The International School for Holocaust Studies
Poyln – My Life Within Jewish Life in Poland
Reviewed by Kathryn Berman
Yehiel Yeshaia Trunk; Translated from Yiddish by Anna Clarke
University of Toronto Press, 2007
Yehiel Yeshaia Trunk, a well-known writer, was born in the Polish village of Osmolsk in 1887. His early works were written in Hebrew, but under the influence of the Jewish writer Isaac Leib Peretz, he began to write in Yiddish. He and his wife left Europe in 1940 and settled in New York, where he began to write his seven-volume memoir originally published between the years 1944-53.
This beautifully expressive classic is the first installment of the multi-volume edition of Poyln to be translated into English. It provides the reader with a rich history of Polish Jewry in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, before that world was destroyed. In the preface, the editors quote the following words of Rabbi Byron L. Sherwin: "Only when what existed in Poland before the Holocaust is understood, can one truly discern the dimensions of the loss. From this perspective, it is important for Jews today to see Poland not only as a huge Jewish cemetery, but also as a country where Jews created unprecedented works of the spirit, as a land where Judaism flourished freely and developed beyond what previously had been as a landscape dotted with Jewish spiritual monuments."
As he wrote his memoir, Trunk was painfully aware that his world as he knew it was being destroyed, and his writings are a moving testament to and a commemoration of a culture that no longer exists.
Trunk chronicles the genealogy of his parents, and each chapter is prefaced with a short abstract. A useful family tree, provided at the beginning of the book, allows us to keep track of the members of Trunk's large family as we become acquainted with them. Explanations of places in Poland and terms relating to Jewish culture are to be found in footnotes at the bottom of each page.
Trunk's writing is so descriptive that we soon find ourselves immersed in village life in Poland and its rich, diverse tapestry. He introduces us to his great-grandfather, the learned sage Rabbi Yisroel Yoshua Kutner and his wife Prive, and to his grandmother Leah, married to Moyshe Pinchas, Rabbi Kutner's only son. We meet the Chassidic merrymaker Uncle Yekl, the ordinary Jewish artisans, timber merchants, and shopkeepers, sharing with them the happy occasions as well as hard times. We see the abject poverty of the poor, the almost decadent lives of the rich Jews, and learn about the discourses and arguments between various rabbinic sects. Reference is made to the influence of the enlightenment and the newly developing secularism of the twentieth century.
Over half of the book is devoted to the vivid description of the arranged marriage of Trunk's parents. Here we see the bridging of two families from two different walks of life, brought together for the wedding. Beyla Freydl, the only surviving child of the newly rich Jewish landowner Borukh Gzhivatsh and his wife Khaye, is betrothed to Chaim Avrom, grandson of the well-known and learned Rabbi Yisroel Yoshua Trunk. It seems that the reasons for the union were economic ones, as the rabbi's grandson Moshe was mentally ill. Though he later made a recovery, at the time, Rabbi Yoshua Kutner realized that his son could not support his family and when the opportunity arose for a good match for his grandson, he accepted. For Trunk's paternal grandmother Leah, this is a great disappointment. She had found herself married at the age of 16 to an unstable husband, and she had spent much of her early married years in an attic next to the women's section of the synagogue in Kutno. She devoted much of her time to her talented and brilliant son Chaim Avrom, wanting better for him, and is disappointed with the match.
In the wonderful description of the preparations for the wedding, the guests, the interaction with the non-Jewish girls who help clear up, and the wedding ceremony itself, Trunk allows us a glimpse of the richness of a lost world. A journey is made to Warsaw to buy clothing for the bride with no expense spared. Dining at the Hekslman's restaurant in Warsaw, they are treated to the tasty menu of "stuffed fish, roast geese, turkey, rich tsimmes with kishke and sweet compotes." The peasant Simkhe Gayge accompanies the bridal party from Osmolsk and is described as having "a peasant stomach accustomed to black bread and potatoes with cabbage. These experiences made an extraordinary impression on him."
At the wedding, we imbibe the atmosphere of the event, which the author is able to describe in such detail that we can "hear" the music played and "smell" the food cooked. "The bass was playing steadily louder, the drum drummed, the trumpet blew, and the blind tapped their long sticks on the table." Trunk treats us to some of the superstitions that abounded at that time, in his description of his grandmother, Khaye, who cannot believe she has lived to see the day when her only surviving child is having her wedding day and fasting. She licks her daughter's eyes seven times and spits on her own fingers.
Most poignant is the description of the feeding of the poor before the wedding. The poor Jews of the surrounding areas hear about the wedding, and make their way there in the hope of receiving a few morsels. The great white tablecloths used for the esteemed guests are replaced by coarse brown cloth, at which the poor Jews sit and eat. The two families are united for this happy occasion, and the rich and poor celebrate together.
Trunk describes the rustic Jews who led simple lives and were happy with their lot, knowing nothing other than the hard farming peasant lives in which they toiled from day to day. As Simkhe Gayge experienced his visit to Hekslman's restaurant in Warsaw, so the villagers experience the arrival of the immensely wealthy Isaiah Prywes and his wife Shevele from Warsaw, for the sheva brachot (part of the Jewish wedding rituals). Running out to welcome their coach, the villagers expect the couple to alight from a coach made of gold, but much to their disappointment it was a leather coach like any other.
In essence, the author is telling us how the Jewish people are interconnected, rich or poor, educated or not, religious and non-religious, townspeople or villagers. Their fates were intertwined, and the innocent world of Trunk's family and Polish Jewry was destroyed. However, Trunk does accomplish his goal in preserving the memory of Polish Jewry as a whole and his use of humor enhances and expands the imagination while reading, bringing his characters alive.
The book fulfills an important educational goal in encouraging educators to teach not only what transpired during the Holocaust, but to give students a greater understanding of the richness of Jewish life that existed before the Holocaust. Teachers will find ample material (history, literature, geography, etc.) that can be incorporated into multi-disciplinary programs.