This article originally appeared in the Yiddish Forverts.
It’s not every day that a manuscript gets discovered in an attic, let alone a complete book written by a distinguished Yiddish author.
Well, in the world of Yiddish, where even published books are often relegated to synagogue basements, occasions like these are not entirely unusual. Nonetheless, my heart skipped a beat when I recently realized that the yellowed pages I held in my hands were buried treasure: the manuscript of a book of memoirs, “Togbukh af tsurik” (“A Retrospective Diary”) by the great poet Binem Heller (1908-1998).
My discovery occurred as I was rummaging through Heller’s archive, stored in two Coca-Cola boxes that had lain untouched for 20 years in the attic of Heller’s son-in-law. The title of the book was familiar to me, as its first chapters had already appeared in Di Goldene Keyt, the most distinguished post-war Yiddish literary journal, in 1987. The remaining pages of Heller’s memoirs — 196 in all — remained undiscovered and in the shadows. I have no doubt that Heller had wanted to publish the manuscript since he revised it twice, and typed out several chapters. For various reasons, about which we can only conjecture today, he was unable to realize his goal.
“A Retrospective Diary” is an unusual exception in Heller’s work. For the most part, he was a poet. Perhaps he had to wait until he was in his 70s in order to write such rich prose; the memoir tells a suspenseful story, accompanied with clever and sensitive analysis. Although he calls it a diary, and several chapters bear dates between August and December 1984, the work is in essence an autobiography, spanning from Heller’s childhood in Warsaw to his twilight years in Tel Aviv. The book portrays Heller’s ideological transition in the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1948; his experiences in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Moscow; his encounters with Yiddish authors and the heartbreaking illness of his wife Golda. (The book begins and ends with her death.)
But Heller also describes his youth in Poland and narrates his day-to-day life in Israel during the 1980s, including passages about the war in Lebanon. Heller shares secrets about Yiddish writers like Di Goldene Keyt editor Avrom Sutzkever and about his own family, such as his sister, who he previously depicted in his poem, “My Sister, Khaye,” which was published not long before the chapters of his autobiography. I consider those years of retrospective self-appraisal to be the highpoint of his career.
“A Retrospective Diary” is still in manuscript form but I’ve begun translating it into Hebrew. Below are just several pages from Heller’s work, to give readers an idea of what a treasure this is. My hope is that publishing this will be the first step toward helping this significant manuscript see the light of day.
A Chapter from “A Retrospective Diary” by Binem Heller, September 10, 1984
Recently, I’ve taken to reading documents from the 1930s; mostly letters from American Yiddish writers like Joseph Opatoshu, asking their friends in the USSR for assistance in traveling to the Soviet countries, so that they could make an honorable living with decent wages through their writing.
Even in prosperous America, writers lived in dire material circumstances, and often in great poverty. Among them were distinguished figures in Yiddish literature like H. Leivick, Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, Mani Leib and Shmuel Niger [Charney]. An exception were those who had the good fortune to receive a job at one of the Yiddish newspapers.
This was even more the case among the Yiddish writers and poets in Poland. Poverty and unemployment was their fate. Poets Yisroel Shtern, Yosef Kirman, Hershele and Chaim Semiatitzky were practically starving. They would spend all day in the Literary Association at Tlomackie 13, Warsaw, waiting for someone to treat them to a glass of tea or a cigarette. No wonder that of all the Yiddish literary centers it was Moscow, the one in the Soviet Union, that aroused the most envy and astonishment. It was the one place where the government actually paid Yiddish writers and poets to write. Only the most naive observers really believed that in the 1920s writers like Dovid Bergelson, Peretz Markish, Dovid Hofshteyn, Leyb Kvitko and Moyshe Kulbak returned to the Soviet Union solely for ideological reasons. True, for some of them, the radicalization among creative intellectuals in the West did play a role in their decision. But even more important was their longing to stop their incessant wandering without a stable address, and to avoid a dependence on favors by editors like the Forward’s Ab Cahan or S. Y. Yatskan of the Warsaw daily Haynt.
Even we, the youngest among the poets, dreamed of making our way to the Soviet lands, which for us was the Promised Land. In 1936, Moshe Shulstein and I wrote a letter to Itzik Fefer. We told him of our bitter fate, about our perpetual unemployment, that we lacked even the most elementary conditions for study or literary work. We finished the letter with the desperate request that he, Itzik Fefer, should do everything in his power to bring us to the Soviet Union, so that we could live and create freely and honorably. Obviously, our letter received no reply.
Ten years later, in 1946, when I was already living in Moscow, I had an occasion to recall that letter. I was sitting with friends on the well-known sofa in the hallway of the Anti-Fascist Committee, near the entrance to the office of the central leadership for Jewish labor. Itzik Fefer came out and invited me into his private study. There I saw not only Fefer but also Shloyme Mikhoels, Matsi Dobrushin, Bergelson, and if I’m not mistaken, Kvitko.
Fefer got right to the point: He had received an alarming letter from Itzik Manger, in London, where Manger had spent the end of the war. Manger wrote that he was in dire circumstances, that the community leaders in London were all dirty rotten scoundrels, that he couldn’t even afford cigarettes, and he was already on his last legs. He was asking to get permission to come to the Soviet Union where he was certain he would be treated differently.
Fefer made several brief interruptions while reading Manger’s letter. I had the impression that his thick eyeglasses had fogged up a little. I conjectured that he skipped over a few words or whole lines - in other words editing Manger’s letter.
After reading the letter, he asked my opinion: Would it be beneficial — for him and for our country — if Manger were to settle in the Soviet Union?
What could I say? How could I decide the fate of this great Yiddish poet? I knew what had become of Kulbak and Izi Kharik in the 1930s, and only several years later, with the poet Zelig Axelrod. I remembered Manger from before the war, at Tlomackie 13, his garrulous nature, his tendency to be abrupt with editors and cultural activists, his hasty choice of words when he was angry. I decided to speak the uncensored truth. No, this was no place for him, I said. This would never be a sanctuary for him.
Many years later, in Ramat Aviv, in the tiny apartment that Itzik Manger received from the Israeli government, I told him the story about his appeal to the Anti-Fascist Committee in Moscow. I saw that it was difficult for Manger to recall the letter he had sent. Finally he said: “I had no idea that you had saved my life. What would have become of me, had they let me in?”
“Probably the same thing that happened to Itzik Fefer,” I replied. “But don’t exaggerate, I said. It isn’t easy to get permission to enter the USSR, just as it isn’t easy to leave. They probably wouldn’t have done you that ‘favor’ anyway, even with my recommendation.”
I had the impression that Manger never fully comprehended how complicated even the simplest matter became when trying to accomplish something in the Soviet Union.
The reason why I’ve devoted so much space to an issue rarely written about in diaries, is to give the reader an idea of what that country that calls itself the Soviet Union is really like. For years the intelligentsia in most of the non-Communist world blindly believed in the Communist agenda, enchanted by that “freedom bell ringing throughout Moscow,” as Romain Rolland once put it in the 1920s. I know, I know: Jewish workers and intellectuals saw a solution to all their sufferings in communism, in the international revolution which was supposed to bring redemption not only for all economic oppression but also for all who were persecuted because of race, creed, or national origin¦
I, too, was one of them, steadfastly loyal to the Communist government. Until this day, I’m still not sure why I was so easily swayed. Throughout the difficult phases of my life, I was certainly stubborn and courageous enough to break with my previous community, even when I risked ruining myself to do so. During my youth I was the one who never brooked compromise with my parents, and caused them a lot of anguish because of it. Even while standing over my father’s freshly dug grave, next to my broken mother, my brothers and sisters and the Hasidim, my father’s friends, I refused to say Kaddish, because that went against my principles.
I still remember the face of my mother, the pain creasing the corners of her mouth. I caused her the greatest shame of her life. None of the pious Jews, the friends of my father, could understand what was happening. Perhaps they thought I didn’t want to say Kaddish because I was angry with my father, because he had once wronged me.
As soon as the crowd dispersed at the Praga cemetery, I ran away, by myself. I took the Number 23 trolley, which traveled from Brudna to Warsaw. I went up to the little room on Kupiecka Street where I was living with Golda. She wasn’t at home. She hadn’t attended the funeral because she wasn’t well-received in the family; everyone knew that we were living together.
I collapsed onto the iron bed and burst into sobs that continued until Golda came home. It was the first time I had mourned for my father, a person I so respected and loved. I was overcome with pain and deep regret for having publicly disgraced something that had been so holy to my father, simply because of my new beliefs and dogma.
50 years have passed, and I still see him in my dreams — in Warsaw; in Paris; in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan; in Moscow. Not once does he seem angry at me. Throughout his life he had been a very pious Jew, a Vorker Hasid, an upright man, who told the truth to everyone, no matter how bitter that truth might be. Maybe that’s why he was known as “the angry Noah.” He was honest, he hated flattery and hypocrisy, but in his heart he loved people.
After returning to Poland at New Years in 1948 I paid my first visit to the Praga cemetery, to the spot where my father’s grave should have been, near the monument for Shmul Zbytkower. But I was unable to find a single intact gravestone in the cemetery, only fragments of the Hebrew alphabet and among them the bones and skulls of the desecrated graves.
Now I go to say Kaddish for my father, may he rest in peace, at every yahrzeit, at the main synagogue in Tel Aviv. Though I don’t get much out of conventional words of prayer, I derive comfort in the “Amens” that I hear from the worshipping strangers surrounding me.
The USSR’s Yiddish Intelligentsia, Before The Purge