But what kind of name is this Alter?

Subcarpathian village. Photo by Margaret Bourke-White, 1938

Although Ivan Olbracht (1882-1952) was born in Northern Bohemia, he was the most significant writer of Subcarpathia between the two world wars. Between 1931 and 1936 he lived in these mountains, in the partly Rusyn, partly Jewish village of Volové Polje, from where he regularly informed his journal Literární noviny about this little-known and romantically imagined easternmost corner of the newly created Czechoslovakia. He wrote with great love about the Rusyn, Jewish, Hungarian, German people of this poor, multinational region, and he criticized the Czech state for treating this province almost as a colony. He wrote both of his main works about this region: Nikola Šuhaj loupežník (Nikola Shuhai, Highwayman, 1933) about the Rusyns and their Robin Hood-like legendary highwaymen, and Golet v údoli (“Galuth” [“this-worldly exile”] in the valley, 1937) about the local Hassidic Jewish peasant villages. The following short text is from the latter book.

Técsői (Tečiv) Band: Rusyn dance from Volové Polje. From the CD I was beaten… (2004).
One of the last traditional Gypsy bands in the Subcarpathian Hutsul Rusyn region, who still play the Rusyn, Hungarian, Romanian and Jewish repertoire of the surrounding villages. Dumneazu often plays with them.

Subcarpathian Jewish school. Photos by Margaret Bourke-White, 1938

“My landlord is called Alter Abraham Hershkovitsh, but anyone looking for him inquires after Alter, because everyone knows him by this name. And Alter is a very nice name.

In the life of religious Hassidic Jews there occur… not so rarely… yes, there occur some tragic moments when they consider permissible to cheat the Eternal One. For example, the wife of Hershkovitsh in Kelecsény loses some newborn children in a row. Then the Lord consoles her with a boy, and the parents give the boy the name Samuel. But the little Sami soon falls ill, and no herb tea helps, no prayers help, and the heart of the mother gets filled with desperate fear that Sami would follow his little brothers. The mother thus goes to visit the rabbi, and puts her hands together, taking care not to knit her fingers because then they would give out the sign of the cross.

– Rabbi, do a miracle!

Subcarpathian Jewish boys studiyng. Czech postcard, pre-1938

The rabbi begins to stroke his beard from bottom upwards. He is thinking.

– You have already lost three children? And this is now a boy?… Yes, then it is permitted.

And the rabbi does a miracle. He performs a ceremony on the child in the synagogue. He takes away his name, which is the same as if he took away his soul. And he gives him a different name, and this is as if he gave him a new soul. The boy is not called Samuel any more, but Abraham. Soon afterwards time is filled, and the Lord calls the angel of death:

– The time of the child Samuel, the son of Chaim Hershkovitsh has filled. Go and bring him to me!

“Future rabbis”. Subcarpathian Czech postcard, pre-1938

The angel of death thus flies on his light wings to Kelecsény, directly to the Hershkovitsh’s… Samuel Hershkovitsh?… Where is a Samuel Hershkovitsh?… There is no Samuel Hershkovitsh here at all!… He flies all over the village. He does not find any Samuel Hershkovitsh. He returns to the Lord:

– My Lord, in Kelecsény there is no child called Samuel Hershkovitsh. Maybe an error fell in your books.

Adonai smiles affably. He is cheered up by the wisdom of the mother’s heart and of His people. And down there the mother is sitting with the little Abraham and singing a lullaby to him:

– Sleep, my child, sleep, my little son, dulinka… dulu-lu.

And she is shaking with a silent laughter, or maybe weeping. And the child who was saved in this miraculous way is then called throughout all his life Alter. “Alt sol er verdn… Let him live long!” Such an Alter is also my landlord, Abraham Hershkovitsh, earlier Samuel.”

Jewish boys. Czech postcard from Munkács/Munkačevo, pre-1938

Once we are talking about Olbracht, let us quote another text from his book. The passage where he writes about the village micve, the ritual bath on Friday evening, with the same irony and love as the other great authors of the larger region, Singer, Roth or Sholem Alechem would have written about it, but also in that wry and absurd tone which is a characteristic feature of Czech humor.

Subcarpathian Jewish greengrocer and knife-grinder on the same market (the signboard is the same in the background). Czech postcards, pre-1938

“The holy lawmakers who ordered washing to the children of Israel, well knew the Jews. And well knew them also Baal Shem Tov (let him rest in peace), the famous woodcutter of these mountains, the defender of the ignorant against the learned, the great prophet of the Lord, who made physical purity a condition of the Lord’s grace. These lawmakers knew that if they told, for example: “Subcarpathian peasants, woodcutters, shoemakers, tailors, merchants, carters, beggars, commit it to your memory that cleanliness is half health”, then the Jews would have thought a lot about the wisdom of the order, they would have professed it in the prayer houses, would have explained it in the kheders and yeshivas and rabbi schools, they would have seen in the seven above mentioned professions the symbols of the seven angelic orders, they would have held bloody debates on whether “health” in this context means eternity or divine wisdom, they certainly would have found in that phrase a group of three or five letters which is not just a group of letters, but some infinitely deep secret, which can never be figured out, but one has to devote all his life to attempting to figure it out – but, however, they would have not have a wash.

Subcarpathian Jewish tinker. Czech postcard, pre-1938

These old wise men – and above all Baal Shem Tov, father of all the Hassids (let him rest in peace) – also knew that if they briefly and clearly ordered it: Wash yourself on every Friday! then their Jews would have made a touching ceremony out of the order, they would have wailed or rejoiced with their tallit on their heads by accompanying their prayer with beautiful and majestic gestures, they would have remembered about the waters above which the soul of God hovered in the beginning, about the water springing from the rock at the beat of Moses’ rod, about the water of the Red Sea that the Lord divided with the eastern wind so it would stand as two walls to the left and right of the sons of Israel, they would have remembered about the water of the rivers of Babylon and about the zithers hung on the branches of the willow trees – but from the washing there would have not been left more than a ceremonial dipping of the tip of their three fingers in the water.

No! To the people of Polana you have to speak in a different way. In a much more resolute and severe tone.

But to know how you have to speak to the people of Polana, read it yourself in the Valley of the Galuth.

Jewish sewing-machine shop in Ungvár/Užhorod with Czech and Hungarian signboards. As
Giacomo Ponzetto has pointed it out, the advertised company, MINERVA, Erste
Österr.-Ungar. Nähmaschinen-Fabrik AG
is still operating today in the
Czech Republic. Photo by Margaret Bourke-White, 1938

16 comentarios:

Effe dijo...

Caro Studiolum, con questo blog tu costruisci davvero un’intera letteratura pansensoriale. Ci riempi la vista con parole magnifiche e immagini portentose, incanti il nostro udito con melodie sempre esatte, che sono racconto esse stesse, ci fai quasi toccare con il tatto infiniti mondi, e se sull’olfatto e sul gusto c’è ancora da lavorare (attendiamo i progressi tecnologici del web) in compenso solleciti altri due tra i nostri sensi - anche se di solito non sono elencati tra questi: la memoria e la conoscenza.
Mi sono piaciuti moltissimo gli stralci tratti da the Valley of the Galuth. Ivan Olbracht mi è del tutto sconosciuto, ed è una lacuna che vorrei assolutamente colmare; purtroppo pare che Galuth non sia disponibile, non dico in traduzione italiana (sarebbe troppa grazia), ma a quanto pare neppure in versione inglese; la traduzione che ci hai fatto leggere è opera tua?

Effe dijo...

wait a moment: could it be this one?
The Sorrowful Eyes of Hannah Karajich (maybe 1937)

Studiolum dijo...

Grazie tanto. Con tutti questi mezzi, con le immagini ed i suoni e le parole insieme, ed ancora di più con lo spazio che si tende fra di loro, cerco di presentare qualche frammento di quella realtà intensiva che io ho vissuto. E posso solo sperare che queste bottiglie con il messaggio su di queste relazioni frammentarie troveranno le persone che, assimilandole, ricreano in sé stesse la realtà del cui portano notizia.

Unfortunately, I only know about some pre-WWII Bohemian German translations of the works of Olbracht, and even these are far from completeness. The story of Hanna Karadzić is only the last one among the three included in “The Valley of the Galuth”, and perhaps the less characteristic one, as it recounts (albeit in a very beautiful and sensitive way) how a girl leaves her own archaic Subcarpathian community and goes to live a 20th-century life in Prague. The previous two ones, “The Lord makes a miracle” (not the above mentioned name miracle, but another, much more touching one), and “Problems with the micve”, plus a number of other beautiful essays on Hassidic Jews published separately, have never been translated to any Western language, as far as I know. The excerpts above are my own translations from the Czech original. But what if you translate them to Italian, on the basis of a raw translation I send to you (and then I collate the result with the original)?

Effe dijo...

Lending a hand in your struggle to let such a voice spread from an invisible world out to the present one? It would be my very pleasure, indeed (of course my translation would be the raw one).
By the way, could we suppose a multi-lingual translation from Czech to many other languages, from east to far east to west? The Rio Wang is like Odessa's seaport, with a babelic ensamble of people and voices.

Giacomo Ponzetto dijo...

Both of the works cited have been published in English.

Nikola Šuhaj loupežník has recently been translated by Marie Holeček and published as Nikola the Outlaw (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2001). A previous translation, by Roberta Finlayson-Samsour, was published as Nikola Šuhaj, Robber (Prague: Artia, 1954)

Golet v údoli was translated by Iris Urwin and published as Valley of Exile (Prague: Artia, 1964) and then republished as The Bitter and the Sweet (New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 1967). The three tales are entitled Julie and the miracle, The affair of the Mikvah, and The sorrowful eyes of Hannah Karajich.

The only other work of Ivan Olbracht's that appears to have ever been published in English is Indian Fables, as told by Ivan Olbracht, translated by Atya and Ivo T. Havlů (Prague: Artia, 1964 / London: P. Hamlyn, 1965).

Effe dijo...

I've found those titles too (although I wasn't sure that Bitter and the Sweet was actually Golet v údoli, thanks for you confirmation).
Sadly, none of the two books is apparently available on any internet bookshop, at least as a new book. But now the research may carry on, thank you very much.

Effe dijo...

(sorry: I meant to refer to Bitter and the Sweet only)

Giacomo Ponzetto dijo...

You are right, all but the recent Nikola the Outlaw must have long been out of print.

On the other hand, they appear fairly easy to buy used online. The Bitter and the Sweet can be had for around 10 € including shipping from the US. (Would it be appropriate to link to the bookseller?)

Trovo persino in vendita su internet:
- Nikola Sciuhaj, il masnadiero, trad. Giacomo Prampolini (Milano: Mondadori, 1936).
- La Prigione Più tetra, trad. Wolfgango Giusti (Torino: Slavia, 1930).
- Anna (Roma: Edizioni di Cultura Sociale, 1953).

Nel catalogo collettivo del Sistema Bibliotecario Nazionale individuo inoltre:
- Racconti dell'India antica raccolti da Ivan Olbracht; illustrati da Josef Liesler; traduzione e rielaborazione italiana di Renato Caporali e Marco Toscano (Firenze: Giunti Bemporad Marzocco, 1968).
- I tristi occhi di Hana, trad. Bruno Meriggi (Milano: Nuova Accademia, 1959).

L'intero Golet v údoli in italiano non deve purtroppo essere stato mai tradotto.

Effe dijo...

[certo che poter avere in mano un testo tradotto da uno che si chiama(va) Wolfgango...]
Grazie per le informazioni preziose, Giacomo.
Direi che una traduzione italiana della parte, o di una della parti di Golet v údoli non tradotte in italiano (e in altre lingue dei frequentatori del Rio Wang) potrebbe anche essere tentata.
Per quel poco che so e posso, mi metto a disposizione del demiurgo Tamàs.

(Giacomo, would you mind providing me the bookseller link, here or, not to abuse Studiolum's patience, to

Effe dijo...

(all right, I've just ordered a used copy from the USA. Olbracht is coming back home - in Europe, at least)

Effe dijo...

just for fun, I translated into italian the first short text from Golet v údoli you published here in english, and I could do the same with the second text. Is that what you was thinking about, Studiolum?

Studiolum dijo...

Sí, esattamente. Anzi, io pensavo a più: a tradurre l’intero volume, o, per cominciarlo, almeno un’intera storia.

Giacomo Ponzetto dijo...

I have just realized that something from the photos survives to this day in the Czech Republic: the advertised company that used to be MINERVA, Erste Österr.-Ungar. Nähmaschinen-Fabrik AG.

Studiolum dijo...

A fantastic finding, thanks a lot for it! I will include it in the caption of the photo as well.

Effe dijo...

Bene, Studiolum, cominciamo, l'inverno è periodo adatto alle traduzioni :-)
(bel colpo, Giacomo, fatto di intuito e occhio di falco)

anshl dijo...

I too bought a used american copy of Olbracht's Tales from the Old Country. I did not know this writer who wrote about the destroyed world of my family.