Yehiel Yeshaia Trunk (1887-1961), born in the village of Osmolsk and raised in Lodz, the centre of Poland’s textile industry, was a writer of commanding repute in Poland before the Holocaust.
A successful businessman by day, Trunk – a member of the Bund, the largest Jewish social democratic party in Poland – was at heart a literary person. He published criticism and wrote novels and stories.
In the wake of Germany’s invasion of Poland, he and his wife fled to Vilna, which was then occupied by the Red Army. He reached New York City in 1941 via Siberia and Japan, arriving as a penniless immigrant.
Within days of his arrival, he started writing his memoir, Poyln: My Life within Jewish Life in Poland, Sketches and Images, in Yiddish. Seven volumes were published between 1944 and 1953.
A portrayal of Polish Jewry on the cusp of the Holocaust, Poyln has now been translated into English thanks to the Toronto chapter of the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada and the Konstanty Reynert Chair of Polish History at the University of Toronto.
The first volume in what promises to be a series has been translated by Anna Clarke, edited by Piotr Wrobel and Robert M. Shapiro and published by the University of Toronto Press.
Wrobel, the holder of the Konstanty Reynert chair, calls Poyln “a family chronicle, an autobiography, a nostalgic epic portrait of Polish Jewry.”
Indeed, Poyln brims with a rich cast of characters ranging from wealthy timber merchants and landowners to Orthodox rabbis and talmudists. Many are relatives from several branches of Trunk’s family. Not surprisingly, much of Poyln is set in Osmolsk, which is near Warsaw, the capital.
In essence, Poyln consists of skilful portraitures of people he knew or knew of, and recreates a vanished era in European Jewish history.
The first of Trunk’s 23 vivid sketches concerns his grandfather, Borukh, a dairy farmer who fell in with Chassidic Jews. Despite his wealth, he lived modestly in a one-room house owned by a Jewish peasant. His unassuming wife, Khaye, raised chicken and geese.
Trunk’s description of Borukh could well have appeared in a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer. “Grandfather was in charge of the fertile fields of the Osmolsk estate,” he writes in a typical passage. “His wheat was good and plentiful, and he raised sugar beets for the sugar factory in Sanik. During the snow and cold of the long winter months, Grandfather set out by sleigh into his woods wrapped in a big fearsome bearskin and was away for whole weeks.”
In another sketch, Trunk dwells on Simkhe Gayge, a shrewd Jewish farmer who was friendly with Borukh. Trunk, in quick brushstrokes, describes him: “He was a sturdy little man with a coarse voice and a hard little grey beard … He had the upturned nose of a Gentile and burning reddish eyes. His hands were those of a hard-working man, hairy and with earth under the nails… He smelt of barn dung…”
Borukh’s eldest brother, Uncle Avromke, is also grist for Trunk’s mill: “He was a small, thin man with a moulting little beard, with gaps on his chin, and with a long, red nose always covered by bluish, dried blotches.”
Trunk’s powers of observation transcend individuals. In a reference to the “wonderful romantic splendour of the landscape” around his birthplace, he writes, “The fields are broken up into a kaleidoscope of varied colours. The golden ripe wheat, the yellow lubin, the white flowers of barley, the green clover, and the meadows – all this plays together in an artistic perspective and in an idyllic illumination.”
His sketch of an outdoor market in Osmolin is atmospheric: “Rich peasants in their bright coats came from surrounding villages. The women, healthy and tall, flesh and milk, wore red and green wool dresses, braided ribbons on their arms and in their hair, and were wrapped in the wonderful Lowicz shawls, which reflected the hues of the meadows and fields.”
Trunk is particularly adept at evoking the two classes of Jewish beggars with whom he was familiar as a youth.
Town beggars, living among the Jewish underworld in back alleys, surfaced on Fridays. Country wanderers lived like Gypsies and trudged from one village to the next in dilapidated wagons harnessed to sick, crippled and half-blind horses. “They carried sacks and dark earthenware pots and begged for milk and bread,” he notes.
Returning to Borukh yet again, Trunk recalls that he spared no expense for his daughter’s wedding.
“He engaged the services of the most famous wedding jesters in Poland, among them the lion of jesters, Noah Nashelsker, to entertain the honoured guests. He also hired two klezmer bands.”
Food was an important consideration, too. Chefs and women cooks were hired, and whole flocks of geese, turkeys and hens, as well as carp and pike, were readied for the expected feast.
At the wedding, Trunk observes, a large reception room was packed with rabbis and rebbes. “Their long black silken coats rustled and the air was filled with the strong, sharp smell of fur hats. The buzz of Hebrew words was heard as rabbis conversed with one another. The room was smoky from cigars and pipes. The candles flickered.
“At the head of the table, the young groom was already seated, pale from fasting. He wore a big black fur hat and a brand-new long silk coat. The several common Jews present wavered uncertainly among the rustlings of the rabbis.”
As the ceremony unfolds, guests converge on the wine racks, and Trunk, in a flight of fancy that may be the stylistic piece de resistance of Polyn, writes, “People set to opening the old, mud-caked bottles of wine. The wonderful aromas and bouquet of the old Hungarian wine spread thickly over the tables and blended with the smell of stearin candles, pipes and cigars. The wine was poured out into sparkling glasses, and it shone golden and heavy through polished glass, like the glow of a dim and dark sunset.”
And in a rustic touch, he adds, “The smells of the fruit-laden trees wafted in through the open windows from the orchard. A cool wind blew from the fields of grain. One could hear the lowing of … cows and also the bleating of sheep. The heavens burnt like fire … Colourful clouds rested on the horizon like golden exotic ships. Frogs croaked in the little pond. The twittering of birds was heard. People were preparing for the wedding ceremony.”
Trunk’s evocative sketches of pre-war Poland throb with emotion and are redolent of a bygone epoch, destroyed by the Nazis.
Yet since they deal almost exclusively with rural Poland and deeply observant Jews, leaving out city Jews, workingclass Jews, secular Jews and Jews engaged in the arts and politics, they are limited in scope.
One hopes that Trunk will deal with these classes of Jews in future volumes.