|tags:||Memoir & Essay|
Illustration: Spring in Go?cieradzu by Leon Wyczó?kowski
ON MY TRIP TO POLAND this past winter, I brought the perfect book as my traveling companion. The Glatstein Chronicles was written in 1934, after the author, celebrated American Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein, was summoned home from New York to his dying mother's bedside in Lublin, Poland. Recently retranslated, edited, and published in English by Yale University Press, the poet's travel narrative is both first-rate reportage and a fever dream of Europe on the brink of disaster.
Glatstein (named "Yash" as the book's narrator) travels back to the Old Country by trans-Atlantic steamer. "The ship seemed to be carrying me back to my childhood," he writes, "as though we were sailing back in time." His is a half-forgotten, mythical childhood, where, "in the center of the synagogue, the fearful shadow of a hanging lamp swayed back and forth, like a body dangling from a rope." These sometimes ominous, sometimes joyous memories are both interruption and counterpoint to Yash's encounters with an international cast of characters as he crosses the ocean and travels across Europe by train.
As I picked at bland fare on the Lufthansa flight from Los Angeles to Munich, I savored Glatstein's Eastern European culinary metaphors: a man "chooses his words as if he were sorting chickpeas, and rejecting the inferior ones," a head is propped on a man's neck "like a cabbage," and a pair of eyes are "cloudy like herring milt."
One of the ship's passengers lauds Yash for being such a great listener. "You have golden ears," he says. "Your ears are worth a million dollars." I resolved to follow his example. The pale young man with spiky dark hair next to me had asked me to wake him up when dinner was served. After nudging him awake at dinnertime, I listened to his tale and learned he was traveling to Sofia, Bulgaria, to the bedside of his sick mother. A journey of return. I was returning as well — if it's possible to return to a place where one has never lived. I was returning to the little town of Radomsko, Poland, where my grandparents were born. After six visits, I'm practically an honorary citizen of this homely but heimish town in the hinterlands between Cz?stochowa and ?ód?.
On the second or third morning of his ocean crossing, Yash learns of alarming news from the ship's paper. Hitler has purged his paramilitary force and murdered its leader, Ernst Röhm, along with at least 60 of his associates. It is the Night of Long Knives. Yash's buoyant mood is shattered. He goes in search of fellow Jews, certain they will understand what Hitler's grab for power bodes for their brethren.
The first passenger he buttonholes "stops in his tracks like a stunned rooster." It's not the news, however, that alarms him: "'How did you know I was Jewish?' he asked, as if some misfortune had befallen him." The stunned rooster then admits that he is indeed Jewish, but "not one of those common Polish Jews. I'm Dutch." Yash also embarrasses the single Jew among four stalwart young Bolsheviks traveling home to the workers' motherland, b...