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Words of Our Fathers

What a 1942 essay contest revealed about immigrants’ lives, in the Old World and the New

Ben Birnbaum
January 13, 2009

In New York City in May 1942, the Yiddish Scientific Institute—known then and now by the transliterated Yiddish acronym YIVO—announced a memoir contest for members of the aging remnant of the estimated 2.5 million Eastern European Jews who had crossed the Atlantic during what scholars call “The Third Migration”—roughly, 1880 until a nativist Congress slammed, locked, and then double-locked the doors during the early 1920s.

Pledging modest cash awards to the authors of the six best essays on the theme “Why I left Europe and what I have accomplished in America,” YIVO asked entrants to fill at least 25 “notebook pages” and to be “detailed,” “precise,” and “sincere.” Excellent advice for most writers, this was particularly apt counsel for novices, which nearly all the entrants were expected to be (and turned out to be).

For YIVO, the contest was an expression of a mission undertaken in 1925 in Vilnius (Vilna, to Jews) in what was then Polish-occupied Lithuania. That mission was to study, esteem, and strengthen the common (in both senses) Jews of Eastern Europe and their secular culture, often referred to as Yiddishkeit for the common (both senses again) language that ruled the arguments, lovemaking, postcards, soccer matches, business deals, ribaldry, newspapers, and restive dreams of some 11 million Jews over a territorial swath that extended from western Russia north to the Baltic, south to the Balkans, and then east across empire and satrapy to the Oder River.

By 1925, that great sea was at ebb, reduced by war, revolution, poverty, anti-Semitism, secularism, socialism, Zionism, and America—to name some principal drains on population and spirit. Among other recovery efforts, YIVO dispatched zammlers (collectors) to record story, song, argot, and custom in the shtetls and urban ghettos, and sponsored three autobiography competitions for young Jews in an attempt to secure them as citizens of Yiddishkeit. Those contests were popular successes, the last of them concluding just months before Germany devoured Poland in September 1939.

In 1940, having nimbly reestablished world headquarters in Manhattan and out of what would become murderous German reach, YIVO picked up where it had left off, administering an autobiography contest for young American Jews. But this call from a Yiddishist preservationist organization failed to prick ears that were hearkening to such matters as work, college, the Dodgers’ chances against the Reds, and Frank Sinatra keening “I’ll Never Smile Again.” (In 1946, YIVO would issue an equally tone-deaf and unsuccessful call for what-I-saw-in-the-war memoirs from Jewish veterans.) And so in the spring of 1942, YIVO in America turned to its tried-and-true constituency, Jews native to Eastern Europe.

In all, YIVO received 223 essays (some 25,000 “notebook pages”) before the “Why I left Europe” contest closed in March 1943. About 200 were in Yiddish and the rest in Hebrew or English. Only 47 were by women. The awards were presented at a public ceremony in September 1943, and the contest “secretary,” a distinguished YIVO scholar named Moses Kligsberg, wrote soon afterward, “Now YIVO is confronted with the great task of studying the submitted materials.”

That “great task,” if ever undertaken, is nowhere manifest. After he got done responding to the entrants who believed they’d been jobbed by the judges, Kligsberg himself wrote a few uninspired essays on the contest material. Much later, Irving Howe tapped some of the English-language entries for World of Our Fathers, his 1976 best-seller that still reigns as the heavyweight champion of Third Migration cultural history. But it was not until the late 1990s that the Fordham historian Daniel Soyer and the YIVO researcher Jocelyn Cohen, supported by a grant from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, cracked “American-Jewish Biographies, Record Group 102” wide open and began the dusty, demanding work (all those handwritings; all those variant spellings and localisms; all those amateurs) that led to publication—in cloth in 2005 and in paperback this past year—of English translations of nine of the autobiographies under the title My Future is In America: Autobiographies of Eastern European Immigrants.

A fine piece of scholarly and humane business, the book is supported by an informative introduction and comprehensive, lucid notes. The translations themselves move along nicely in Yiddish-flavored English that never goes vaudeville on us and that respects writer as well as reader. When Shmuel Krone—of Denver and Verkhovichi, Belarus—a man rather given to what the law calls excited utterances, says of his oldest son, “He is now a public accountant!,” Soyer and Cohen know that this is an exclamation point to preserve on behalf of the sweet and luckless Krone. And when the pedantic Chaim Kusnetz—from Brooklyn and Duboy, Belarus—repeatedly interpolates “Vayehi hayoym”—“and it came the day”—into his narrative, they know to leave the Hebrew phrase stand in the text for what it conveys about Mr. Kusnetz’s literary and personal vanity. (Kusnetz ends his autobiography with this gem: “And the thorn of loneliness in the desert of my life burns eternal.”) And if, some literary heavy breathing aside, the memoirs generally present as facts mustered in chronological order, the brisk artlessness of the narratives is itself often affecting.

So with Rose Silverman—New York City and Berdichev, Ukraine—who sums up her years of compelled labor as a child-seamstress with the sentence, “The hardship never let up and accompanied me always”; and with Ben Reisman—Pittsburgh and Kalush, Galicia—who writes of the consequences of a slum fire in America, “My oldest boy caught cold and was sick for several months, until he died. Our grief cannot be described.” And so, too, with the ambitious, vivacious, and pretty Rose Schoenfeld—New York City and Drohobycz, Galicia—who recalls her arranged (by her desperately poor parents) marriage in the old country to a visiting American businessman this way: “With an embittered heart, I went to the wedding canopy.” Isaac Babel, a near-contemporary of Ms. Schoenfeld’s and master of the hammer-blow sentence, might well have put it just that way (though he probably would have told us whether the imported bridegroom smelled of onions or a sweet American cologne or a broth of both on the wedding night.)**pagebreak next=”The autobiographies also bring us the details called for by the contest sponsor.”**

The autobiographies also bring us the details called for by the contest sponsor. We learn, for example, that the salary structure for melameds—village religious teachers who instructed children, usually in the local synagogue—was tied not to length of tenure or ability but rose with the ages of the students taught; and that starving Jews filled themselves with cakes made of ground sunflower shells during the Ukrainian civil war; and that the Jewish trade in metal-smithing made its practitioners bearded, skull-capped repairers of church cupolas across the Russian and Ukrainian summer sky.

We also pick up piquant colloquialisms (“Even a broom can shoot if God helps”), rabbinical nicknames (“the Kaidoner prodigy” and “Reb Leybele the Sharp”), and telling exchanges of conversation, as in this one between the then-melamed Shmuel Krone and a fellow greenhorn slightly more versed in America:

Greenhorn: “You are too talented for teaching.”
Krone: “What should I do?”
Greenhorn: “Open a dry goods store like mine.”

It’s a fine harvest altogether, though I, for one, would have liked to have heard more from the editors about their decision to thumb the scales hard for gender (five of the nine contributors are women), for landfall (1892 through 1929), and for place of origin (Ukraine, Galicia, Poland, and Belarus are all represented), rather than simply publish the strongest essays they could find. And they could also have done a better job of placing YIVO within its initial American context, exploring the misapprehensions suffered by the organization’s leaders in the face of a Yiddishkeit on these shores unlike any previously known or imagined, and how their failure to attend to America with some humility undermined YIVO’s early work in this country.

But the most important question this book raises is not for the editors or for the contributors (all of the latter as safely entombed in history now as King Tut), but for the volume itself. And it takes this form:

Following the recovery, beginning in the 1960s, of Henry Roth, Anzia Yezierska, and Abraham Cahan (to name a very few); and following the publication of A Walker in the City (1951), The Downtown Jews (1969) and World of Our Fathers (to name a very few); and following the inflorescence of Jewish historiography under the post-war ministrations of Moses Rischin, Lucy Dawidowicz, and Oscar Handlin, and more recently David Roskies, Hasia Diner, and Jonathan Sarna (to name a very very few)—after all that has been delved, recorded, filmed, monographed, and presented at the annual conference of the Association for Jewish Studies ever since the YIVO autobiographies were locked down in 1943—after all this, was the retrieval of these words of nine of our fathers and mothers necessary or even helpful?

From the perspective of what the founders of YIVO thought of as “science” (YIVO has since removed Wissenschaft—or science—from its name and is the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research), the answer must be no. The sophisticated scholarly and imaginative work that has emerged over the past 65 years roars like Niagara beside these trickly odysseys. And unmediated personal declarations, while held in scholarly esteem in 1942, are no longer considered important in ordering history. Scholars, to paraphrase the late Moses Kligsberg, are no longer confronted with the great task of studying the submitted materials.

* * *

But if scholars aren’t confronted, maybe others are—or should be. Here I mean we common (in any sense you like) American Jews who have come to view the territories these nine men and women inhabited—the shtetl and the Lower East Side—as cohorts of Mamre’s plains, the brickyards of Egypt, Jerusalem, Sepharad, and (very lately) Masada: stars in that runic cosmos that Jews have been studying for millennia, looking for a “usable past,” by which historians mean the tales that make a tribe’s progress through time explicable.

In the case of the shtetl, how else could we have accommodated the ground that swallowed millions of our brothers and sisters except to declare it holy, and ourselves therefore enjoined from treading upon it in shod feet? And so Abraham Joshua Heschel, speaking on “The Eastern European Era in Jewish History” at YIVO in New York City on January 7, 1945, 20 days before Soviet soldiers reached Auschwitz, pronounced an elegy that, in accordance with ancient panegyric tradition, cast what had happened as a theological calamity, as a blow against klal Yisroel, the one covenantal Israel. “Even those who have abandoned tradition . . . have not separated themselves,” Heschel said, reading mundane and also sacral truth in the crematoria ash. And then, after comparing the European destruction with the Babylonian sacking of Jerusalem, Heschel concluded by placing the Shoah out of human reach: “If other eras [in Jewish history] were holy, this one was the holy of holies.” The audience, it’s reported, as though one covenantal Israel, stood and recited the Mourner’s Kaddish.

And a powerful and incontrovertible umen has sounded ever since, in the stories and memoirs of Singer, Agnon, Wiesel, and lesser lights; in Chagall’s pie-eyed fiddlers, loopy lovers, and crucified rabbis; in the Hasidic and Haredi communities’ faithful replication of the habits, dress, and quarrels of lost study halls and rabbinic courts; in the popularity of Buber’s romanticized Tales of the Hasidim, and of the slushy Life Is With People; in the hundreds of Yizkor books that memorialize the saintly butchers, the uncomplaining widows, the kindly melameds, and the generous mill- and tavern-owners in one shtetl after another and never recollect a card cheat, a child beater, a philanderer murdered by the Germans; and of course in unabashed confections such as “Mein Shtetele Belz” and Fidder on the Roof.

In the case of the Lower East Side, there’s no better explanation for what we have made of the place—in novel, in “The Rise of the Goldbergs,” in movie, in lox, in bagel, in the Tenement Museum, and on Big Onion tours of Delancey Street—than that offered by Irving Howe for why World of Our Fathers became an astonishing (and to him somewhat embarrassing) success. The book, Howe wrote, “enabled [readers] to cast an affectionate backward glance at the world of their fathers before turning their backs upon it forever and moving on, as they had to, to a world their fathers would neither have accepted nor understood. My book was not a beginning, it was still another step to the end.”

For Jews, some failures—an inability to samba, for example—feel stunningly inconsequential, while others, such as the failure to keep faith with fathers and mothers, with that pesky klal Yisroel, feel stunningly unforgivable. And so sitting beneath our vines in Beverly Hills, on West 72nd, or in Cambridge 02138, we trouble our hearts with yearnings for our lost Eden of Jewish authenticity: that land of virile pickle-makers; the communion of three-times-a-day prayer; peddlers and pressers who not only spent a predawn hour over the Torah but remained faithful to the Internationale and saved money for their children’s education; and tenement windows that glowed with Sabbath candles beneath which children studied hard.**pagebreak next=”Unlike us, though, the contributors to this book did not know that “The Eastern European Era in Jewish History” was over.”**

Unlike us, though, the contributors to this book did not know that “The Eastern European Era in Jewish History” was over. (The ghettos, the shootings, and the sometime gassing by engine exhaust in the closed compartments of trucks were known by 1943, but the six million was an abyss undreamed.) Nor had they any reason to feel guilt about taking off for Brownsville, the Bronx, or Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill and leaving the Lower East Side to wither away, because they wanted the Lower East Side and all it represented to wither away.

And so, a truth escapes like a reflexive sigh from these nine witnesses, which is that the shtetl and the Lower East Side were for common Jews not places of authenticity, pride, and vitality, but vulnerability, contingency, and impotence; and a main product of such a life, for Jews as for other people, is anger, which seeps inward as self-scorn and depression, or spews outward as cruelty directed at the nearest targets, which are usually one’s children, parents, spouse, brothers, sisters, neighbors.

Here is Minnie Goldstein—Providence, Rhode Island and Warsaw—come to tell us that her mother was one of 12 children of whom 11 died young; that her mother was left a widow with two children at 19; that relatives cheated the woman out of her meager inheritance; that her second husband—Minnie’s father—was himself ruined financially when in-laws—his business partners in a shoe store—took to stealing stock during the night; that Minnie herself was loathed by her mother, who called her “treyf,”—unkosher. She writes, “I cannot remember a single day during my childhood when I was taken care of as a child should be, or when I had enough to eat.” Later, a grown woman in Providence, and married to a hapless, cheerless husband, she bears a son who develops polio, and she considers murder and suicide: “Would it not be better to take the child into bed with me, turn on the gas, and go to sleep forever with the child?” She notes, in a sentiment that is repeated in a number of these memoirs, and inferred in more of them, “Those who have been here in America for a long time will never be able to grasp that we who have experienced so much could still be full human beings.”

And here is Aaron Domnitz—Baltimore and Romanovo, Belarus—a sweet man of lively intelligence whose early love of Talmud and then of secular literature led him nowhere but to America and the fate he most wanted to avoid—a six-day-a-week shift at a sewing machine in a rundown factory on the Lower East Side. Domnitz tells us of an impromptu party celebrated by his coworkers in the apartment of a colleague whose daughter had just become engaged. They drank. They sang “Russian revolutionary songs.” And one worker, who was a cantor, sang a High Holy Day prayer. And then the bride arrived. “Instead of greeting us, she twisted her nose and hurled a reproach at her father in English, why did he bring drunks into the house?” Her father “smiled stupidly and helplessly . . . completely foreign among his grown children.”

Leaving the daughter and father behind, the men fled to a nearby park where they “leaned against the fence and looked at the East River. The water, like the sky was dreary, autumnal. . . . Through the mist we saw the silhouette of the Statue of Liberty. Behind her, the ocean spread out far and wide, and across the ocean somewhere were the shores of the Old Country. We were silent.”

Of course, our notions of Belz or “The Historic Lower East Side Bargain District” are no more likely to be altered by the testimony of Minnie Goldstein and Aaron Domnitz, than a bonfire of dreidels is likely to be inspired by evidence that Hashmonean priests and Taliban mullahs had many bloody habits in common—which by my reading of purity zealots through the ages seems highly likely. In the development of prophetic or apologetic history, whether by Jew, Frenchman, Serb, or Abkhazian (who knew?), the truth is whatever shores up the bottom line of need.

Today, the “shtetl” and “the Lower East Side” appear at the very least to be remarkable self-healings of grave wounds, and at the very best creations as brilliant as Hashmonean Jerusalem. Given, however, the amount of evil that has entered the world as a consequence of supra-history, we probably want to try and keep track of what really happened. In aid of this anchoring, we have those books and conferences and peer-reviewed articles, which tell us such things as the percentage of Eastern Europe’s Jews who depended on relief at the turn of the twentieth century (35) and the childhood mortality rate on the Jewish Lower East Side (40 percent). And now we have these words of our fathers and mothers; reedy in places, affecting in places, but surely usable if we ever find ourselves in need.

Ben Birnbaum is the editor of Boston College Magazine and an award-winning essayist. He is the editor of Take Heart: Catholic Writers on Hope in Our Time (Crossroad, 2007).

Ben Birnbaum is a writer and editor in Brookline, Massachusetts.