Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the

Trunk, Yekhiel Yeshaye

(1887–1961), Yiddish and Hebrew writer. On his paternal side, Yekhiel Yeshaye Trunk was descended from an important Hasidic family; his great-grandfather was the tsadik Shayele Kutner, and his grandfather the rabbi of Kutno. Trunk’s father inherited a fortune from his own father-in-law, and Trunk himself married a grandchild of Y. Prywes, the “iron king” of Poland, from one of the country’s richest Jewish families. Trunk grew up in Łódź and studied with private tutors.

Trunk began writing Hebrew novels about the revolutionary struggle against the tsarist regime in 1905, but he switched to Yiddish in 1908 under the influence of Y. L. Peretz. As a regular guest in Peretz’s literary salon in Warsaw, Trunk later depicted this circle in Perets, the fifth volume of his memoir Poyln: Zikhroynes un bilder (Poland: Memoirs and Pictures; 1944–1953).

Trunk moved to Warsaw in 1925 and became the head of the Yiddish PEN club in 1936. In September 1939, he and his wife escaped the city shortly after the German invasion of Poland. After a brief stay in Vilna, where he contributed to a YIVO exhibit about Peretz’s drama Bay nakht afn altn mark (A Night in the Old Marketplace), he arrived in New York via Siberia and Japan in March 1941. A few weeks later, he began writing his grand epic Poyln, a seven-volume work that took a decade to be completed.

Trunk was a prolific writer who excelled in a variety of genres: the short story, literary criticism, memoir, folk tales, and philosophical and historical essays. Moreover, he edited an important anthology of Yiddish short stories with the poet Arn Zeitlin, titled Antologye fun der yidisher proze in Poyln: Tsvishn beyde velt milkhomes (1914–1939) (Anthology of Yiddish Prose in Poland: Between the Two World Wars [1914–1939]; 1946). He contributed significant critical works such as Sholem-Aleykhem: Zayn vezn un zayne verk (Sholem Aleichem: His Essence and His Work; 1937) and Tevye un Menakhem-Mendl in yidishn velt-goyrl (Tevye and Menakhem-Mendel in the Jewish World Destiny; 1944) in addition to an earlier text, Idealizm un naturalizm in der yidisher literatur (Idealism and Naturalism in Jewish Literature; 1927).

Trunk’s texts on Sholem Aleichem, which Trunk considered his greatest books, introduced a Jungian approach to Yiddish criticism, as he regarded Sholem Aleichem’s work as vital to understanding the Jewish collective psychology in its historical context. Trunk emphasized that his own critical method transcended what he called “academic criticism,” a process that allowed him to present a more comprehensive depiction of Sholem Aleichem’s work as the essential expression of East European Jewish historical experience: “Sholem Aleichem was the first to discover the living atom of the Jewish character as a historical entity in its historical development. Through this atom he wanted to penetrate the hidden web of Jewish existence” (1944, p. 7).

During the interwar years, Trunk’s role in Polish Jewish cultural life was that of an aristocratic Bundist who published articles on such varied topics as Greek philosophy, biblical motifs, psychoanalysis, cosmology, Buddhism, Y. L. Peretz, and Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun. Despite his central role as head of the Yiddish PEN club in the late 1930s and his status as a regular member of Di Literatn Fareyn, Tłomackie 13 (The Yiddish Writers Union at 13 Tłomackie Street [Warsaw]), Trunk’s unorthodox ideological and artistic views placed him on the margins of the politically polarized Polish Jewish community. His closest colleagues were two other traditional modernists of Hasidic descent, Arn Zeitlin and Isaac Bashevis Singer. The latter characterized him as a man of contradictions: a wealthy capitalist and a fervent member of the socialist Bund; a European intellectual who wrote about Plato and Seneca (in Trunk’s book of short stories, Yosefus Flavius fun Yerushalayim un andere historishe noveln [Joseph Flavius of Jerusalem and Other Historical Novels]; 1930); and a loyal supporter of the working class.

Trunk’s broad political, social, and cultural experiences informed his autobiographical epic Poyln, a study of the decline of the upper strata of Polish Jewish society and the rise of a new secular Jewishness embodied in folklore, Yiddish literature, and the Bund. This work, his crowning achievement, focused almost entirely on the multifaceted collectivity of Polish Jewry, while relegating his personal story and inner struggle to the sideline.

After the death of his wife in 1944, Trunk lived alone in an apartment in the Washington Heights section of New York City; his situation is depicted in an interview with Yankev Pat (“Shmuesn mit yidishe shrayber” [Discussion with Jewish Writers]; 1954). Trunk published eight books between 1951 and 1960, based on popular folk tales and Jewish folklore, including stories about Khelem (Chełm), Hershele Ostropolyer, the Bove-mayse, Shabetai Tsevi, the Ba‘al Shem Tov, and kabbalist Yosef della Reina.

Suggested Reading

Khayim Leyb Fuks, “Trunk, Yekhiel-Yeshaye,” in Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, vol. 4, cols. 121–128 (New York, 1961); Jacob Pat, Shmuesn mit yidishe shrayber ([New York, 1954]), pp. 114–129; David Roskies, A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), pp. 312–318; Shmuel Rozshanski, “Y. Y. Trunk, a khsidisher sotsyalistisher magnat,” in Zikhroynes, folks-mayses, lider, by Yekhiel Yeshaye Trunk, Musterverk 82, pp. 9–19 (Buenos Aires, 1980); Joseph Sherman, The Jewish Pope: Myth, Diaspora and Yiddish Literature (Oxford, 2003).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1,1, YIVO (Vilna): Administration, Records, 1925-1941; RG 108, Manuscripts, Collection, ; RG 436, Joseph Opatoshu, Papers, 1901-1960; RG 483, Isaiah Trunk, Papers, 1940-1980; RG 526, Louis Lamed Foundation for the Advancement of Hebrew and Yiddish Literature, Records, 1940-1960; RG 561, Rashel Weprinsky, Papers, 1936, 1958-1966.