The Glatstein Chroniclesby Jacob Glatstein, Ruth Wisse, Maier Deshell, Norbert Guterman
In 1934, with World War II on the horizon, writer Jacob Glatstein (1896–1971) traveled from his home in America to his native Poland to visit his dying mother. One of the foremost Yiddish poets of the day, he used his journey as the basis for two highly autobiographical novellas (translated as The Glatstein Chronicles) in which he intertwines childhood/i>… See more details below
In 1934, with World War II on the horizon, writer Jacob Glatstein (1896–1971) traveled from his home in America to his native Poland to visit his dying mother. One of the foremost Yiddish poets of the day, he used his journey as the basis for two highly autobiographical novellas (translated as The Glatstein Chronicles) in which he intertwines childhood memories with observations of growing anti-Semitism in Europe.
Glatstein’s accounts “stretch like a tightrope across a chasm,” writes preeminent Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse in the Introduction. In Book One, “Homeward Bound,” the narrator, Yash, recounts his voyage to his birthplace in Poland and the array of international travelers he meets along the way. Book Two, “Homecoming at Twilight,” resumes after his mother’s funeral and ends with Yash’s impending return to the United States, a Jew with an American passport who recognizes the ominous history he is traversing.
The Glatstein Chronicles is at once insightful reportage of the year after Hitler came to power, reflection by a leading intellectual on contemporary culture and events, and the closest thing we have to a memoir by the boy from Lublin, Poland, who became one of the finest poets of the twentieth century.
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The Glatstein Chronicles
By JACOB GLATSTEIN, RUTH WISSE, MAIER DESHELL AND NORBERT GUTERMAN
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2010 Fund for the Translation of Jewish Literature and the National Yiddish Book Center
All rights reserved.
No sooner did the ship pull away from the dock than I instantly felt myself subject to maritime law. Only then did I begin to understand that which I couldn't quite grasp when I was a law student, the necessity for a separate body of jurisprudence pertaining to the sea. For just as the moon holds sway over the tides, or, as some would have it, over the whole human psyche, so does the ocean have an imperceptible effect upon those who would cross it. Footsteps lighten, manners soften, voices lilt. Aboard ship one suffers minor hurt rather than inflict hurt on fellow passengers. Gestures become more polished, behavior more formal. One lives under the mystical spell of the sea and behaves accordingly, altogether differently than on dry land. Parental admonitions that once went in one ear and out the other suddenly make sense. Everyone circles the deck, strolling like lords. A fine, silken cord connects one man to his fellow, even his fellow female. The merest exchange of greetings—"Good morning, good year"—spans the gap. I also began to appreciate the tenderness of the terms "shipboard brother" and "shipboard sister." Nor did this metamorphosis occasion anxiety, because it affected everyone to the same degree. Aboard ship, in contrast to their alter egos on land, strangers find themselves tossed together, and yet, wonder of wonders, God's world with its manifold souls stays in balance even here, where we tread softly and scarcely recognize the sounds of our own voices.
I looked for a secluded corner, away from the throng, where I could get a grip on my excitement. The red, yellow, and green flares of the launches that accompanied our ship like some exotic marine vegetation receded farther and farther away, extending our circle of solitude. We had escaped, leaving behind all sentimental reminders of relatives and attachments to terra firma. Now that the Olympic had pulled away from land, it formed its own little planet, with its own population, its own way of life, even its own invisible leader, the captain, whose existence you could deny without any damage to your peace of mind.
I stood leaning against the railing of the deck and had the audacity to cite myself. Somewhere I had written that the world is divided into two camps: those with the wherewithal to travel and those condemned to staying put. This notion pleased me now that I was putting it to the test.
Five young men were also leaning against the railing, looking back at the distant lights, the rank harbor smells still filling the air. They watched as the water thickened, turning blacker. The only sound was that of the wavelets, soft, playful plops against the ship like soap bubbles bursting. These stalwarts made up the orchestra, which had struck a minor key at our departure. "Why not a happy tune?" many of the passengers had demanded, as they waved a final exhausted farewell to relatives on shore. Parting was sorrow enough without this mournful accompaniment. Though each of the passengers had willingly embarked on this journey, the final wrench of the ship away from land seemed to rip them forcibly from their loved ones. There was no compensating pleasure as yet aboard ship, everything was still disorienting, undefined, and strange.
"Why don't they play a happy tune?"
The protest was taken up like a call to revolution. The members of the little band, mother's milk still on their lips, must have been intimidated by the passengers' displeasure and, in their confusion, blundered into yet another dirge, which tugged at the heartstrings. The passengers had no choice but to yield to the mournful melody. When I told the musicians that I liked their little orchestra and that I particularly admired their courage in not playing something jazzy, they seemed to take heart. They had been somewhat depressed, thinking they were failures before the ship was barely out to sea.
These eighteen-, nineteen-year-olds hailed from West Virginia University, where they played in the student orchestra. By a stroke of good fortune, the dean had recommended them for a job as shipboard musicians, a two-week engagement crossing the ocean to Europe and back, with a free stopover in Paris. Four of the boys were tall, imposing, and handsome. The fifth, short and barrel-shaped, played the violin, not the drums as one might have expected. They all looked freshly hatched, in their brand-new suits and shoes, which seemed to show a mother's loving touch. If I am not mistaken, one face even bore the trace of a tear.
They spoke in a southern drawl that rolled right off their tongues, and they seemed to find the proper word for the proper expression. They reveled in my company as if I were some precious gem. After all, I was the first stranger to make their acquaintance, and I was gallantly passed from one to the other. They had no wish to sleep and were prepared to stay up all night until the last glimpse of land disappeared from view. They were full of excitement at the prospect of seeing Paris with their very own eyes, in the springtime of youth, their best years, when there was still pleasure to be had. I told them that I envied their good luck, and they laughed when they found out that I'd be in Paris too. Try as I might, I detected no trace in them of college-boy callowness. They fell into their new roles easily, with grace.
Suddenly I heard my own speech becoming more Yankeefied than it had been on land. My tongue was performing acrobatics. I sidestepped many of their questions and answered others not altogether truthfully. I was evolving into a different person, someone I hardly recognized. I sprouted wings and, like Alice in Wonderland, began to reel off adventures one after another, so that these five college students shouldn't mistake their first shipboard acquaintance as just anybody. I fell into my new role too, and played it as elegantly and as politely as I was able. The boys chattered on about college life, girlfriends, and parents, and about Paris, where one can lose oneself completely and still come up refreshed. They talked about their future professions and about their responsibilities to society. They asked me about New York and about Communism, and told me how much they admired President Roosevelt.
The next day I was distressed to find out that, while we slept, the iron hand of authority had divided all of us into separate classes. The holiday was over, and it was back to our destined stations. The way to the first-class deck was blocked, as was the way to second class, where I was booked, and likewise the way to third class, where the boys were quartered. When I later caught sight of the young musicians, all spiffed out in their finery, they were embarrassed by their lowly status, and I, in turn, was ashamed of my bourgeois privilege. It was only last night that we had parted with a casual "See you tomorrow."
Of all the passengers, the least interesting and most superfluous were those who came aboard as couples. It was as though, without missing a beat, they had simply exchanged their bedrooms at home for staterooms at sea. Strolling arm in arm, confident and proud, they already seemed to possess that which the others, eyes busily darting, were still hoping to find. Yet before long the couples began showing signs of unease. For everyone else, the ship was one big, happy hunting ground, whereas they, poor souls, were yoked together, performing their foreplay in full view of the other passengers. The female of the pair generally seemed grateful to her partner for this travel opportunity, and, no matter how tall she was, contrived to look up adoringly at her benefactor.
One by one, the couples drifted off quietly, leaving only the unattached to carry on. The males of the species engaged in brittle banter, their words dropping like dry bones. They inspected the females like bitches in a kennel, and a hushed, dreadful competition ensued until late into the night. I escaped to the bar, the male sanctuary, and fell into a padded chair. The swaying floor made me feel as if I were in a rocker.
Waiters stood at the ready. Subject to their gentle ministrations, I seemed to be dozing off in a barber chair, submitting to the soft hands of an expert masseur. I ordered a drink, and tossed a coin on the table with such a theatrical flourish that I was astonished by my own performance. The waiter bowed and walked off with mincing steps to tend to another patron. I was grateful that I had managed to cover up my inexperience and that my presence didn't publicly proclaim: "Listen, everyone. This is my first ocean crossing in twenty years—and how many such trips, I ask you, do you think a fellow like me takes in a lifetime?" Though my face didn't show it, I had the strange sensation that, for all the beneficences and transgressions of my adult years, only now had I become fully a grown-up. Indeed, it was just now, here at sea, with the floor shifting beneath me, that I finally felt myself to be my own man, secure in my own counsel.
Sitting at a side table against the wall were two pretty girls. The waiter had already come by five or six times to remove their empty glasses and bring them full ones. They were never without a cigarette and blew out the smoke in long streamers, like hardened veterans. Between puffs they sipped their drinks. They held hands and looked into each other's eyes like lovers, but their eyes were red and fear-ridden, as if they had already drunkenly squandered their virtue on the first night of the voyage. They moved closer to each other. Both were good-looking and fine-figured, though perhaps somewhat more buxom than the average American girl. For the most part they kept silent, and the occasional word they spoke was so hushed, hardly above a whisper, that it became somewhat dispiriting to look at them and their ample bodies, which now resembled a pair of passionate Siamese twins. The waiters looked away, as did the few other remaining drinkers in the bar. Only one roaring drunk—it was a mystery how he had managed to reach this state so early in the voyage—sat ogling the girls and laughing loudly. He kept this up until he drove them away. The two girls tottered out, arm in arm, and the drunk blew them a kiss.
Finally, he and I were alone in the bar. He called me over and insisted that I drink on his tab, all the while telling me to my face that he hated my guts. The devil only knows why he took it into his drunken head to think that I was German, and Scotsman that he was, he detested Germans. My protestations were useless. He wanted to know only one thing: Did I, or did I not, lose the Great War? Had I suffered total defeat, or was my nose still up in the air? Pulling a greasy British passport from his breast pocket, he slapped his chest and swore that if I didn't concede, I would pay for it dearly in the next great World War, when he would personally administer the coup de grâce. He told some witless jokes at my "German" expense, and whinnied like a horse. The man was large and sturdy, with a freckled face and powerful head and arms. His head kept drooping of its own accord with every drink, until his tongue could no longer form words. Nonetheless, he managed to order a fresh drink and promptly fell asleep over his British passport.
I lay on my cabin bunk, rocking back and forth. Sleepily, I thought of Sholem Aleichem's Fishl-Dovid the teacher, who was returning home for the Passover holiday in a little boat. I, too, was on my way home. Home ... home ... I said to myself, to the rhythm of the rocking, until I could no longer hold my eyes open.
The next morning on our second day out, that famous couple, water and sky, put in its appearance. By now a fixed routine had established itself, and everything was running with mechanical precision, as though we had been traveling for months.
I have never been any great shakes at orienting myself and now, aboard ship, for the life of me, I couldn't quite determine where I had walked or stood the night before. The sundeck at first seemed like the exercise path in a prison yard, though bit by bit one got used to the ritual of going round and around the deck after meals to take the air, until it began to feel like a real constitutional. But since the same smiling faces floated past on every lap, and the ship swayed lightly underfoot, the stroll around the deck with the sun stroking our faces seemed more like a turn around the dance floor. Even the passengers lolling in deck chairs, soaking up the sun, seemed part of the dance.
The ship with its barely perceptible movement began to feel like a giant yacht that had taken us all out to the middle of the ocean and then dropped anchor for a few days. It would have been hard to imagine a calmer sea, a bluer sky, or better company.
This was no mere voyage, but a dream. "One should travel to Europe only at the end of June, the beginning of July," remarked my neighbor on the warm bench we were sharing. His last crossing was in October, and aha ... aha ... did he have a tale to tell. He was as sick as a dog and vomited all the way, because the ship kept going like this —here he demonstrated with his hand how his ship had almost capsized. My neighbor spoke a meticulous English, but substituted an s for the sh sound, like one of those fully baked Lithuanian Jews whose speech was also marked by the same transposition. I was certain, however, that he was no Litvak: This specimen had rough hands, a broad back, a mighty head, propped on his neck like a cabbage, high cheekbones, watery-blue eyes, and thick, bushy eyebrows.
He looked like a laborer and talked like an intellectual, choosing his words as if he were sorting chickpeas and rejecting the inferior ones. He would settle on the precise noun and then deck it out with an exact adjective and an elegant verb. His raspy voice seemed to emerge not from his throat but from some region of the heart. He pointed to a wisp of cloud still in its swaddling clothes and said that he already knew to which category it belonged since, as he explained, he was a teacher.
"Of clouds?" I asked.
He burst into a hearty, peasant laugh. "No! Of geography, in a middle school in Schenectady."
I have always loved the ring of the word Schenectady. Schenectady! It sounded like the cracking of a hard Turkish nut. To show him that I had a head on my shoulders, I tossed in the name of Charles Steinmetz, that famous son of Schenectady.
What a question! Of course he knew of the electrical wizard. Now there was a man! And what a Socialist! What a noble spirit! So modest and unassuming, so friendly that he could chat up the meanest of men like a brother. My benchmate pronounced the word Socialist with a nostalgic gleam in his blue eyes. His hoarse voice spoke the word so tenderly that the dry term fairly quivered with emotion. He kept gesticulating with his rough carpenter's hands until he finally let one of them drop on my shoulder in a gesture of comradeship: "Yes sir, that was a Socialist!"
Suddenly, he pulled out his watch and, rising abruptly from the bench, said that, much as he enjoyed my company and would soon return to resume our conversation, he must now ask to be excused. It was time to go to the toilet. "Heh, heh! A person is only human." Chuckling, he gave me another friendly slap on the back. His bowel movements were at fixed times, calibrated to the minute. Should anything ever interrupt the routine, he would immediately take some measure to get himself back on track. This was very important, because a person was no more than a machine.
"Here, read something until I get back." He tossed me a pack of pamphlets and, already some distance away, doubled up in laughter when he saw how dumbfounded I was by the foreign language.
"Swedish?" I called out to him.
I turned the pages. Complicated Scandinavian words, tough as nails, were underlined in pencil, with English comments in the margins. I kept turning the pages until the words assumed some familiarity and I was able to recognize familiar Teutonic roots under their Danish disguise.
On an adjacent lounge lay a young man, belly turned up to the sun, his face smeared with lotion to prevent burning. The melting grease glistened. A second young man lay on his side nearby, opening a nervous eye from time to time as if to check that his companion was still there. Over his bulging chest, the man taking the sun had on a tight sweater that seemed to be choking him around the neck. He chewed gum phlegmatically. He would doze off, snap awake, and then resume chewing. When I spoke to him, he didn't respond, and when he did deign to answer, his few words came out sleepily. Every time he spoke up to mutter three or four words, his sidekick would open a nervous eye as if to say, half entreatingly and half in anger, "Enough talking now." He would cut him off in the middle, ending the conversation.
The sunbather seemed somewhat put out with me. His broken nose, a collapsed, wooden ruin, snorted like a locomotive. It vexed him that I, alone of all the passengers, should not have known who he was. His companion, apparently some sort of manager, gave me a pleading look, miming me to stay away from his bread-and-butter. The sunbather fell silent, but then suddenly bestirred himself and, in open defiance of his Man Friday, laced into me, this time not sparing any words. Man Friday decided that he couldn't just lie there while his bread-and-butter was holding forth, so he sat up, the better to keep an eye on him.
Excerpted from The Glatstein Chronicles by JACOB GLATSTEIN. Copyright © 2010 by Fund for the Translation of Jewish Literature and the National Yiddish Book Center. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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