CanLit does YiddishLit
As fewer people around the world are speaking the Yiddish language, a rich history of Yiddish literature is in jeopardy.
February 14th, 2021
A small loosely-knit group, the Vancouver School of Yiddish translators has come together to remedy the loss of their culture’s literary treasures.
One of the impacts of the Holocaust is that it hastened the devolution of the Yiddish language. Approximately 85 percent of the Jews who died in the Holocaust could speak Yiddish.
The monolingual stance of the Zionist movement further generated the modern dominance of Hebrew over Yiddish as the most common tongue of Israel.
There are perhaps less than 2 million speakers of Yiddish speakers remaining, whereas there were approximately 11 to 13 million Yiddish speakers prior to World War II.
The rich history of Yiddish literature is therefore in jeopardy, soon to be overlooked and ultimately forgotten, unless retrieval and revival actions are taken. This has led to the creation of the loosely-knit Vancouver School of Yiddish translators that includes Rachel Mines, Seymour Levitan, Helen Mintz and Faith Jones.
As a translator of Yiddish, Rachel Mines has concentrated on disseminating, into English, the stories of Jonah Rosenfeld, a major literary figure and frequent contributor to the Yiddish-language newspaper Forverts in the United States from the 1920s to the mid-1930s.
Mines’ translation from the Yiddish of nineteen stories by Rosenfeld, The Rivals and Other Stories (Syracuse University Press, 2020), showcases Rosenfeld’s dark, Chekhovian style that foregrounds loneliness, social anxiety and people’s frustrated longing for meaningful relationships.
“Today, Rosenfeld is almost entirely unknown since he wrote only in Yiddish,” says Mines. Only a handful of his short stories were previously translated into English, and none of his plays or longer works.
Born in Chartorisk, in Ukraine, in 1882, Jonah Rosenfeld had a traditional Jewish education until age 13 when his parents died of cholera. His brothers sent him to Odessa where he was obliged to apprentice as a lathe worker and worked in that trade for ten years. In 1904, at age 23, he published his first short story on his artisan life. Thereafter he devoted himself to writing, immigrating to New York in 1921 as a self-described “Yiddish Maxim Gorky.”
One of his plays, The Rivals, was a hit at the Yiddish Art Theatre in New York in 1922. He became a long-time editorial staff member of the Jewish Daily Forward. After a seven-year battle with stomach cancer, he died at the age of 64 in 1944.
According to Mines, pessimism about family life is typical of Rosenfeld. “Family members show little tenderness or love for another,” she says. “His poverty-stricken childhood and his unhappy youth as an orphan inspired his literary focus on the more negative aspects of human psychology.”
She notes that most of his stories share common themes of family dysfunction, alienation, loss of tradition, disappointment and death. In one of his highly absorbing but chilling tales, ‘The Four,’ a mother has no compunction about offering her ten-year-old daughter to her lodger, Rabinovich, in exchange for the small gifts he brings the family and the rent he pays.
It’s not giving away too much to say that several stories, such as ‘The Lodger,’ culminate in tragedy, including suicide. The final paragraph of ‘What Happened to the Old Man’ is typical. “When the old man’s daughter came into the shed early that morning, she found him lifeless on the ground. Lying next to him was a dead goose.”
In ‘Reb Dovid,’ when a hard-working young woman, invisibilized by her father and brothers, disappointed in love, feels drawn to a bridge she imagines herself as a character in a story. “She jumped into the river without a moment’s hesitation… Resolutely, she sank to the bottom.”
Disconsolate, having foolishly yearned two years for the love of woman beyond his station, who never knew his feelings, the protagonist in ‘A Fleeting Romance’ has only one comfort — no one ever knew.
I guess you could also say I was attracted to Rosenfeld’s stories,” says Mines, “because his insights into the darker corners of human psychology appeal to some of my own ways of thinking as a child of survivors. I am interested in why people think and act the way they do, even when those thoughts and actions are harmful.”
Rachel Mines will be one of the sixty featured authors in Alan Twigg’s Out of Hiding: The Holocaust Literature of British Columbia (Ronsdale Press).
Both of Rachel Mines’ parents were Holocaust survivors who spoke Yiddish at home. After her mother was born in Montreal in 1924, her parents split up and Mines’ maternal grandmother returned to Latvia with Rachel’s mother, Jennie Lifshitz. Her mother was in the Liepaja (Latvia) ghetto, Kaiserwald (in Riga, Latvia) and Stutthof (near Gdansk, Poland), along with several sub-camps. She came to B.C. in 1953. Rachel Mines has recalled her mother’s life for Canadian Jewish Studies.
“In 2007, I visited Latvia where I met my mother’s cousin, who had survived the Holocaust with my mother in some of the same camps. Meeting Bella inspired me to start studying Yiddish, and it was my Yiddish studies that led me to translation and Rosenfeld’s stories and to Holocaust memorialization in general.”
Simultaneously, Rachel Mines has been involved in Holocaust education and outreach in Skuodas, Lithuania, where her father was born and raised. Between 30% and 50% of the town’s population were Jewish prior to the Nazi occupation in June of 1941. Most of Skuodas’s Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. The once thriving Jewish community has one cemetery memorial and three Holocaust memorials dedicated to the murdered Jews of Shkud (the town’s Yiddish name).
While an instructor at Langara College, Rachel Mines also created, coordinated and taught the “Writing Lives: The Holocaust Survivor Memoir Project.” This was a second-year, two-semester course that teamed Langara students with local Holocaust survivors to help them create written memoirs of their wartime experiences. The program has since been extended to First Nations survivors of residential schools.
Born and raised in Vancouver, Rachel Mines received her Ph.D. in English from King’s College, University of London in 2000 as a specialist in Old English language and poetry but has since realized “the world is not crying out for specialists in Old English poetic meter.” She was a Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow in 2016.
Her fellow Yiddish translator Helen Mintz has revived Abraham Karpinovitch’s stories memorializing the pre-war Jewish community of Vilnius, Lithuania, for Vilna, My Vilna (Syracuse University Press 2016). Faith Jones has translated The Acrobat: Selected Poems of Celia Dropkin (New World Translation Series, Tebot Bach 2014). Seymour Levitan received the 1988 Robert Payne Award of the Translation Center at Columbia University for his translation of Paper Roses, a posthumous poetry collection by Rachel Korn, one of Canada’s most important Yiddish writers. He has also translated Yiddish author Rokhl Auerbach’s autobiographical A Soup Kitchen in the Warsaw Ghetto.
The Rivals and Other Stories (Syracuse Univ. Press 2020) Translation from the Yiddish. Original stories by Jonah Rosenfeld. $24.95 9780815611202.
PHOTO: Rachel Mines’ mother Jennie Lifshitz in Montreal in 1946.