Yiddish Poetry and the Tuberculosis Sanatorium 1900-1970
By Ernest B. Gilman
Syracuse University Press
Ernest B. Gilman, a professor of English at New York University, grew up in Denver, Colorado, in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains and the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society Sanatorium, where his father was a patient.
Tuberculosis, a.k.a. consumption, TB, and the white plague, historically was the most literary, even romantic, of all diseases. Just mentioning it brings up names: Keats, Kafka, Orwell, maybe Heine, certainly the doomed heroines of La traviata and La bohème.
Gilman’s first chapter, “The Poetics of Lunger Lit,” gives a brief social and aesthetic history of sanatoria in North America in the first part of the 20th Century. The authorities who ran the facilities advised that recovery required “the will to get well, freedom from worry and discouragement, and satisfactory co-operation and obedience.” In other words, as with other diseases for which medicine did not have a cure, it’s up to the patient.
Although tuberculosis in North America and Europe was virtually eliminated by antibiotics in the 1960s, Gilman warns there is a resurgence as antibiotic-resistant strains emerge.
After setting the scene, Gilman gives us a chapter each about three remarkable Yiddish poets, all born in Eastern Europe, who came to North America, and found themselves in a sanatorium with tuberculosis.
The first poet in Gilman’s study is Yehoash, the pen name of Solomon Bloomgarten (1870-1927). Born in Vilna, Lithuania, and trained in the Volozhin Yeshiva, Yehoash showed his early poems to I.L. Peretz who dubbed him, “our Byron.”
Yehoash worked in a glass factory in New York, and the glass dust may have caused his tuberculosis. In the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society Sanatorium in Denver, and later, while recovering, he produced a verse collection, collaborated with another writer on a Yiddish dictionary of Hebrew and Aramaic words used in Yiddish, and translated “The Song of Hiawatha,” by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, into Yiddish.
The second poet is H. Leivick. When he died in 1962, his New York Times obituary said he was thought by many to be the greatest Yiddish poet of his time.
Leivick was born in Czarist Russia in 1888. He became a revolutionary and was exiled to Siberia. He later escaped and reached America. The book includes a photo of him in chains.
Tuberculosis took Leivick to the sanatorium in Denver, and the book includes a photo of him there with Jack Gilman, the author’s father. Leivick was a highly productive writer. His masterpiece is considered to be his play, The Golem. One of his last works is a long poem, “The Ballad of Denver Sanatorium.”
The third poet studied by Gilman is Sholem Shtern, who came from a shtetl near Lublin, Poland, to Montreal in 1927 at age 20 and was, for many years, a leading figure in left wing Yiddish education and literature in Montreal.
Shtern’s tuberculosis treatment was at Mount Sinai Sanatorium in the Laurentians, north of Montreal, where he met the nurse who became his wife. Many years later, he published “Dos Vayse Hoyz (The White House),” a verse-novel set in the sanatorium, which has been translated to Hebrew. Shtern died in 1990.
A chronic illness is an intense life experience. A particular merit of this book is Gilman’s sensitivity in showing, for each of the three poets, how the experience affected their work. Another is his use of translated quotes from their poems to make his points. Gilman did most of the translations himself and he is a good verse translator, as is shown by his English-language translation of Leivick’s “Ballad of Denver Sanatorium,” which is published as an appendix to the book. A brief excerpt:
“Through flutes – the cellular web of lungs –
The thinnest seconds are breathed out in full.”