Repressed Yiddish literature of the Soviet era
The last book on my Soviet-Jewish Decade Top 10 list is Yenta Mash’s On the Landing, one of the best Yiddish writers you’ve never heard of, who has now been translated into English by Ellen Cassedy.
I hadn’t heard of Mash either, until a friend sent me a link to the On the Landing book launch in New York. I happened to be visiting New York that day and I had a free evening, so off I went. It was a strange event. A fancy bookstore on the Upper West Side, vodka and properly black bread, and an audience who wanted to know if this was Isaac Bashevis Singer’s heir, who lapped up every bit of her shtetl life and Nazi suffering, but knew nothing of the Soviet woman she became after the war, or what she faced in adjusting to Israeli life as a now-Soviet woman.
No matter. That reaction — the dismissal of Soviet experiences or the struggles of immigration into existing Jewish communities in Israel and North America alike — remains as much a part of the Soviet-Jewish story as any this decade. Nor does it take away from the excellence of Mash’s work, which ultimately won several prominent literary awards in Israel.
The truth is, Mash is but one of many, mostly forgotten, Soviet-Jewish writers who wrote in Yiddish (and sometimes Russian). Their re-emergence in English in the last few years is one of the underrated stories of this Soviet-Jewish decade. Alongside On the Landing, translations have appeared of other writers, such as Moyshe Kulbak’s The Zelmenyaners, and From Revolution to Repression: Soviet Yiddish Writing 1917-1952, an anthology of writers who were silenced by Stalin’s bullets — Dovid Bergelson, Leyb Kvitko, David Hofshteyn, Peretz Markish, Der Nister, and Izi Kharik.
I felt that if I were going to make a list praising post-immigration writers, then I couldn’t skip over the work of those who lived in the Soviet era itself — and especially not the many, many silenced, repressed or stifled voices that are becoming available to English-speaking audiences.
I need to give a nod to other writers—though writing in Russian—whose names are better known in the west and have also recently been given new life. Most notably, Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad, written in 1950 and available in English for the first time in 2019, plus a biography, Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, also published in 2019. (I finally read Life and Fate this summer, and I’m still gutted).
Briefly, Mash was born in a small town in what was then Bessarabia. She spent the war years in Siberia, inadvertently saving her life, and returned to Kishinev, in a region now called Moldova in the Soviet Union. In the 1970s, when Jews were finally allowed to immigrate, Mash departed for Israel, where she lived until her death in 2013, and where she began writing in her childhood tongue.
The writing in the stories that fill On the Landing is haunting and moving. It deals with everything from life before WWII, through the Soviet decades, and on to the difficulties of immigration and adjusting to life in Israel. Some stories feature a clear character with a name; many are narrated in first-person and one has to wonder at where the story begins and the memoir ends. The lines are fluid, made more so by our nameless narrator. Is it Mash talking of herself? Or the stories of those whose paths she crossed, finally brought to life and given some measure of dignity, all these decades later?
And speaking of translation, the honours here go as much to the original writers as to their translators, such as Ellen Cassedy, whose efforts are the reason we can read these stories and be as moved by them as someone reading them in Yiddish. Translation duties here involve more than “mere” translation, but the detective work of uncovering these often-forgotten names and bringing them back to life, opening the world up to an entirely new avenue of exploration in Soviet-Jewish literature.
There is still far too little to be read about the Jewish experience in the USSR —and even less from the far-flung corners of the empire. One is left wondering what else awaits a translator to stumble across for those of us who are in the English-speaking world, but still so desperate to learn more of the places and people we came from.