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Stories set against the backdrop of prewar Vilna

"Vilna My Vilna: Stories by Abraham Karpinowitz" Translated from the Yiddish by Helen Mintz (Syracuse University Press)

You may have heard that Yiddish is a dead language. I.B. Singer had the best comeback for that sentiment: “so was Hebrew called for 2,000 years.” Singer, of course, had most of his stock in the business of writing in Yiddish, even though he was among the few postwar Yiddish writers who became influential in the English-language mainstream.

Sholom Aleichem’s North American audience was guaranteed by the popularization of his Tevye stories in Fiddler on the Roof. But after him, who, aside from the most avid reader of Jewish writers, even thinks of I.L. Peretz today, the culture hero of Polish Jews, whose funeral in 1915 attracted over 100,000 mourners?

From Singer, one gets a portrait of Warsaw’s crowded Krochmalna Street, alongside the Manhattan streets embraced by Yiddish-speaking newcomers. Peretz’s writing offers another portrait of Yiddish-speaking Warsaw, but his narrators travel further afield into the Polish countryside. Sholom Aleichem’s terrain is village life in western Ukraine.

Without Abraham Karpinowitz’s stories, one misses Vilna, the Polish-Lithuanian cultural and religious centre whose character and flavour is unlike that of other Yiddish centres of the language’s heyday.

Karpinowitz, the son of a theatre impresario, grew up in Vilna in the early decades of the 20th century. He survived the wartime destruction of his native city by fleeing east. His career flourished in Israel under the guidance of other major Yiddish figures such as Avrom Sutzkever. Karpinowitz’s stories have been published in German, Hebrew, Lithuanian, Polish, Russian and Spanish translation. But they awaited Vancouver-based Helen Mintz’s excellent English translation to find their way to North American readers.

Mintz’s collection, Vilna My Vilna: Stories of Abraham Karpinowitz, provides an uncanny portrait of prewar Vilna, and it is – as was much of Karpinowitz’s writing – a paean to lost Vilna, to its street life, its cast of unusual characters, its cultural ferment and its underworld. As Mintz writes in her introduction, “The central character of Abraham Karpinowitz’s… stories, lovingly rendered, is the city of his childhood and early adulthood, the Jewish city of Vilna (present-day Vilnius, Lithuania) in the period between the two world wars.”

Karpinowitz’s stories offer detailed social backdrops as the context for sketches of a single character. This method is best exemplified in Tall Tamara, which appeared in the 1993 collection Vilna mayn Vilna (the volume’s relatively recent appearance from a Tel Aviv publisher reflects the resilience of Yiddish culture in the contemporary era). Tall Tamara depicts a young woman’s transformation from streetwalker to sweatshop worker and leftist agitator, and is underwritten by an intimate portrait of Vilna’s working class neighbourhoods and women’s work on the fringes of mainstream society. Like many of Karpinowitz’s characters, one expects that in Tall Tamara (Tamare di hoykhe) we meet an actual character from prewar Vilna, presented as an archetypal figure who, despite poverty and “pressure from all sides… contributed with creativity and enthusiasm to Jewish culture and to Jewish continuity.”

Karpinowitz is at his most heartfelt in his portraits of his father’s successes and failures in popular Yiddish theatre. Presented as a kind of mad genius – clownlike and saintly at the same time – Moyshe Karpinowitz brought Poland’s leading Yiddish actors to Vilna audiences. The titles of the plays he mounted, once much-loved and discussed, are forgotten oddities today: Khashie the Orphan, Cry Out, China, Bar-Kochba, The Yeshiva Student, Shulamit. Among these, only The Dybbuk, a Vilna perennial, has maintained a modern audience in English and other languages.

In Memories of a Decimated Theatre Home, Karpinowitz tells the full story of his father’s dedication to the Yiddish stage, and to making sure that the “common people could also afford to buy tickets.” This memoiristic piece concludes with an account of what happened to his father’s world of theatre under the Germans. They converted his “father’s Folk Theater into a garage for military tanks. They tore down the balcony. Before they left the city in 1944, they destroyed the theatre, tearing it down to the ground. Not a single one of the beams that my father had so lovingly placed in the building remained intact. He went to the mass grave at Ponar with his audience, the loyal Vilna theatregoers.”

The war intrudes on Karpinowitz’s sketches in this abrupt way. But his stories veer back, again and again, to the way things were when his father’s “dream about a theatre’s actors, performances, scenery, the stage,” was fully intact. Beside the theatre was a garden, a kind of gan Eden, where his father walked, “searching between bushes for inspiration for the next hit to keep the theatre going.”

Norman Ravvin is a writer and teacher in Montreal.