i­ly. Before World War I, she trav­eled to Pales­tine to help estab­lish a children’s clin­ic with Hen­ri­et­ta Irwell (18691941). 7 7 Hele­na Frank in Solomon Grayzel’s A Talk with Hele­na Frank,” JPS Book­mark, vol. 1 (1954), p.7. Her trip is also not­ed by Somech Phillips in The late Hele­na Frank,” p. 33, who refers to the clin­ic as a Chil­drens Home.” In 1920, Hen­ri­et­ta Irwell co-found­ed the Women’s Inter­na­tion­al Zion­ist Orga­ni­za­tion. Back in Eng­land, Frank began trav­el­ing east across Lon­don to the Jew­ish Free Read­ing Room in Step­ney, where she com­menced learn­ing Hebrew. Frank’s stud­ies led to her dis­cov­ery of Yid­dish, as described by Fraenkel: Her Hebrew teacher was named Hil­da Manville. Hele­na, who also spoke and wrote in Russ­ian, Span­ish, Ger­man, Ital­ian, and French, soon made excel­lent progress. Miss Manville, vis­it­ing Whitechapel one day, bought some heimishe kuchen,” which she packed in a Yid­dish news­pa­per and sent to Hele­na, who was then in France. In this way Hele­na learned of the exis­tence of a Yid­dish lan­guage. Con­sid­er­ing her­self to be a Jewess, 8 8 In Frank’s ini­tial obit in the Jew­ish Chron­i­cle (26 Feb­ru­ary 1954), p. 15, Sir Leon Simon (18811965) states: “[Frank] was brought up as a Chris­t­ian and nev­er gave up or changed her reli­gion.” Joseph Fraenkel appears to have tried to cor­rect the record in a fol­low-up pub­lished a cou­ple weeks lat­er: When I asked her whether she con­sid­ered her­self to be Jew­ish or Chris­t­ian, her reply was: I con­sid­er myself to be a Jew­ess’“ (in The Late Miss Hele­na Frank” in The Jew­ish Chron­i­cle, (12 March 1954), p. 9, restat­ing what he had already writ­ten pre­vi­ous­ly in Por­trait of a Lady of Eighty” (1952). she was anx­ious to absorb every­thing Jew­ish, and before long acquired a Yid­dish teacher, Ephraim Hieger.” 9 9 Pos­si­bly this was Fran­cis Ephraim Hieger (18611920), a Jew­ish watch­mak­er in Gold­ers Green, orig­i­nal­ly from the Mazowieck­ie region or its cap­i­tal War­saw, in Poland, whose records can be found in the Eng­land and Wales Cen­sus, 1911 and the Eng­land and Wales Death Reg­is­tra­tion Index 1837 – 2007 on fam​il​y​search​.org and ances​try​.com, and is not­ed in Pam Fox’s The Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty of Gold­ers Green: A Social His­to­ry (2016).

Frank’s Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and fam­i­ly his­to­ry is a sub­ject of con­tin­u­ous inter­est in the short pieces writ­ten about her. Here Por­trait of a Lady at Eighty” is again par­tic­u­lar­ly informative. 10 10 Josef Fraenkel, Por­trait of a Lady of Eighty,” in The Jew­ish Chron­i­cle (1 August 1952), p. 13. Much grat­i­tude to Hillary Einziger for locat­ing this piece. Frank’s geneal­o­gy is root­ed in a his­to­ry of Ger­man-Jew­ish set­tle­ment in Eng­land on her pater­nal side, and British noble ori­gins on her mater­nal side. Fraenkel explains: There was in Ger­many a Jew­ish fam­i­ly, who, in grat­i­tude to Napoleon, adopt­ed the name of Franzke,” which was lat­er changed to Frank.’ In the late 1820s a mem­ber of this fam­i­ly, Myer Frank, of Salzwedel (Ger­many), set­tled in Man­ches­ter, where he became con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty and mar­ried a non-Jew­ess. His son, Dr. Adolf Frank, had one daugh­ter, Hele­na, born on July 31, 1872. She was, nat­u­ral­ly, brought up as a Chris­t­ian.” After Frank’s death in 1954, her obit­u­ary in the Jew­ish Chron­i­cle quotes Simon Hieger, 11 11 Simon Samuel Hieger (18881977), por­trait artist and son of Fran­cis Ephraim Hieger (Eng­land and Wales Cen­sus, 1911). explain­ing fur­ther: “[Hele­na Frank] was a daugh­ter of the late Lady Agnes Grosvenor, 12 12 This detail is con­firmed by Olga Somech Phillips, in The late Hele­na Frank” The Jew­ish Quar­ter­ly (Spring 1954), p. 32 – 34. one of the sis­ters of the First Duke of West­min­ster, and was thus relat­ed to many aris­to­crat­ic Eng­lish fam­i­lies. The fact, how­ev­er, that her father, Dr. Philip Frank, 13 13 In the same arti­cle, Josef Fraenkel recalls Helena’s father’s name as Adolf,” while Simon Hieger gives his name as Philip.” Nev­er­the­less, it is quite pos­si­ble that Adolf was an alter­nate name, for Fraenkel is oth­er­wise reli­able in his account of Frank’s life, and Hieger and Fraenkel’s accounts align in oth­er ways. The birth­date Fraenkel pro­vides for Hele­na Frank (31 July), for exam­ple, seems a rea­son­able one giv­en the mar­riage date of Lady Agnes Grosvenor to a Philip Frank” on 5 Decem­ber 1871, accord­ing to genealog­i­cal details com­piled in Burke’s Peer­age, Barone­tage & Knigh­tage (Mosley Charles, ed., 2003). at one time a physi­cian to Prince Hen­ry of Bat­ten­berg and to the King of Bul­gar­ia, was of Jew­ish extrac­tion, undoubt­ed­ly deter­mined the direc­tion of her inter­ests at an ear­ly age.” The cru­cial detail miss­ing here seems to be that Helena’s birth was not offi­cial­ly rec­og­nized in the genealog­i­cal records of British nobility. 14 14 Lady Agnes Grosvernor’s genealog­i­cal record in Burke’s Peer­age includes a sig­nif­i­cant detail: that Philip Frank was Lady Agnes Grosvenor’s sec­ond hus­band, and that Lady Agnes Grosvenor died on 22 Jan­u­ary 1909 with­out issue” – name­ly, with­out heirs. This would appear to indi­cate that Helena’s parent­age and nobil­i­ty was not pub­licly acknowl­edged. Whether this was the result of endem­ic blood racism or anti­se­mit­ic prej­u­dice in Lady Grosvenor’s fam­i­ly, or some­thing else, remains unknown. 

Jacob Glat­stein, in his essay Gesh­taltn vos zukhn tikn” [Fig­ures In Need of Reha­bil­i­ta­tion], also takes a strong inter­est in Frank’s Jew­ish back­ground. With­out men­tion­ing Frank’s own self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as a Jew, he iden­ti­fies her as a Chris­t­ian albeit descend­ed from Jews. Glatstein’s sit­u­at­ing of Frank’s iden­ti­ty under­scores the mys­tery” of Hele­na Frank; her atten­tion to Zion­ist caus­es and Hebrew and Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture sug­gests an aspi­ra­tional Jew­ish iden­ti­ty which, for rea­sons unknown, were nev­er ful­ly real­ized or rec­i­p­ro­cat­ed as they might have been for a reli­gious Jew­ish con­vert. Her lack of a straight­for­ward Jew­ish iden­ti­ty is also used to make a sharp­er point – against those more rec­og­niz­ably Jew­ish writ­ers who debase Yid­dish for a cheap laugh. Glat­stein presents Hele­na Frank’s heimishe kuchen” wrapped in a Yid­dish news­pa­per as the whole­some coun­ter­point to a Yid­dish sul­lied in Eng­lish by the likes of a young Philip Roth.

Writ­ing in the year before his own death, Glat­stein decries the unfair obscu­ri­ty of Hele­na Frank. He con­trasts the unjust treat­ment of Frank’s lega­cy with the wild pop­u­lar­i­ty of Philip Roth after the 1969 pub­li­ca­tion of Port­noy’s Com­plaint. He also high­lights a seri­ous con­cern shared by Fraenkel and oth­er friends at the time of Frank’s death: the fate of her final man­u­script, Tales of Rab­bi Nach­man Brat­zlaver, com­plet­ed only a day before her death. The very last thing Hele­na Frank is known to have writ­ten, accord­ing to Fraenkel’s report, was this: As to my mod­est lit­er­ary work, I fin­ished the two lit­tle books of Rab­bi Nach­man Bratslaver…If I nev­er do any­thing more — nev­er mind! I am pleased that I fin­ished Rab­bi Nach­man — to the best of my ability…” 15 15 As quot­ed in The Late Miss Hele­na Frank” in The Jew­ish Chron­i­cle, (12 March 1954), p. 9. This state­ment is repeat­ed in anoth­er let­ter by Hele­na Frank, pub­lished posthu­mous­ly in the Jew­ish Quar­ter­ly, Spring 1954, p.34.Frank’s work on Rab­bi Nach­man is also men­tioned by Solomon Grayzel in A Talk with Hele­na Frank,” JPS Book­mark, vol. 1 (1954), p.7. Glat­stein calls for a biog­ra­ph­er to ful­ly research Frank’s life sto­ry and locate her man­u­script on Rebbe Nach­man. I share this trans­la­tion of Glatstein’s essay on Hele­na Frank in the hope that it will elic­it more schol­ar­ly research into the life of Hele­na Frank, and the where­abouts of her final work of trans­la­tion, the Tales of Rab­bi Nach­man Brat­zlaver.

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ס׳האָט אַ מאָל געטראָפֿן, אַז מ׳האָט אײַנגעװיקלט אַ ייִדישן געשמאַקן קוכן אין אַ ייִדישער צײַטונג און מ׳האָט אים געשיקט אַ קריסטין פֿאַר אַ מתּנה. דערפֿון, פֿון אָט דעם קוכן, איז אַרױסגעקומען אַ גרױסע טובֿה פֿאַר דער ייִדישער ליטעראַטור. װאָס פֿאַר אַ שײַכות האָט אַ קוכן, געװיקלט מיטן ייִדישן אַלף־בית, מיט דער ייִדישער ליטעראַטור? הערט זשע. די קריסטלעכע דאַמע האָט מיט גרױס װוּנדער באַטראַכט די ייִדישע אותיות און זי איז געװאָרן אַזױ באַגײַסטערט, אַז זי האָט באַשלאָסן זיך אױסצולערנען ייִדיש און העברעיִש.

לויִדזשי פּיראַנדעלאָ, דער איטאַליענישער מאָדערניסטישער דראַמאַטורג, האָט זיך באַרימט געמאַכט מיט אַ דראַמע, װאָס ער האָט אָנגערופֿן „זיבן כאַראַקטערן זוכן אַ מחבר“. מיר האָבן אין דער געשיכטע פֿון דער ייִדישער און העברעיִשער ליטעראַטור גענוג כאַראַקטערן, בעסער געזאָגט, געשטאַלטן, װאָס זוכן אַ מחבר, אַז ער זאָל זײ מתקן זײַן, אָנשרײַבן אַ מאָנאָגראַפֿיע װעגן זײ, זײ אױפֿקלערן און זײ אַרײַנרעמען אין דער צײַט, װאָס אין איר האָבן זײ געלעבט. ס׳גײט אױך אין אָפּטײלן לעגענדע פֿון רעאַליטעט, כאָטש דער לעגענדאַרישער מאַטעריאַל גיט אָפֿט צו האַפֿט דעם אמת און שטעלט אים אַװעק אױף אַ באָדן פֿון גלײבלעכקײט. דער דאָזיקער עפּיזאָד מיט דעם ייִדישן קוכן, געװיקלט אין ייִדישע אותיות, מעג זיך זײַן אױסגעטראַכט, אָבער אױב מיר האָבן װײניק אױטענטישן מאַטעריאַל, איז אַזאַ עפּיזאָד דערװײַל די בעסטע אױפֿקלערונג פֿון דער געשעעניש — העלענאַ פֿראַנק, װאָס איז געװאָרן די ערשטע איבערזעצערין פֿון דער ייִדישער ליטעראַטור אין ענגליש. די דאָזיקע דאַמע איז נאָך אַלץ אַ לעגענדע, כאָטש אירע איבערזעצונגען פֿון י. ל. פּרץ, אַבֿרהם רײזען און אַנדערע ייִדישע שרײַבערס זײַנען דערשינען מיט אַ זעכציק יאָר צוריק. איר לעבן איז נאָך אַלץ נישט גענוג אױסגעפֿאָרשט געװאָרן. אַפֿילו איר קריסטלעכקײט איז אױך נישט אין גאַנצן קלאָר.

ובכן, האָבן מיר פֿאַר זיך אַ פֿולע רעאַליסטישע געשעעניש — די ערשטע ענגלישע איבערזעצערין פֿון ייִדישע שרײַבערס, אין אונדזער אײגענעם יאָרהונדערט, גאָר נישט אַזױ װײַט אָפּגערוקט פֿון אונדז, װאָס איז געבליבן אַרומגעשלײערט מיט לעגענדאַרישן מאַטעריאַל, און ביזן הײַנטיקן טאָג זוכט אָט דאָס געשטאַלט אַ מחבר, װאָס זאָל זיך אַװעקזעצן און אָנשרײַבן אַ גרינטלעך בוך װעגן העלענאַ פֿראַנק.

דערפֿאַר האָב איך אָנגעהױבן מיט דעם ייִדישן קוכן, װאָס איז געקױפֿט געװאָרן אין װײַטשעפּל, לאָנדאָן. העלענאַ איז נאָך דעמאָלט געװען יונג, װען זי האָט אָפּגעװיקלט די לאָנדאָנער ייִדישע צײַטונג, געגעסן דעם קוכן און באַטראַכט מיט װוּנדער די ייִדישע אותיות, װאָס האָבן זי באַגײַסטערט; און די דאָזיקע באַגײַסטערונג האָט אָנגעהאַלטן אַזױ לאַנג און אַזױ שטאַרק, אַז ס׳האָט זי געפֿירט דירעקט צו איבערזעצן י. ל. פּרצן אױף ענגליש.

דער פֿאַקט, װאָס העלענאַ פֿראַנקס לעבן איז נאָך אַלץ אַרומגערינגלט מיט אַ סך רעטענישן, איז נאָך איבערראַשנדיקער דערמיט, װאָס געשטאָרבן איז זי ערשט מיט אַ זעכצן יאָר צוריק, אין עלטער פֿון 82 יאָר. אין דער ענגלישער „אוניװערסאַלער“ ייִדישער ענציקלאָפּעדיע איז נישט פֿאַראַן קײן אײן װאָרט װעגן איר. עטלעכע ביאָגראַפֿישע שטיקלעך און ברעקלעך זײַנען דערשינען אין פֿאַרשײדענע ערטער, אָבער אַלץ נישט קײן ערנסטע שטודיע, װאָס זאָל אױפֿקלערן דאָס געשטאַלט פֿון אַן ענגלישער דאַמע, װאָס האָט אױף אַ ממשותדיקן אופֿן אַרױסגעװיזן איר באַװוּנדערונג פֿאַר דעם פֿאָטער פֿון דער מאָדערנער ייִדישער ליטעראַטור — י. ל. פּרץ.

מ׳האָט נאָך איר טױט געשריבן, אַז זי האָט זיך ביז איר לעצטן טאָג נישט אױפֿגעהערט צו אינטערעסירן מיט דער העברעיִשער און מיט דער ייִדישער ליטעראַטור. זי האָט אױך געקענט העברעיִש; און ס׳לײגט זיך אױפֿן שׂכל, װײַל אָן העברעיִש װאָלט זי נישט געקאָנט איבערזעצן י. ל. פּרצן. זי האָט — אין אַ קלענערער מאָס — געטאָן פֿאַר דער ייִדישער ליטעראַטור, װאָס די אַמעריקאַנערין קאָנסטענס גאַרנעט האָט געטאָן פֿאַר דער רוסישער ליטעראַטור. פֿרױ גאַרנעט האָט איבערגעזעצט די װערק פֿון טאָלסטױ, דאָסטאָיעװסקי, טשעכאָװ און אַנדערע. זי איז געװען די ערשטע, װאָס האָט געעפֿנט די פֿאַרזיגלטע רוסישע ליטעראַטור פֿאַרן ענגלישן לײענער.

דער באַקאַנטער ציוניסטישער היסטאָריקער און רעגיסטראַר פֿון דער ייִדישער פּרעסע אין דער װעלט יוסף פֿרענקעל האָט אַ מאָל געשריבן, אַז העלענאַ פֿראַנק האָט איבערגעלאָזט אַ שטודיע װעגן רבי נחמן בראַצלעװער. װוּ איז די דאָזיקע שטודיע אַהינגעקומען? „איך בין צופֿרידן, װאָס כ׳האָב פֿאַרענדיקט מײַן אַרבעט װעגן רבי נחמן“, האָט די זקנה געשריבן צו יוסף פֿרענקעלן. דער בריװ איז געשריבן געװאָרן דעם 17טן פֿעברואַר 1954, און אױף מאָרגנס איז זי געשטאָרבן. פֿרעגט זיך װידער אַ מאָל: װוּ געפֿינט זיך דאָס דאָזיקע פֿאַרענדיקטע װערק, װאָס העלענאַ פֿראַנק האָט איבערגעלאָזט?

אין דער ייִדישער פּרעסע האָט מען װעגן דער דאָזיקער ראָמאַנטישער דאַמע, נאָך איר טױט, װײניק געשריבן. זי האָט די ייִדישע ליטעראַטור דערהױבן און גרױס געמאַכט און פֿונדעסטװעגן איז זי אַרױסבאַגלײט געװאָרן כּמעט אָן אַ הספּד.

העלענאַ פֿראַנק האָט געשטאַמט פֿון ייִדן; איר זײדע איז געװען אַ ייִד. ס׳איז קלאָר, אַז די דאָזיקע ערשטע איבערזעצערין פֿון דער ייִדישער ליטעראַטור אױף ענגליש איז װערט מער װי אַ װאַרעם װאָרט — אַ גרינטלעך װערק װעגן איר לעבן. ס׳װאָלט זיך געמעגט געפֿינען אַ ייִדישער שרײַבער, װאָס זאָל אױפֿן סמך פֿון ראַיעלע דאָקומענטן קלאָר מאַכן פֿאַר אונדז די פּערזענלעכקײט פֿון דער קריסטין, װאָס האָט אױף איר אײגענעם אופֿן געזוכט און טײלװײַז געפֿונען — אַ װעג צוריק, צום זײדן. זי האָט זיך אָנגעהױבן אינטערעסירן מיט העברעיִש און ייִדיש װי נאָר ס׳איז איר קלאָר געװאָרן, אַז איר זײדע איז געװען אַ ייִד. ס׳האָט זי דעמאָלט געצױגן צו ייִדן און זי האָט געפֿונען דעם פֿאָדעם דורך ביאַליקן, פּרצן, רײזענען — צו העברעיִש און ייִדיש. דאָס לײקנט נישט אָפּ די מעשׂה מיט דעם װײַטשעפּעלער ייִדישן קוכן, װאָס האָט איר אפֿשר געגעבן דעם ערשטן באַטעמטן שטױס צום ייִדישן אַלף־בית.

העלענאַ פֿראַנק, װײסן מיר פֿון די אַרײַנפֿירן צו אירע איבערזעצונגען, האָט באַװוּנדערט די ייִדישע גײַסטיקע אוצרות, און, װי געזאָגט, פֿאַרענדיקט האָט זי איר לעבנסװעג מיט אַ װערק װעגן דעם בראַצלעװער.

אין אונדזער צײַט איז אַ קורצער װעג צו באַרימטקײט אַרױסצוקומען אין אַן ענגלישער צײַטונג, אָדער אין אַן ענגלישן זשורנאַל, און נישט נאָר שרײַבן, נאָר פּראָקלאַמירן, אַז ייִדיש איז שױן פֿאַקטיש אונטערגעגאַנגען. אַז אַ יונגער־מאַן װערט גלײַך אַ באַרימטקײט, אױב ער איז אַ טעלעװיזיע־װיצן־זאָגער און ער װאַרפֿט אַרײַן עטלעכע פֿאַרקריפּלטע ייִדישע װערטער, און ער זאָגט נאָך, אַז ס׳איז אַ זשאַרגאָן, װאָס ייִדן פֿלעגן אַ מאָל רעדן, װערט ער אַװדאי באַרימט. אַז אַזאַ אַמוזירער גיט אַ װאָרף אַרײַן אַ שמוציקן שטײן אין ייִדישן מחיה־נפֿשותדיקן קװאַל, שפּירט ער, אַז ער האָט עפּעס אױפֿגעטאָן. אין דעם פּאָרנאָגראַפֿישן בוך „פּאָרטנויס קאָמפּלײנט“ האָט דער פֿיפֿיקער מחבר אַרײַנגעבראָקט אַ צענדליק שמוציקע אָפּטריטװערטער און דערמיט געפּרוּװט דעמאָנסטרירן זײַנע ידיעות אין ייִדיש. אָבער געװיזן האָט ער דורך װאָסערע אָפּפֿלוס־קאַנאַלן די כּלומרשטע ייִדישע װערטער זײַנען צו אים דערגאַנגען.

װען אַזאַ יונגער־מאַן, װאָס װערט אין אונדזער צײַט אָנגענומען פֿאַר אַ שרײַבער, װאַרפֿט אַרײַן אַ שטײן אין אונדזער קװאַל און זײַן װערטערשמוץ איז ייִדיש, קאָנען דעם שטײן, װי מען זאָגט, צען חכמים נישט אַרױסנעמען.

צװישן אונדז גופֿא האָבן מיר אױך גענוג „עקספּערטן“ אַזעלכע, װאָס „װײסן“, אַז מיט ייִדיש איז שױן באַלד אױס. זײ זײַנען באַקרעפֿטיקט מיט ציפֿערן; זײ האַלטן אַפֿילו לאַנגע, גוט צוגעגרײטע ייִדישע רעדעס װעגן דעם זיכערן אונטערגאַנג פֿון ייִדיש און װעגן דער צוקונפֿטלאָזיקײט פֿון דער ייִדישער ליטעראַטור, אָבער דער עיקר־„דרך־ארץ“ רופֿט אַרױס צו זיך, װען דער געװאָרפֿענער שטײן אױף ייִדיש איז געװיקלט אין ענגלישע אותיות. דערפֿאַר איז כּדאַי צו געדענקען, אַז גראָד ייִדישע אותיות האָבן אַרױסגערופֿן גרױס באַװוּנדערונג בײַ העלענאַ פֿראַנק פֿאַר ייִדישע אוצרות. בײַ איר איז ייִדיש אױפֿגעגאַנגען מיט גרױס כּבֿוד, װען זי האָט געפֿירט די ייִדישע ליטעראַטור אין דער ברײטער װעלט אַרײַן. װאָלט כּדאַי געװען צו פֿאַראײביקן דעם נאָמען פֿון העלענאַ פֿראַנק מיט אַ ביאָגראַפֿיש װערק, װאָס װאָלט געװען אַ כּבֿוד פֿאַר איר געדעכעניש און אַ כּבֿוד פֿאַר דעם המשך פֿון דער ייִדישער ליטעראַטור.

Once upon a time, someone wrapped a delicious Jewish pastry in a Yiddish newspaper and sent it as a gift to a Christian woman. And it was due to this—this little pastry— that Yiddish literature received one of its greatest gifts. What does a pastry, wrapped in the letters of the Yiddish alef beys, have to do with Yiddish literature? Listen here: this lady marveled at the Yiddish letters on the pastry, and was so enthused by them that she decided to teach herself Yiddish and Hebrew.

Luigi Pirandello, the modernist Italian playwright, became well-known for a drama he called Six Characters in Search of an Author. We have enough neglected figures in the history of Yiddish and Hebrew literature who seek an author to revive them, to write a monograph about them, to describe and appraise them in the time in which they lived. It’s also necessary to separate fact from fiction, though the stuff of legends does often take the truth and frame it in a more compelling manner. Maybe the story with the Jewish pastry wrapped in Yiddish letters is imaginary. Yet in the near-absence of other authentic records, this episode provides the best explanation for that historic moment when Helena Frank became the first translator of Yiddish literature into English. After all, this woman remains something of a legend, although her translations of I.L. Peretz, Avraham Reyzen, and other Yiddish writers were published only sixty years ago. Her life has still not been sufficiently explored. Even details about her Christian identity are not entirely clear.

Therefore we have before us a full, true phenomenon — the first English translator of Yiddish writers, in our own century, not too far removed from us, a figure who remains shrouded in mystery. To this day, Helena Frank seeks an author who will sit down and write her biography.

That’s why I opened with the Jewish pastry, which was purchased in Whitechapel, London. Helena was still young then, when she unwrapped the London Jewish newspaper, ate the pastry, stared at the Yiddish letters and became inspired. This inspiration would grow into a deep and dedicated enthusiasm that resulted in her English translation of I.L. Peretz.

The fact that Helena Frank’s life is still shrouded in mystery is even more surprising given that she died only sixteen years ago, at the age of eighty-two. There is not a single word about her in the English “Universal” Jewish Encyclopedia. Bits and pieces of her biography have appeared here and there, but there has been no serious study that explores the figure of this British woman who expressed her admiration for I.L. Peretz, the father of modern Yiddish literature, through such a significant undertaking.

After her death, people wrote that she was invested in Hebrew and Yiddish literature to her very last day. She also knew Hebrew, and this makes sense: she wouldn’t have been able to translate I.L. Peretz without it. Frank did for Yiddish literature (if to a somewhat lesser extent) what the American Constance Garnett did for Russian literature. Mrs. Garnett translated the works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and others. She was the first to open the seal of Russian literature for the English reader.

The renowned Zionist historian and chronicler of the world of the Jewish press, Josef Fraenkel, once wrote that Helena Frank had left behind a study on Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav. Where did this study end up? “I am glad that I have completed my work on Rebbi Nahman,” the old woman wrote to Josef Fraenkel. The letter was written on February 17, 1954, and she died the next morning. The question arises: Where is this completed work that was left by Helena Frank?

The Jewish press wrote little about this romantic after her death. She elevated and promoted Yiddish literature, and yet her death went virtually unnoticed, unacknowledged.

Helena Frank was descended from Jews; her grandfather was a Jew. It is abundantly clear that the first English translator of Yiddish literature into English is worth more than a passing (if warm) mention — a thorough study of her life is needed. It’s about time that a Jewish writer take on the task of using authentic documents to uncover the personality of this Christian — one who, in her own way, searched for, and partly found a way back to, her grandfather. She became interested in Hebrew and Yiddish as soon as it became clear to her that her grandfather was a Jew. It was then that she became drawn to Jews, and she found her way back to Hebrew and Yiddish through Bialik, Peretz, Reizen — in Hebrew and Yiddish. This in no way undermines the tale of the Whitechapel Jewish pastry, which was probably the first thing that whet her appetite for the Yiddish alefbeyz.

As we know from the introduction to her translations, Helen Frank admired Jewish spiritual treasures. It is fitting that, as I’ve said, her life ended with the completion of a work about the Bratslaver Rebbe.

In our time, there’s a shortcut to fame: publish a piece in an English newspaper or magazine in which you don’t just write, but rather proclaim that Yiddish is already extinct. If a young TV comedian pitches some messed-up Yiddish words, he becomes an instant celebrity—all the more so when he says that Yiddish was a jargon once spoken by the Jews. Having thrown this filthy stone into the the ever refreshing spring of Yiddish, the fellow feels that he’s really done something. In the pornographic book Portnoy’s Complaint, the shrewd author incorporated a dozen dirty adjectives that were supposed to demonstrate his knowledge of Yiddish. Instead he only exposed the pollution of the particular stream through which his own “Yiddish” words flow.

When such a young man—considered a “writer” in our time— throws a stone into our spring and his filthy words are in Yiddish…well then, as they say, not even ten sages could extricate that stone.

Among ourselves, we also have enough “experts” who “know” that Yiddish will soon be extinct. They arm themselves with statistics. They even give long, well-prepared Yiddish speeches about the sure demise of Yiddish and the hopeless destiny of Yiddish literature. But the essential outrage of this common sentiment is that the tossed Yiddish stone is now wrapped in English letters. Therefore, it is worth contemplating how Yiddish letters aroused Helena Frank’s great admiration for Jewish treasures. When she introduced Yiddish literature to the wider world, the reputation of Yiddish was raised to new heights. It would be worthwhile to perpetuate the name of Helena Frank with a biographical work — an honor to her memory, and an honor for the future of Yiddish literature.

Glatstein, Jacob. “Figures in Need of Rehabilitation: Helena Frank.” In geveb, November 2023: Trans. Aharon Varady. https://ingeveb.org/texts-and-translations/helena-frank.
Glatstein, Jacob. “Figures in Need of Rehabilitation: Helena Frank.” Translated by Aharon Varady. In geveb (November 2023): Accessed Jun 25, 2024.


Jacob Glatstein


Aharon Varady

Aharon Varady is the founding director and primary shammes of the Open Siddur Project. A community planner (University of Cincinnati/DAAP) and Jewish educator (JTSA/William Davidson School of Education), his work promoting open-source Judaism has been written about in the Yiddish Forverts, the Atlantic Magazine, and Haaretz.