Pour l'amour du yiddish:|
The Literary Itinerary Of Régine Robin Dr. Ben-Zion Shek, Emeritus Professor of French, University of Toronto. Please note that this article, Pour l'amour du yiddish: The Literary Itinerary of Régine Robin appeared in the book Yiddish After the Holocaust, edited by Joseph Sherman, Oxford: Boulevard Books, 2004, and is based on a paper Dr. Shek gave at Oxford University at the conference entitled "Yiddish Culture in thePost-Holocaust Period", August 26-28, 2003. This same article was reproduced in the on-line Yiddish literature journal, The Mendele Review (January 30, 2005), edited by Prof. Leonard Prager of Haifa University.
Dr. Ben-Zion Shek, Emeritus Professor of French, University of Toronto.
Please note that this article, Pour l'amour du yiddish: The Literary Itinerary of Régine Robin appeared in the book Yiddish After the Holocaust, edited by Joseph Sherman, Oxford: Boulevard Books, 2004, and is based on a paper Dr. Shek gave at Oxford University at the conference entitled "Yiddish Culture in thePost-Holocaust Period", August 26-28, 2003. This same article was reproduced in the on-line Yiddish literature journal, The Mendele Review (January 30, 2005), edited by Prof. Leonard Prager of Haifa University.
Régine Robin, née Rivka Ajzersztejn in Paris, France, in 1939, is a brilliant writer with a dual citizenship, French and Canadian. She has lived in Montréal, Québec, since the end of the 1970s, and is a professor of Sociology at the Université du Québec à Montréal.
Robin began her academic career as an historian, and in 1970 published her doctoral thesis on property relationships in Burgundy on the eve of the French Revolution, followed by a second essay on history and linguistics, in 1973. Since then, she has published ten more books dealing with a wide variety of literary and philosophical questions, two of which wonprestigious literary prizes in Canada — the Governor General's Award in 1987 for Le Réalisme socialiste: Une esthétique impossible (1986), translated as Socialist Realism: An Impossible Aesthetic (1992), and the Grand Prix littéraire de la Ville de Montréal in 2001 for her outstanding work, Berlin chantiers. Essai sur les passés fragiles (Berlin. Work-Sites. An Essay on Fragile Pasts) on the willful 'forgetfulness' on the part of contemporary German historians of the Nazi plan to wipe out the Jewish people. It appeared in German translation in 2002 under the title, Berlin: Gedächtnis einer Stadt:
Nearly all of Robin's writing during the last quarter of a century, both non-fiction and fiction, is permeated by reflections on the Yiddish language and culture, and is replete with Yiddish phrases, sayings, songs, poems, and titles of Yiddish books and newspapers. This has been the case right up until, and including, La Mémoire saturée (Saturated Memory, 2003), more than a third of which discusses issues related to the historical and aesthetic representation of the Holocaust at a time when direct witnesses to its horrors are dwindling rapidly. Robin prefers to use the term khurbm for that grisly phenomenon, although wrongly identifying it as a uniquely Yiddish word.
She has, of course, devoted an entire volume to a study of the evolution of Yiddish language and literature in L'Amour du yiddish: écriture juive et sentiment de la langue, 1830-1930 (The Love of Yiddish: Jewish Writing and Perception of the Language, 1830-1930), from which I have borrowed, slightly altered, the first part of my paper's title. It would take an entire other paper, at least, to sum up the content and thrust of this work which, among others, traces the emergence of Yiddish as a distinct written form in eleventh-century Germany; the origins of modem Yiddish literature innineteenth-century Russia; the further development of literary modernism, and its early flowering in the Soviet Union before brutal repression and growing assimilation, in complex combination, brought it to a near demise. She discusses, too, the denigration of Yiddish by the maskilim, who called it a language of poor down-and-out pariahs, or associated it with Indians and Gypsies (today commonly called Roma), comparing it to the oral-centered patois of France and elsewhere.
In L 'Amour du yiddish and her next essay, Kafka (1989), Robin showed the fascinating links between the celebrated Czech author and the Yiddish language which he never mastered, but which he admired as a vehicle of Gemeinschaft, romantically seeing in the Hasidic Jews of Russia a 'model' of community which he, torn between several languages, was never able to experience. In 1989, too, came the publication of Robin's signaltheoretical work, Le Roman mémoriel: de l'Histoire à l'écriture du hors-lieu(The Novel of Memory: From History to the Writing of an Ambiguous Space), a reflection on her literary practice in her first two novels, Le Cheval blanc de Lénine ou l'Histoire autre (Lenin's White Horse or History with a Difference, 1979), and La Québécoite (The Silent Québécoise, 1983), translated as The Wanderer in 1999. I shall turn to these books shortly, as well as to her important collection of short stories, L'Immense Fatigue des pierres (The Immense Fatigue of the Stones, 1996), and concentrate on them in the rest of my paper.
With the deaths of her father and mother in 1975 and 1977 respectively, came a realization that she must retrieve her first tongue, truly her mameloshn in the full sense of the word, since she spent the entire wartime period hiding with her mother in an abandoned garage in the Paris district of Belleville, where the two, in hushed tones, engaged in conversations and sang lullabies in Yiddish. Robin's parents were Yiddish-speakers from Kaluszyn, near Warsaw, who moved to Paris in 1932. She herself abandoned Yiddish first out of a desire for conformity in her early school years, and then because of a need to pursue her secondary and university studies and carve out a career as a history teacher. She also became a social activist in the general radical left in her native France. The painful loss of her parents, though, brought home to her that after some thirty years, she should retrieve and develop her interest in her first tongue.
Robin's renewed passion for Yiddish towards the end of the 1970s was concomitant with her turning to a personal form of fiction which, after French writers Serge Doubrovsky and Jean Ricardou, she called 'autofiction' or 'biofiction', a hybrid form combining a reconstruction of aspects of her parents' lives, imaginary elements, and self-reflexive passages on theexperimental writing she is engaged in. She frequently uses therein theconditional mode which, she maintains, clearly indicates le caractère desimulation, d'expérimentation du texte, 'the simulated, experimental character of the text' (Robin, Le Roman, 1989, p.134).
Le Cheval blanc de Lénine is an insufficiently aestheticized transposition of aspects of family history, which would find a striking form in her much-discussed second work of fiction, La Québécoite,the title of which is a neologism she created through a playful and ironic transformation of the common term, Québécoise — a woman of Quebec, where Robin lives and teaches a good part of the year — into 'the silent woman' of that same socio-cultural region, who feels intimidated by a certain narrow Francophone nationalist discourse which she perceives as denigrating her and other practitioners of what she has called l'écriture migrante, thewriting of migrants, and this despite the various distinctions she has been awarded there. Let us note, too, that L'Immense Fatigue des pierres had already been short-listed in 1996 for the Grand Prix littéraire de la Ville deMontréal, which she would win five years later for Berlin chantiers.
As for her first work of fiction, Le Cheval blanc de Lénine ou l’Histoire autre, its principal title derived from a childhood memory recorded by Kafka, one of Robin's favourite authors, and especially from a story with numerous variations told to Robin by her father, Shmil, about his alleged meeting when only sixteen with the Bolshevik leader mounted on a white steed, as the Red Army pushed deep into Poland in the early months of the Russian Revolution.
In Robin's two novels, the Yiddish language is inextricably linked to the Holocaust, during which her family lost more than fifty relatives livingin Poland, plus twenty-two others, following the notorious roundup, on 16 July 1942, of Parisian Jews who were imprisoned in the Drancy concentration camp, then transferred to Auschwitz, from which few returned. Yiddish, the language of these victims, thus takes on for her the image of a langue de mort, a language of death. Robin expanded this expression in La Québécoite thus:Un langage sang, mort, blessure, un langage pogrom et peur, un langagemémoire, 'a language of blood, death, wounds; a language of pogroms and fear; a language of memory' (Robin, 1993, p.135). In a play on the words lettres (letters of the alphabet) and the implied word êtres (human beings), she visualized her task as a writer in these terms: 'Ecrire avec les six millions de lettres [êtres?] de l'alphabet juif', 'To write with the six million letters of the Jewish alphabet' (Robin, 1993, p.19). She evokes the shtetlekh of Central and Eastern Europe with their pointed roofs where, she writes, the moon used to trace the first four letters of the Yiddish alphabet, which she in fact inserts in their printed form right into the printed page (Robin, 1993, p. 89). Indeed, for her there is one single tongue that has a central place in her psyche, and that is Yiddish, thus making it, too, une langue de vie, a language of life (Robin, 1993, p.139). As she writes:
Dans le fond, tu as toujours habité un langage et aucun autre d'ailleurs — ces petites taches noires sur le papier qu'on lit de droite à gauche, ces lettres finement dessinées. (Idem, p.139)
Essentially, you have always lived within one single language, and none other — the one with the little black marks on paper that one reads from right to left, those finely-formed letters.
In Le Cheval blanc de Lénine, she also implicitly plays on the dialectical opposition between langue de vie and langue de mort as in this remark: Je suis une morte vivante, morte quelque part en Europe centrale et miraculeusement restée en vie a Paris, 'I am a woman dead and alive at the same time, for I died somewhere in Central Europe, and remained miraculously alive in Paris' (Robin, 1979, p.25). In fact, Robin did survive miraculously. Her care-giver, Juliette, used to take her to drinking parties where the young woman fraternized with Nazi officers during the Occupation, as is told in the short story, 'Gratok, langue de vie et langue de mort' ('Gratok, a language of life, a language of death', in L'Immense Fatigue des pierres), and confirmed in her recent essay, La Mémoire saturée:
Il y a aussi des souvenirs plus anciens: les hommes en 'uniforme' chez Juliette, ma gardienne, qui me cachait. Je trouvais curieux de comprendre ce qu'ils disaient dans une langue proche de la mienne. Pourtant, je savais qu'il me fallait me méfier d'eux.(Robin, 2003, p.15)
There are also more distant memories: the men in 'uniform' at Juliette's, my care-giver, who was hiding me. I found it strange that I understood what they were saying in a language close to my own. Yet I knew that I must beware of them.
Indeed, both her parents, too, were saved by most unusual circumstances. Robin's mother escaped by a hair's breadth being sent to Drancy and Auschwitz during la grande rafle (roundup) of 16 July 1942 – anightmarish day that echoes throughout much of Robin's corpus – thanks to adesperate brainwave that led her to show a document confirming her husband's prisoner-of-war status to a Vichy policeman loading Jews onto a bus going to the Parisian Umschlagplatz, the Vélodrome d'hiver. In one of those rarest of cases, the officer told her to get off the bus and run away as fast as she could. Her father had Gallicized his name in Belgium, where he worked before the war, from Ajzersztejn to Azertin. He was called up into the French army, then taken prisoner, and ended up in Germany in the Stalag 11 prison camp as atree-cutter for the rest of the war.
Let us return for a moment to Le Cheval blanc de Lénine. The narrator of that novel recalls reading an account in the New York Forverts about a shoemaker, one of the rare survivors of Kaluszyn, her parents' birthplace, who returned there after the war to learn how the town was engulfed by flames in the final days of the conflict. This brings memories to the narrator of her mother's singing of Mordkhe Gebirtig's celebrated and prescient song of 1938, Es brent! Without naming the piece, she cites the entire French translation by poet and editor Charles Dobzynski, from a 1971 anthology published by Gallimard in Paris. Near the end of the novel, she fantasizes about Yiddish-speaking Soviet cavalrymen liberating Kaluszyn and singing the words of what is clearly Hirsh Glick's stirring song of Jewish anti-fascist resistance, zog nit keynmol az du geyst dem letstn veg, again without naming the title but from which she cites in French translation some of the most memorable lines, probably taken from that same anthology: Ne dis jamais que tu vas de ton dernier pas [...]Il fut écrit ce chant par le sang, par le feu [...] Tel un appel d'âge en âge soit notre chant [...], 'Never say that you have reached the very end [...] This song was writ with blood and not with lead [... ] Then let our warning ring from age to age [...]' (Robin, 1979, pp.138-140.) And she imagines on a red banner the defiant closing words, Nous sommes la!, Mir zaynen do! She also beautifully characterizes Yiddish in that first novel as notre éternelle bien-aimée, 'our eternal beloved'. (Robin, 1979, p.46). But, says Rivka (ostensibly the major character, but clearly identified with the narrator and the author, whose original name she carries), le jeune cavalier sur le cheval blanc, c'est mon père et l'armée derrière, ce que tu prenais pour une armée, c'est le shtetl qui revient, 'the young horseman is my father and the army, or what you took to be an army, is the resuscitated shtetl' (Robin, 1979, p.139).
Robin's third work of fiction, L'Immense Fatigue despierres, still untranslated, is subtitled Biofictions (fiction based on autobiographical elements.) One of the most striking stories therein, 'Gratok, langue de vie et langue de mort', has already been referred to. We recognize in the second part of the title the dichotomy noted earlier as a recurring motif of Robin's writing vis-à-vis Yiddish. The word gratok, I have been told, comes from the Polish grat, meaning a piece of junk, with the suffix, slightly changed, denoting the diminutive (gratek in correct Polish.). Gratok is the name of a rather worn plush doll that a woman narrator recalls having as a constant companion in an abandoned garage in Belleville during theOccupation, some fifty years earlier. We recognize here biographical elements of the author's own life, previously mentioned. Untrue to its name, the doll was anything but a piece of junk for the little girl, who was five at the time. On ne parlait que yiddish dans ce garage, 'only Yiddish was spoken in that garage', we are told. The narrator remembers that the inhabitants of the French capital at that time could be divided into two groups:
Ainsi, à Paris, il y avait deux vies, deux mondes qui ne se rencontraient que dans des moments furtifs [...] Le monde de ceux qui parlaient yiddish, et le monde de ceux qui buvaient du champagne [...] Elle avait appris à séparer les deux mondes, celui de la mort, et celui de la vie. (Robin, 1999, p.90)
Thus, in Paris, there were two ways of life, two worlds that met only in the briefest of moments[...] The world of those who spoke Yiddish, and the world of those who drank champagne [...] She had learned to separate the two worlds, that of death and that oflife.
Again, we already know that the sharp division just described was in fact the one that little Rivka encountered, as between her hiding place with her mother, and the haunts of Nazi officers frequented by her guardian, Juliette.
Even though the watchword in the garage was near-total silence, the little girl's mother continued to sing her lullabies in Yiddish and Polish. Il y était question de routes enneigées et d'un père colporteur qui ne reviendrait que pour le sabbat, de terres lointaines où les chèvres parlaient yiddish et où les papillons les comprenaient, 'the songs spoke of snow-covered roads; of a father, a peddler, who came home only for the Sabbath; of distant places where goats spoke Yiddish and were understood by the butterflies', she adds, in a moving, if oblique, reference to Avrom Goldfadn's beloved setting of the folksong Rozhinkes mit mandlen, thus suggesting that Yiddish kept up the spirits of both mother and daughter during the dreadful years of the Occupation. At the very end of the story, the narrator tells of her mother's delirious 'searches' along the main street of Belleville for her brothers and sisters in Poland, tous disparus à Treblinka, 'all of them snuffed out in Treblinka', all the while talking to herself and reciting their names. And she continued to sing to her child the beloved lullabies in which les chèvres parlent Yiddish et où les papillons les comprennent (Robin, 1999, p.93).
Years later, Robin became a translator of Soviet-Yiddish writers – she has rendered into French two of Dovid Bergelson's short stories as well as Moyshe Kulbak's novel Zelmenyaner, and has co-translated Bergelson's major novel Nokh alemen as Une tragédie provinciale. While engaging in this new pursuit, she relived the anxiety of her years in hiding, and became temporarily dyslexic. But she soon arrived at a vital conclusion:
Traduire des romanciers et poètes de langue yiddish, c'était à la fois passer du royaume des morts à celui desvivants. Ils ressuscitaient dans l'autre langue bien vivante, mais les traduire, c'était aussi descendre chaque fois aux enfers [... ]En travaillant sur cette langue, elle les [les auteurs] rendaient à la vie, mais elle se retrouvait à chaque virgule, à chaque paragraphe à Birkenau. (Robin, 1999, p.96)
To translate Yiddish-language novelists and poets meant moving at one and the same time from the kingdom of the dead to the kingdom of the living. They revived in the other language, one that was very much alive. But translating them meant descending into Hell each time [...] While working on that language, she brought these authors back to life, but with each comma and each paragraph, she felt she returned to Birkenau.
She then thought of dropping her work on translations and, instead, writing directly in French, with a view to making Yiddish resonate through that language, d'imiter sa prosodie, son rythme, sa propre respiration, 'to imitate its prosody, its rhythm, its unique breathing'. And she asked herself, langue de vie contre langue de mort?, 'A language of death versus a language of life?'And concluded:
Il était temps d'oublier la langue de mort, de la refouler au plus profond. Un jour, peut-être, on pourra de nouveau lui trouver une place sans que cela fasse mal, sans qu'on se retrouve sur la rampe de Birkenau. (Ibid.)
It was time to forget the language of death, to repress it to the furthest depths. One day, perhaps, we will find a new place for it, one that doesn't hurt us, one that doesn't take us back to the ramp at Birkenau.
In the second part of her recent book, La Mémoire saturée, entitled Une mémoire menacée: la Shoah, some brief but significant references toYiddish also appear. The section begins with a résumé of the bizarre 'Wilkomirski case' of the mid-1990s. Robin first refers to the publication of a powerful work of fiction, Zvi Kolitz's novel, entitled in its French translation, YoslRakower s'adresse à Dieu (Yosl Rakower addresses God, 1998). This text had originally appeared in Yiddish in Buenos Aires more than fifty years earlier in the Yiddische Zeitung [sic]. The author was a Lithuanian-born Jew who settled in Palestine in 1937 and became an active member of the Irgun Tzvai Leumi. According to Robin, this wholly fictional work was reprinted in its original Yiddish in the Israeli literary journal, Di goldene keyt, a few years after its first appearance in Argentina — she gives no precise date — as an anonymous text, believed to be the personal account of a witness to the wartime tragedy in Europe. But stranger still was the publication of Benjamin Wilkomirski's fabricated 'childhood memoir', Fragments. Une enfance. 1939-1948 (Fragments of a Childhood, 1939-1948, 1997), translated and published in French two years after the original German edition. In this book, the author wrote:
Je n'ai pas de langue maternelle, ni de langue paternelle. J'ai, pour racines linguistiques, le yiddish de mon frère aîné, Mordechai, additionné du sabir babélien appris en Pologne, dans diverses baraques d'enfants de ces camps où les nazis enfermaient les juifs. (sic, cited in Robin, 2003, p.227)
I have no mother-tongue, or father-tongue. My linguistic roots are the Yiddish of my older brother, Mordechai, added to the Babel-like pidgin I learned in Poland in various children's barracks in the camps where the Nazis locked up the Jews.
This book struck readers immediately by its powerful rendering of a child's experiences of the Holocaust, and won a number of literary prizes in Paris, London and New York.
But in an inversion of the Kolitz case, in which a work of fiction was taken to be a memoir, the Wilkomirski volume pretended to be a series of factual reminiscences. The author was really a Swiss of French origin, by name Bruno Grosjean. Abandoned by his unwed mother and mistreated by his adoptive German-speaking parents, he began to identify completely with the traumatized Jewish children who had survived untold suffering in Poland during the war and beyond, after reading every work concerning the Shoah that he could lay his hands on, and seeing every film treating that subject. The truth finally came out in 1998, and henceforth the book has been published with an introductory résumé giving the true facts. Grosjean fell into a deep depression when his true identity was revealed.
Robin does mention several authentic accounts of the grim years that have been translated from their original Yiddish, like Simha Guterman's Le Livre retrouvé (The Rediscovered Book, 1991), found in a bottle in 1978 in Radom by two Poles, and containing numbered strips of paper chronicling events between January and May 1942. Robin herself, during a visit to the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, was able to photocopy the contents of a packet containing Yiddish-language chronicles of life and death in Nazi-occupied Poland, including her parents' birthplace, Kaluszyn, that remain to be translated. She notes that no historian has yet consulted this material which, for her, constitutes layers of material traces of the Shoah. We can expect her to delve into these for future writings.
Before concluding by looking briefly at Régine Robin's views about the future of Yiddish, I should like to open a parenthesis on one problematic area of her citing of actual Yiddish words and phrases in the body of her writing. As noted, Robin's literary output during the last thirty-five years, especially her fiction, is replete with Yiddish expressions. But a major difficulty arises when she attempts to transliterate these within the phonetic and orthographic systems of another language, in this case, French. Only rarely does she give the equivalent in the vehicular language of a word or saying, quoted in Yiddish, as in this phrase: ce Finstere[r] Donerschtig [sic. and resic.] /ce jeudi sinistre [...]', referring to the fatal date of 16 July 1942. (Robin,1993, p.166). But given the absence of French accents, plus her use of a Germanic sch spelling for donershtik, the purportedly Yiddish words are unpronounceable for most French readers. There are thus some strange transliterations in her books – frequent Germanisms, some Russianisms, and those arising from problems of rendering the Yiddish hey, and the guttural khes or khof— sounds that do not exist in French. In the first group, there are stroudle (for chtroudeul), schreiben (for chraïbn), spieler (as in purim spieler, for chpilère), knödle (for kneïdeul), Zukunft (for tsoukounftt), Zeitung for tsaïtoungue) —the latter two with Germanic capital letters at the beginning of the word. In the second group there is verste (a Russian measurement) for viorst. Robin's transliteration of words with guttural sounds is certainly a creative one, but is inconsistent. For example, khale becomes râlé;kreplekh, creplar; and Mortkhe, Mortre. But lailekh is written with the current kh, as in standard Yiddish transliterations. We do find Khaim,(Khaïm) but also Chaim, both of which, again, in a French text, would yield a pronunciation totally different from the Yid-dish original.
While one cannot fault Robin for transliterating some words in the Polish-Jewish dialect with which she grew up, inconsistent respect for the French phonetic and orthographic systems, as we have seen, as well as just plain inconsistencies, create major difficulties for the French reader. Robin writes Shulem Ash (ach, in a French text), but also Sholem Aleichem (Cholèm aléèmm or aléremm in a French text); Mime Yente, a major character in LaQuébécoite, but an unpronounceable name for non-Yiddish speaking readers; payes for earlocks (païess) shaigets (chaïguetz), again causing pronunciation problems for Francophones; and the expression, dooroys, doorain (douroïsse, douraïne),and so on. I hope that as her books reappear in new editions, she will take greater cognizance of these inconsistencies and use a more unified and meaningful approach to the difficult problems involved in transliteration.
We have seen that for Robin, her first tongue, Yiddish, is both a langue de mort and a langue de vie. In L'Amour duyiddish, which Robin dedicated to her daughter Anny, the conclusion is entitled, 'Kaddish pour le yiddish?' There she writes:
Et maintenant? Faut-il considérer le yiddish comme une langue morte, comme une langue sacrée? L'étudier comme on étudiait autrefois le grec et le latin dans la poussière des oeuvres mortes?
And now, should we consider Yiddish a dead language, a sacred tongue? Should it be studied the way one used to study Greek and Latin, in dusty old volumes?
Noting the rising interest in Yiddish language and culture in a number of countries in recent years, she asks, again: Nostalgies de quelques intellectuels en mal d'identité? 'Is this a nostalgic search of some intellectuals for an identity?' It is not possible to know what will become of Yiddish in the future, she says, but adds:
Ce que je sais, en revanche, avec force, avec détermination, c'est qu'une culture ne disparaît que lorsque la mémoire disparaît, mémoire historique, mémoire populaire, mémoire culturelle, voire nationale. La mémoire du Yiddishland, lorsque nos aînés auront disparus [...] nous sommes un certain nombre à la maintenir vivante, à la transmettre—nefût-ce qu 'à travers d'autres langues — aux nouvelles générations. Cette mémoire tremble comme une flamme fragile, mais elle vit.
What I do know, on the other hand, forcefully, determinedly, is that a culture never disappears unless one's memory of it disappears, whether it be an historic memory, a people's memory, a cultural and, indeed, a national memory. When our older generation will have passed on, a certain number of us will still keep the memory of Yiddishland alive, and transmit it to the new generations, if only through other languages. This memory lives and trembles like a fragile flame, but it lives none the less
And she concludes her book thus: Tantqu'il y aura mémoire du yiddish, désir et amour du yiddish, alors,, j'en suis sure, le yiddish vivra en nous et au-delà de nous, (Robin, 1984, p.285). 'As long as there will be a memory of Yiddish,a desire for Yiddish, and a love of Yiddish, then, I am convinced, Yiddishwill live in us and beyond us' (Idem).
Today, nearly twenty years later, she seems less optimistic. In La Mémoire saturée, she quotes a recent article by Rachel Ertel, 'Le yiddish. La langue de la crypte', thus:
Aujourd'hui, le yiddish n'est la langue maternelle de personne ou de presque personne. Mais cette parole anéantie, asphyxiée, partie en fumée, n’est pas une simple absence. Elle ne peut ne pas avoir été [...] Aujourd'hui, ce n’est pas le yiddish qui se transmet. C'est son absence. Et cette absence est héréditaire. Elle semble se perpétuer de génération en génération. Expulsée du monde, elle cherche son bien. Réduite au néant, elle s'est muée en 'bloc de réalité'[...] Un bloc de réalité dense, opaque. Les mots secrets, inaudibles, indicibles, illisibles, les mots en quête de sépulture viennent s'enfouir au fond de l'être, en un caveau ténébreux, avec tout leur poids de morts. Ils y creusent une crypte [...] (Rachel Ertel, cited in Robin, 2003, pp.342-343)
Today Yiddish is not the mother tongue of anyone, or practically anyone. But this language, wiped out, asphyxiated, gone up in smoke, is not simply absent. It cannot not have existed [...] Today, it is not Yiddish that is transmitted, but its absence. And this absence seems hereditary, and seems to be perpetuated from generation to generation. Banished from the earth, it hunts for its treasure. Reduced to nothingness, it has transformed itself into a 'block of reality', one that is compact and opaque. The secret words, inaudible, indecipherable, illegible, words in search of a sepulchre, are eventually buried in the depths of being, in a dark vault, bearing their entire deadly weight. They dig a crypt therein [...]
Robin then comments critically, sardonically, on what has been called Yiddish renewal:
A la surface, en Europe centrale et orientale, on assiste à un revival de la culture juive, et du yiddish. A la surface, encore, la mode est 'aux juifs' [sic] [...]A Berlin comme ailleurs, c'est le succès de la musique klezmer, du théâtre yiddish, de la cuisine fblklorique, des berceuses et de tout ce qui peut évoquer une culture 'violon sur le toit' [... ] C'est une image nostalgique et complètement folklorisée qui est donnée. Le revival, c'est l'illusion de l'absence de tragique.[...] La nostalgic de cequ'on n'a pas connu peut faire place à du neuf sous la forme du pseudo, du simulacre. [...] Est-ce possible, est-ce souhaitable? (Robin, 2003, pp.343-44)
On the surface, in Central and Eastern Europe, we are witnessing a revival of Jewish culture and of Yiddish. On the surface, things 'Jewish' have become fashionable [...] In Berlin and elsewhere, there is the growing success of klezmer music, of Yiddish theatre, of traditional cuisine, of lullabies and of everything that evokes a 'fiddler-on-the-roof' culture. This creates an image of nostalgia that is completely folkloric. The revival creates the illusion of the absence of the tragic [...] Nostalgia for what one did not experience can become something new wrapped in a false and imitative form [...] Is this possible? Is it desirable?'
And she ends these reflections thus: Cette langue perdue, ces espaces perdus en Europe centrale, cette culture perdue, ces morts n'ont pas fini de noushanter. Mais comment représenter ce manque, cette absence?, 'This lost language, these lost spaces in Central Europe, those who died, haunt us yet. But how can one represent this blank, this absence?' (Robin, 2003, p.344) she asks rhetorically, repeating one of the main preoccupations of La Mémoire saturée.
These thoughts bring to mind the statistics cited by Norman Berdichevsky in his article, 'Hebrew vs. Yiddish —The Worldwide Rivalry', which appeared in Midstream magazine's special 'Memorial Issue: Yiddish Culture, Language, and Literature' (July-August 2002.) There Berdichevsky points out that by 1945, the pre-war world population of more than ten million Yiddish speakers had been reduced by more than half. He calls an estimate, made in 1982,that there were still one million Yiddish-speakers an 'optimistic view', saying that 'there are no more than one million American Jews with knowledge of the language, and 200,000 in Israel', and there remained only 154,000 in the former Soviet Union, according to the 1989 census, taken almost fifteen years ago. In the United States in 1970, 'Yiddish still stood as the sixth most common mother-tongue foreign language', with about one and a half million claimants. But by 1990, Yiddish had fallen to sixteenth place in the above category, with barely 213,000 speakers' (Berdichevsky, 2002, pp.16-17.)
Whatever one may think of Robin/Ajzersztejn's recent sombre thoughts on the present and future of Yiddish, as she pondered issues which preoccupy everyone concerned with the preservation of the language, I amconvinced that she has made a significant contribution towards keeping 'the fragile flame' of that language and culture from being snuffed out, at least in the short term.
BIBLIOGRAPHY (texts cited, consulted)
Berdichevsky, Norman, 'Hebrew vs. Yiddish — The WorldwideRivalry', Midstream. A Monthly Jewish Review, 38:5(July/August, 2002), 12-17.
Robin, Régine, L'Amour du yiddish: écriture juive et sentiment de la langue, 1830-1930 (Paris: Editions du Sorbier, 1984).
____ , Berlin chantiers. Essai sur les passés fragiles (Paris: Stock. 2001).
____ , Le Cheval blanc de Lénine ou l'Histoire autre (Bruxelles: Complexe, 1979).
____ , L'Immense Fatigue des pierres. Biofictions (Montréal: XYZ, 1996; repr. 1999).
____ , Kafka (Paris: Les Dossiers Belfond, 1989).
____ , La Mémoire saturée (Paris: Stock, 2003).
____ , La Québécoite (Montréal: Québec-Amérique, 1983; repr. 1993, Typo)
____ , Le Réalisme socialiste: une esthétique impossible (Paris: Payot, 1986).
____ , Le Roman mémoriel: de l'Histoire à l'écriture du hors-lieu (Montréal: Le Préambule, 1989).