Feature: Tales of two cities

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The desire to recreate a place that lives only in memory: that phrase summarizes short story collections by Helen Maryles Shankman and Abraham Karpinowitz. The two works of connected tales recall a Europe and a reality that no longer exist. Their approach to the material, though, is very different. In “Vilna My Vilna” (Syracuse University Press), Karpinowitz uses heightened realism to portray his former hometown in Lithuania. Shankman, on the other hand, adds a touch of magical realism to the tales her parents told her of Poland in “In the Land of the Armadillos” (Scribner). (The paperback version of the book, due out in October, will have a different title: “They Were Like Family to Me.”) While most of Karpinowitz’ stories take place before World War II, Shankman recalls tales of heroism and horror that occurred during the war and after.
Shankman allows readers to see her characters through a variety of lenses – not only in different tales across the book, but within individual works. For example, in the title story, an S.S. officer is not only a cold-blooded killer, but a loving father who tries to protect the Jewish artist who wrote and drew his son’s favorite book. Max Haas views himself as a kind, caring man, although once in a while he’s forced to face a different version of himself. The mix of good and evil within a single individual makes the story extremely powerful, as does its surprising and moving ending.
The contradictions inherent in most human beings is also clearly shown in “The Jew Hater,” when an informer is forced to pretend that a young Jewish girl is his relative. Its element of magical realism (a talking dog) heightens the tension, as does the question of whether or not forgiveness is ever truly possible. That theme plays a major role in the post-war tale “They Were Like Family to Me,” when a priest tours Poland to uncover secrets hidden in small villages. He approaches an old man, who speaks for the first time of events that still chill his soul. Other tales focus on men who do horrible things during the course of a day, and, yet, also take risks to save the lives of the few Jews they’ve taken under their wing.
My favorite story, “The Messiah,” is a wonderful and funny tale with a bitter note in its center. When this messiah arrives in town, he claims his purpose is not to save lives. Only after the Jews of Europe serve as a sacrificial ram – much like the one Abraham sacrificed in place of Isaac – will they return to the Promised Land. The question of whether or not he is truly the messiah matters less than the awe-inspiring events that do occur. My second favorite story is “The Golem of Zukow,” which shows how man’s inhumanity to man can create golems. Yet, this lovely, moving tale also allows us to see how great miracles can occur in the midst of despair. All the stories in “In the Land of the Armadillos” are beautifully written and emotionally heartrending. My hope is that the paperback version brings even more attention to this outstanding work.
While Shankman learned her tales second-hand, Karpinowitz writes of people he knew. This collection of his stories, translated from the Yiddish by Helen Mintz, focuses on life in Vilna. The tales were written after the war when Karpinowitz lived in Israel and blend fact and fiction, except for the two memoirs at the end of the book. Those tell of his father’s obsession with the Yiddish theater – an obsession not shared by his wife.
The stories somehow manage to feel a touch nostalgic while still clearly portraying how difficult life could be for the poorer Jews of the town. The title tale shows the amazing transformation of the narrator from Itsik the Hare, a small time thief, to Mr. Jack Grossman in Canada, a “big shot” in the hotel business. When visiting Vilna after the war, Grossman looks for the city he knew – focusing more on what’s not there than what’s actually before his eyes. Although the past was far from perfect, he believes something special has been lost.
Although Abke the Nail Biter doesn’t understand political theory, he finds himself in prison after helping a radical throw a red flag over an electric wire in “The Red Flag.” Abke learns that while theft is not really a problem (he’s been in and out of prison before), an act against the government must be punished by a longer sentence. Abke’s actions impress his lawyer and his fellow prisoners, who discuss politics with him even though he has no real understanding of the arguments and theories they debate.
Other stories include the interconnected “The Folklorist” and “Chana-Merka the Fishwife,” which serve as lovely tales of misunderstanding and love. “Vladek” focuses on two boys – one Jewish and one not – who grow up together, although their friendship is strained by nationalist forces. The Vilna underworld is explored in several stories, including “The Lineage of the Vilna Underworld,” which tells of a group of very odd gangsters trying to exist under Soviet rule.
“Vilna My Vilna” contains a glossary, which not only offers translations of Yiddish and Hebrew phrases, but notes which characters and events are based on real life. Some tales felt slightly familiar, if only because others have written about the colorful characters of this period. The stories serve an important purpose, though, by allowing us to glimpse this lost Jewish time and space.
Editor’s note: “Vilna My Vilna: Stories by Abraham Karpinowitz,” translated by Helen Mintz, is the winner of the 2016 J. I. Segal Literary Awards of the Jewish Public Library’s translation award for a book on a Jewish theme.