Debora Vogel was born in January 1900 in a Galician town called Bursztyn. Her life ended in August of 1942 on the pavement of Bernsztejn Street, murdered by Nazis during the liquidation of the Lviv ghetto along with her baby boy, Asher, her husband, Szulim Barenblüth, and her mother, Leonia Ehrenpreis. Before this unimaginable tragedy, Vogel, known as the “wandering star” of Yiddish and Polish literature, wrote groundbreaking poetry, astute art criticism and lauded academic research on philosophy and aesthetics. She also urged and encouraged the now canonic Polish Jewish author Bruno Schulz not to give up on writing at a time when Schulz felt hopeless, and thought that he would never be published. He proposed to her, but she turned him down.
The term “wandering star” was an apt description of Vogel’s life prior to her murder. While her childhood was spent in a small-town milieu of the Galician provinces, the outbreak of World War I in her adolescence meant the family had to move. They relocated to Vienna where Vogel went to an Austrian school. Eventually, the family moved permanently to Lviv. But Vogel continued wandering, attending university in Krakow and traveling frequently to Paris, Berlin, and Stockholm, and establishing lasting correspondences with New York City’s vibrant community of Yiddish modernist artists and writers, contributing regularly with both poems and essays to the literary journals Inzikh and Bodn.
It is exceptional to come across a body of high-quality literary work fluently composed in several languages. Yet the sum of Vogel’s work, written in Polish, German, Hebrew, and Yiddish, shows exactly that. Her family was an intellectual, secular family and they spoke Polish at home. Both her mother and father were teachers of Hebrew, this was passed on to Vogel and she quickly became as proficient as her parents. Those educationally formative years spent in Vienna meant that she mastered the German language impeccably; her first poems were written in German. While her parents showed no interest in Yiddish for various reasons (one being its low social connotations at the time), it was when Vogel picked up Yiddish in her 20s that she found her truest tongue.
The road to recognition and literary canonization is rarely easy. That road has been particularly broken and twisted for the many greats whose lives and sometimes work were lost to the world and to humanity in the death camps and ghettos of the Shoah, and by the subsequent withering away of Yiddish as the Jewish lingua franca.
It was Vogel’s good friend Rachel Auerbach, an acclaimed Yiddish writer, a key contributor to the Oneg Shabbat Archives in the Warsaw ghetto, and eventually the first director of the Department for the Collection of Witness Testimony at Yad Vashem, who inspired Vogel to explore the possibilities of Yiddish. As a result, Vogel’s main artistic vision became to establish Yiddish as a language of serious cultural and intellectual expression. From this clear conviction sprang her three collections of poems that form the core of her work: Day Figures (1930), Mannequins (1934) and Acacias Bloom (1935-36).
These three collections together form a very specific poetic universe. While Vogel maintains a clear style and poetic voice throughout, each book has its own separate narrative. In Day Figures the poems tell the story of a young woman who for seven years waits for a lover. It is uncertain if the love affair ended seven years earlier and she is waiting to get over it, or if she merely met the man seven years ago and is somehow waiting in vain for the love affair to begin in earnest. Nevertheless, the boredom and emptiness of waiting for seven years binds the poems together.
In Mannequins there is no trace of a missing lover. Here Vogel writes sharp and witty poems about Berlin, Paris, and New York. Many poems are about raucous nights out, drinking, the empty frolics of big city living, with its fleeting love affairs and promises plastered on billboards aglow with neon lights.
Finally, in Acacias Bloom the observation turns inward to writing and its place in everyday life. In these prose poems, or “prose montages” as they are often referred to, Vogel reflects on what artistic expression means and what its function in society can be during an ominous year like 1933. From the first poem, she asks what it takes to write a novel, and it continues from there, often making reference to other artists and writers. Their different overriding narratives notwithstanding, a clear and constant voice emerges from the page in all three collections, showing Vogel’s steady and original poetic hand.
Along with the idea of writing very modern poetry in Yiddish, Vogel also had a specific idea regarding the aesthetics of her work—she wanted the poems to be visual experiences, like paintings. To achieve this effect, instead of relying on the traditional building blocks of poetry which are form and meter, she chose methods derived from painting (mostly cubism), photography (primarily montage) and advertisements (evoking bold colors, catch phrases and kitsch). The most prominent characteristic of the poems in all three collections is repetition. The imagery employed repeats continuously and is used with intention in order to reduce, as Vogel asserted, “the chaos of events to its most basic ordinary properties.”
Two main patterns emerge from Vogel’s repetition of images and vocabulary: unreality and disproportion. Everything is fragile and perishable. The sky, the mountains, the streets, the houses and the people—all of it is made of glass, porcelain, or tin; of paper, dough, fruit flesh, or milk. These are materials that break, bend, tear, and spoil easily. Which says a good deal about how Vogel must have viewed the “chaos of events” that makes up ordinary life.
Aside from the destabilizing sense of unreality, where things are not made of what they ought to be, insignificant things are given immense importance, while fundamental facts are reduced to dull irrelevance. In Day Figures, which deals with that love affair that never was, Vogel repeatedly points out the number of days in a week, in a month, that there are four seasons in a year. Yet she does not give one distinguishing feature about the missing lover—what he looks like, who he is, how they met, why things ended (or never really began) for the two of them.
The unreal atmosphere and disproportion of her poetic universe was, at the time of publication, often interpreted as surrealism, a dominant artistic movement in the 1920s and ’30s. Vogel refuted this, claiming that while seemingly unreal, her poems were not surreal. She compared them instead to the paintings of Marc Chagall, whom she had met in Paris. Her impressions of the painter and his work can be found in an essay called “Theme and Form in Chagall’s Work (an Aesthetic Critique).” The merits of this text are many, not least that she wrote two simultaneous versions of it: one in Yiddish and one in Polish, which were both published in the highly reputable journals Tsushtayer and Almanach i leksykon zydostwa polskiego, respectively.
In analyzing Chagall’s compositions, she mentions that while we are used to a person being smaller than a house, it does not mean that if a person is depicted as being larger than a house that it somehow runs contrary to realist logic. The scale of such representations shows the person’s importance in the picture or poem. Scale and ratio follow the internal logic of the artwork, not the logic of everyday reality. Vogel notes that composition is “not motivated by perspective and real measurements of space. … The element of scale is used simply as a feature of the significance or insignificance of an object or a person we encounter.”
Regarding the occasional lack of gravity in Chagall’s paintings, Vogel sees it as a depiction of simultaneity and not as surreal. If a house or a person floats by aimlessly in a picture it is not because gravity is not in operation and we are in a dreamlike state, it is more due to an event, or a thing, from another time imposing itself in the present—like a vivid memory. And it seems that here the two guiding principles of Vogel’s poetry, the disproportionate and the unreal, are given a more direct meaning.
Much has been said of the relationship that developed between Vogel and Bruno Schulz. They met in the scenic Polish resort town of Zakopane in the summer of 1930. A close and intimate bond developed that continued through correspondence even when they both returned to their respective hometowns. Bruno Schulz was a penniless teacher and an extremely bright and talented writer and artist. His lack of means meant that he had to work constantly and illness and personal tragedies in his family kept him from focusing on his talent. This is where Vogel stepped in and steadfastly encouraged him to keep writing.
It was in his letters to Vogel that Schulz first composed passages that would become his novel The Cinnamon Shops (also referred to as The Street of Crocodiles), a work that would cement his literary greatness. But Vogel’s influence did not end there. She intervened directly with influential intellectuals in order to get him published, when no one seemed open to understand or publish his original and experimental prose, and wrote articles about him in international journals to get him noticed abroad.
In November of 1942, three months after Vogel was killed, Bruno Schulz was murdered by a Nazi in the Drohobycz ghetto. While the words muse, fiancée, and friend are most often used to describe what Vogel was to Schulz, it seems that her influence was far more complex. Aside from their deep emotional involvement, which was a source of inspiration for both, Vogel was in many ways for Schulz what Max Brod was to Kafka: She ensured the survival of his work when Schulz himself seemed to be losing hope.
Yet within the pantheon of Yiddish writing, Vogel’s own key works—Day Figures, Mannequins, and Acacias Bloom—have not carved out a defined place, mostly because the collections have not been widely available to readers or for scholarship. When Ezra Korman’s Yiddish Women Poets: An Anthology (1586-1927) came out in 1928 regrouping an impressive array of women who’d written poetry in Yiddish for over five centuries, it was too early to include Vogel’s work who had only recently started writing. However, when Joseph Leftwich published a collection of Yiddish poetry in 1939, The Golden Peacock, her work was included only to be edited out in the subsequent editions that were published after the war, in 1961 and 1974; most of the female writers whose work appeared in earlier editions were also edited out. Vogel’s work has mostly appeared in a fragmentary way in connection with other writers throughout the decades, notably in 1985 in the collection A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry.
It is primarily thanks to the immense analytical and translation work conducted by Anastasiya Lyubas in her doctoral thesis Plasticity of Language in Debora Vogel’s Modernist Poetics that a shift is beginning to occur. In 2018 there was an art exhibition dedicated to Vogel at the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódz, Poland called Montages: Debora Vogel and the New Legend of the City. An anthology focusing entirely on her work is due to be published in 2020 under the title In geveb. Special Issue on Debora Vogel. And by an unexpected turn of events, in April 2019 (despite her hitherto marginalized position in the Yiddish literary canon) the first ever conference focusing solely on the work of one female Yiddish writer was organized—a conference dedicated to Debora Vogel. Yet to lament her role as a background figure is to misunderstand the reality of her enduring presence and importance. As she wrote about Chagall:
an important person or thing might not be in the center of action but somewhere on the margins. Sometimes it is a matter of noting the existence of a person or a thing as such and not as something that exists for or beside something else, only as being-for-itself.
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Mersiha Bruncevic is a Paris-based literary scholar and writer. Her twitter feed is @mbproust.