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Jewish Social Studies 7.3 (2001) 1-51

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Life, Literature: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Interwar Poland

Marcus Moseley

Poetry and Truth

Happy, happy, irrecoverable years of childhood! How can one fail to love and cherish its memories? Those memories refresh and elevate my soul and are the source of my greatest delight. 1

Hershele's youth passed by swiftly, its bloom was nipped in the bud and while yet a child he became a miniature Jew [kleyn yudel]: depressed, preoccupied, with a worried face and all of the grimaces of a full-sized, married Jew, all that he lacked was a beard. The Jew, in his short life, has to undergo such a plethora of afflictions and suffering that he is left no time for childhood. A momentary gleam like the sun on a turbid winter's day and it is soon eclipsed in a huge long, dark cloud. Scarcely does a Jew crawl out of his swaddling bands and begin to play than he is snatched away to the teacher's pointer . . . he is yoked up and giddy-up, giddy-up, little Jew! 2

None of us ever did anything to set the world on fire. Dukes, governors, generals, and soldiers we were not; we had no romantic attachments with lovely princesses; we didn't fight duels, nor did we even serve as witnesses, watching other men spill their blood; we didn't dance the quadrille at balls; we didn't hunt wild animals in the fields and forests; we didn't make voyages of discovery to the end of the earth; we carried on with no actresses nor prima donnas; we didn't celebrate in a lavish way. In short, we were completely lacking in all those colorful details that grace a story and whet the reader's appetite. In place of these, we had the cheder, the [End Page 1] cheder teachers, and the cheder-teacher's assistant; marriage-brokers, grooms and brides; housewives and children; abandoned women, widows with orphans and widows without orphans; people ruined by fire and bankruptcy and paupers of every description; beggars who make the rounds on the eve of Sabbath and holidays, new-moons, Mondays and Thursdays and any day at all; idlers and officers of the community; poverty, penury and indigence, and queer and degrading ways of making a living. This was our life, if you call it a life--ugly, devoid of pleasure and satisfaction, with not a single ray of light to pierce the continual darkness; a life like tasteless food cooked without benefit of salt or pepper. 3

Mikhel [the hero of Ilya Ehrenburg's 1922 The Grabber] is a victim of contradictions, as is Christophe [the protagonist of Romain Rolland's novel of that name]. A human being is born, he lives, suffers and dies; everything is natural. Christophe lived and suffered; I don't want to say that he was especially virtuous, a superhuman character. After all, he was nothing more than a healthy human being, who thinks and gets involved in life! Romain Rolland is faithful to reality. But to what extent is his reality ours? Ours is ugly and rotten, but it is still reality as long as we are aware of what it is! Out of awareness comes reality! But what am I saying? All this is natural! Christophe has reached his goal; he is thinking. He smiles warmly with his eyes, his lips move and he says, "Everything is natural!" I read the ten volumes; it took me three whole months. Finally I looked at the last pages and thought: "Is this already the end?" Let us honor and respect people who have great hearts! I feel like shouting, "Long live Romain Rolland!" 4

The above texts were penned in 1852, 1889, 1894, and 1934, respectively. The Russian literary critic Victor Shklovsky proclaimed, in 1923, a "law" of the dynamics of literary evolution, according to which: "In the history of art the legacy is transmitted not from father to son, but from uncle to nephew." 5 The progression from Tolstoy...


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