The secular Yiddish culture at the turn of this century held out glamor and excitement to many of the young men who had been raised in traditional homes. Just what it meant to them is the theme of this memoir by J. J. Trunk, who was born in Osmolsk, Poland, in 1887, and became one of the leading Yiddish writers of pre-war Poland. He came to this country in 1941, and is now living in New York City. The present selection, from the fourth and fifth volumes, was translated by Lucy Dawidowicz.
When my Uncle Yosel left Kutno for Lublin, he wanted to have nothing to do with the Hasidim there, but he did bring with him his enthusiasm for Haskalah [enlightenment] and literature. In his free moments he even tried to write a Hebrew poem extolling the virtues of that heavenly daughter Haskalah and castigating the sinister forces that denied the light. The maskilim [“enlightened ones”] of Lublin at once recognized in my uncle a kindred being, theirs body and soul, even though he was a grandson of the greatest Polish rabbis and Hasidic rebbes; it was, in fact, just because of his distinguished forebears that the renegade impressed them. He was welcomed into the circle of Lublin maskilim and became their darling. When a Hazomer [cultural society] was organized there, Uncle Yosel naturally became cock of the walk. All his spiritual ambitions blossomed like flowers in the sun.
One day, out of the blue, I received a letter from Uncle Yosel. The famous writer Y. L. Peretz had come to Lublin from War-saw for a lecture at the Hazomer, and Uncle Yosel had shown him my essays in Hakol. Of course, my uncle was not pleased at my works being published in a “reactionary” Hasidic paper, but still, it was something in print. I don’t know what Peretz really said about my efforts in Hakol, but Uncle Yosel wrote: “Your writing has found favor in the eyes of the great writer Mr. Y. L. Peretz.” I could hardly believe what I read. The letter was a terrific shock, especially since Uncle Yosel revealed that he had told Peretz I had many manuscripts, and Peretz had suggested that I visit him in Warsaw to show him my work. I thought the ceiling had opened over my head and all the angels of Heaven were beckoning to me. Peretz’s name was something to conjure with. Imagine, that I should myself go to see him! It was too frightening. My awareness that Peretz’s mind now contained a consciousness of my name awakened the wildest dreams, but I lacked the courage to take the daring step I so desired.
I answered Uncle Yosel immediately, saying that even though his news had put me in seventh heaven, I still could not face the idea of going by myself to Peretz, who probably had forgotten the whole business. I would come to him like a beggar at the door and he wouldn’t even take a second look at me.
Uncle Yosel told me not to take after my family. He said if I would just spend an hour with Leyzer Lam, his father-in-law, he would beat out of me the old unworldly delicacies of Kutno as the dust is beaten out of an old carpet. But, knowing the Trunk family, Uncle Yosel realized he could accomplish nothing by mail: I would remain the same trembling and delicate young gentleman who would always have to be kept in hot-water bottles. Uncle Yosel decided that as soon as he could leave some of his urgent business with the Lams, he would come to Warsaw and personally escort me to Peretz. He had to be in Warsaw anyway to purchase some books for his Hazomer library, and it would give him a chance to go to the opera. He longed desperately for good music. If I were not such a delicate mollycoddle, he said, I would spit on all the Hasidim and their traditions and go along to the opera. Only then would I realize that we live in a wonderful world with opportunities for a free and beautiful life. But no—he knew beforehand that I would not have the nerve, and who knows if I were not a lost soul altogether—unless some shiksa should come along to make a man of me. This is the essence of Uncle Yosel’s letter, written in a maskilish, euphuistic Hebrew, cursing all bigots and reactionaries and telling me to prepare my best manuscripts to take to Peretz.
I counted the hours until Uncle Yosel’s arrival. Brightest hope and darkest fear took hold of me by turns. I searched through my writings to find something suitable. At that time I was already writing in Yiddish, but it seemed better to take a long Hebrew story, a sort of autobiographical novel into which I had poured all my experience, past and present. It seemed the best window through which Peretz could peer into my being.
Late one afternoon several days later, Uncle Yosel turned up. He was dressed in European fashion and seemed quite content with himself. Nevertheless, he still looked like a yeshiva student masquerading on Purim: he could not so easily efface the signs of his rabbinic home in Kutno. He had let his fingernails grow long, probably to spite God by showing that he no longer cut them every Friday as he had done in Kutno. He had to show in every possible way that he belonged more to the Lams than to the Trunks.
Uncle Yosel told me he had already bought the books he needed for the Lublin Hazomer. Last night he had been to the opera and later to a cabaret where naked shiksas danced and sang gay, spicy couplets. But would a Trunkian mollycoddle like me know about that? He had also learned that Peretz received visitors after four in the afternoon. I was to prepare to go with him and take along a manuscript. Uncle Yosel would stay two days more in Warsaw, and if only I were not such a milksop, he would take me to a movie and show me something of the beautiful world. He wouldn’t even propose the theater: he knew I wouldn’t have the nerve to take such a revolutionary step.
It was nearing four o’clock. Uncle Yosel said it was time to go.
I felt myself turning pale and my hands trembled. I wrapped my story in a newspaper and we went out.
It was just a few blocks from Grzybow to Ceglana I where Peretz lived, about a quarter of an hour’s walk. Even today I cannot forget this most decisive walk in my life. Thirty-odd years later when I passed these streets, my heart still beat excitedly in remembrance of that earlier walk. I have never forgotten the cobblestones, a certain street lamp, a newspaper kiosk, and a dozen other details that caught my eye.
Passing the court of Twarda 10, the Hasidic prayer-house of the Alexander Rabbi, I paused for a long look inside, as if taking a desperate farewell.
We crossed the street at Ciepla and Ceglana. A tall smokestack rose from the red factory building, and opposite stood a large spacious house resembling a barracks, with lots of windows. We approached the gate. Unlike other houses, this gate was always locked, and it seemed to me pregnant with the mystery of Peretz’s being. We entered a small and tranquil courtyard, in the center of which grew some trees. These trees, too, growing in the quiet of a Warsaw yard, seemed to have something of poetry and of Peretz.
Entering a side door, we came to an ancient and spotless hall stairway. Its cleanliness was like something Gentile, unlike the Warsaw I knew. The staircase was shining, narrow, and curving. It was as quiet as if no one had ever climbed those steps or even lived in the house. Everything seemed subdued to the unseen presence of Peretz. I felt my heart beating like a hammer, and I wanted desperately to put off the great moment my feet were bringing me to.
We stopped before a small wood-panelled vestibule on the second floor. A metal nameplate on the door said in Hebrew, in large characters: “Y. L. Peretz receives from 3 to 4.” At the door hung an old-fashioned bell-pull.
Uncle Yosel rang the bell. The thought leaped into my mind to dash down the steps and leave my uncle at the door. We could hear the door being unlatched and then opened. On the threshold stood Yitzchok Leibush Peretz.
I had occasionally seen him at a distance. In his long black cape and soft felt hat, he had seemed quite tall. Now there stood before us a short, stout figure, with graying short-cropped hair. A long yellow mustache concealed his mouth; the ends of his mustache drooped over the corners of his lips and trembled upon his cheeks. He wore a silk smoking jacket. His shirt collar was open and revealed a short, rather heavy neck. He wore pince-nez, with half lenses. He raised his limpid eyes to us and asked in Polish what we wanted. But as soon as he recognized Uncle Yosel he changed his tone and began to speak in Yiddish.
“Is this the young man you told me about in Lublin?” he asked, looking at me. I was dressed in a long kapote and the traditional black serge cap. I was already growing a small yellowish beard. Peretz saw the newspaper-wrapped package in my hand and his face broke into a smile. “Come in,” he said.
Peretz’s home overwhelmed me; everything seemed to me full of poetry and fame. His study was a large light room, though the old-fashioned windows, set with small panes of glass, seemed somewhat countrified. In the center of the room stood large wooden bowls of full-grown oleander plants which filled the room with flaming crimson, a crimson that seemed dewy in the light of the sun pouring in. The windows of the study showed a generous portion of sky because there was no building opposite, only the tall factory chimney just opposite the window at which Peretz’s desk stood. The desk itself was covered with large vases of flowers that overshadowed everything else, making it seem like a fragrant flowerbed. The walls were densely hung with drawings and photographs, including portraits of Peretz in various poses.
In the naivety of my emotions, everything contributed to my fantastic imaginings. Here the Muses really soared; no one but Peretz could live like this.
Peretz sat down at his desk and asked us to be seated. The odor of the flowers intoxicated me. Peretz pointed to the package in my hand and said, “Well, young man, show what you have.”
Timidly I gave him the thick notebook. Peretz opened it, let his eyes rest upon the densely written pages, and began to read.
Silence reigned. Uncle Yosel raised his head and studied the portraits on whose strong colors the sun played. I sat lifeless. I felt as if I had given up all initiative and all will, and was overcome by a profound inner emptiness. Peretz read a little, passed over some pages, and then read some more.
At last he raised his eyes and peered at me over his half lenses. He closed the notebook and put it aside.
“You have interesting ideas like . . . (he mentioned the name of a well-known Yiddish writer), but you don’t know Hebrew. You think in Yiddish and translate yourself into Hebrew. No, this has no point. Why don’t you write Yiddish? Doesn’t it suit you, a son-in-law of the Priveses, to write in the language of the common herd?”
I answered that I did write Yiddish, but I had wanted to bring him a bigger piece.
“No, no, bring me some of your Yiddish pieces,” he said and returned the thick manuscript.
He was silent a while and then said: “I’d just like to read you something of mine which I wrote today.”
He took up a large sheet of paper overlaid with tiny characters. He moved closer to the desk. His gray short-cropped hair seemed to become stiffer, and his clear eyes took on a dewy youthful brilliance. He began to read.
It was a prose poem, “Cain and Abel.” I would not today rank it among Peretz’s best work. But at that moment I considered it the greatest spiritual experience of my life.
Peretz’s voice was unlike any I had ever heard, at once crusty and tender, metallic as gold and sweet as the subtlest honey. In this voice Peretz could express with mastery his emotions and turbulence, his longings and his unquieted temperament. He could threaten like an enraged lion and be gentle as the most peaceful dove. With good reason, he had the reputation of being a great public speaker, capable of swaying the largest crowd.
When he had finished reading, he rose from his chair. We, too, stood up.
“Bring me some of your work in Yiddish,” he said as we shook hands, “and we will see.”
I was dizzy when we left the apartment. But the trees in the courtyard seemed to grow more familiar.
The next day Uncle Yosel took me some place along Ujazdowskie Aleje where there were no bearded Jews in long kapotes. In great secrecy he led me into a movie.
I did not consider my Yiddish writings as containing the essence of my spirituality. In Hebrew I hoped to express my intellectual moods, my introspections, the subtlety of my observations. In Yiddish I wrote about my milieu and especially my feeling for nature, which was always strong—I had spent my childhood and many months of my later life in the country. Yiddish evoked for me the fragrant fields and orchards among which I had been born and brought up. Hebrew called forth the Gemara and the intellectuality of my father’s family. Hebrew was the language of the Trunks; Yiddish was the language of my mother and my Grandfather Boruch.
It had seemed most proper to present my intellectual side to Peretz, and so I had brought only my Hebrew writings. As for Uncle Yosel, no matter how much he detested rabbis and the Gemara, no matter how impressed he was with the turbulent simplicity of the Lams, he was still, at bottom, an intellectual Trunk and a grandchild of Reb Yeshayele Kutner. He reckoned only with my Hebrew accomplishments. A maskil to the marrow of his bones, he considered Yiddish something for the ignorant masses. Why should I come to Peretz with Yiddish when I wrote excellent Hebrew and could express myself conceptually and intellectually? Why should I tell Peretz about fields and orchards when I could show him something more elevated?
I had to rely on my own courage to go to Peretz a second time and bring him, as he had bade me, my Yiddish writings. It was a struggle and I put it off from day to day. I did not dare write to Uncle Yosel to take me again. Ashamed of my own timidity, I was afraid to appear ridiculous before Peretz. The longer I postponed the visit, the surer it seemed that Peretz would long have forgotten me, that he would not recognize me, and would make short shrift of me at the door. But at length I overcame my cowardice and resolved, come what may, to take my fate in my hands.
Going to Peretz, I relived once more all the scenes of the first visit. The cobblestones and houses on the street imprinted themselves on my mind. At the comer of Ceglana, seeing the factory smokestack and the big house where Peretz lived, I almost lost my new-found courage. I stopped. But it was now or never. I marshalled my failing energy. And there I was standing again before Peretz’s door and pulling the bell.
Again, I heard the door being unlocked, and again confronted Peretz with his silk jacket and clerical pince-nez.
My face must have been very white. And Peretz must surely have noticed my anxiety, for his smile was very friendly.
“Why haven’t we seen you until now, Trunk?” he asked. “Come in and take off your coat. Have you brought something in Yiddish?”
When I saw that the great man remembered my name, the burden of fear fell from my heart.
Peretz waited until I had removed my coat. Then he led me into his study. This time, too, the desk was covered with flowers and plants. A dwarfish creature, gray-haired and gray-bearded, sat at the desk, absorbed in rolling cigarettes.
“This is Yankov Dineson,” Peretz said. “Get acquainted.”
Dineson turned around to inspect me. To him I was a new face, a young man in a kapote. As for me, it was with great awe that I looked at him. This gray dwarfish man was the famous author of Der Schvartser Yungermantchik and of Yosele, a book over which I had wept a sea of tears. My mother had wailed aloud over it. And even hard-hearted Grandfather Boruch, reading it, broke into sobs and groped for a cane to beat up Berl the cruel melamed. More than ever Peretz’s home seemed peopled with the figures of my secret dreams.
Peretz said to Dineson: “This is the young man I told you about, old man. Perhaps something will come of him.”
Then he turned to me again: “Sit down at the desk and show us what you have.”
I pulled a short story out of my pocket and handed it to him. It was a story about our village of Dlutow. The narrative itself was sprawling and ill-constructed; the chief thing was the landscape motif. I had described the fields of Dlutow very sentimentally.
Peretz said that though the story had many defects, he liked it very much. He advised me to go on writing similar things. “You will develop into a pastoral poet,” he said. I remember that is how Peretz expressed himself. Then he took a pen and began correcting a lot of sentences, changing many words and phrases. At that time, Peretz believed that Germanic words should replace the Slavic elements in Yiddish; for example, where I had written lonke (meadow), Peretz substituted Wiese.
Then he returned the manuscript, continuing to encourage me, and said to Dineson, who had not stopped rolling cigarettes, that he hoped something would come of me. (Dineson rolled the cigarettes for Peretz; he himself did not smoke.)
“Continue writing,” Peretz said to me, “and bring it to show me.”
My face beamed with joy. Thinking that my audience was over, I arose to take my leave. But Peretz asked me to stay and have coffee.
Peretz and Dineson rose and we went into the kitchen. On the way, Dineson began talking to me with intimacy as if I were one of the family, and encouraged me to keep on writing and show my pieces to Peretz.
As we sat at the table in the rather dark kitchen, Peretz talked familiarly and jokingly to the maid, an elderly, stout Polish woman who had worked for him untold years and considered herself part of the literary family. He told her, pointing to me, that this young man was a new visitor who would come frequently now, and she was to make especially good coffee for me.
I must confess that I suffered the torments of hell drinking the strong and aromatic coffee with Peretz. I knew the milk wasn’t kosher.
Then I heard several shrill rings of the doorbell. Peretz went to answer it. From the corridor came the sounds of two new voices; one was high-pitched and singsong and talked to Peretz with familiarity; the other was low and harsh. Soon Peretz returned to the kitchen with the two men and introduced them to me. One was Menachem Boraisha and the other S. L. Kave. They sat down at the table, Menachem continuing to talk in his singsong voice, in a slight Lithuanian dialect. His sentences always seemed to end in midair.
The stout maid served more coffee. I felt I was in seventh heaven. For the first time in my life I was in a real literary milieu, with Jewish writers.