From the cover of "The People of Godlbozhits" by Leyb Rashkin
From the cover of "The People of Godlbozhits" by Leyb Rashkin

Three newly translated works are a blast from the past

The books section is supported by a generous donation from Anne Germanacos.

We are all familiar with the modern tradition of time capsules, created with the intention that they will be opened far in the future, enabling the people of tomorrow to glimpse a bygone moment in history.

There are books that, although not by design, function similarly. I want to introduce three works published within six years of each other in the 1930s that have recently been translated into English, opening new windows on worlds that are no more.

LITofftheshelf-jewBorn in 1884, Albert Londres was a pioneering journalist in the early decades of the 20th century. Traveling the world for French publications, he reported on calamities and injustices, such as prostitution in Argentina and inhuman conditions in the Devil’s Island penal colony. The highest prize for journalism in France is named in his memory.

In response to a rash of pogroms, Londres embarked in the late 1920s on a journalist’s tour of Jewish communities, beginning in London and moving eastward. His dispatches were then collected in an extraordinary 1930 book, The Wandering Jew Has Arrived,” newly translated by Helga Abraham.

The non-Jewish Londres records his impressions of each community. And he testifies memorably to the brutality and poverty that Jews endured in Eastern Europe in the interwar period (in fact, Londres is actually subjected to anti-Semitism in Poland when he is mistaken for a Jew).

He writes pessimistically, “Why these pogroms? … Because race speaks louder than humanity. A Hebrew always sticks in the throat of a Slav. And a long life together has not brought them closer. A Pole or a Russian chases a Jew from a pavement as though the Jew, who is passing by, is stealing his air. A Jew, in the eyes of an eastern European, is the incarnation of a parasite.”

After witnessing the mostly fruitless efforts of Zionist recruiters in Eastern Europe, Londres himself travels to British Mandate Palestine. Stunned by the contrast, he writes from Tel Aviv: “From a state of slavery, they became free men. In their hearts, pride replaced shame. Confidence replaced fear. And each one could stand at his window and shout, ‘I am a Jew! This is my glory!’ without risking being tied on the spot to the tail of a wild mare.”

When Londres returns to Paris, he is shocked to hear of pogroms breaking out in Hebron and Jerusalem, and returns immediately. This outbreak of violence, along with an assurance from the Arab mayor of Jerusalem that Palestine’s 175,000 Jews can be killed off within two days, yields a dampened prognosis. But Londres sees aliyah as Jews’ best chance to evade Europe’s intractable anti-Semitism.

LITofftheshelf-twothousandThat anti-Semitism is central to Romanian Mihail Sebastian’s 1934 novel, For Two Thousand Years,” translated into English for the first time by Philip Ó Ceallaigh. Born in Romania in 1907 as Iosif Mendel Hechter, Sebastian is best known today for the extraordinary diary he kept, published in English in 2000 as “Journal 1935–1944: The Fascist Years.” It is therefore unsurprising that this novel, written in a restrained manner, takes the form of a diary, drawn largely from Sebastian’s actual circumstances.

About half of the book is set during the unnamed narrator’s university days in Bucharest in the 1920s during a period of increased anti-Semitism. When he is assaulted halfway through a class, receiving punches as he is forced out of the lecture hall by fellow students, it is not a particularly unusual occurrence.

The thick environment of hatred is overwhelming. His Marxist friend believes that the situation will change after the revolution, and his Zionist friend believes that the answer is to leave for Palestine. The narrator is cold to these movements, attempting to place faith in possibilities for Jews in Romania. Even as the book lightens, when he works as an architect in rural areas, there is little that supports this hope.

Particularly distressing is the fact that so much of the hatred in this book comes from the educated. A relevant aside is that Sebastian appealed to his mentor, the Romanian philosopher Nae Ionescu, to write a preface to “For Two Thousand Years.” Ionescu obliged, and composed a fiery anti-Semitic diatribe making it clear that Jews were not welcome participants in Romanian life. Although the preface is not included in the present edition (Sebastian was roundly criticized for including it in the original publication), this episode is a profound reflection of the world captured in the book.

LITofftheshelf-godbozhitsPublished in 1936, Leyb Rashkin’s Yiddish novel The People of Godlbozhits is a vivid dissection of a fictional shtetl based on the author’s hometown of Kazimierz Dolny in eastern Poland. Jordan Finkin’s translation marks an enormous endeavor.

There is no single plotline to the novel, but many strands that form a simultaneously affectionate and cynical portrait of an entire community functioning questionably in the aftermath of World War I. We see corruption and theft, class struggle and a declining role for Judaism, all set against a backdrop of poor treatment by Polish authorities.

But dark humor abounds. For example, the town celebrates when two of its families leave for the land of Israel. But several months later, a letter arrives from the Holy Land full of complaints about their miserable life, along with a request from one of the pioneers that his mother-in-law go to the home of the town’s chief Zionist recruiter and break all of his windows. She is unable to break more than one, so another of the town’s matriarchs obliges.

The novel was celebrated after its publication, but it would be Rashkin’s only one. He was killed in 1939 while trying to escape Nazi-occupied Poland for the Soviet Union.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.