Fear and Oth­er Stories

Chana Blankshteyn, Ani­ta Norch (Trans­la­tor)

  • Review
By – May 23, 2022

At first blush, it feels like some­what of a dis­ser­vice to both Chana Blankshteyn’s prose and Ani­ta Norich’s flu­id trans­la­tions to focus on the his­to­ry sur­round­ing this recov­ered col­lec­tion of Yid­dish mod­ernist sto­ry­telling. But the exis­tence of Fear and Oth­er Sto­ries is a mir­a­cle; there is no way to sep­a­rate Blankshteyn’s nar­ra­tives from the con­text in which she wrote — and what could have hap­pened to her work after the war.

Every­thing about this col­lec­tion of nine sto­ries, orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten in Yid­dish, is remark­able,” Norich writes in the intro­duc­tion. Includ­ing the fact that it exists at all.” Fear was pub­lished in Europe in 1939, just a few weeks before the Nazis invad­ed Poland and two weeks before Blankshteyn’s death. Thus, as Norich notes, her writ­ing fea­tures no death camps nor depor­ta­tions, no whis­pers of the Final Solu­tion nor sur­vivors. But nei­ther is it free from anti­semitism, ques­tions of assim­i­la­tion, and fears of obliv­ion. The con­tem­po­rary Eng­lish read­er encoun­ters these sto­ries with knowl­edge of a his­to­ry Blankshteyn could not have imag­ined,” Norich writes. It is iron­ic to think of her death as some­thing of a bless­ing that spared her from the fate of her native Vilna’s Jews and let her die in her bed.” It is with this echo­ing sen­ti­ment that the read­er dives into the collection.

Blankshteyn’s char­ac­ters and scenes trans­port the read­er to a way of life on the cusp of trans­for­ma­tion — in both exhil­a­rat­ing (and just as fre­quent­ly fright­en­ing) ways. There is a dream­like qual­i­ty of her writ­ing that allows mun­dane and every­day set­tings to evoke dis­com­fort and admi­ra­tion in equal amounts. Per­haps most urgent­ly, Blankshteyn offers a glimpse into the world of Yid­dish-speak­ing women, artic­u­lat­ing com­mon themes of roman­tic rela­tion­ships, the capac­i­ty for advance­ment, and pover­ty through the lens of first­hand experience.

Much pro­mo­tion around this collection’s release focus­es on the redis­cov­ery of Blankshteyn’s work as a for­got­ten” writer who expe­ri­enced a kind of dou­ble-bind. Was Blankshteyn’s work near­ly lost to the ages because she was a Yid­dish writer, work­ing on the eve of the Holo­caust? Or was her work shunt­ed to the side because of her sex and gen­der? The truth like­ly lies some­where in the middle.

Fear and Oth­er Sto­ries is an excel­lent intro­duc­tion to a world of women’s Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture — much of which remains inac­ces­si­ble. This col­lec­tion is inspir­ing, and should encour­age a deep­er dive into sur­viv­ing archives for those writ­ers whose work remains unknown for now.

Jus­tine Orlovsky-Schnit­zler is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the Jew­ish Women’s Archive and Lilith mag­a­zine, liv­ing and work­ing at home in the South. 

Discussion Questions