Academic journal article Shofar

"I Know Who You Are, but Who I Am-You Do Not Know . . .": Reading Yiddish Writers in a Polish Literary Context

Academic journal article Shofar

"I Know Who You Are, but Who I Am-You Do Not Know . . .": Reading Yiddish Writers in a Polish Literary Context

Article excerpt

The article discusses Polish-Yiddish literary contacts by illustrating them with selected examples from four novels and one poem. It presents parallel readings of Ziemia obiecana (The Promised Land, 1899) by Wladyslaw Stanislaw Reymont and Di brider Ashkenazi (The Brothers Ashkenazi, 1936) by Israel Joshua Singer, Isaac Bashevis Singer's The King of the Fields (Yiddish original Der kenig fun di felder, 1988) and Józef Ignacy Kraszewski's Stara basn (Old Fairy Tale, 1876) as well as Avrum Sutzkever's poem "Tsu Poyln" ("To Poland," 1946), read in the context of Polish poetry of the Romantic period. Yiddish writers who were born in Poland and spent some part of their lives there were familiar with Polish literature, sometimes drew inspiration from Polish authors, and referred to their works in various ways, oftentimes polemical. The aim of this comparative article is to indicate the rich and still unexplored potential this field of research may offer.

When I first read Isaac Bashevis Singer's works more than thirty years ago, what struck me were some resemblances to Polish classics. His novels in particular reverberated with Polish literature of the Positivist period; e.g., the opening of Satan in Goray resembled Ogniem i mieczem (With Fire and Sword) by Henryk Sienkiewicz, and The Manor and The Estate Boleslaw Prus's Lalka (The Doll). In most cases this is just a seeming similarity, for Bashevis's writings are created from a completely different perspective, usually a critical one which contrasts strongly with the patriotically heroic point of view characteristic of many Polish authors. What is more, it is quite possible that some of the affinities are indirect and entered Bashevis's fiction via his readings of Yiddish classics, like Y. L. Peretz, Sholem Asch, or Yosef Opatoshu, who were well acquainted with Polish literature. Nevertheless there is no doubt that reading Yiddish literature in tandem with Polish literature is often quite helpful and illuminating. For instance, in Peretz's plays there are echoes of Stanislaw Wyspianski's dramas, Yankev Glatshteyn uses a quotation from one of Maria Konopnicka's poems as the motto to his autobiographical travel book Ven Yash is geforn (lit. "When Yash Set Forth," published in English as Homecoming at Twilight), and each stanza of Avrum Sutzkever's poem"Tsu Poyln" ("To Poland") ends with a quotation from Juliusz Slowacki's poem"Smutno mi, Boze!" ("I Am Sad, My Lord"). It is hard not to notice parallels between Wladystaw Reymont's Ziemia obiecana (The Promised Land) and I.J. Singer's Di brider Ashkenazi (The Brothers Ashkenazi), and there is enough evidence that one of Bashevis's late novels, Der kenig fun di fielder (The King of the Fields), drew directly from Józef Ignacy Kraszewski's Stara bain (The Old Fairy Tale). All these examples are a good illustration of the quotation from Aaron Zeidin's drama Esterke used by Chone Shmeruk as the motto in his pivotal comparative study on the image of Esterke in Yiddish and Polish literature.1 The motto consists of a statement expressed by the ghost of the great Yiddish writer Y. L. Peretz to the ghost of the Polish "national bard," Adam Mickiewicz: "Ver du bist - dos veys ikh, nor ver ikh bin - dos veystu nisht . . ." ("I know who you are, but who I am - you do not know . . ."). I am not aware of any other statement that would so apdy and succinctly render the relationships between both literatures.

Following Shmeruk's example one might imagine a comprehensive comparative study juxtaposing mutual relations and literary traditions on a large scale. Such a study remains to be written and would require great erudition and a thorough knowledge of both literatures. In the limited scope of this paper I will just briefly present three characteristic examples representing various historical periods and literary genres.

Wtadyslaw Reymont and I. J. Singer: Two Tales of One City

Both Wladystaw Stanislaw Reymont (1867-1925) and Israel Joshua Singer (1893-1944) occupy important places in Polish and Yiddish literatures respectively. …

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