- "Rich with this Tradition"Ghetto Poetry
For the past seven years I have been translating Yiddish poetry that was buried in two milk cans during the Holocaust. 1 Emanuel Ringelblum was the historian and organizer of the group "Joy of Sabbath" (Oyneg Shabes/Oneg Shabbat) that aimed to collect and preserve a record of Jewish life in Warsaw.2 These activities of collection and writing were illegal and punishable by death. In January 1943, Ringelblum learned that Nazis were about to destroy the ghetto and send the occupants to death camps. At the end of February, he gave his helpers the signal to bury the documents in milk cans under the Borokhov Zionist school in Warsaw. By the end of the Holocaust only a handful of Oyneg Shabes participants were still alive. Hersh Wasser, who survived by jumping from a death train going to Treblinka, had helped bury the cans under the Zionist school and knew where to find them. In addition to official German documents, posters, and announcements, the milk cans held diaries by writers and ordinary people, eye witness accounts of events, rabbinic serimons and poetry in Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish. Though the milk cans were dug up in 1946 [End Page 78] and 1950, the Yiddish poetry in them, held by the Polish government at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, did not become available to translate into English until sent to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum five decades later. This is where I encountered them.
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Approximately 137 Yiddish poems were taken from the milk cans; these were written by 42 known authors and 17 who are unknown. Among the known authors, 37 are men and five are women. Four of these five women had left Poland while it was still possible. They were Rivke Galin, Kadya Molodovsky and Rajzel Zhikhlinsky, who went to North America, and Rachel Korn, who went to Russia. When I realized that the only one who remained in the hell of Poland was Miriam Ulinover, a beloved poet of Lodz, I wanted to learn more about her.
Ulinover was born Miriam Hirshbeyn in 1890 into a prosperous family of business people in the large and sophisticated city of Lodz. She had very little contact with village or shtetl life, but found herself drawn to it. While her own real grandmother was an aristocratic urban woman, Ulinover created in her writing the opposite archetype: an unsophisticated, traditional, mythic, folk-grandmother who was wise and intimate.
Ulinover had a high school education in Lodz. An important chance meeting with the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleykhem in 1905, when he visited Lodz, inspired her to write. Ulinover was fifteen at the time. After meeting the young Ulinover and speaking with her for a while, he inscribed a book to her: "To the future sister author." With this encouragement, she began writing in Polish and German, and was published in Polish newspapers.
Natalia Krynicka researched all of Ulinover's available writing, and interviewed people who had known her.3 Krynicka found that Ulinover began to write in Yiddish after a time of not writing. Ulinover, who was deeply religious, discovered that she felt at home writing in Yiddish, which was familiar and inspiring since it was the language into which her Hebrew prayer book was translated. She discovered that it suited her creative drive to live and write in a world of tradition. She described the writing process as an uplifting, spiritual experience. To a writer friend, Joseph Turko4 she said "I am rich with this tradition and I rejoice in this wealth. It's good to have something to lean on… I create when I do the most prosaic things in the house. It weaves itself into my mind, my heart, warms me and ripens. Then writing it down is easier."
In a conversation with Samuel Shneiderman5 she said "My poetry is my life, the air I breathe and because my life is woven with Yiddish [End Page 79] customs and tradition, so is my writing. I know I am old fashioned and celebrate the life...