The People of Godlbozhits
By Leyb Rashkin
Original published 1936 in Warsaw as
Di mentshn fun Godlbozhits
Translation by Jordan Finkin,
Syracuse University Press, 2017
Leyb Rashkin was born in Kazimierz Dolny, a town south of Warsaw, in 1903. He managed a bank and several hardware stores and started to write fiction in the 1930s. This is his only novel. He was killed in 1939 trying to escape east from the German invaders.
Godlbozhits is a fictionalized version of the author’s hometown. It is presented as a shtetl, though the population appears to be only partly Jewish. Much of the narrative involves the triangular rivalry between Jewish businessmen, Jewish trade unionists, and Polish government authorities who hold whatever real power there is. Rashkin is sardonic in dealing with the anti-Semitism of the Poles as well the shifts made by Jews in dealing with it, and with each other.
The author’s style is reminiscent of such writers as Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Babel. The 20th century is very much present. There are motorcars, which are killing the horse-and-carriage trade. In the tanning factory the workers worry about “machines that do all the work themselves, shave and roll the leather,” so the workers won’t be needed. One goes to Warsaw by bus. The Austrian Empire is gone, but remembered. Bolshevik Russia looms over the people’s lives. Oddly, there is no sense of the danger from Germany.
The plot is based on the love affairs of Shimen, an orphan who manages to get himself an education and a good job. The people’s lives are rambunctious. There is sex. There is politics. The Poles are moving toward anti-Semitic authoritarianism. The Jews have the parties that North American Jews recognize as the roots of their own experience: the Zionists, the Bund, Communists, Hasidim.
It is appropriate that this book was recommended to me by a librarian. The story gets going when Shimen goes to the Zionist library and asks for something by Sholem Aleichem. They don’t have anything, but the librarian sends him to the trade union library where he meets Zosia, the blonde communist organizer who is his true love. There are other love affairs. There are strikes. The novel’s climax is a murder in the synagogue, which leads to more suspicious deaths.
Above all, there is the quality of the writing. When Rashkin wants to describe poverty there are “little old men with frozen beards and children with little brown-blue faces.” When Shimen meets Zosia, he hears her voice and looks around: “Now he could just make out how those large eyes had the lustre of a steel sickle.”
This is the sunset that Shimen and Zosia see when they are leaving town because of a police roundup: “In front of them, off in the far distance, stood a dark-blue forest, and over the forest the fiery red half-circle of the sun. The other half of the fiery circle had dipped behind the treetops, which turned molten, their canopies catching fire.”
The translation is by Jordan Finkin, a librarian at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Translators are generally told to make the text read as if it was written in English. Finkin mostly does that, but he is not afraid to leave fingerprints of the Yiddish original. Sometimes the fingerprints are a bit thick on the page, and require concentration, but it is worth it.
You can probably get this novel at Chapters if you try, but it is available now at the Greenberg Families Library at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre. I thank them for recommending it.