Monday, 26 November 2012

Solly the elephant went to town...

For the best part of twenty years this postcard has graced a bookshelf in my office at home. The text, in Yiddish, reads "in vald" (In the forest) and it is the front cover of a book by Leyb Kvitko, the illustration by Isaacher Ber Ryback. Kvitko? Yes, the same Kvitko killed on 12 August 1952 because of his involvement in the Soviet Anti-Fascist Committee that Five Leaves has been commemorating this year with a book and events. Only the other week did I realise who wrote the book. I like to think of the elephant looking down on me all the while I was working on the book, which was originally planned several years ago. I produced it yesterday at a well-attended talk at Glasgow Limmud, the Five Leaves platform comprising Heather Valencia (the main advocate for Yiddish in Scotland) and I. At the end of the talk, one of those attending, Henry Wuga, said that he'd been at the Glasgow meeting in 1943 when Solomon Mikhoels and Itsak Fefer spoke on behalf of the JAFC. He remembered their heavily Russian-inflected Yiddish. Suddenly these people we were commemorating were a lot closer in time.
Heather Valencia and (occasional Five Leaves short story writer) Ellen Galford spoke later in the day about the hundreds of Yiddish books they had found in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, once the Yiddish stock of the Gorbals Library which served Glasgow's working-class Jews. The books had date stamps reaching into the 1980s, with the earliest book in the collection being 1903. What did these Yiddish readers read? Primarily fiction, often by writers scarcely known now, memoirs - the most popular title by someone nobody had heard of, poetry. World literature in translation - Ibsen, Strindberg, Jules Verne, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and that well known Dickens' novel "A fire in a London prison". Perhaps the Yiddish translator felt that Barnaby Rudge  was not the right title for a Yiddish audience. The books - like The Rubaiyat of 1924 - were initially from publishers in Vilne and Varshe (Vilnius and Warsaw) and later from London, Buenos Aries, Mexico and America, following the spread of Yiddish publishing. Some were printed in Weimar Germany - a centre for Yiddish printing at the time. This small collection - about 400 books - told us so much about the generation of immigrants who read Yiddish, issues running down as people moved to English. But what was needed now was to meet some of those readers. More people popping up like Henry Wuga above. One woman said that her father used to go into the library to help the librarians with the books as they could not read the Hebrew script. The Scottish Jewish Archives are on the case.

No comments: