Translated by Sarah Prais
Helene Khatskels was an extraordinary Yiddish educator, author and translator. A life-long socialist, she fought to secure Jewish national rights in the diaspora, and was a leading figure in the Bund, involved in smuggling books and other undercover activities and was eventually arrested by the Tsarist authorities.
After Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, Khatskels traveled to Moscow to advocate for the restoration of the Yiddish secular school system in Lithuania. She was evacuated to the Soviet Union during World War II and returned to Kovno in early 1945, becoming the director of the kindergarten in the newly founded Yiddish school and orphanage, and in 1946 was awarded the highest Soviet award given to civilians, the Order of Lenin for her work. In 1950, Khatskels’s school, the last Yiddish school in the Soviet Union, was closed, and she died on January 26, 1973 in Kovno.
Khatskel wrote several Yiddish adaptations of popular children’s novels from the West. The text below is the first chapter of Di zilberne glitshers, published in Vilna in 1939. It was based on the American Mary Mapes Dodge’s page children’s novel, first published in 1865, Khatskels’s reworked it into a shorter Yiddish children’s story and travelogue, set in Holland.
IT IS A FINE early winter’s morning. On the bank of a frozen canal in Holland a boy and a girl sit facing each other. They are dressed shabbily and they are both preoccupied with something.
The sun has not risen yet, but one side of the sky is a purplish-red.
The Dutch are still asleep.
Soon a young peasant girl appears. She is carrying a basket on her head. She is on skates and glides nimbly across the ice. A chubby boy runs towards her, greeting her very warmly.
But what are the two children sitting on the canal bank doing? Why are they bent over?
They are holding something in their hands, small blocks of wood with little holes. Straps are threaded through the holes. Are these ice skates? Yes, of course. Their mother is very poor and cannot buy them real skates. They made have themselves wooden skates.
Look, the boy has tied the piece of wood to his feet! He gets up and skates away across the ice.
His little sister, several years younger than him, cannot stand up on her skates. Yesterday she scuffed her foot with the straps, now she cannot tie them. She wants to tie them above the place where she hurt herself, but the straps are too short.
Hans wants to glide further and further across the ice, but his sister asks him to help her tie the straps. He comes to her and wonders why she is wearing those old, heavy shoes. Then he remembers that their father threw Gretel’s new shoes into the fire. Hans feels sorry for his little sister; he bends over and ties the straps for her, so that her feet won’t hurt her.
He takes off his cap and pulls out the lining. He makes a kind of pad from the lining, and places it under the lower shoe straps.
In an instant Hans and Gretel are holding hands and flying happily across the ice.
Hans stumbles into something rough and stretches himself out on the ice, how long he is! Gretel runs on laughing. She is as light and nimble as a bird. Hans cannot catch her so quickly. She circles back to him and he grabs her.
She teases him gently, “You couldn’t catch me – I caught you!”
In the meantime the sun has come up. The air has become crisp. It is so easy to breathe. There are many people on the ice.
“Hans! Gretel!” a voice calls from afar.
“Mother is calling,” says Hans.
The children rush home.
Hans is already fifteen years old. He is strong, with broad shoulders. His hair is blonde. His black eyes shine with kindness.
Gretel is a head shorter than he brother. She is slim and agile. Her blue eyes sparkle and the color rises in her cheeks on her long white face, when someone looks at her.
The two children can soon see their little house.
Their mother stans at the gate, a tall woman in a short dress with a jacket; on her head is a hat, of the kind Dutch women wear.
I am sure you have heard of Holland. It is a wonderful country, whose people never cease in their fight against the sea.
Holland, or the Netherlands, is flat and marshy. It does not have a single hill to shield it from the sea. However the sea with its crashing waves can water the land. Fields, streets and even entire villages and towns can be turned into lakes in an instant; the people can only live there because they have built strong, high walls or dikes at the seashores, which unbridle the land from the sea. They dug deep canals all over the country; the water from the marshes gathers in the canals and pours into the sea.
The people have a two-fold task – to prevent the sea from flooding the land and to drive the water from the streams and lakes into the sea.
The seawalls or dikes have to be high, so that the waves cannot rise over them or pass through them.
The dams have to have gates, to allow the remaining water into the sea. The times when the gates are opened and closed must be determined precisely. The canals also save as roads. In summer thousands of boats, little ships and barges travel up and down them.
In the towns the canals are like streets between the houses.
If you come to Holland you will wonder at the big windmills, which you will find so often all across the country. The wind, which blows freely over this flatland, turns the mighty sails of the mills, and water is pumped out of the marshes and lakes and driven into the sea.
Sarah Prais is a researcher of the history of the Bund and Modern Yiddish Literature and a keen translator.