The Glatstein Chronicles by Jacob Glatstein review: A portrait of a Jewish world in its twilight years

One of the foremost 20th century Yiddish poets, Glatstein emigrated from Lublin to New York in 1914


Poet Jacob Glatstein founded the Inzikhist (Introspectivist) literary movement. Photo: Yiddish Book Centre

Jacob Glatstein, one of the foremost twentieth century Yiddish poets, emigrated to New York in 1914 at the age 18, after a childhood spent in Lublin. There he helped found the Inzikhist (Introspective) poetic movement which insisted that reality be filtered through individual experience rather than observable facts. After 20 years away, Glatstein returned to Poland, in 1934, to be present at his mother’s death bed.

The Glatstein Chronicles are divided into two books, originally entitled When Yash Set Out and When Yash Arrived, published, respectively, in 1938 and 1940. Though the books are presented as fiction, Yash was Glatstein’s nickname, and the voyage to Europe recounted in Book One and the homecoming of Book Two clearly recount the writer’s own lived experience. As the academic Ruth Wisse points out, in her characteristically informative introduction, Glatstein instead “wrote a cascade of poems that wrestle with a catastrophe dwarfing the ‘natural; death of a parent”.

Glatstein’s prose indeed captures a world on the brink of catastrophe one in which his remaining Polish family would be murdered through a series of encounters. A Dutch Jew reveals a dislike for his Polish co-religionists. Glatstein predicts, correctly, that “the Nazi racial doctrine... will reach out to get you no matter how Dutch you may imagine yourself to be”. A Bessarabian Jew he meets on the voyage, now domiciled in Bogotá, praises his “golden ears”. Characters reveal and betray themselves through sharp dialogue. His descriptive passages have less force.

In Warsaw, Glatstein encounters distant family with “yellowed faces” and “meat crawling with maggots”. In Lublin, an historian informs him that “they want to destroy us, nothing less”. A traveller who accompanies him to Kazimierz confirms the virulence of post-independence Polish antisemitism.

As a writer, Glatstein is as concerned for the Yiddish language as he is for its speakers. A talk by the great Hebrew-language poet Hayim Bialik leaves him realising that, “all those innocent strands he’d been spinning were, in effect, a spider’s web and that the fly he had trapped in it was—the Yiddish language”.

A cobbler-painter (sic) shows him pictures of Lublin, “some film documenting a bygone past”. It was how Glatstein himself had once seen his native town, with “the eyes of childhood”. Like Joseph Roth in his non-fiction book Wandering Jews, published in 1926, Glatstein has left us a portrait of a world in its twilight years, unvarnished.

The Glatstein Chronicles

by Jacob Glatstein, trans by Maier Deshell and Norbert Guterman

White Goat Press, £16

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