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Yiddish Vilna Before the Destruction

Martha Roth
February 20, 2017


by Martha Roth

From the Autumn 2016 issue of Jewish Currents

Discussed in this essay: Vilna My Vilna: Stories by Abraham Karpinowitz, translated from the Yiddish by Helen Mintz. Syracuse University Press, 2016, 216 pages.

WHAT A PLACE it must have been — the Jerusalem of Lithuania, the Paris of the Jews, cradle of the Yiddish theater. When Ben-Gurion said that Israel wouldn’t be a real country until there were Jewish whores on the streets of Tel Aviv, he must have been thinking of Vilna and women like Tall Tamara from Stovepipe Berta’s brothel on Yatkover Street, who tried to start a sex workers’ union — as reported by Abraham Karpinowitz, one of the city’s Yiddish bards.

The son of a printer-publisher turned theater impresario, Karpinowitz wrote stories about the raffish poor, street musicians, gamblers, drinkers, and scroungers — the likes of Abke the Nail Biter, who “had expert hands. Not for working, of course, but for shuffling cards. He was famous for his shuffling; he always held onto two aces” (“The Red Flag”). Karpinowitz writes, too, about the women who tolerated and fed these men.

Money is scarce in his stories, not least in the story of a man who wants to create beautiful currency for a future Jewish state. He draws and paints individual bills but doesn’t know what to call them, so he goes to the library. Khaykl Lunski the librarian tells him about shekels, and after a short while begins “to understand why the man was so preoccupied with Jewish money. The furniture in his head had been moved around a little” (“Jewish Money”).

Like many other characters in Vilna My Vilna, Lunski was a real person. So was Mr. Gershteyn the music teacher in “The Great Love of Mr. Gershteyn,” in which Karpinowitz tells of Gershteyn’s unconsummated love for the actress Dina Halperin, also a real person. (Halperin and her husband Samuel Bronetsky emigrated to the United States, where she divorced Bronetsky and married Danny Newman, a theatrical press agent whose marriage didn’t keep him from pursuing my own Aunt Violet.)

Through his stories, Karpinowitz charts the tragic fate of Vilna’s Jews, most of whom were slaughtered by the Nazis. Karpinowitz lived in the Soviet Union during the war, then briefly returned to Vilna before emigrating to the new state of Israel, where he lived until his death in 2004. In “Vilna, Vilna Our Native City” he bemoans the terrible loss:

…in the name of all those who escaped from the hellfire through ghettoes, through forests, through camps, combat zones, and battlefronts; in the name of them all, I must confess that we were in love with Vilna. To this very day that love pierces our hearts like a broken arrow that can’t be removed without taking part of us with it.

HELEN MINTZ, translator of these stories, is a scholar, performer and accomplished Yiddishist. Her research places Karpinowitz’s Vilna in time and geography: between world wars, in an uneasy Eastern Europe. Vilna has become Wilno, a Polish city, after centuries of being Lithuanian or Russian. But the people of Karpinowitz’s stories live in a vividly remembered past, speaking Yiddish and concerning themselves only with survival, the great theme of 19th- and 20th-century Jewish literature.

Mintz has done more than translate these rich sketches of a city in transition during the interwar years. She has edited the contents of Vilna My Vilna from several collections of Karpinowitz’s short pieces and arranged them so as to provide a moving chronicle of Jewish life in one of its centers. She has also provided maps of Vilna and a glossary of “people, places, terms and events” to help the contemporary reader. Finally, she has added two pieces of memoir that Karpinowitz wrote long after his stories, but they cast a warm light back:

Where else in the world could you find jokers like the guys in Vilna? The hucksters on Daytshe Street with their expressions, their jokes, and their ridiculing of the entire respectable world. They could convince a peasant to buy a tuxedo jacket to match a pair of striped pants. Only in Vilna could those oddballs have paraded around in all their outlandishness. Every Vilna Jew possessed their own peculiarities, so they could understand the fantasies of others. The Jews of Vilna didn’t only relish the tasty meals at Usian’s restaurant . . . but also their own wild and expansive dreams.

That restaurant, belonging to Volf Usian and called Velfke’s, features largely in Vilna My Vilna as a place where almost everyone goes when they have a couple of coins to rub together. Usian, Mintz says in a note, “regularly fed various actors on credit and loaned them money.” Its delicacies may not appeal to 21st-century tastes, but the stuffed spleen (miltz) and broiled kishkes sustained the Jews of Vilna.

Vilna (now Vilnius) has been the capital city of Lithuania since the late Middle Ages, and over the centuries it has seesawed from Poland to Russia and back. In the 18th century Vilna became a hub of Jewish intellectual, spiritual and cultural life within the Russian empire. When Poland achieved independence it included Vilna. In the 20th century both the Germans and the Russians occupied Vilna, but in Karpinowitz’s work, none of these occupations -- or languages -- matter to his Yiddish-speaking characters, many of whom scrape together their livelihood on the edge of legality no matter who is making the laws.

Martha Roth moved to Canada a year after George W. Bush was reelected in her native U.S. She is a founding member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada.