Por­traits in Lit­er­a­ture: The Jews of Poland, An Anthology

Hava Bromberg Ben-Zvi, ed. and trans.
  • Review
By – April 23, 2012

The com­pil­er and edi­tor of this book is a native Pol­ish Jew­ish woman who sur­vived the Holo­caust as a child liv­ing under an assumed Chris­t­ian iden­ti­ty. For many years, she served as direc­tor of the Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty Library of Los Ange­les.

This anthol­o­gy is an inti­mate col­lec­tion of Ms. Ben-Zvi’s favorite lit­er­ary evo­ca­tions of the life of van­ished Pol­ish Jew­ry, drawn from works orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten in Yid­dish, Hebrew, Pol­ish, and Eng­lish. Many of the selec­tions were trans­lat­ed for the first time by the edi­tor, with anno­ta­tions to clar­i­fy ref­er­ences and allu­sions.

The book is orga­nized into three main divi­sions: the Pol­ish Jew­ish world before 1939, the Holo­caust years, and then sur­vivors’ efforts to live again in Poland, Amer­i­ca, and Israel. The works includ­ed in the book rep­re­sent diverse gen­res: fic­tion, mem­oirs, oral his­to­ry, diaries, poet­ry, folk tales, and pop­u­lar his­tor­i­cal vignettes. Authors range from great Yid­dish writ­ers to clas­sic phi­lo-Semit­ic Pol­ish authors, as well as less­er-known sur­vivors of the Nazi era ghet­tos and camps, and Pol­ish Jews who came to Amer­i­ca or Israel. The book ends with The Pol­ish Wife,” a bit­ter­sweet short sto­ry writ­ten in Pol­ish by Anna Cwiakows­ka, evok­ing expe­ri­ences of the gen­er­a­tion of accul­tur­at­ed Pol­ish Jews who found them­selves forced to emi­grate to Israel in 1968.

While many of the selec­tions are quite mov­ing, the book suf­fers from poor copy­edit­ing, which is a dis­ser­vice to this wor­thy effort that will fas­ci­nate and move read­ers. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, glos­sary, notes, photographs.

Robert Moses Shapiro teach­es mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry, Holo­caust stud­ies, and Yid­dish lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture at Brook­lyn Col­lege of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. His most recent book is The War­saw Ghet­to Oyneg Shabes-Ringel­blum Archive: Cat­a­log and Guide (Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press in asso­ci­a­tion with the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Library and the Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Insti­tute in War­saw, 2009). He is cur­rent­ly engaged in trans­lat­ing Pol­ish and Yid­dish diaries from the Łódź ghet­to and the Yid­dish Son­derkom­man­do doc­u­ments found buried in the ash pits at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Discussion Questions