- סלמנדרה: מיתוס והיסטוריה בכתבי ק. צטניק (Salamandra: Myth and History in Katzetnik's Writings)
The scholarship dealing with Katzetnik and his literary testimony has always been limited, especially given the centrality of this writer in Israeli Holocaust discourse. Until the recent decade and a half, in spite and perhaps because of its wide circulation by Israel's educational authorities, Katzetnik's Salamandra sextet (1945-1987) has not received academic attention appropriate to its scope, influence, and uniqueness. While Katzetnik reached, according to Dan Miron, the status of a spokesman of the Holocaust and its atrocities in Israeli culture, Yechiel De-Nur, the person behind the literary persona, always remained a mystery. Things began to change in 1994, after De-Nur stole his 1931 book of Yiddish poems from the national library in Jerusalem, burnt it, and sent back its burned remains. The event drew public attention, followed by a stream of publications from both Israel and abroad, dealing with various aspects of Katzetnik's work, and that stream strengthened after De-Nur's death in 2001. Among the topics addressed in these recent studies are popular reception (Omer Bartov), gender and Zionism (Oren Segal), biography (Leon Yudkin), literary persona (Jeremy Popkin), and ethics (Iris Milner).
Yechiel Szeintuch's recent Salamandra: Myth and History in Katzetnik's Writings is an invaluable addition to this much needed academic discussion. However, more than a representative member of this scholarly awakening, it is an exception. While for other scholars Katzetnik is mostly a case study within a larger cultural or theoretical frame of research, Yechiel Szeintuch (probably the most authoritative Katzetnik scholar today) has been studying the life and work of this Holocaust survivor for decades. Salamandra: Myth and History is not only the first book-length study of Katzetnik, but also an admirable example of a historical-biographical approach to the topic.
The book presents a meticulous, painstaking examination of extensive archival, journalistic, and literary documentation as means of deciphering the mystery surrounding Katzetnik. The first phase of the investigation was conducted in Szeintuch's 2003 book Ke-mesiaḥ lefi tumo: siḥot im Yechiel De-Nur (Conversations with Yechiel De-Nur), which records Szeintuch's series of conversations with the author-survivor. Both books clearly distinguish Szeintuch from other writers on Katzetnik who apply more theoretical approaches, and the valuable fruits of Szeintuch's approach are seen immediately in correcting popular errors. Katzetnik's birth year, for example, is 1909 and not 1917, as commonly thought, and Salamandra was translated from Yiddish to Hebrew not by Y. D. Berkowitz, again as is commonly assumed, but by Y. L. Baruch, while Berkowitz edited the translation. These [End Page 434] details and a plethora of others are supported by a mass of documents, some presented to the public for the first time: Fajner's birth certificate from Poland; the correspondence between the writer and others involved in the production of Salamandra's Hebrew edition; and Katzetnik's unknown written testimony for the Eichmann trial, which is given in full and carefully compared to the events narrated in his first book. Szeintuch was even able to locate an unpublished Yiddish version of Salamandra, and he discusses it in comparison to the Hebrew translation.
This is another important and neglected dimension of Katzetnik explored in the book: that he was a bi-lingual writer, and at least the first four books of the Salamandra sextet were written originally in Yiddish. Szeintuch invests an enormous amount of energy in recreating Katzetnik's life story based on his writing and other documents, and he uses his findings, in turn, to illuminate the author's literary testimony. The task is especially challenging since De-Nur deliberately concealed his biography, but Szeintuch handles the challenge well.
The book's makeup is somewhat awkward. Several of the chapters have been previously published as articles, and their juxtaposition is not entirely integrative. Hence, there are repetitions and lengthy footnotes, some of which could be incorporated in the body of the text, perhaps in different chapters. Yet, these hundreds of pages...