Text & Translation

The Yiddish Life of Chaim Soutine (1893-1943): New Materials

Noah Pryłucki , Etel Tzukerman and Nochum Gelfand

Translation by Ofer Dynes


Most biographies of Chaim Soutine comment at some point on how impossible it is to write a biography of Chaim Soutine: “What sources do we have for writing about Soutine?” mused Michel LeBrun-Franzaroli ruefully, after decades of meticulous research following the footsteps of Soutine across France: “Leopold Zborowski, his art dealer… didn’t leave any archive, any financial account, any catalogue… Soutine himself hardly spoke, practically never wrote, and at any rate, didn’t say anything about his art.” The preface to the biographical note in Soutine’s Catalogue Raisonné conveys the same sense of frustration, albeit much more succinctly: “The artist left few personal papers and no records.” 1 1 This article is part of a larger series entitled Yiddish Montparnasse. See: Michel LeBrun-Franzaroli, Soutine L’homme et le Peintre (Paris, 2015), 3. Tuchman, Soutine, Dunow, Perls, (1993). Chaim Soutine (1893-1943): Catalogue raisonné = Werkverzeichnis. Köln: B. Tahen, 9.

The few letters of Soutine that have survived are prosaic in their content and laconic in their style. In 1964, Harvard University was able to purchase one of the most extensive collections of Soutine’s correspondence. The hopes were high: the collection contained 37 letters of Soutine, no less, addressed to Henri Sérouya (born Aharon Tsruya, 1895-1968), a renowned Kabbalah scholar who had claimed that Soutine’s paintings are troubling because they “are permeated with the vehemence of Jewish mysticism.” 2 2 Sérouya, H. (1933). Initiation à la philosophie contemporaine. Paris: La Renaissance du livre, 167. Sérouya published a book on Soutine in 1967, Soutine; Paris, Hachette, 1967. One cannot help wondering: Did Soutine agree with this statement? What kind of conversations did he and Sérouya hold on the subjects of Jewish Mysticism or French Modernism, considering that Sérouya was an expert on both? Disappointingly, the letters do not provide any clues. “Brief notes chiefly concerned with making or cancelling visits … most contain only a few lines” – this is how the dispirited Harvard cataloger described the content of the collection. 3 3 Parke-Bernet Galleries. (1964). Autographs & Documents: Anthony Wayne & Zachary Taylor letters, an important Susan B. Anthony archive, correspondence of Soutine and Chagall, American printed broadsides, newspapers, music & memorabilia, mostly from the Civil War: [property of] various owners, including estate of the late Philip H. Ward, Jr. … Henri Sérouya … Public Auction, Tuesday, September 22 [1964] … New York: Parke-Bernet Galleries. The letters were published in Soutine, C., Krebs, S., Mentha, H., Zimmer, N., & Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel. (2008). Soutine und die Moderne = Soutine and modernism. Basel] : Köln: Kunstmuseum Basel ; DuMont. 234-235. Henri Serouya published an introduction to Soutine’s art in his 1967 Soutine; Chef D’oeuvres de L’art: Grands Peintres. Paris:Hachette.

“Soutine’s life was hard, but his posterity has been almost as tragic,” wrote Maurice Tuchman, referring to the relative dearth of serious scholarship on the artist’s paintings. It appears that this statement extends to the scarcity of sources on Soutine’s life as well. 4 4 Tuchman, M. (1974). What is a Catalogue Raisonné? Art International,18(1), 12. Due to the lack of virtually anything written by Soutine that would shed light on his art, scholars have resorted to memoirs about Soutine. For instance, to explain Soutine’s obsession with painting dead animals, scholars routinely cited Soutine’s famous childhood recollection of witnessing the slaughter of goose, which the slaughterer conducted according to the Jewish ritual laws:

Once I saw a slaughterer cut the throat of a goose and bleed it out. I wanted to cry out, but his look of joy caught the cry in my throat. I always feel it there… It was this cry that I was trying to free. I never could. 5 5 The translation is cited from Carl, K. (2015). Chaïm Soutine. New York: Parkstone International, 79. Meisler presents this as Soutine’s actual quote. See: Meisler, S. (2015). Shocking Paris: Soutine, Chagall and the outsiders of Montparnasse (First ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

I will return to the content of this citation later in this introductory essay. At this point, I want to draw attention to its focalization. Contrary to the way in which this quote is presented in some of Soutine’s biographies, this is not Soutine’s voice. Rather, this is how Soutine’s friend, Emile Szittya, reported a conversation that had transpired decades earlier, in his 1955 memoire Soutine and his Time [Soutine et son temps]. In other words, all the citations scholars draw on when interpreting Soutine’s work are second and sometimes third-hand recollections of conversations he held with his friends. “Friends? He had no friends!” replied his daughter, Aimée, when a group of Soutine enthusiasts tried to form a Society of Friends after the war. She herself hardly knew her father, and her mother, Vera Debora Melnik, the only woman Soutine had ever legally wed, did not write about their marriage. This demonstrates how scarce and how valuable these personal recollections are of conversations with Soutine. 6 6 Aimee Soutine, “Soutine. mon père”. in: L’ Amateur d’Art. Nr. / no. 517. Beiheft / Supplement. Mai / May - September 1973. S. / pp. 13-16 and her short column in Paris-Match 3 (1966), 19

Luckily, some of this precious information about Soutine is hidden in plain sight. Since Yiddish was Soutine’s best language, as well as the best language of most of his Jewish friends and acquaintances in Paris, it is not surprising that some of these friends wrote notes and memoires in Yiddish, and occasionally also in Hebrew. It is surprising, though, that none of these sources have found their way to the scholarship on Soutine. 7 7 Compare for example Meisler’s Shocking Paris as well as Nadine Nieszawer’s (2016) Artistes Juifs et l’Ecole de Paris, Paris: Somogy. Despite focusing on the Eastern European Jewish aspect of the Paris School, both works do not contain a single Yiddish source.

As Leo Koenig argued as early as 1954, 8 8 Koenig, L. (1962). Yehudim ba-omanut ha-adashah. Tel Aviv: Devir.149-162. the relative lack of accounts on Soutine’s life from a Jewish perspective has created an imbalance as to how scholars understand the artist’s personal history. As a result, the biographies of Soutine overemphasize his relation with a circle of non-Jewish patrons, and have relatively less to say on Soutine’s relationship with his intimate circle of Paris-based Jewish painters. Moreover, the biographers who reached out to Soutine’s fellow Jewish artists often did so decades after these artists had shared their memories of Soutine in Yiddish and Hebrew publications. Some particularly unfortunate mistranslations of Yiddish idioms only highlight the different levels of cultural intimacy between the Yiddish and the French, and also how much was lost in translation. 9 9 Pierre Courthion, in his Soutine Peintre du Dechirant, based his account on conversations he had held with M. Faibisch Zafrin (Shraga Faibush Zarfin). When Zarfin typified Soutine as a typical litvak, a tseylem kop (literally: cross-head), a rational mind, Courthion explained this Yiddish idiom as an expression of the ethnic diversity in the Lithuanian lands. See: Soutine, Peintre Du Déchirant. (Lausanne: Edita: 1972), 11. To be sure, other scholars were significantly more sensitive to Jewish testimonies. For example, as early as 1945, Raymond Cogniat published a letter of Michel Kikoine on his friendship with Soutine in, stressing the importance of citing Kikoine’s letter in its entirety. See: Soutine (Paris: Editions du Chene: 1945), 29.

My goal is to showcase how vital Yiddish is for our understanding of Chaim Soutine’s biography as well as for our interpretation of his art. In what follows, I provide a translation of three Yiddish documents: The first is an account written by Noah Pryłucki, a Jewish journalist and intellectual, of a meeting with Soutine in Paris in 1924, printed in the Warsaw Yiddish daily Der Moment in 1930. The second is a letter that Etel Tzukerman, Soutine’s sister, wrote to her brother around 1935. The third document, an unpublished manuscript, contains the memoirs of Soutine’s childhood friend, Nochum Gelfand (1952), which was preserved at the YIVO archives. These sources represent only a small portion of the materials on Soutine available in Yiddish publications. In this respect, this article is also an invitation for an expansion of the dialogue between Yiddish scholars and art historians. 10 10 For a lengthy collection of Jewish anecdotes on Soutine, which, to the best of my knowledge, was not included in any of the scholarly publications on Soutine, see: Aronson, Chil. Bilder un geshtaltn fun monparnas. Pariz: [s.n.], 1963, particularly 128-148.

These Yiddish sources validate the scholarly consensus concerning Soutine’s indifference towards Jewish art. Soutine was invested in maintaining social relations with Jewish artists. At the same time, he did not partake in any creative collaboration under the banner of what might be called “Jewish Art.” At the La Roche studios for artists in Paris, for example, Soutine was known to sing a Yiddish melody, as a way to signal his Jewish identity to other Jewish artists, to encourage them to approach him. 11 11 See an interview with Mane Katz in: Frenkel, B. (1963). Miṭ yidishe ḳinsṭler : shmuesen un bamerḳungen (Miniaṭur-biblioṭeḳ ; 5-6). Pariz: Alv. Yidisher ḳulṭur ḳongres in Frankraykh, 122. He made meaningful relations with painters from Israel, and sent some of his paintings to be presented at the Jerusalem Museum. 12 12 See: “Ta’aruchat tsayarim yehudim mi-pariz”, Doar Hayom, April 17th 1936, 7. More generally on Soutine and Palestinian art see: Gideon Efrat, Ha-tsiyur ha-Israeli bi-shnot ha-shloshim: bein tel-aviv le-pariz,” in: Noa Tarshis (ed., Mane-Kats: Ukraina, Pariz, Erets Yisrael, (Haifa:2011), 189 He was also occasionally in touch with Yiddish writers Oyzer Varshavski and Sholem Asch, and showed interest in Sholem Aleichem’s prose. 13 13 On Soutine’s reading of Sholem Aleichem see: Hersh Fenster, Undzere farpaynikte kinstler (Paris, 1951), 150. In Mendel Mann’s The Self-Portrait [Der Oytoporṭreṭ], he shares a story told by Michel Kikoine (1892-1968). Kikoine and Soutine both met with a “famous Yiddish writer,” and the story, I believe, hints towards Sholem Asch, who first showed great enthusiasm towards Soutine’s work, only to dismiss the hungry Soutine when the latter showed up with a portrait of an old lady. Not particularly appreciative of Soutine’s taste for the grotesque, the author shouted from the stairs: “Do you want me to buy a portrait of a witch?”. See: Mann, Mendel. Der Oytoporṭreṭ. (Tel Aviv: Y.L. Perets), 1969, 112-118. There is also evidence of Soutine’s relations with Oyzer Varshavski. See: Spero, Ḳenig,. Yizkor bukh, tsum ondenk fun 14 umgekumene parizer yidishe shrayber. Pariz: Farlag “Oyfsnay,”, 1946, 91. On a photo which possibly documents a meeting of Soutine and Varshavski see: Michel LeBrun-Franzaroli, Soutine photographié, (Paris: 2018), 46-51. At the same time, he was not a member of the Jewish group active in La Roche known as the “machmadim” (Hebrew for “precious ones”), 14 14 Marek Szwarc, Mémoires entre deux mondes : racontées à sa femme, Eugenia Markowa (Coeuvres-et-Valsery: Ressouvenances: 2010) nor did he contribute to the London Yiddish art journal Renesans. 15 15Renesans (London, 1920). He also did not participate in the Yiddish Congress in Paris, 1937. One single testimony states that, after 1937, Soutine joined the Paris gallery of the Yiddish cultural organization YIKUF (Yidisher Kultur Farband). So far, I have not been able to locate additional supportive evidence. 16 16 Khil, Aronson, “Bagegenishen mit khana kovalska,” in: Yizker bukh, tsum ondenk fun 14 umgekumene parizer, (Paris: Oyfsney, 1946),199.

The translated texts presented here, however, nuance our understanding of Soutine’s Jewish subject positioning. Specifically, they demonstrate the artist’s ongoing relationship with Jewish Eastern Europe through the 1930s. These Yiddish sources highlight Soutine’s continuous relations with his family and with the world he left behind, an aspect that is basically absent from the French sources, and, as a result, from Soutine’s biographies. The Yiddish texts further articulate another channel that connected Soutine to Eastern Europe: the travels of Paris-based Jewish artists to Eastern Europe, and of Jewish artists and intellectuals based in Poland and Russia to Paris. Gelfand’s 1952 memoirs, for example, contain a rare account of how Soutine’s modernist work made its way back to Soutine’s hometown in the Soviet Union and how it was received by his family and childhood friends. Pryłucki’s article dramatizes how difficult it was for Soutine, who had left Russia for Paris in 1913, shortly before the dramatic spike in Eastern European Jewish artistic publications, to imagine the possibility of Jewish art connoisseurship in Eastern Europe. Pryłucki, his Eastern European interlocutor was, at the time, a delegate to the Polish parliament, a published art critic, and, finally, the proud owner of Soutine’s painting. Despite all that, Soutine’s inclination was to treat Pryłucki as a philistine. The letter Soutine’s sister, Etel, wrote to him in the 1930s may provide some kind of an explanation as to why Soutine had such a hard time associating Jewish Eastern Europe with interest in art. Soutine’s own desire to paint, his biographers told us, was heavily discouraged by his family. From Gelfand’s memoir we know that Soutine’s family was aware of his success to secure recognition as a painter. At the same time, his sister turns to him for help because of his financial success. Strikingly, she never mentions the fact that he is a painter.

Finally, I want to comment on the role of Yiddish in Soutine’s life. Yiddish was, to be sure, the language Soutine spoke in his family home, and most probably the language he spoke with his wife, Vera Debora Melnik. This was also presumably the language he spoke with his fellow Eastern European Jewish artists. Drawing on Yiddish sources brings us closer to these conversations and provides texture to these interactions, to the Yiddish dialect that he spoke to his gestures, to his style. 17 17 Yankev Kozlovski, “Yidishe kinstler fun lite,“ in: Lite vo.2 (editor: Ch. Leikowicz), 525-526.

In addition, the Yiddish sources reveal the Jewish conceptual world against which Soutine created his art. In this respect, it is worth mentioning the pioneering work of Avigdor Posèq, the first to draw attention to the role of Yiddish in what Posèq defines as a “psycho-iconographical” study of Soutine’s paintings, namely the reconstruction of Soutine’s inner world, the way it is reflected in his art. Posèq’s scholarship was not well received and his methodology was considered “passé by contemporary art historians.” 18 18 Vivian B. Mann, Review of: Baigell, Matthew., and Milly Heyd. Complex Identities: Jewish Consciousness and Modern Art. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001.in: Mendelsohn, and Mendelsohn, Ezra. Jews and the State: Dangerous Alliances and the Perils of Privilege. Studies in Contemporary Jewry ; 19. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2003, 284. Since Posèq’s insights on the Yiddish language draw on popular books authored by non-specialists, rather than on Yiddish dictionaries or linguistic studies, I suspect contemporary Yiddish scholars won’t be satisfied with his scholarship either. 19 19 For example, Poseq draws his insights on Yiddish semantics from a popular book: Feinsilver, Lillian Mermin. The Taste of Yiddish. (South Brunswick: T. Yoseloff), 1971. Nevertheless, his insights about Soutine and the Yiddish imaginary strike me as original and useful. Posèq’s argument is particularly convincing in relation to the artist’s still lifes, which, indeed, have the potential to call to the imagination an entire semantic field which combines halakhic regulations with the traditional Ashkenazi view of the animal world. For example, Posèq argues that Soutine’s celebrated portrayal of slaughtered animals can be decoded if one thinks about it in Yiddish terms. For Yiddish speakers, the word for a cadaver, neveyle, carries over the meaning of its homograph nevole, a disgrace. 20 20 Avigdor Posèq, Soutine: His Jewish Modality (Sussex, England: Book Guild, 2001), 203 In order to further substantiate Posèq’s argument, I suggest we turn to the reception of Soutine’s paintings in Yiddish. A close reading of these sources would help us examine to what extent these sensibilities were shared among the Jewish interpretive community. The inspiration for writing this essay was a visit to Soutine’s exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York, Flesh (May-September 2018), which featured the aforementioned still life paintings. I encourage the readers to browse these images in the website dedicated to the exhibition, and to think about the paintings in a Yiddish idiom. Soutine’s still lives are full of tsar bale khayim (compassion for animals’ suffering) – of nevelyes, pgorim (carcasses), and of animals whose startled look vi a hon in bne odem (the way the rooster looks at people) reminds us of the way roosters gaze at the world during the Yom Kippur’s prayer, without any understanding, as they are about to be slaughtered.

Click here to download these texts and translations.

Appendix [1]

Noah Pryłucki, “The Son of Zelig the Tailor from Smilovitch - One of the Most Famous Painters in Our Times”, Der Moment (July 11th 1930), Part 1. 21 21 Noyekh Pryłucki (1882–1941) was a Warsaw-based journalist, political leader, and Yiddish scholar. After the publication of this essay, Nochum Gelfand, Soutine’s childhood friend, contacted Pryłucki with some corrections and suggestions. In August 1930 Prilutsk responded with a request from Gelfand to write his recollections of Soutine. Gelfand did send a response. Nevertheless, the 1932 republication of this article in Moment does not contain any changes. For Gelfand’s postwar memoirs on Soutine, which he sent to Daniel Tsharny, see: appendix 2. Prylucki’s letter is published online in: Cohen, Nathan. 2010. Moment, Der. YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Momen… (accessed July 25, 2018).

סוטינס חבֿרים האָבן מיך אָנגעשטעקט מיט זײער גלױבן אין אים: ער איז מיר געפֿעלן געװאָרן, נאָך איידער כ׳האָב מיך מיט אים באַקענט — בלױז פֿון דעם אַלײן, װאָס מ׳האָט מיר װעגן אים אָנדערצײלט. און בשעת אין מערץ 1924 האָט מיר אײנער אַ זאַמלער אין פּאַריז אָנגעשלאָגן אָפּצוקױפֿן בײַ אים סוטינס אַ געמעל, פֿון װעלכן ער האָט, קענטיק, שטאַרק חשק געהאַט פּטור צו װערן, האָב איך אים באַלד אױפֿגעכאַפּט װי אַן אבֿן־טובֿ...

… Soutine’s friends infected me with their faith in him. I liked him even before we met, just from the things people were telling me about him. And when, in March 1924, a Parisian collector offered me the chance to purchase from him one of Soutine’s paintings, (one) that he wanted to get rid of badly, I snatched up this artwork as if it was a gemstone….

אין אַ יאָר אַרום הער איך אין דער „ראָטאָנדע“ די סענסאַציע, אַז סוטין איז אין פּאַריז, און אַז מ׳װעט אים באַלד זען אין קאַפֿע. עס ברעכט אױס אַ טאַראַראַם, װען ער באַװײַזט זיך נאָר אין דער טיר, און דאָס געפּילדער װערט נאָך מער רעשדיק, װען די חבֿרים, װאָס רינגלען אים תּיכּף אַרום, באַמערקן, אַז ער טראָגט נײַע, רײנע מלבושים.

אַ טיפּישער ישיבֿה־בחור — הן אין פּערזענלעכן אױסזען, הן אין הולך. [...]

A year later, while I’m in Café de la “Rotonde”, news broke that Soutine is in Paris, and he is on his way to the café. As soon as he shows up at the door, an uproar breaks out, and the commotion intensifies when the friends who circle him notice that he is wearing new, clean clothes.

A typical yeshiva student—both in his looks as well as in the way he dresses [ … ].

גענוג צו װאַרפֿן אַ בליק אױף אים, און דו װײסט: ס׳איז אַ מענטש נישט פֿון דער װעלט, אַ פֿאַנאַטיקער אין זײַן גבֿול און אױף זײַן שטײגער אַ געריבענער יונג, — פֿון יענע שעמעװדיק־קלוגע חבֿרה־לײַט, װאָס האָבן ניט קײן צוטרױ צו מענטשן פֿון אַן אַנדער קרײַז, הערן זײערע „יאָלדישע“ רײד מיט אַן איראָנישן בליץ אין די זײַדענע שװאַרצאַפּלען און האָבן ליב הינטערװײַלעכץ זײ צו נעמען אויפֿן צימבל פֿון חוזק.

מיר באַקענען זיך.

— איר האָט אַװדאי ליב סוזשעט? — פֿאַרפֿאָרט ער מיר גלײַך גנבֿיש־שטעכעדיק און צו גלײַך שעמעװדיק־געמיטלעך, און די ערשטע עטלעכע מינוט פֿון שמועס פּרוּווט ער כּסדר מיך אַרױפֿצופֿירן אױף אַ גליטש. ער האָט, משמעות, ממזריש הנאה פֿון דער פּערספּעקטיװ, צו קענען טרײַבן אַ ביסל ראַפֿינירט לצנות.

אױסטאַפּנדיק אַזױ אַרום דאָס פֿעלד און איבערצײַגנדיק זיך, אַז קײן פּורים־שפּיל װעט זיך דאָ ניט אײַנגעבן, װאַרפֿט ער אַװעק דעם שפּיצעכיקן טאָן און װערט ערנסט און פֿאַרטרױלעך. הייבט אָן צו רעדן װעגן דעם, װאָס עגבערט אים אינעװײניק, זעט אױס — נישט פֿון נעכטן אָן.

— קונסט — דאָס איז אמת. בלױז דער אמת איז קונסט. אָבער װי שװער איז אים צו דערגרייכן! דער װעג ליגט דורך דער פֿאַרב. מאָלערײַ דאָס זענען צום אַלעם ערשטן פֿאַרבן, נאָר דעם חוש פֿאַר זײ פֿאַרמאָגן בלױז יענע גליקלעכע, װאָס זענען געבױרן געװאָרן אונטערן טיף בלאָען פֿראַנצייזישן הימל. מ׳דאַרף זײַן אַ פֿראַנצױז פֿון דער מאַמעס בױך — אױף צו קענען מאָלן...

It’s enough to look at him for a second, and you know, that this is not a man of this world. He is devoted to his field, and is, in his own style, a cunning young man—one of those shy and smart fellows, who don’t trust people from other social circles. When they hear the foolish talk of these people, an ironic sparkle lights their eyes, and they enjoy ridiculing them behind their backs.

We make each other’s acquaintance. “You are probably a big fan of Sujet?” He strikes up a conversation with me right away with a mischievous jab which is, at the same time, bashful, and in the first few minutes of the conversation he constantly tries to trip me up. He likely takes a sly joy from the prospects of making some sophisticated joke. 22 22 My understanding is that Soutine made fun of Pryłucki, pretending that Sujet is a name of a painter (like Monet or Manet). Karolina Szymaniak suggested that this is a reference to Jewish subjects in arts. Sunny Yudkoff suggested that this is a reference to representational art, as opposed to abstract art.

After he tests the waters and realizes he won’t be able to pull off a hoax, he throws away the thorny tone and becomes serious and trustful. He starts talking about himself, the things that have been worrying him, so it seems, for some time.

Art—this is truth, only truth is art. But how difficult it is to achieve! The way is through color. Painting is above all about color. But only the lucky ones, born under the deep blue French sky have an instinct for color. You have to be a Frenchmen from your mother’s womb, to know how to paint.

[...] סוטין רעדט מיט אָפּגעריסענע קאָנדענסירטע פֿראַזן, װאָס זענען געמינצט װי אַפֿאָריזמען. ער זאָגט אַרױס אײגנס, אַלײן דורכגעטראַכט און דורכגעװײטאָגט.

איך באַדױער זייער, װען ער הײבט זיך אױף אַװעקצוגײן. ער פֿאַרענטפֿערט זיך: ער איז ערשט הײַנט געקומען צו פֿאָרן און האָט נאָך ניט קײן נאַכטלעגער. אין האַנט בײַ אים, װען ער נעמט אַרױס פֿון קעשענע דאָס גאַנצע ביסל מזומנים, מאַכנדיק אַ פּרוּװ צו באַצאָלן פֿאַרן װײַן, מיט װעלכן איך האָב אים טראַקטירט, דערזע איך אַ גײַפֿל קופּערנע מטבעות, װאָס קלעקן זיכער נישט אױף צו נעמען אַ צימער אין אַ האָטעל.

בײַם געזעגענען זיך, בייגט ער זיך אָן און גיט אַ זאָג שעלמיש (און אפֿשר גאָר נישט אױף קאַטאָװעס?):

— איר מײנט, איך קען מאָלן? ס׳הייבט זיך נישט אָן!...

[ … ] He speaks with curt, condensed sentences, coined like aphorisms. He speaks his mind, things that he experienced, and were plaguing and preoccupying him. 23 23 Compare Michel Kikoine letter to Raymond Cogniat in: Soutine (Paris: Editions du Chene, 1945), 29: “Soutine, and actually, all of us, were preoccupied by another drama. Being exiled Jewish painters in a strange land meant that we did not have a (Jewish) visual art history, but only that of the adoptive country, which we couldn’t counter-balance.”

I am very sorry, when he gets up to leave. He excuses himself: He has just arrived, and doesn’t have a lodging for the night yet. In his hand, which he takes out of his pocket, in an attempt to pay for the wine I ordered for him, I see a few copper coins—all the cash he has— definitely not enough to rent a room in a hotel.

When we are about to bid farewell, he stoops and says impishly (or maybe in all seriousness?):

“Do you think I can paint? Not at all!”

Appendix [2]

Etel Tzukerman (Soutine), Letter to Chaim Soutine, [1935] 24 24 Reproduced in Nicoïdski, Clarisse. Soutine, ou la profanation. 1993, 267-268. The French translation (pages 200-201) is fragmentary and full of omissions. Chaim Soutine’s father died in 1932, hence Etel Tzukerman wrote the letter around 1935. She died a year later, in 1936. Soutine’s mother passed away in 1938. Soutine’s niece, Nachama (Nina), and his brother-in-law, Sholem Tzukerman - both mentioned in this letter - survived the war. Nechama (Nina) Ferapontova currently lives in Minsk. Other relatives immigrated to the US. For additional information based on an interview with Nechama (Nina) Ferapontova, see: http://soutine-smilovichi.by/excursion/etapi-jizni… and http://zviazda.by/be/news/20150519/1431983649-bezumec-geniy.

מײַן ליבער ברודער חיים־יצחק סוטין!

איך דײַן ייִנגסטע שוועסטער עטל שרײַב דיר אַ גרוס. איך ווינטש דיר פֿיל גליק אין דײַן לעבן. איך און מײַן ליבער מאַן און אונדזער ליבע טאָכטערל נחמהלע געפֿינען זיך צוזאַמען מיט אונדזער מוטער. ביז איצט, טײַערער ברודער, האָבן מיר געלעבט זייער עלנט. אונדזער פֿאָטער איז שוין טויט 3 יאָר. 2 יאָר אַז אונדזער ברודער יאַנקל איז געשטאָרבן. מיר זײַנען געווען פּינקטלעך ווי בלודנע שעפּסן אויף דער גרויסער וועלט. יעצט, טײַערער ברודער, ביסטו דו פּונקט ווי אַ שטראַל פֿון דער זון, ערלײַכטסט אונדזער פֿינצטערן לעבן. דו האָסט אונדז געמאַכט ליכטיק אין יעדער ווינקעלע. דער געדאַנק וועגן דיר, טײַערער ברודער, גיט אונדז פֿיל מוט צום לעבן. מיר באַדאַנקען דיר, טײַערער ברודער, פֿאַר דײַן מתּנה וואָס דו האָסט אונדז געשיקט. די מוטער האָט אונדז אויך געגעבן צו עטלעכע פֿראַנק. ליבער ברודער, איך זעלבסט בין אַ שוואַכער מענטש, איך האָב אין זיך, ניט פֿאַר דיר געדאַכט, אַ שלעכטן פֿעלער – אַ צוקער־קראַנקייט. דאָס איז אַ פֿעלער וואָס מע קען זיך ניט אויסקורירן. נאָר איך דאַרף האָבן אַ שטרענגע דיעטע. ביז איצט האָב איך דאָס ניט געקענט ערווײַזן ווײַל מיר לעבן זייער אָרעם. נאָר יעצט, טײַערער ברודער, אַז די מוטער האָט מיר געגעבן עטלעכע פֿראַנק, קען שוין עטוואָס אונטערהאַלטן מײַן קראַנקן לעבן. יעצט, ליבער ברודער, האָף איך נאָר צו דיר. איך ווענד זיך צו דיר ווי צו אַ רעטער. קיין אַנדער אויסוועג האָב איך ניט. איך בעט דיר, טײַערער ברודער, אַז דו זאָלסט מיר אַנטשולדיקן וואָס איך ריר דיר אויף אַזוי פֿיל אָן נאָר מײַן לאַגע ברענגט מיט אַז איך מוז זיך מיט דיר אַלעס טיילן — ווער איז נאָך נענטער ווי אַ ברודער? נאָר דו, מײַן טײַערער, קענסט זײַן מײַן רעטער. אונדזער איינציקע טאָכטערל איז נעבעך פֿאַרוואָרפֿן. איך קוק אויף איר זייער ווינציק ווײַל איך בין אַליין זייער שוואַך. זי איז בײַ מיר ציטעריק ווײַל פֿון 5 איז זי בײַ מיר געבליבן איינע, זאָל זי שוין זײַן בײַ אונדז אויף לאַנגע יאָר. ליבער ברודער, עס איז מיר אַפֿילו זייער שווער צו בעטן דיר נאָר איך בעט, אויב עס איז נאָר מעגלעך אַז דו זאָלסט מיר אויסהעלפֿן אין עטלעכע פֿראַנק, טאָ העלף מיר. אין מײַן גאַנצן צוקונפֿטיקן לעבן וועל איך שטענדיק זאָגן אַז דו ביסט געווען מײַן רעטער. אַדיע. פֿאַרבלײַב געזונט ווי עס ווינטשט דיר דײַן שוועסטער עטל צוקערמאַן. מײַן מאַן און אונדזער טאָכטערל גריסן דיר האַרצלעך. זײַ געזונט.

My dear brother Chaim-Itzhak Soutine,

I, your youngest sister, Etel, write you a greeting and wish you happiness in life.
I, together with my beloved husband and my daughter Nekhomele, am with our mother. Until now, dear brother, we have been living miserably. Our father has been dead for three years. It has been two years since our brother Yankel passed away. We are like lost sheep in the great world. Now, dear brother, you are like a ray of sunshine—lightening up our dark lives. You turned on the light, and every time we think about you, it gives us the courage to live. We thank you, dear brother, for the present that you have sent us. Mother also gave us a few francs. Dear brother, I myself am a weak person, I have a serious condition: it’s called diabetes. It’s incurable, and I must keep a strict diet. Until now I was not able to do that, because we live very poorly. But now, dear brother, as mother gave me a few francs, I have some kind of support for my sickness.

Now, dear brother, I am turning to you to save us, as I have no other recourse. Please forgive me that I bother you so much, but it has come to a point that I must share everything with you—who can be closer than a brother? Only you, my dear, can be my savior. Our daughter is neglected, I rarely look out for her because I am always too weak. She is especially dear to me, since for five (children) she is the only one who survived, may she live for many years. Dear brother, it is very difficult for me to ask, but I ask you nevertheless if you can please help us with a few francs, in all my future life I will always say that you were my savior. I wish you health, your sister Etel Tzukerman. My husband and daughter send their regards.

Appendix [3]
Nochum Gelfand, Letter to Daniel Tsharny

אין מײַן פֿאָריקן בריוו צו אײַך, ליבער פֿרײַנד, האָב איך אײַך צוגעזאָגט צו שרײַבן וואָס וועגן מײַן לאַנדסמאַן און שול־חבֿר, דעם פֿאַרשטאָרבענעם קונסטמאָלער חיים סוטין. איך וואָלט באמת געדאַרפֿט מיט אײַך זיצן אַ לענגערע צײַט און אײַך איבערגעבן מײַנע זכרונות וועגן אים. אָבער ביז יענער צײַט (און איך האָף אַז דאָס וועט איה״ש אין דער נאָענטער צוקונפֿט געשען) וועל איך אײַך איבערגעבן כאָטש אייניקע עפּיזאָדן פֿון אים. צום ערשט אַ באַמערקונג וועגן זײַן ביאָגראַפֿיע. איך ווייס ניט פֿון וואַנען עס נעמען זיך די פֿילע אומפּינקטלעכקייטן וואָס פֿילע שרײַבער האָבן געמאַכט וועגן זײַן לעבנס־ביאָגראַפֿיע. אַפֿילו דער קדוש נח פּרילוצקי ע״ה הי״ד ווען ער האָט מיט 22 יאָר צוריק געשריבן וועגן אים אין 2 נומערן פֿון ״מאָמענט״, האָט געמאַכט אַ טעות אין סוטינס ביאָגראַפֿיע און איך האָב אים אויפֿמערקזאַם געמאַכט אויף דעם און צוגעשיקט אים מאַטעריאַל (אויף זײַן פֿאַרלאַנג, ווי איר וועט זען אין דעם בײַגעלייגטן בריוו זײַנעם דאָ צו אײַך) וועלכע איך האָב געהאַט אַלס נאָענטער חבֿר זײַנער. זײַן פֿאָטער האָט ניט געהייסן שלמה דער שנײַדער ווי עס ווערט געזאָגט אין אײַער צוגעשיקטן אויסשניט פֿון אַרגענטינער ״די פּרעסע״ פֿון יעקבֿ באָטאָשאַנסקי, אויך האָט ער ניט געהייסן זעליג דער שנײַדער ווי נח פּרילוצקי האָט געשריבן, נאָר זלמן, אָדער ווי מען האָט אים גערופֿן בײַ אונדז אין סמילאָוויץ זלמנקע דער שנײַדער. ער, חיים סוטין (אָדער חיים־איציע ווי מיר אַלע פֿלעגן אים רופֿן), איז ניט געווען דאָס 8טע קינד בײַ זײַנע עלטערן ווי יעקבֿ באָטאָשאַנסקי גיט איבער און אויך ניט דאָס 11טע קינד […]. זײַן פֿאָטער זלמן סוטין האָט אים געבוירן פֿון זײַן צווייטער פֿרוי שׂרהן אין יאָר 1893. אַזוי דאַכט מיר האָט אויך געשריבן ש. גאָרעקליק אין אַ קליינעם רעפּראָדוקציע־זשורנאַל, אויב איך מאַך ניט קיין טעות, אין פּאַריז, אין דער ״רענעסאַנס״־אויסגאַבע מיט אַ וועלכע 25 יאָר צוריק. איך האָב געקויפֿט אין וואַרשע 2 עקזעמפּלאַרן פֿון דער אויסגאַבע, איינער אָפּגעשיקט אַהיים קיין סמילאָוויץ און באַקומען אַן ענטפֿער פֿון מײַן ייִנגערן ברודער אַז דאָס איז געווען אַ גרויס סורפּרײַז אין שטעטל לייענדיק וואָס פֿון דעם ניט איבעריק קלוגן חיים־איציען איז געוואָרן אין דער קינסטלערישער וועלט. אַ צווייטע קאָפּיע האָב איך איבערגעגעבן צו זײַן ייִנגערן ברודער גדליהן, וועלכער איז דאַן אַנטלאָפֿן פֿון רוסלאַנד מיט נאָך ישיבֿה־בחורים און זיך געהיילט אין אָטוואָצק, און וועלכן איך האָב אַ פּאָר מאָל באַזוכט און אים אויפֿמערקזאַם געמאַכט אַז אַ גרויסער קונסטמאָלער שוואַרץ, וועלכער איז פֿון פּאַריז געקומען אויף אַן אויסשטעלונג מיט זײַנע בילדער קיין פּוילן, האָט אין אַן אינטערוויו מיט אַ מיטאַרבעטער פֿון וואַרשעווער ״הײַנט״ געזאָגט אַז חיים סוטין רעכנט זיך צווישן די 3 גרעסטע פּאַריזער קונסטמאָלער. זײַן ברודער גדליה ווי אויך זײַן גאַנץ פֿאַמיליע אין סמילאָוויץ האָבן אים שוין געהאַלטן אַלס טויט ווײַל ער האָט פֿון זיי קיינעם ניט געוואָלט וויסן… און ווען גדליה איז אַרײַנגעפֿאָרן פֿון אָטוואָצק קיין וואַרשע צו זען זיך מיט שוואַרצן האָט שוואַרץ ניט געגלייבט אַז ער איז זײַנער אַ ברודער, ווײַל ער איז געגאַנגען אָפּגעריסן און ניט שטאַרק דערנערט, האָט ער געזאָגט אַז „ווען עס איז אמת אַז חיים סוטין איז דײַן ברודער, וואָלט ער דיר ניט געלאָזן אַזוי אָרעם גיין געקליידט, און מיט איין טאָג מאָלן ווען ער גיט אַוועק פֿאַר דיר וואָלטסטו בכּבֿוד אַ גאַנץ יאָר זיך אויסהאַלטן“... דאָך האָט ער אים געגעבן $20 מיט דעם געדאַנק אַז ח. סוטין וועט עס אים צוריקגעבן קומענדיק צוריק קיין פּאַריז. מיט דער ערשטער פֿרוי האָט זײַן פֿאָטער געהאַט אַ זון משהקע, וועלכער איז מיט עטלעכע יאָר צוריק דאָ געשטאָרבן, און אויך אַ טאָכטער מירקע. זי איז אויך דאָ אין בראָנקס געשטאָרבן מיט עטלעכע יאָר צוריק. מיט דער 2טער פֿרוי שׂרהן האָט ער געהאַט נאָך 4 זין – גרשון, חיים־איציע, יאַנקל און גדליה, ווי אויך 2 טעכטער – ציפּע (געשטאָרבן דאָ אין בראָנקס) און איטקע־פֿריידע. פֿון דער איטקע־פֿריידעס אַ טאָכטער האָב איך באַקומען (מיט אַ וועלכע 5 יאָר צוריק) אַ בריוו, אַז איך זאָל דאָ אויסגעפֿינען אירע טאַנטעס און קוזינס, ווײַל זי איז די איינציק פֿאַרבליבענע קינד געבליבן לעבן פֿון דער גרויסער וועלט־שׂרפֿה, אירע עלטערן און אַלע אירע ברידער און שוועסטער זײַנען אויסגעשטאָרבן פֿון הונגער טיף אין רוסלנאַד, וווּהין זיי זײַנען אַנטלאָפֿן פֿון די נאַציס. עס געפֿינען זיך נאָך דאָ חיימס פּלימעניקעס און אויך קוזינס מיט וועלכע איך טרעף זיך אַ מאָל אויף אַ סמילאָוויצער מיטינג, און איינער פֿון זיי ,עקיבֿא פֿלאַקס, האָט אַפֿילו אים באַזוכט מיט יאָרן צוריק, ווען ער איז געווען אין פּאַריז. עד־כּאַן פּרשה סוטין.

In my previous letter to you, I promised to write about my countryman and schoolmate, the artist Chaim Soutine. Really, we should meet so I can spend a long time sharing my memories of him, but, until that happens (and I hope this will happen in the near future), I will share a few episodes of his life. First, a comment on his biography. I have no idea why so many writers provide such an incredibly inaccurate biography of his. Even Noah Pryłucki, who, twenty two years ago, wrote about him in two issues of Moment, 25 25 See appendix (1) had made a mistake in Soutine’s biography, and I drew his attention and I sent him materials (following his suggestion, as you will see in the appended letter), which I had as a close friend of Soutine’s. His father’s name was not Shloyme the tailor, as Yankev Botoshanski wrote in the clipping from the Argentinian “Di Presse” that you had sent me, nor Selig the tailor, as Noyekh Prylucki wrote, but Zalmen, or we used to call him in Smilovits, Zalmanke der Shnayder. And Chaim Soutine (or Chaim-Itsye as we used to call him), was not the eighth child … or the eleventh… He was the son of Zalman Soutine from his second marriage to Sore, born in 1893. Gorelik, I believe, already wrote this in a small journal of reproductions, if I am not mistaken, which was published in Paris in the “Renaissance” publishing house, some twenty-five years ago. 26 26 Waldemar George. Ḥayim suṭin. yidn-kinstler-monografyes. Paris: Éditions Le Triangle, 1928. The bibliographical information Gelfand provides from memory is wrong. More on Le Triangle in Aronson, Bilder un Geshtaltn, 37-39. I purchased two copies in Warsaw of that publication, and sent them home to Smilovitch and received the answer from my brother that this was a great surprise in the shtetl. People were surprised to read what had become of the not-especially-clever Chaim-Itsye in the art world. I sent the other copy to his younger brother Gedalye, who then escaped from Russia with other yeshiva students and was recuperating in Otwock, and whom I visited a couple of times. I also told him that the great painter (Marek) Szwarc, who came from Paris for an exhibition with his paintings, in an interview with the Warsaw (daily) Haynt, said that Chaim Soutine was one of the three greatest painters in Paris. 27 27 See Marek Szwarc’s memoir, Entre Deux Mondes (note 14). His brother Gedalye as well as the rest of the Smilovitch family were convinced that Chaim was dead, because he had not kept in contact. When Gedalye travelled from Otwock to Warsaw to meet Szwarc, Szwarc couldn’t believe that this was his brother, because he was going around in rags, malnourished. Szwarc said, if it’s true that Chaim Soutine is your brother he wouldn’t have allowed you to be dressed so poorly, and with one day of drawing, he could have provided for you for a whole year.Nevertheless he gave him $20 on the assumption that Chaim Soutine would give it back to him in Paris. With the first wife, his father had a son called Moyshke, who died here a few years ago, and also a daughter, Mirke, who also died here in the Bronx a few years ago. With the second wife Soreh, he had four more sons: Gershn, Khayem Itsye, Yankl, and Gedalye, and two daughters, Tzipe, (died in the Bronx), and Itke-Friede. 28 28 Itke-Freyde is the full Jewish name of the aforementioned Etel, the writer of the letter translated in appendix (2). About five years ago I received a letter from Itke Friede’s daughter, asking me to help her find her aunts and cousins, because she is the only child to survive the great conflagration that engulfed the earth (the Holocaust – OD). Her parents and brothers and sisters died from hunger deep in Russia, where they had fled the Nazis. There are also a nephews and her cousin with whom I meet from time to time at the reunions of people from Smilovitz, one of them, Akiva Flaks, had even visited Chaim Soutine years ago, when he was in Paris. That’s all for now about Soutine.

Noah Pryłucki, Etel Tzukerman , and Nochum Gelfand . “The Yiddish Life of Chaim Soutine (1893-1943): New Materials.” In geveb, April 2020: Trans. Ofer Dynes . https://ingeveb.org/texts-and-translations/life-of-soutine.
Noah Pryłucki, Etel Tzukerman , and Nochum Gelfand . “The Yiddish Life of Chaim Soutine (1893-1943): New Materials.” Translated by Ofer Dynes . In geveb (April 2020): Accessed Oct 24, 2020.


Noah Pryłucki
Etel Tzukerman
Nochum Gelfand


Ofer Dynes

Ofer Dynes is an Assistant Professor of Yiddish Studies and East European Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He currently serves as the head of the Program of Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture.