The Great War: A Letter From the Front Deciphered

On Language

By Philologos

Published September 23, 2009, issue of October 02, 2009.
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Forward reader Leonard Nelson has presented me with a challenge. “Attached to my e-mail,” he writes, “is a photograph and note from my father sent to his family while serving in the Russian army in World War I. The note is written in a cursive Yiddish that I cannot read. I would appreciate any assistance you might provide.”

The photograph (at right)shows four Russian soldiers in long, capelike uniforms and high-crowned military caps, one sitting in a chair with a cigarette in his mouth, two standing on either side of him and one sprawled on the ground at their feet. The Yiddish letter is printed above. I have numbered its lines from one to 17.

Cursive Yiddish script, if you are not used to it, can indeed be difficult, and my experience with it is limited. Moreover, Mr. Nelson’s father started at the top of the page with a small script that then grew larger; he did not always dip his pen in its inkwell in time, so some words are very light; he had a handwriting in which certain characters are prominent and showy and others diminutive, and he rarely bothered with punctuation. And to make matters worse, while the top and right margins of the paper he wrote on are intact, the bottom and left margins appear to have been snipped with a pair of scissors, leaving missing words and parts of words.

At first, indeed, I could hardly make out a word. Yet after staring at the letter repeatedly, first words, then phrases and then entire sentences began to fall into place. The trick in such cases is to start with the words one can recognize, note how their characters are formed and look for the same characters elsewhere, thus adding bit by bit to one’s familiarity with the handwriting. Below is my suggested decipherment of what Mr. Nelson’s father wrote, with each numbered line printed in Yiddish with my English translation beneath it. Words that I could not make out or understand, or that are truncated, are followed by brackets with question marks, and sometimes guesses at what they were. I have also added punctuation.

1) *Zey, libe kuzinke, du shraybst az ikh bin ayn shey[ner]

See here, dear cousin, you write that I am a lovely

2) un ayn kluger. Zey, ser a shoyner. Ikh bin kasm

and smart person. See here, [?]. I am angry

3) zikh mit aza kuzin! Ikh bin nit sheyn

with such a cousin [as you]! I am not lovely

4) un nit klug, nor dos vos ikh reyd,

and not smart, but what I say,

5) dos meyn ikh. Ikh bet af Voyuta

I mean. I’m asking Voyuta

6) tsu shraybn ales hadrobne.

to write [me] everything in detail.

7) Zey, zidl oys mayn shvester [?].

See here, scold my sister [?].

8) Far vos vil zi nit shraybn mir

Why doesn’t she want to write me

9) kayn briv? Efsher zayt i[r]

a letter? Perhaps y[ou]] are

10) ale broygez af mir vos i[kh]

all angry at me because I

11) kum nit. Got vet gebn af

haven’t come. God will provide

12) deruf oykh a tsayt! Yede mume fr[egt]

a time for that too! Every aunt as[ks]

13) tsi hob ikh gefast Yom Kippur. [?]….

if I fasted on Yom Kippur.[?]….

14) un gehat ayn gringn taynis [?]…

and had an easy fast. [?]….

15) … af iber a yor in der h[eym]

… Next year at h[ome]

16) zol zayn nokh a gringn…

may it again be an easy one….

17) Gring iz es geven gor [?]….

It was quite an easy [?]….

Perhaps some of you who are native Yiddish speakers can figure out the unclear parts. Even without them, however, the gist of the letter is clear. Mr. Nelson’s father was writing from the army to a female cousin who had apparently rebuked him for a previous letter of his that, she said, wasn’t in keeping with a fine, smart person like himself. He, in turn, complains that his family and sister are not writing to him, and he asks that someone named Voyuta let him know what is happening at home. Can it be, he asks, that his family is angry because he hasn’t visited them on his furloughs? The only people he has heard from are his aunts, who are concerned with his religious observance and want to know if he has fasted on Yom Kippur. (Kippur, incidentally, is misspelled by him, as are the Hebrew-derived words taynis, “fast,” and kasn zikh, “to be angry,” a sign that he had little formal education.) The writer assures his cousin that he did indeed fast and that he got through the day easily. He also expresses the wish in the last, incomplete lines to be able to be home next Yom Kippur.

All very trivial, perhaps — yet is there not something stirring in this nearly 100-year-old letter, written in a hurry from the front or God knows where, that speaks of the loyalty of a Jewish soldier in the czar’s wartime army to his religion? I think there is. That’s why I’ve chosen to print it this Yom Kippur.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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