In some ways, the narrator of Kadya Molodovsky’s A Jewish Refugee in New York—which was serialized in Yiddish in 1941 and recently translated into English by Anita Norich—seems like a typical and entirely relatable protagonist of a popular teen romance. A tentative, creative and attractive young misfit who, despite her lack of attention to her appearance, nevertheless manages to find herself an object of male desire, Rivke Zilberg transforms and develops from an outsider immigrant into an American embedded in an American family and community through the tried-and-true tale of romantic courtship culminating in an engagement. But, despite its trappings in popular structures of romantic plotlines—especially the multiple love triangles upon which the narrative hinges—the novel is far from a typical tale of love and marriage.
Rivke Zilberg is not a passionate heroine madly in love with a dashing American. Instead, she’s a bewildered Yiddish speaker trying to make sense of an American world that she seems to be stumbling through. She doesn’t understand what she’s supposed to wear, who she’s supposed to ask for help, or how to interpret signs of American wealth, like the use of make-up, that appear from her immigrant perspective to be garish and low class. As the novel progresses, she finds herself in a relationship with Red, a man who loves her for her artless Lublin self-confidence and beauty – in particular the long braids she pins up to form a crown around her head – but speaks to her largely in a language she doesn’t fully comprehend. She develops feelings for him almost without noticing it, so that toward the end of the novel, upon hearing the phrase “crazy about a boy” in English for the first time she stops to ask herself, “Who am I crazy for?… Maybe I’m crazy for Red?” and is unsure of the answer. It is as though she experiences even the emotions of love through the haze of second language acquisition.
Anita Norich’s translation skillfully brings readers into the narrator’s bewilderment through its careful attention to the multilingual components of the text. Norich introduces new English phrases first in transliteration as they would sound in a Yiddish accent before seamlessly integrating them into the body of the text, approximating the narrator’s experience of encountering new idioms. As Norich notes in her critical introduction to the text, Rivke’s struggles to communicate in a new language and her uncertainty of her ability to learn it were a significant component of Molodovsky’s careful construction of Zilberg’s voice as a diarist, and Norich has taken great pains to recreate in English the Yiddish novel’s emphasis on the foreignness of America.
Rivke’s hesitancies about her trajectory toward a typical romantic happy ending are symptoms of her much more overwhelming struggle that seeps through every moment of the young woman’s diary and threatens to overwhelm even the most lighthearted moments in the tragedy and hopelessness. Rivke is a refugee from Lublin, Poland who fled her home to seek refuge with her aunt’s family in New York, narrowly escaping the murderous Nazi regime. The year that Rivke chronicles in her diary coincides with the year following her mother’s death and culminates with her mother’s first yortsayt, the anniversary of her mother’s death in the German bombing of Lublin. Rivke periodically receives letters from her father, hiding in a horse stall in Lublin, her brother Chatskel and his daughter fleeing across Europe, and her former beau, Layzer, who managed to make his way to Palestine and struggles there to make a living. Well aware that the world she fled is on fire and that the situation is only further deteriorating, Rivke lives her own life with divided attention, unable to understand how the family and friends in her new life are not, like she is, constantly thinking about the dire situation in Lublin.
Rivke’s narration brings to life for the contemporary reader a truth about the past that is often difficult for historians to convey – the experience of learning about the Holcaust as it was unfolding, not knowing what was going to transpire. Rivke expresses fear and dread about what she knows for certain: her father sleeps in on the ground in a cold horse stall and could use blankets, her niece was injured fleeing Antwerp for Paris and needs medical attention and money. She tries to help, saving up money to send to relatives and keeping hope alive for them, mingled with anxiety. She also is plagued by the anxiety of the unknown: “If my brother Chatskel is asking me to send money, then he must be in the middle of a real inferno,” she writes, knowing that she doesn’t have the power to fight the fire and that it will only grow. But she doesn’t know, and can’t predict, the horrors yet to come: incarceration, deportation, and mass murder.
As Rivke makes her way in the Lublin immigrant community of New York, she gasps at the reality that somewhere, far away “Lublin still exists!” while here, in America, her aunt bakes cookies and her cousin goes on dates to the movies. In one startlingly ironic diary entry titled “The War,” Rivke notes that she reads in the newspaper about men being shipped off to slavery in Germany and also recounts an instance of “outright war” in the Lubin Ladies’ Aid Society, in which women squabble over who gets to write and sign thank you notes from a fundraising event. Even, and especially, in the moments when American Lubliners are thinking about the “old country,” Lublin seems all the more distant.
The immediacy of Rivke’s understanding of the enormity of what is happening there further alienates her from those who are able to fundraise without feeling the same sense of urgency and despair. As Rivke adjusts to American life, learning to sew gloves, joining a union, learning to speak English, and wearing white shoes in the summer months according to the fashion, she comes to face the key question underpinning the diary: Does living in the present mean burying the past? Put differently, is it true that, as Rivke’s aunt tells her, “What the earth covers up must be forgotten”? Does becoming an American require no longer being in and of Europe, and if so, what are the moral stakes of abandoning European Jewish identity while European Jewry is under attack? What violence does Rivke do to herself, and what responsibility does she bear to the people still living under the threat of annihilation, when she agrees to live a happy life and find love in America? These questions are left unanswered. They linger at the novel’s end, with implications radiating outward from the personal, first-person prose of the diary to a broader Yiddish reading audience who, when the novel was serialized in 1941, were considering, and agonizing over, their relationship to European Jewry during the Holocaust.
Anita Norich’s excellent introduction to the novel grounds it in historical context, affirming the novel as a work of Holocaust literature that is “not a novel about the Holocaust in the familiar sense, but is written under its palpable shadow.” She places the novel within Molodovsky’s body of work, which dealt with the Nazi atrocities as they unfolded and the search for what might remain after destruction, most famously in her widely anthologized poem “El khanun” (God of mercy) but also in many other poems and several of her novels. Norich also demonstrates the importance of considering Moldovsky’s achievements as a novelist within the framework of Yiddish literature, because women’s writing in Yiddish was often expected to fit within gendered categories such as sentimental poetry. Molodovsky’s prolific career and her prominence as a figure in the transnational Yiddish literary world forces scholars to reexamine their gendered expectations with regard to the Yiddish literary sphere, as well as expectations of gender and genre more broadly.
When Kadya Molodovsky’s novel first appeared in serialized form in 1941, readers would have read the novel alongside news of the atrocities inflicted on Jews in Europe during World War II. The first extermination camp in Poland began murdering Jews in December of 1941, shortly after the serialization was completed. Today, as we read daily about the global refugee crisis, as refugee shelters are destroyed by flooding in Bangladesh, migrants drown in capsized vessels seeking as they flee toward uncertain refuge in Europe, as asylum seekers fleeing gang violence and economic desperation are caged and subject to appalling conditions at the U.S. border, readers find themselves empathizing with Rivke Zilberg in her horror at the devastation that surrounds us, and in her desire to escape into the mundane experiences of her life safely away from the front lines. Like Rivke, we don’t know what the end will be to any of these crises, which seem like fires only growing in their horrifying magnitude. Like Rivke, we hang onto the sometimes naïve hope that things will somehow return to normal someday, even as we recognize, as Rivke’s mother used to tell her, that “the worst conflagration is the one you can’t put out.”
We read in Rivke’s story our own bifurcated lives, in which we can be, as Norich describes Rivke, “alternately callow and thoughtful,” aware of and attentive to the horrors of our own historical moment while also caught up in the little dramas of our everyday lives. Rivke is at times disoriented by the very notion that both worlds can exist at once. She asks whether, to live in her American reality, she has to give up on being the kind of person who cares deeply about what is still ongoing in Lublin. This Lublin refugee’s question resonates with us today, urging us to resist such compromises.