Yiddish Language and Culture in 20th Century Eastern Europe

Academic Conference on the Bloomington campus

              October 28-30, 2001

Nina Perlina, Professor of Indiana University

Farewell to Yiddish, Farewell to Life: Long Conversations in Expectation of a Happy Death by Yevsey Tseytlin

In 1999 DarthmouthCollege published an interesting collection of papers (ostensibly, proceedings of a conference) Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present. The contributors to the volume each in his/her own way proceeded from the assumption that “memory can be understood as a cultural phenomenon as well as an individual and social one” and viewed “cultural memorization as an activity occuring in the present, in which the past is continuously modified and redescribed even as it contunues to shape the future” (vii). Naturally, issues such as trauma memories, various attempts at reenlivening the past for the sake of regaining one’s own individual identity and opening a new perspective on the communal/collective future, as well as the labyrinthine ways of nostalgic memories occupied the central place in this collection. The book scrutinized memoirs of Jewish emigres and holocaust survivors (rendered as documents and /or fiction), interviews with repatriates, and summarized results of fieldwork research in ethnography and social history undertaken by many scholars from different areas in the humanities. Characteristilally, private and collective experiences of Soviet Jews were not included into this collection, and a very serious problem of how individuals and large groups of Soviet Jewish intellectuals had alienated themselves from their own language, and ceased contributing to their own cultural and discursive consciousness was not considered in the book.

In this paper I ‘d like to overview a novel that absorbs the results of fieldwork, undertaken singlehandedly by Yevsey Tseytlin. Yevsey Tseytlin, a writer, critic, and historian of culture, who now lives in Chicago and works for Shalom, the first Midwestern Jewish magazine in Russian, had collected many valuable documents on ihe fates of Lithuanian Jews from the Soviet Union. For several years Tseytlin worked on a literary-scientific research project “Oral Histories of Lithuanian Jews” which was supported by the State Lithuanian Jewish Museum and by the Sorosh foundation. From 1990 to 1996 Tseytlin carried on dialogues and interviews with Jakubas Josade, a Lithuanian Jewish writer, critic, journalist, and – to an extent – existential thinker, and then recombined the results of his conversations into a novel, Dolgie besedy v ozhidanii schastlivoi smerti (Long Conversations in Expectation of a Happy Death). His work represents a rich and organic fusion of polyvalent discourse genres. Long Conversations can justifiably be treated as a critical biography of a secular Yiddishtst and Soviet Lithuanian playwright; as a testimony documenting the history of the destruction of Jewish culture in Lithuania between 1940 and 1990; as an inquiry into the labyrinth of damaged individual memory; as the hero’s sorrowful contemplation of his own opportunistic efforts to make himself “useful” to the era of Bolshevism and to escape Stalin’s antisemitic purges, and. finally, as an analogue to Kafka’s “Metamprphosis.” Of all of these complex meanings I am going to discuss one: how does Tseitlin depict the discursive awareness of an individual who has consciously alienated himself from the language of his ethnic community.

Tseytlin’s hero. /’ (Jankel/Jakov/Jokubas Josade), was born into a well-doing Jewish family (his father was an owner of a small factory) within the Pale of settlement in 1911;

during the 192O’s-3O’s his life took many turns leading him form his native town of Calvaria to the bourgeois Kaunas where he established his reputation as a journalist in the liberal Yiddishe Stimme and also became a clandestine member of the pro-Communist MOPR (International Society of Help to the Workers). After the annexation, due to his contacts with the prominent Lithuanian Communist Zhimaitis. Josada managed to save his parents from exile to Siberia. Two months later, in August 1941, his entire family died in the Jewish ghetto. Till the end of his days Joasada could not forget that he himself withdraw the names of his loved ones from the list of the living. Very important, it is already there that the word “Jews” is not pronounced, and in Josada’s memory, the entire episode of his encounter with Zhimaitis looks almost like a pantomime, where jestures, mimickry, and eye contact substitute for words and signal the significance of hidden, prohibited truth.  As soon as J. enters Zhimaitis’ office, the Communist boss sends his secretary away, and then with no explanations, asks Josade to take a pencil and to cross out the parents’ names from the list of those assigned for exile. Haifa century later. .1 still remembers the symbolism of the gestures and a few words spoken aloud during this scene:

-”Take a pencil and cross them out by your own hand.” — So I did and many times later did I regret it. Avioding eye-contact, Zhemaitis commanded: “Go away. I should never see you again here.” <…> Why did he hand Josada a pencil? Did he want Josada himself to amend the list and in this way to be responsible for the unknown yet not unpredictable consequences? -”I myself! With my own hand! I signed a death sentence for my family. In Siberia, they would have, probably, survived.” – When relivening this scene in order to understand its mysterious and providential meaning, Joasda refuses to preserve the string

of events that link individual cases of his family members to the shared experience of the Jewish nation. His traumatized memory rejects the notion of shared tragic experience (Jews sent to exile and possible death in the Soviet Union and Jews sent to Ghettos and extermination by the Nazis), and he tries to make out the mysterious symbols of anindividual’s fate and destiny in isolation form the common experience of his nation.

In 1945, Josade, a soldier of the 16lh Lithuanian Division of the Red Army and a supervisor of the Vilnius branch of the Soviet Yiddish edition Der Ernes, revisited his native town and found out that his entire family, as well as 90% of the Jewish population of Lithuania were exterminated by the Nazis. It was there that Josade fabricated for himself a logistically plausible explanation for why the Main Management of Literature (GLAVLIT) refused to support Soviet publications in Yiddish: if 90% of native speakers are lost, the printed word has no audience to address. Having found this insufficient explanation, Josade came out with his first conformist decision: he will write on the destinies of his people during the war, but in Lithuanian, not in Yiddish. That’s how he entered the labyrinth of disloyalties. “On his disloyalties /’ speaks honestly, with no desire to amend anything. Does he realize, however, that it is he himself and his identity as a Jew to whom he has been most disloyal? After the war / altered his name: he used to be Jankel (or Jasha to his wife), and became Jokubas. He used to think and write in Yiddish, yet now switched to Lithuanian.” Quite intentionally, /’ divested his own children of the language spoken by their forefathers and shut for them the door into the world of Yiddish culture – “I wished to protect them from many disasters.” he agrued. His decision to abandon Yiddish language and culture seemed to be irreversible: even in his diaries and in his letters to his daughter (who left Vilnius for Israel in 1972) he used

Lithuanian, not Yiddish. He wanted to secure for himself an existential space in an other cultural world, to realize himself as a writer who communicates with a wider audience and uses a foreign language to speak about the problems of the Soviet Jewry from the position of general, universal truth. Yet general, symbolic allegories of Lithuanian (a foreign language he adopted for his professional needs) failed to provide an adequate expression to the most fundamental, archetypal metaphors of his own ethnic community. The discursive awareness of his own people had been muffled and found no adequate depiction in his works written in Lithuanian. In his diaries he addressed individual facts and wrote about tragic transformations that were taking place in the world of the Soviet Jewry. However at the same time he believed that his publications, in which he carefully avoided this particular problem, were not written dishonestly; rather they corresponded to the spirit of internationalism and thus addressed the future. For the sake of this future he tried to silence the past and ban the language of his own narrative memory. He rendered the traumatic memories of the past as illegitimate and made it impossible for himself to interpret the meaning of the past from the position of the present.

For decades, /’ remained silent about the wounds that had never been healed in his heart, and in his memory, ashes of the Jewish ghetto were indistinguishable from cinder left of his collection of Jewish writers — Dubnov, Byalik, Perets Markish — that he destroyed in 1950. In 1972 he completed a play about the Doctors Trial, “The Silence Syndrom,”  in which he tried to give voice to his fears. But the play was not allowed to be performed. The banning of the performance damaged Josada’s reputation: people started to avoid contacting him, he found himself surrounded by silence. Yet more tragic for Josada, as a creative personality, he realized that this play failed to give an

embodiment to what he had understood about the destructive power of conformism. The central metaphors of the play, suppressed memories and degradation of communicative awareness, were rendered through various types of reticentia and through images of nonrealization. In this play, aposiopesis (hinting at an idea which, though unexpressed, may be perceived emotionally), was supported by other rhetorical figures of nonverbalizing the truth. Through this rhetorical device, the attention of spectators and hearers was distracted from an unanswered question to a remote or unrelated point, and the protagonists, as well as the playwright, made the audience feel that they could do nothing about such a nondesirable qui pro quo. The textual fabric of the play gained in symbolic allusions, but lost in clarity of meanings. In his conversations with Tseytlin, Josada eventually acknowledged that in his play he did not succeed in depicting “the entangled life of a national awareness” because the emphasis on individual ethics and responsibility was withdrawn from the confessional discourses of his characters. As Tseytlin observes, not only in the “Syndrom of Silence”, but in all of his other dramas, Josada’s preparatory drafts were more complex than the plays’ definitive texts, and similarly, as an individual he was much more complex a personality than writer. His latent energy as a chronicler of the destruction of Soviet Jewry remained unrealized, and narrative witness of the workings of memory did not help him regain his cultural identity and remake his “Self.” In the metapoetic commentary to his plays ./ views himself as the last Jew of the Yiddish speaking community, “a witness to silence,” who has betrayed his own language.  He believes that it is the conspiracy of silence that has killed the Yiddish literary culture in the Soviet Union and in Lithuania.