Texts & 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 (18931943): 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 (18921968). 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.

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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 Apr 22, 2024.


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.