First page of “Ikh vil nisht shtarbn: mayn skeletishe oytobiografye farn kankurs fun YIVO” (I do not want to die! My skeletal autobiography for the YIVO contest), 1934, an entry in one of the autobiography contests for Jewish youth sponsored by YIVO in Vilna in the 1930s. (YIVO)

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Autobiography and Memoir

The general scholarly consensus has, until recently, held that autobiography is essentially foreign to the communal orientation of traditional Jewish literature and mentality. According to this school of thought, Jewish autobiography is viewed as an exclusively modern phenomenon deriving from those whose attachments to Jewish tradition have been attenuated or severed. The great majority of Jewish autobiographies of pre-Rousseauian origin are indeed best viewed as texts that include autobiographical elements, rather than as autobiography proper. A discussion of Jewish autobiographies must focus largely upon Hebrew and Yiddish texts because those written by East European Jews in German and the Slavic languages belong, with rare exceptions, more comfortably to the literary environment of those languages, rather than to the sphere of Jewish literature. The great exception is the first Rousseau-style autobiography of an East European Jew, Salomon Maimon, which was written in German. Maimon, however, was a trailblazer and, in his day, egregious in almost every respect; moreover, at the time in which he composed his autobiography, any form of secular literature in Hebrew, let alone Yiddish, was virtually nonexistent.

Early Modern Autobiographical Texts

The earliest substantial autobiographical text of East European Jewish provenance is the halakhic authority and rabbi of PragueYom Tov Lippman Heller’s Megilat evah (Scroll of Hatred). Hebrew and Yiddish manuscripts of this text are extant, but it remains unclear in which language the work was originally written. As is typical of the majority of early modern autobiographical texts, Megilat evah was not published until modern times; a version of the Hebrew text was first printed in Breslau in 1818. Since then, the work has gone through numerous editions, and has been translated into French, German, and Yiddish. This memoir recounts trumped-up charges brought by his coreligionists to the imperial authorities; the charges led to Heller’s arrest and imprisonment in 1629, supposedly for casting aspersions upon Christianity in his published works.

Megilat evah, a brief narrative of trial and deliverance, traces Heller’s misfortunes from their nadir, when he was faced with the prospect of execution; to the commuting of his sentence; and finally to monetary retribution met by Heller’s supporters. The deliverance here afforded is firmly ascribed to divine providence. That Heller should refer to his work as a megilah (scroll) is significant since it is resonant of the Book of Esther, the Megilat Ester. In late medieval and early modern Hebrew and in particular in Yiddish literature, the Book of Esther forms the prototype for a distinctive subgenre that the literary historian Maks Erik termed as “family scroll.” In Old Yiddish literature, the great majority of the extant works with an autobiographical element are, in fact, such types of scrolls and bear the title megilah (in Yiddish, megile).

The function of these “family scrolls,” including Megilat evah, is, however, very different from that of either memoir or autobiography in the modern senses of the term. It was the custom among more prominent Jewish families in Eastern Europe to fast on the day of a family calamity, and to celebrate the day of deliverance annually with a “family Purim” marked by a celebratory feast and the recital of the family scroll. We learn from later memoiristic accounts—including that of Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh (Mendele Moykher-Sforim), himself a descendant of Heller—that these “family Purims” were observed until modern times. The majority of these texts are, as is Megilat evah, accounts of libelous charges leveled against the author, leading to his imprisonment, and of his subsequent release upon the exposure of these calumnies.

A related category of first-person testamentary narrative in the early modern period—again, preponderantly in Yiddish—is the versified dirge, frequently intended to be sung, in which an eyewitness provides an account of natural or political catastrophe affecting the Jewish community in question. Typical subjects of these laments include expulsions and wars, conflagrations and plagues, and pogroms and blood libels. Generally referred to by Yiddish literary scholars as historical poems, these dirges take as their biblical model the book of Lamentations. The Khmel’nyts’kyi massacres (gzeyres takh vetat) of Polish Jews in 1648–1649 are commemorated in two such dirges: the Yiddish poem of Yoysef ben Eli‘ezer Lipman Ashkenazi (1648) and the more famous Hebrew Megilat ‘efah (1651) by Shabetai ha-Kohen. Related to this category of testamentary writing, though written in prose, is Natan Note Hannover’s account of the massacres, Yeven metsulah (Abyss of Despair; 1653).

Hannover’s chronicle, largely written in the first-person plural, documents in gruesome detail the atrocities committed upon the Jews and the heroic acts of Jewish martyrdom. Translated into Yiddish within two years of its appearance (with many revised Yiddish translations throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries), and subsequently into English, French, German, Polish, Russian, and countless Hebrew editions that continue in the twenty-first century, Yeven metsulah is by far the most influential and widely circulated account of gzeyres takh vetat and is a key text in the history of Jewish martyrology. The autobiographical content of these catastrophe narratives is, however, exceedingly sparse, and the tone for the most part is impersonal; Hannover even omits the fact that among the victims of the Cossack persecutions was his father, nor does he give any account of how he and his family survived the atrocities.

The Modern Period

Only in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries did works of Jewish East European provenance more clearly approximate the categories of autobiography and memoir, as these genres are understood today. The most significant texts that appeared on the threshold of the modern era in that region are, in chronological order of composition: the memoirs (posthumously entitled as such) of Ber of Bolechów (also known as Birkenthal), written in Hebrew circa 1790–1800, first published in 1922; Salomon Maimon’s Lebensgeschichte, written in German and published in two volumes in 1792–1793; Mosheh Wassercug’s memoirs, written in Hebrew probably in the second decade of the nineteenth century and not published until 1911; Natan Sternhartz of Nemirov’s Yeme Moharnat, written in Hebrew and completed circa 1835, first published in 1876.

The only two of this motley cluster of texts that bear some common characteristics are the memoirs of Birkenthal and Wassercug. Each of these authors—and this is the most significant common denominator whence all others arise—engaged in commerce: Birkenthal in wine and Wassercug in loans and real estate. It was through the necessities of commerce that each man acquired, first, numerical literacy, and second, some knowledge of the ways and languages of the non-Jewish world. Commercial transactions, frequently quite complex, parlous, and recorded in laborious detail, occupy a prominent position in these documents. Each of their authors was born in, or near, a center of commerce: Wassercug, Poznań; Bolechów, Lwów. These memoirs, with their mass of detail concerning business transactions, protracted negotiations, and so on, appear as outgrowths of account books or ledgers. It is possible that the relatively private experience of maintaining a ledger provided each of these authors with the initial spur for the undertaking of more extensive memoirs in which, as in the literature of the Puritans, accounting procedures are redirected toward the self. Birkenthal and Wassercug each led a peripatetic existence. Each of these documents evinces a rugged self-reliance, but there is little introspection here nor intimate revelation of the self.

Solomon Maimon. W. Arndt. Engraving or etching. This portrait appeared in the 1792 German-language edition of Maimon’s autobiography and has been reprinted in subsequent translations and editions. (YIVO)

The philosopher Salomon Maimon’s Lebensgeschichte is the first autobiography of an East European Jew to be modeled directly upon Rousseau’s Confessions. Maimon himself draws attention to his indebtedness to this precedent by titling one subsection of the chapters depicting his childhood “A Theft à la Rousseau Which Is Discovered.” This autobiography of a Yiddish-speaking Polish Jew who settled in Berlin in quest of enlightenment and taught himself German was published only three years after the first publication of the complete edition of Rousseau’s Confessions. It thus constitutes one of the first examples of post-Rousseauian autobiography in West European literature. The work is also intimately related to another classic of this formative era of the modern autobiography, Karl Philipp Moritz’s Anton Reiser (published in installments; 1785–1790). Maimon struck up an acquaintance with Moritz in Berlin, and it was Moritz who published the first version of an earlier draft of Maimon’s autobiography in 1792 in his Magazin zur Erfahrungseelenkunde (Magazine for Empirical Psychology), which Maimon coedited at some point.

At the time of its appearance, Maimon’s autobiography, revealing the inner workings of a culture utterly exotic to the average German reader, created quite a stir. The work left a strong impression upon both Goethe and Schiller. George Eliot, whose annotated edition of the Lebensgeschichte has been preserved, was much taken by this autobiography, and the work considerably influenced her presentation of the Jew in Daniel Deronda; she even adopts the name of Maimon’s bosom friend, Lapidoth, to whom he devotes a chapter of the Lebensgeschichte, for one of the leading characters in Deronda. Maimon’s autobiography, though, notwithstanding its temporal primacy and the early acclaim with which it was greeted, exercised no influence upon the development of the autobiographical genre in Europe, nor on the scholarly literature devoted to the general field of autobiography.

In writing the Lebensgeschichte, Maimon had an assimilated Jewish or non-Jewish readership in mind, and this factor colors the tone and the content of the entire work; Maimon feels called upon, for example, to provide explanations of Jewish religious ritual and scriptures and basic Hebrew words. His text traces an odyssey from darkness to light, from a world dominated by ignorance and superstition to the Berlin of Moses Mendelssohn and Kant. He thus distances himself from his past self, sometimes depicting Jewish life in Poland as would an anthropologist an exotic and benighted tribe beyond the pale of civilization.

Another manner in which Maimon distances himself from his Polish Jewish past is through the irony with which his account of his early life is pervaded; he frequently presents East European Jewish life as a lamentable joke. Depictions of the appalling physical condition of the Jewish primary school, the sadism of its teacher, and the absurd inadequacy of its pedagogy provide the blueprint for the many accounts of this much criticized and derided institution in subsequent Jewish autobiographies. Notwithstanding Maimon’s predominantly negative appraisal of East European Jewish life, the Lebensgeschichte has served as a valuable historical source, especially for its eyewitness depiction of the doctrines and practices of early Hasidic circles.

Baym shvel (At the Threshold), by Shimen Horontshik. (Warsaw: Kinder-fraynd, 1936). (YIVO)

Radically different in type as it is, Yeme Moharnat, the autobiographical account of Natan of Nemirov (the disciple and amanuensis of Naḥman of Bratslav), is also a narrative of conversion, of passage from darkness to light. The life passage depicted, however, is from a non-Hasidic background to the most ardent and devoted of the small group of Bratslav Hasidim. Since Natan’s focus is upon the redeemed self, he dispenses with all that befell him from his birth in 1780 to his first fateful encounter with Naḥman, at the age of 28, in a little less than one-and-a-half pages. Much of the narrative is taken up with accounts of Natan’s striving to be in the presence of Naḥman, the obstacles he encountered, and their overcoming. The climax of this work is the extraordinarily moving depiction of Naḥman’s death in 1810 with Natan in attendance. With Naḥman’s passing, Natan intimates that the Hasidic leader is now somehow immanent within him, transformed to a vessel for the continued propagation of the master’s teaching. There is nothing quite like Natan’s autobiographical account in Hasidic literature. Naḥman’s stories, recorded by Natan, are also unique in Hasidic literature precisely because of their overridingly autobiographical coloration.

For later generations of East European Jewish maskilim, Maimon achieved near-mythical status as trailblazer. His autobiography provided the paradigm for other writers’ trajectories from the old world to the new, and he is cited as a source of identification in countless Hebrew and Yiddish works. It was Maimon’s Lebensgeschichte that also provided the crucial intermediary link between Rousseauian autobiography and the subsequent development of the genre in Hebrew and Yiddish in Eastern Europe.

The first Hebrew autobiography clearly to be both modeled on Rousseau’s Confessions and directly influenced by Maimon was written by the Vilna maskil Mordekhai Aharon Gintsburg (1795–1846), posthumously published as Avi‘ezer (1863). As did Maimon, so does Gintsburg employ autobiography in the service of a ferocious critique of traditional Jewish culture; his own infancy, childhood, and early heder education are presented, much under the influence of Rousseau’s Émile, as a cautionary example of how not to conceive, rear, and educate a child. Gintsburg’s keenest barbs, however, are reserved for the arranged marriage, a practice that Maimon had also held up for ridicule in the Lebensgeschichte. Gintsburg, however, goes far beyond Maimon in exploring the psychosexual implications of marrying off a mollycoddled 14-year-old boy for profit to an older girl of sturdier and coarser disposition. What is quite extraordinary about his autobiography is the candor and explicitness with which Gintsburg details the topic of his sexual impotence occasioned by this premature mismatch and his eventual surmounting of the incapacity.

Gintsburg’s struggle to attain mastery of his body is paralleled by an account of his struggle to attain mastery of his mind. Under the influence of “heretical” literature, especially Moses Mendelssohn’s Phaedon and commentary on Ecclesiastes, he is assailed by radical and far-reaching doubts that call the tenets of revealed religion entirely into question. With Gintsburg, the scaffoldings of the Haskalah autobiography are laid in place: an account of childhood denied; a scathing critique of Jewish educational institutions; the disastrous consequences of a premature arranged marriage; and an account of cognitive dissonance and a crisis of faith engendered by exposure to the Enlightenment.

Unquestionably, the most influential Hebrew autobiography of the nineteenth century is Mosheh Leib Lilienblum’s Ḥat’ot ne‘urim, o, Vidui ha-gadol shel eḥad ha-soferim ha-‘Ivrim (Sins of Youth or the Great Confession of One of the Hebrew Writers). Completed in 1873 but not published until 1876, the work is divided into two parts, “The Days of Confusion” and “The Days of Crisis and Disillusion.” The text, as Lilienblum notes in its introduction, follows directly upon the heels of Gintsburg’s Avi‘ezer. The autobiography is written from the perspective of a 30-year-old man in the throes of utter despair; shortly before the writing of the book, he was contemplating suicide. Unrelentingly bitter in tone, Lilienblum traces his path from traditional Judaism to his encounter with the Haskalah, his subsequent disillusion with the latter and with Hebrew literature itself, and his drift into nihilism upon exposure to the positivist doctrines of D. I. Pisarev and Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky. He provides a detailed account of his struggle for religious reform on the pages of the Hebrew press in the late 1860s and the obloquy and persecution he and his family suffered on account of this in Wilkomir. Wilkomir also provided the arena for Lilienblum’s extramarital affair with Feyge Nowachowicz that he describes with a frankness unprecedented in Hebrew literature.

Memoir by Avraham Yosef Stybel, n.d. “Erfahrungen. Prakim fum zikhroynes” (Experiences. Chapters from Memoirs). Typed. Yiddish. English letterhead: Abraham J. Stybel, Warsaw, Poland; Moscow, Russia; Copenhagen, Denmark. Agency: Fred Rueping Leather Co., Fond du Lac, Wis., USA. Established 1854. RG 108, Manuscripts Collection, F87.11.1. (YIVO)

Fleeing his persecutors and his wife and children in 1869, Lilienblum settled in Odessa in conditions of grinding poverty. In Ḥat’ot ne‘urim, he registers the shock of encountering frivolous, licentious Jews, who in the cosmopolitan and libertine atmosphere of Odessa unreflectively cast off the constraints of Jewish law and who were thus utterly indifferent to religious reform and to Hebrew literature, the causes he had espoused with such ardor in his youth. Sensing himself redundant and anachronistic, a “wretched one of the earth” as he undersigns the title of his book (the Hebrew word umlal or “wretched” forms an acronym of “I, Mosheh Leib Lilienblum”), Lilienblum determines to prepare himself for entrance to a Russian university. His memoir ends on a tragic note. Lilienblum, impoverished to the point of hunger, saddled with the further responsibility of his wife and three children who have now joined him in Odessa, despairs of both past and future.

Lilienblum’s autobiography became the Confessions of the Hebrew-reading generation of the time and the Hebrew work of the most far-reaching influence of its day. Mikhah Yosef Berdyczewski referred to it as “A bill of divorce, handed over by one generation to another, that a new generation searching for new paths delivered to a generation that was caught up in the web of the antiquated and the obsolescent.” The book provided a focus of identification for countless kindred souls who had undergone the same agonizing transition from tradition to Haskalah to disillusionment with both. It is the most cited Hebrew autobiography of its era and remained so for a considerable time thereafter.

The story does not end here, however. By 1877, we learn that Lilienblum is planning a sequel “in order to point to others the way of return” (derekh teshuvah) from the dead end in which he found himself. This “return” was to be achieved by means of acquiring the necessary knowledge for entrance to a Russian university; it is to this goal that he devoted himself with passion until 1881. Lilienblum’s liberal hopes for advancement and integration into Russian society through university education were severely put to the test by the 1881 pogroms. By the end of 1881, following an agonizing period of ideological stocktaking, he abandoned his studies and embraced Jewish nationalism. In the early 1890s, Lilienblum wrote his autobiographical account of this conversion, Derekh teshuvah (The Way of Return; 1899); the “return” now follows a reverse route to that he had envisaged in 1877.

The blow-by-blow diary account of his first-hand experience of the pogrom in Odessa in the spring of 1881 and the impact of it upon his consciousness makes for one of the most powerful conversionary testimonies of modern Jewish literature. From 1882 to the end of his life, Lilienblum devoted himself heart and soul to the cause of Jewish colonization of Palestine under the auspices of the Ḥibat Tsiyon movement. The final installment of his autobiography, Derekh la-‘avor golim (A Way of Passage for Exiles; 1899) details his activities in service of this cause. From starting out as a nihilistic document of despair, Lilienblum’s memoir thus becomes transformed to a prelude to the archetypal autobiographical account of the return of the prodigal son to his people. With Hat’ot ne‘urim, the place of autobiography is assured in the modern Hebrew literary canon.

Of other East European maskilim who left autobiographical testaments, special mention should be made of the wide-ranging memoirs of Avraham Ber Gottlober, and the posthumously published memoirs and diary of Yehudah Leib Gordon. Gottlober’s extensive memoirs, written throughout the 1880s, provide in particular an invaluable source for the history of the emergence of the Haskalah in Poland and Russia, and for the Kulturkampf that accompanied this emergence. Neither of these works, however, approaches Ḥat’ot ne‘urim / Derekh teshuvah in intensity of self-revelation.

The Early Twentieth Century

If one trend can be discerned in Hebrew literary history from the turn of the nineteenth century on, the so-called Renaissance period of Hebrew literature, it is the massive transfusion of autobiographical material and technique to the realm of the “fictional.” Pioneer in this respect was Mikhah Yosef Berdyczewski, who from the early 1890s channeled the autobiographical current initiated by Maimon, Gintsburg, and Lilienblum into the thinly disguised autobiographical novella centering upon the experience of the “uprooted man” (talush): the East European Jew in adolescence and youth, unable in the agonizing transition from the old world to the new to find footing in either. A very special place in this literature is held by the writings of Mordekhai Ze’ev Feierberg, whose explorations of the inner world of one torn between tradition and modernity written in the late 1890s left a profound impression upon his own and subsequent generations; his tragically early death at age 24 conferred a certain sanctity upon him and his works.

Cover of "A Description of My Life, Written Especially for the YIVO Contest." The illustration's Hebrew inscription, "I was a wanderer on the paths of life," pays homage to Perets Smolenskin's nineteenth-century bildungsroman, Ha-to’eh be-darkhe ha-ḥayim (The Wanderer in the Paths of Life), Vilna, 1932. The cover was part of an entry for one of the autobiography contests for Jewish youth sponsored by YIVO in Vilna in the 1930s. (YIVO)

This confessional strain in Hebrew literature was continued and enriched in the early decades of the twentieth century by leading writers such as Yosef Ḥayim Brenner, Uri Nisan Gnessin, and, in poetry, by Ḥayim Nahṃan Bialik. The autobiographical–confessional element is so all-engulfing and naked to the eye in the Hebrew “fiction” of this period in prose and poetry that it is all but impossible to ascertain where autobiography ends and fiction begins. Such brinksmanship is particularly apparent in the works of Yosef Ḥayim Brenner; in his first novel, Ba-Ḥoref (In the Winter; 1904), cast in the form of an autobiographical narrative, the first-person protagonist and narrator is named Fayerman (fireman), a transparent allusion to the surname Brenner (burner or incendiary).

In general, the first half of the twentieth century marks a retreat from the autobiographical in Hebrew literature. With the shift of the center of Hebrew literature from Europe to Palestine, there was a general shift of focus from the individual to the collective in the incipient stages of formation, and from the East European ambience to the Middle Eastern. The most notable exception to this redirection of focus is Shemu’el Yosef Agnon, whose single-minded and lifelong devotion to the recreation in memory of the Buczacz of his childhood and youth runs like a thread through his entire oeuvre.

The great majority of East European Jewish memoirs and autobiographies were written in Yiddish; the sum total of such texts constitutes the largest corpus of autobiographical literature ever written in a Jewish language. The three “classic” founding fathers of modern Yiddish literature each wrote an autobiography. Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh (Mendele Moykher-Sforim) wrote Shloyme Reb Khayims (Shloyme, the Son of Reb Khayim; 1899–1912), which innovatively cast the autobiographical narrative in the third person. This story covers the first 13 years of the writer’s life, concluding with a traumatic depiction of his beloved father’s death. Shloyme Reb Khayims combines lyrical nostalgia, acute psychological insight into the emotional complexities of childhood and early adolescence, and highly detailed ethnographic–historical reconstruction of the shtetl as exemplified by his birthplace Kapulye in Lithuania. From 1912 to 1915, further chapters of Abramovitsh’s autobiography appeared in Yiddish periodicals, notable in particular for their depictions of yeshiva life.

Page from an original manuscript of Funem yarid (Back from the Fair), by Sholem Aleichem, 1915. (YIVO)

Sholem Aleichem (Solomon Rabinovitsh) was much indebted to the example of Abramovitsh in his Funem yarid (From the Fair; 1908–1916), not least in his adoption of the third person, and his naming of the autobiographical protagonist Sholem Nokhem Veviks (Sholem, the son of Nokhem, the son of Vevik). Sholem Aleichem had in mind an autobiography, 10 volumes in length, a work that would illuminate, from a personal perspective, a half-century of East European Jewish life. He only took this work up in earnest, however, in the last two years of his life. The final chapter, curtailed midway, only takes the author to the threshold of his twenties. As with Abramovitsh’s Shloyme Reb Khayims, so Sholem Aleichem’s Sholem, the son of Nokhem, is highly contextualized within the wider spheres of family—as the names of these autobiographical protagonists suggest—within a specific place, and within a sociohistorical setting. Such blending of the individual within the wider framework of the collective is representative of a broad distinction between Yiddish and Hebrew autobiography of the early decades of the twentieth century; the Hebrew autobiographical voice tends to be far more introspective, solipsistic, and soul-searching.

The collective focus of Yiddish autobiography and memoir is accentuated, as the twentieth century progresses, in the plethora of Yiddish autobiographies and memoirs written by those of socialist and Communist persuasions. Such collective focus is exemplified in what is probably the most widely acclaimed Yiddish autobiography, Daniel Tsharni’s Barg aroyf (Uphill; 1935); Tsharni (1888–1959) divides this work into two sections, the first titled “Family Chronicle” and the second “Party Chronicle.” The grand exception in this genre, as in other respects, is Y. L. Peretz, the founding father of Yiddish literary modernism. His Mayne zikhroynes (1913–1914; translated into English as My Memoirs) explores the associative workings of memory in a manner clearly informed by psychoanalytic theory and Bergson’s philosophy of time; in this, the work bears some affinity to Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past), the early sections of which were written at the same time. Peretz’s high modernist, deliberately achronological, autobiographical experiment is thoroughly atypical.

The autobiographical vein in the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer is particularly rich; like Shemu’el Yosef Agnon with his childhood Buczacz, Bashevis returns again and again to the depiction of the formative environments of his childhood and youth, Warsaw and Biłgoraj, and of his familial ambience. It is almost impossible to determine in these works where autobiography begins and fiction ends, and vice versa. Bashevis’s innovation, in terms of content, is his inclusion of a strong and explicit erotic element that is only intimated in the Yiddish autobiographical writings of Mendele, Sholem Aleichem, and Peretz.

The above works, however, are only representative of the writing elite of Yiddish literature. Yiddish autobiography is representative of a far wider range of classes, professions, ideological affiliations, than is Hebrew. “Yiddishism,” in the broadest sense of the term, with its socialist underpinnings, empowered men and women who were neither writers, nor necessarily persons of cultural standing, to assign their life histories to writing. Hence there is a far higher proportion in Yiddish than in Hebrew of autobiographers whose only published work was their autobiography. Thus one of the most celebrated memoirs in Yiddish, greatly admired in particular by Sholem Aleichem, is that of a café owner and communal activist, Yekhezkl Kotik. His two-volume Mayne zikhroynes (1913–1914) is a family memoir of a nonprofessional writer, rich in ethnographic detail.

Cover of "My Biography," by N. Drori, 1934, an entry for one of the autobiography contests for Jewish youth sponsored by YIVO in Vilna in the 1930s. (YIVO)

A remarkable demonstration of this democratization of autobiography is afforded by the autobiography competitions for Jewish youth in Poland hosted by the Vilna YIVO in 1932, 1934, and 1939. Approximately 80 percent of the more than 900 documents these competitions yielded were written in Yiddish. These autobiographies, many of which are highly introspective and intimately revealing—especially in the sexual sphere—provide essential material for the understanding of all aspects of Polish Jewish life in the interwar period. The YIVO youth autobiographies constitute the most extensive collection of Jewish women’s autobiographies ever assembled. According to one statistical survey of 302 of these documents, 28 percent were written by women. Study of these autobiographies is yet to be integrated in the burgeoning field of Jewish feminist studies.

A further aspect of cardinal importance that distinguishes Yiddish literature from other Jewish literatures in Eastern Europe is that of gender; no literature written in a Jewish language prior to the emergence of modern Israeli Hebrew has had so high a proportion of female contributors. Hebrew literature written in Eastern Europe was an exclusively male phenomenon—with but a handful of exceptions that prove the rule. Moreover, in the best-noted Hebrew autobiographies (Lilienblum, Gintsburg) and in Maimon’s Lebensgeschichte, women are frequently depicted, but in a distinctly unflattering light. Finally, in the massive autobiographies of Kotik (Yiddish) and Simon Dubnow (Russian), the writers’ spouses receive only scant attention.

The extraordinarily candid, and very bitter, autobiography of Hinde Bergner (1870–1942)—mother of the Yiddish writers Melech Ravitch and Herz Bergner, and grandmother of the artist Yosl Bergner—may be singled out for especial attention. Written in Poland from 1937 to 1938 at the request of her sons, her work is the writer’s final testimony prior to her disappearance in the Holocaust years. In an autobiography replete with ethnographic detail, Bergner provides the female counterpart to masculine autobiographical accounts of the quest for secular education in the face of intense familial opposition and the emotional frustrations engendered by arranged marriage.

Rememberings (translation of Memoiren einer Grossmutter: Bilder aus der Kulturgeshichte der Juden Russlands im 19 Jahrhundert) by Pauline Wengeroff (Bethesda, Md.: University Press of Maryland, 2000). (YIVO)

A woman’s autobiography that has recently received considerable attention is that of Pauline Wengeroff (1883–1916). Memoiren einer Grossmutter: Bilder aus der Kulturgeschichte der Juden Russlands im 19. Jahrhundert (2 vols.; 1908–1910) has been abridged in an English translation titled Rememberings: The World of a Russian-Jewish Woman in the Nineteenth Century. While written from a predominantly traditionalist perspective, Wengeroff’s choice of German as literary language and her evident acquaintance with German literature indicates that she herself was a product of the Haskalah movement whose ravages upon traditional Jewish life she laments and berates. Wengeroff’s work provides a fascinating account of the transition from tradition to modernity and the assimilation of a significant section of Russian Jewry viewed from within the context of her own family. The work is extraordinarily rich in its detailed accounts of women’s religiosity and ritual in the domestic realm of the observant Jewish family.

In the era of mass internal and external migration, the linguistic and physical displacement from the matrix of Yiddish and the Ashkenazic culture from which it was inseparable—Eastern Europe and, in particular, the shtetl—instilled within Yiddish literature an inherently autobiographical bent. This is a literature assailed by a homesickness of cosmic proportions; a monumental testimony to this homesickness is the vast anthology Di idishe landsmanshaftn fun Nyu York (The Jewish Local Mutual Aid Societies in New York; 1938), which contains an abundance of nostalgic reconstructions in poetry and prose of the Jewish cities, towns, and shtetls of Jewish Eastern Europe.

Postwar Period

After the Holocaust, Yiddish became the language of memorial and memory par excellence for the surviving remnant of Eastern European Jewry. Again, at the popular level, it was the landsmanshaftn that provided the impetus for much of this act of commemoration. Many hundreds of yizker-bikher (memorial books) have been published to date around the world since the end of World War II. These contain first-person accounts both of the destruction and of life prior to the Holocaust of the East European Jewish communities represented. Of especial note is Yekhiel Yeshaye Trunk’s massive autobiographical saga Poyln (1944–1953), undertaken in 1943 in response to early tidings of the Holocaust. In the seven volumes of this work, the author combines a panoramic vista of Polish Jewry with a multigenerational chronicle of his distinguished family.

In non-Jewish languages, Wengeroff’s family memoir, Memoiren einer Grossmutter is particularly valuable for its depiction of the revolution in Jewish mentalities wrought by the Haskalah movement in the nineteenth century. The most important Jewish East European autobiography in Russian is that of the pioneer of Russian Jewish historiography Simon Dubnow (1860–1941): Kniga zhizni: Vospominaniia i razmyshleniia (The Book of Life: Memories and Thoughts; 3 vols.; 1934–1940). Kniga zhizhni, which Dubnow embarked upon in 1921, was a titanic project that attempted to synthesize the experience of the individual with that of the Jewish people in Russia in the course of his lifetime. The work is informed by a psychohistorical thesis ac-cording to which there is an analogy between the constitution of the individual self through autobiographical memory and the constitution of national identity (the collective self), through historical memory. Drawing upon an extensive personal archive assembled over the years, and including the voluminous journals he kept from the age of 17—citations from which dominate the narrative of the autobiography from the coverage of the World War I years on—Kniga zhizni opens with Dubnow’s account of his forebears and concludes with the rise of Hitler in 1933. The work achieves a remarkable balance between the history of the individual self, intimate memoirs of the nascent Russian-writing Jewish intelligentsia, as well as their Hebraist and Yiddishist confreres, and depiction of the increasingly catastrophic course taken by European history in the author’s lifetime. Dubnow was exceptional in his ability to chart the development and portray the leading personalities of diverse strata of Russian Jewish intelligentsia.

Dubnow’s autobiography is complemented by that of his daughter, Sofiia Dubnova-Erlich (1885–1986), Khleb i matsa: Vospominaniia (Bread and Matzo: Memoirs), posthumously published in Saint Petersburg in 1994. As the title of this autobiography conveys, Dubnova-Erlich, who also wrote in Yiddish and married the Bundist leader Henryk Erlich, describes a life in which Jewish commitment and a cosmopolitan socialist worldview coincide harmoniously. The three-volume memoirs of Dubnow’s associate, the Saint Petersburg lawyer and tireless advocate of Jewish civil rights, Henri Sliosberg (1836–1937), Dela minuvshikh dnei (Bygone Days; 1933) are rich in recollections of Jewish communal activism and intellectual life in tsarist Saint Petersburg in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

A very different type of autobiography is represented by Osip Mandel’shtam’s Shum vremeni (Noise of Time; 1925). Shum vremeni, a high modernist and hermetic experimentation in autobiography, is particularly powerful in its depiction of the cultural disorientation engendered in the mind of a child brought up in an assimilated Saint Petersburg ambience. The vestiges of Judaism are transmitted to him as an element of his hybrid cultural heritage. Similarly inspired by avant-gardist, modernist technique is the staccato, elliptical, chronological account by Marc Chagall of his childhood in Vitebsk; the work evinces some striking similarities to Peretz’s memoirs. The original Russian manuscript of the work, begun in 1922, no longer exists. The work first appeared in Yiddish translation in 1925 under the title of Eygns (My Own World) and formed the basis for the later Ma vie (My Life; 1931), translated by Bella Chagall. The controversial memoirs of Ilya Ehrenburg, Liudi, gody, zhizn’ (People, Years, Life; 1961) contain a wealth of information about Jewish life in the Soviet Union, including his account of his work for the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, revealing portraits of Mandel’shtam and Isaac Babel, Yiddish poet Perets Markish, actor Solomon Mikhoels, and Chagall, among others.

It should finally be noted that the writing of autobiography and memoir in Jewish Eastern Europe constitutes an almost exclusively secular phenomenon. The two most remarkable exceptions to the almost complete absence of autobiography of traditionalist provenance are Ya‘akov Halevi Lifshitz’s Zikhron Ya‘akov (Memorial to Jacob; 3 volumes; 1924–1930) and Barukh Halevi Epstein’s Mekor Barukh (based on a pun on the author’s first name; Blessed Spring or Spring of Barukh; 3 volumes; 1928). Lifshitz’s memoirs provide a classic example of an ideological adversary employing the literary means of the opponent; the work seeks systematically to provide a photographic positive of the negative image of Jewish life as presented in Haskalah literature, most notably in the autobiographical writings of the maskilim and in particular Lilienblum. Epstein’s text is likewise revisionist in intent; a far more complex, self-revelatory document than Zikhron Ya‘akov, it is motivated also by a genuine impulse toward autobiographical self-exploration independent of ideological agendum not discernible in Lifshitz’s work.

The vast majority of autobiography and memoir, reflecting the East European Jewish experience that has appeared in the wake of the Holocaust has, of course, been written not on Eastern European soil; Yiddish autobiographical writing is of most global provenance. Eastern European Jewish autobiography in a sense, however, never ends. Children, grandchildren, or more distant relatives of Eastern European Jews re-create the lives of their forebears from oral testimony, photographs, salvaged memorabilia, and “memory-travel” to the home-places of their ancestors in Eastern Europe. Fictional transmutation of second- and third-hand autobiographical lore of Eastern European origin, filtered through the imagination of Diaspora Jewish writers in all languages, is, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, increasingly prominent.

Suggested Reading

Lucy S. Dawidowicz, ed., The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe (Syracuse, N.Y., 1996); Ben Ami Feingold, “Ha-Otobiografyah ke-sifrut: ‘Iyun be-ḥat’ot ne‘urim le-M. L. Lilienblum,” in Meḥkere Yerushalayim be-sifrut ‘ivrit 4 (1984): 86–111; Jack Kugelmass and Jonathan Boyarin, eds. and trans., From a Ruined Garden: The Memorial Books of Polish Jewry, 2nd exp. ed. (New York, 1998), with a geographical index and bibliography by Zachary M. Baker; Yekhezkel Lifschutz, Bibliografye fun amerikaner un kanader yidishe zikhroynes un oytobiografyes af yidish, hebreish un english (New York, 1970); Alan Mintz, “Banished from Their Fathers’ Table”: Loss of Faith and Hebrew Autobiography (Bloomington, Ind., 1989); Marcus Moseley, “Life, Literature: Autobiographies of Jewish Youths in Interwar Poland,” Jewish Social Studies 7.3 (Spring/Summer 2001): 1–51; Marcus Moseley, Being for Myself Alone: Origins of Jewish Autobiography (Stanford, Calif., 2005); Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues 7 (Spring 2004), volume dedicated to “Autobiography and Memoir”; Michael Stanislawski, Autobiographical Jews: Essays in Jewish Self-Fashioning (Seattle, 2004); Shmuel Werses, “Darkhei ha-otobiografyah bi-tekufat ha-haskalah,” in Megamot ve-tsurot be-sifrut ha-haskalah, pp. 249–260 (Jerusalem, 1990).