- Memoirs of a Grandmother: Scenes from the Cultural History of the Jews of Russia in the Nineteenth Century, Volume I by Pauline Wengeroff
Paulina Wengeroff would have been thrilled. It is a long way from Bobroisk, where she was born, to Stanford University, but in a sense, she made it. Her memoir has appeared in an academic edition with a full scholarly apparatus. In a sense, it has been canonized—and for good reason. The story she told is fascinating, enlightening and unique. That is one of the reasons why this complete translation has long been awaited, and why there were high expectations of it. Now that it is out, we may ask: Would Ms. Wengeroff have had good reason for her happiness, and have readers received what they were waiting for? The answer, in my opinion, is a clear yes.
Paulina Wengeroff was born around 1833, and the first edition of her memoir appeared in German in 1908. In the course of her long life, she was a witness to and an active participant in the radical transformation of Jewish life that characterized much of the Jewish elite of her time. In this book, which is more a memoir than an autobiography, Wengeroff wanted to describe a world that she felt had disappeared, rather than focusing solely on the events of her lifetime. This first volume of Magnus’s projected two-volume translation is thus largely concerned with describing “traditional” east European Jewish life as Wengeroff saw it—mainly life within the non-hasidic “Lithuanian” circles in which she grew up, the Jewish elite of Brisk/Brest in the mid-nineteenth century. She saw this world as having been totally transformed. Of course, large parts of Jewish society remained very traditional in many respects well into the twentieth century; however, they were no longer the economic elite, and Wengeroff was deeply embedded precisely in that elite circle. For her, when that class was no longer traditional, Jewish society was no longer traditional. [End Page 149]
Wengeroff’s first and longest chapter, entitled “A Year in My Parents’ House,” deals with holidays and the general cycle of life in the home headed by her father, Yudl Epstein. There are rich descriptions of family dynamics, holiday customs and educational practices. In the next chapter, “The Beginning of the Era of Enlightenment,” Wengeroff describes what she saw as the first stages of change—the efforts of Max Lilienthal to enlist the Jews in supporting government efforts to transform Jewish education, and the responses to these efforts within her family and the Jewish community. The following chapter describes changes that took place on a more personal level—the family’s move to a new home in Brisk in the wake of the construction of the Brest fortress and the wedding of Wengeroff’s older sister. The volume’s last chapter deals with Jewish dress and the changes in it that characterized the nineteenth century.
Wengeroff’s book is rich and unique on many levels. Few memoirs describe the mid-nineteenth century in the detail she did; few pay as much attention to the minutiae of Jewish life; and most important of all, almost none offer a woman’s point of view. And this was a very special woman, with a sharp eye, a superb memory and a good idea of what might interest later generations.
However, in many respects this is Shulamit Magnus’s book as well. It is far more than a simple translation, though the translation itself is precise and comprehensive. The volume is greatly enhanced by Magnus’s introduction and notes. Wengeroff writes at length about her family and about herself, but she hides as much as she reveals. Magnus does her best to fill in and explain the gaps, and, moreover, she goes on to deal with the nature of firsthand writing about the recent past, the genres of such writing and their nature...