“Blume Lempel used stream-of-consciousness, flashback, and free association in her writing to create unique stories with themes rarely seen in Yiddish literature: eroticism, incest, and rape. Born in Galicia, Lempel began to write while living in Paris between 1929 and 1939. — https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/lempel-blume
Blume Lempel (1907 - 1999) was a Yiddish author of stories about life in Paris, Ukraine, and New York. Translations of some of her stories only appeared recently, in particular the volume Oedipus in Brooklyn, published in 2016. In this collection many stories depict escapees from the Holocaust, often agonizingly haunted by what happened to them, or mainly what they witnessed happening to their family or fellow villagers.
The individuals in Blume Lempel’s stories are distinct in many ways, but they all remember. In the last story of the collection — though perhaps the order is made by the translators — she summarizes:
“Each according to his ability must convey what he saw, what he lived through, what he thought, what he felt. You did not survive simply to eat blintzes with sour cream. You survived to bring back those who were annihilated. You must speak in their tongue, point with their fingers.”
Elsewhere she describes the life and then the death of a young woman:
“A German put a bullet in her belly and left her lying in the street with her guts spilling out. The sight was so unsettling that the peasants crossed themselves in fear on their way to church that Sunday. In my mind I lift her up and carry her far away from human eyes. Surely if a wolf came upon her in the forest he would devour her. A cannibal would make a feast of her. Yet her ultra-civilized murderer left her lying in the street to show the world what he could do.”
“Through the skylight of my Parisian garret I used to look up at the tiny rectangle of heaven that fortune had allotted me and conjure up Zosye’s lush, slumbering garden. How I cursed the fate that had stranded me in Paris on my way to Israel! Zosye did not want to go to Israel, nor did she need to. For her, the vine was abloom with all the brilliant hues of the bejeweled peacock that resides in the dreams of every young woman. How could she have known, as she played the piano, that the civilization of those magical notes was even then writing her people’s death sentence? How could she have known that form and harmony were but the seductive song of the Lorelei, the façade behind which the cannibal sharpened his crooked teeth?”
The book is also full of life, of the life before and after the death camps, the obliterated villages, the tormented Jewish villagers. Here’s a description about a family, an aunt and a grandmother and how they make a living:
“She and my grandmother run a one-day restaurant for the market folk. Each customer receives a bowl of soup containing a quarter of a roast chicken with parsnip, dill, and other delicious things whose fragrance fills the house and wafts out into the market square.”
And the torment of the experience: “Zoesye picks up a stalk of straw …. She thinks mostly about eating. Not about the wild strawberries with sweet cream that her mother used to serve, but about bread with salt, perhaps with a clove of garlic.”
What’s even more fascinating, the book is full of evidence of a totally modern intellectual writer, with characters who read Madam Bovary, Anna Karenina, the poems of T.S.Eliot, the Greek tragedies (including Oedipus, the parallel to the title story). One character goes on a trip to Yosemite with “a pair of binoculars, a warm coat, some candy for energy, and the inevitable camera.” Another volunteers with the residents of a home: “Dressed in black, I go often to the old age home. Once a week I read aloud from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Stories from Behind the Stove in Yiddish. After I read, the audience peppers me with questions having nothing to do with the book.” These characters seem to be versions of the author herself, but as a reader one never knows. But they live in a present that is very familiar. One story begins:
“Lying under my apple tree, I make a conscious effort to detach myself from the outside world. Eyes closed, I attempt to follow the teachings of Zen Buddhism and rise above the stifling heat, the children’s racket, and the airplanes swooping overhead like birds of prey. It’s the middle of July. Apollo 11 has landed safely on the moon, a great human achievement that leaves a strange taste in my mouth, a taste I can neither swallow nor spit out.”
How can I relate to these stories?
Dara Horn (in the book People Love Dead Jews, blogged here) observed that stories told by those who actually lived through the torments of destruction of their way of life were very different from the fake feel-good Holocaust stories that are so popular now. It’s much more agonizing to read Blume Lempel’s characters’ actual memories, of horrors too great to grasp and events so brutal that the hardly seem real to the teller. Occasionally there’s a story of revenge, which is also satisfying and unusual. In the entire collection, there’s never a story of redemption through some good deed by some exceptional gentile like the current fictional renditions often present. In real life this may have happened, but not here.
Blume Lempel’s hometown was a traditional Eastern European shtetl, such as is often idealized by the vivid film of Fiddler on the Roof (and by the many amateur productions of the musical). Blume Lempel escaped in 1929, intending to go to Palestine; on the way she stopped in Paris, where she lived for a decade; then in New York for the remainder of her life. During her stay in Paris, she started to write stories and novels in Yiddish, her native language. She was first published in the 1940s in various Yiddish publications.
Lempel’s characters often have early memories in their village homes, which at times seem to be her own first-person story, but these are stories mainly of their current lives in New York or Paris, the memories form a painful background to their subsequent lives and relationships. Being survivors and witnesses is in the background of their experience. Above all, Blume Lempel was a wonderful writer, creating characters and short histories that spark to life as one reads. I’m glad that a recent message from the Yiddish Book Center reminded me finally to read this book.
Review © 2023 mae sander