TABLE OF CONTENTS
Between Memory and History: Yechezkel Kotik and his Book Mayne Zichroynes
1. The Song of the Shtetl
2. Kamieniec Litewski and its Environs
3. Yechezkel Kotik: The Man and his Times
4. The Reception of the Memoirs
A. “I am Crazed with Delight”: Yechezkel Kotik and Sholem Aleichem
B. “The Big Spark of a True Writer” or “Silly Tales”?
5. The Lost Volumes of the Memoirs
6. The Memoirs as a Cultural Document and Historical Source
A. The Structure of the Book and its Main Characters
B. A Picture of the Past
C. Between Writer and Story-teller, between Historian and Memoirist
7. On this Edition
Yechezkel Kotik, What I Have Seen...
A Letter from Sholem Aleichem to Yechezkel Kotik
A. Yechezkel Kotik’s Letters to Sholem Aleichem
B. Yechezkel Kotik: List of Publications
C. Selected Bibliography on Yechezkel Kotik and his Memoirs
The first volume of Mayne Zichroynes [= my memoirs] by Yechezkel Kotik (1847-1921), one of the masterpieces of modern Yiddish literature, was published early in the year 1913 in Warsaw and opened a new era in the history of Jewish memoir literature and in the description of the traditional Eastern European shtetl. “This is not only a book – this is a treasure, a arden, a paradise full of blossoms and birds’ songs,” “just a simple monumental creation... it is a necessity that each Jewish home with an interest in the Jewish past own and be proud of such a book” – these are just a few samples of the acclaim the book received upon its publication by no less a figure than Sholem Aleichem, and by the important Yiddish literary critic, Ba’al Machshoves. The distinguished Russian-Jewish historian Simon Dubnov further claimed that no historian of Eastern Europe can refrain from consulting this book.
Since its publication, the book has achieved a place of honor among Jewish memoir literature. Attractively written, the memoir records a panoramic description of the author’s family members, his childhood, the community of his birthplace Kamieniec Litewski with its many sites, institutions and characters, including those whom he knew personally and those about whom he had heard. The events of the past and present, daily Jewish life in times of happiness and sorrow, hope and fear find colorful expression in the memoir. These vignettes are an indication of the unique talent of the story teller, who not only wove into his tale both humor and a bittersweet sadness, but also presented an important historical document of Jewish life in the Russian Pale of Settlement of the nineteenth century. “I spent my life in a typical small town,” wrote Kotik in his foreword, “this was a life with a special flavor... but today [=1913] none of this exists any longer, the songs of these shtetls have disappeared.”
The unique personalities of Kotik’s grandfather and grandmother, his parents, and other members of his large family form the chronological line of the memoirs. At face value, the work records the saga of a family through four generations describing the life of an ordinary Jewish family, simple though wealthy and influential, who live in a marginal and remote town in Belarus. Yet, the genre is merely a ruse for the author, enabling him to portray a fantastic gallery of colorful characters and events which he describes so vibrantly and loyally, with love but seldom with nostalgia.
Kotik’s stage features characters and events in moments of despair and warmth. Stories of panic weddings of children to avoid forced conscription, and kidnappers of child recruits intermingle with descriptions of the rise and decline of the Jewish community institutions, the relationships between Jews and the Russian authorities and Polish lords, Jewish livelihood and everyday life, tax collectors, rabbis and zaddikim, merchants and the poor, hasidim and mithnagdim, scholars and illiterates, believers and heretics, matchmakers and informers, teachers and kleyzmers.
Strangely enough, most of the important events in the history of nineteenth century Eastern European Jewry were connected with the small town of Kamieniecand are mirrored in the lives of the town’s inhabitants described by Kotik: inter alia the brutal decrees of Tsar Nicholas I; the abolishment of the Kahal; the Polish revolts against Russia. Moreover, some of the basic problems of the Jews in modern times are reflected in the history of Kamieniec: the crisis in traditional Jewish society and its confrontation with modern trends; the dramatic economic changes; the social and cultural struggles between hasidim, mithnagdim and maskilim and their vision of the future of the Jewish people; the collapse of traditional authorities – religious and familial – and the rise of new sources of authority. Many developments that took place in nineteenth century Kamieniec Litewski can serve as a model for hundreds of similar towns across Eastern Europe.
The book was first published in Warsaw in 1913 in two volumes and again in Berlin in 1922, and received warm acclaim from Yiddish readers (the especially friendly comments of Sholem Aleichem are discussed in detail in the introduction). Parts of the book were even translated into German and published in 1936 in the very prestigious series of Bücherei des Schocken Verlags. Since then the book has been overlooked and a few historians have utilized its historical, cultural, and folkloric material. The absence of this book from both academic teaching and the research literature, may be attributed to the lack of a Hebrew or English translation.
The Hebrew edition of Kotik’s memoirs, edited by Dr. David Assaf, a senior lecturer in the Department of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University, includes a complete translation of the original Yiddish text, and is accompanied by hundreds of notes, which elucidate terms, names (people and places), customs, realia, as well as bibliographical references to the research literature. The editor has also included a detailed introduction which discusses aspects of Kotik’s personal biography, the history of the book, its reception by critics and the public alike, and its importance as a historical, anthropological and folkloristic source.