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The Vilnius Yiddish Institute Newsletter, No. 16
In this issue:
Blume Katz 1913-2006
With reverence and gratitude we recall Blume (Blumke, Bluma) Katz, beloved friend of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute and its Summer Program, who passed away on October 27th. At our 2006 opening ceremony, we were privileged to hear Blume, in her young years a student of the great Yiddish philologist Max Weinreich, welcome our group to Vilna for the last time. Blume is eulogized on our home page. Here we wish to recall her in the words of two former Summer Program students, Jennifer Bell and Hannah Pollin, both of whom were bound to her in deep mutual friendship.
I first met Blume Katz in 1998. Professor Dovid Katz of the VYI had invited me on a trip to meet the last Jew in Pabrade (Podbrodzh), from where my relatives came, and from there we pushed on to Svencionys (Svintsyan) to visit Blumke and her husband Kalmen. From the start, I was fascinated by her stories of a Jewish childhood in the early years of the twentieth century, of pre-war Vilne (her tales of Moyshe Kulbak, Max Erik, and Itzik Manger were spellbinding), of her teachers at the Yiddish Teachers Seminary, and of life in the Soviet labor camps. I admired her elegant, rich Yiddish, her vast knowledge of Yiddish and Russian poetry, which she loved to recite, and her extensive repertoire of Yiddish songs. Still more, I admired the courageous, generous, intelligent human being who never complained, who knew no bitterness, and who always saw the good side of people.
Blumke found joy in small things. I treasure memories of rushing after the sprightly 85-year-old as she gamboled up the hills surrounding the green lake near her home, of watching her dance happily at a party during one of the Vilnius Yiddish summer programs. I was hardly the only one to appreciate her: A walk round Svencionys was always punctuated by people crossing the road to greet her warmly and thank her for some past kindness.
Blumke Katz was a remarkable human being. Not only was she a living encyclopedia of pre-war Jewish life in Vilne, she also embodied the cultured Jewish life of that period. I feel privileged to have known her and to have been able to learn so much from her.
Jennifer Bell (Brussels)
As a young Yiddish teacher, I strive to communicate to my high school students that Yiddish has the power to change their lives. I show them how the language can grant them access to places, ideas, and moments in history that would otherwise remain distant to them. To illustrate my point, I keep a photograph of me and Blumke Katz z"l on my notebook, which they can see at the front of the classroom every day. Abstract arguments about the value of Yiddish may elude high-schoolers. However, this photograph communicates to them one very concrete reward that I gained through the study of Yiddish: the adventure of befriending Blumke Katz, a woman who wrestled with a century of human experience and openly shared her memories with me.
I was privileged to visit Blumke in Svintsyan nearly every Friday of my ten-month Fulbright Fellowship in Vilna, from August 2004 to May 2005. At first, I sought information from her: What was the Jewish community like in Vilna and in Svintsyan? What were the goals of Max Weinreich's Teachers Seminar? Why did she leave for the Soviet Union in 1935? How did she stay sane while living in a gulag in Kamchatka? What was it like to return to her Lithuanian hometown after the war? How did it feel to still live in her much-changed hometown today? Soon, Blumke became my close friend, and I visited her less to gather information, but rather to savor her company. I set aside my research agenda and allowed Blumke to guide our dialogue.
Blumke was sophisticated, warm, feisty, and authentic. She was my teacher and my confidante. In the same moment, she could roll off a detailed account of a day in 1939, heap butter and cheese onto a black-bread sandwich for me, and weep while rereading our favorite Dovid Hofshteyn poem, "In vinter farnakhtn." Just as she narrated the story of her life to me, so, too, did I eventually share my story with her. When I left Vilna in May 2005, we planned to coauthor an essay in which we paralleled our life experiences.
In the following academic year, 2005-2006, Blumke and I did not manage to write this joint essay, as intended. However, I shared Blumke's address with one of my most enthusiastic students in Los Angeles. Using what little Yiddish he knew after three months of study, he wrote her a letter. In it, he said, "My name is Zachary and I am creative and strong." Unforgettably, Blumke responded, speaking to him as her equal, "Zachary, you write that you are creative and strong. These are great, if not the best, qualities a person can have." As with me, Blumke was able to transcend boundaries of age, culture, and, in this case, geography to connect genuinely with my student.
I visited Vilna again this past summer. While there, I saw Blumke twice, once in the apartment where she was staying and once at the opening ceremony of the VYI Summer Program. Weakened by illness, she nevertheless treated me warmly, kissing me and asking me if the speech she had just delivered at the ceremony had been any good.
My memories of Blumke and the many big conversations we had in her tiny kitchen will nourish me for the rest of my life. I hope to honor this wise, knowing, courageous woman by further exploring and sharing her history and by teaching others in the spirit she revealed to me Friday after Friday.
Hannah Pollin (Los Angeles)
Sixty-nine eager and able students, a devoted faculty and staff, the historic and human resources of Vilna, the inspiring campus of 400 year-old Vilnius University, and a grant from the EU fund "Culture 2000," assured that the 2006 Yiddish Summer Program would fully uphold the program's proud traditions. Now, with the New Year at hand and plans for the 2007 program under way it's time for a fond look back.
As always, the diverse student body meant deepened personal reward for all, in the classroom and throughout a rich schedule of Old Vilna city walks, bus excursions, and a score of sundry cultural events. Our greetings go out to the students who journeyed to Vilnius from their 13 home countries of Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Israel, Italy, Norway, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Switzerland, Uruguay, and the U.S.A. Those from Lithuania itself were already well-set in Vilnius, of course, but like their fellow students from abroad eager to become at home in the authentic milieu of Yiddish. Greetings to them also!
The 2006 faculty was likewise international. Veteran professors Avrom Lichtenbaum, Yitskhok Niborski, and Anna Verschik joined us from, respectively, Buenos Aires, Paris, and Tallinn, and, for the first time, Prof. Jan Schwarz from Chicago. Together, they provided students at all four levels, from beginners to advanced, a vigorous, challenging academic program that fostered optimal language learning as well as a varied encounter with Yiddish culture.
As always, the Vilnius Jewish Community opened its doors and hearts to our students--thanks above all to president Dr. Shimon Alperovitch and deputy president Masha Grodnik. This year, we expanded our activities at the Community to include animated discussion sessions with members of the Yiddish- speaking group Abi men zet zikh, led by Professor Israel Lempert, and beside our opening concert and the last of eleven lectures, we held the weekly shabes tish--a merry evening of food, drink, Yiddish song, and dance--in the community's festive White Hall.
The "Culture 2000" grant enabled us to host performances and workshops by the acclaimed artists and teachers Peysakh Fiszman, Shura Lipovsky, and the Jeff Warschauer/Debbie Strauss duo. Just as delightful were our native Vilna talents, the budding young tenor Rafailas Karpis, the VYI's own ethnomusicologist and Yiddish folk singer Dr. Maria Krupoves, and, home from her second season at London's Royal Opera House, mezzo-soprano Liora Grodnikaite. All in all, ten stellar Yiddish events!
The lecture program by our faculty and a baker's dozen of invited speakers from Vilnius and abroad covered topics that ranged from Yiddish humor to Vilna social and cultural history to prewar and contemporary Jewish art and writing in Lithuania, and still others. In several instances, the lectures served as background to our guided walks through historic Jewish Vilna and to our Sunday bus outings to memorial sites and others in Kaunas (Yiddish: Kovne), Paneriai (Ponar), Trakai (Trok), Zezmariai (Zezmer), and the former shtetl of Kedainiai (Keydan).
More than one student praised the readiness of our office staff, well beyond the call of duty, to help with questions and problems of every sort and size. From the moment students were met at the airport or train station and driven to their quarters to the day of their departure, their well-being in Vilnius was seen to by the entire Summer Program staff. While its members saw such hospitality as only natural, we're pleased indeed that a number of participants named it as a shining feature of the Vilnius program. The flowers presented to Olga, Loreta, Ruta, Zivile, Lina, and our dear librarian Fania Brantsovsky were a touching sign of the students' appreciation.
Our deep thanks go to Gilles Rozier of the Medem Library in Paris. It was Gilles who secured the European Union grant for our European Yiddish consortium and administered it ably and selflessly. Not only did the grant enable us to enhance our already rich offerings, but also to award scholarship aid to a large number of deserving students. Equally, we are grateful to the EU project "Culture 2000" in Brussels for its generosity and broad cultural vision.
On 25 August, under sunny skies, students festively received their diplomas in the university's tree-lined Mickievicius courtyard. Soon, nearly all were off to their home countries or travelling in Europe. We know, however--since many told us--that they were taking along fond memories of Vilnius, where they had immersed themselves in Yiddish, discovered the Yiddish culture of Lita (Lite) and met the unforgettable women and men who are valiantly preserving the Vilna Yiddish tradition today. At year's end, we send them, and all who preceded them, warm greetings from the VYI office--where we are avidly gearing for the class of August 2007.
Dr. Egle Bendikaite, VYI faculty member in Yiddish language and Lithuanian Jewish history, lectured between 14-19 October in Los Angeles to Jewish and Lithuanian audiences . Her trip was organized by Grant Gochin of the Friends of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute and Darius Udrys, chair of the L.A. Lithuanian-American community. It was aimed especially at promoting an enlightened dialogue between the two ethnic groups.
At Temple Akiba (Culver City), Dr. Bendikaite spoke on Jewish social and political history in Lithuania. Her lectures at St.Casimir's parish hall and its Lithuanian school were titled "Zionism in Lithuania" and "Contributions of Lithuania's Jews to Lithuanian Independence" (in the years 1918-1920). All three talks were well attended and followed by lively discussions with her appreciative listeners. Wherever she spoke, Dr. Bendikaite opened new historical perspectives and provided insights from which one can expect a positive echo in her host communities.
Besides her public lectures, Dr.Bendikaite met with faculty at Hebrew Union College and the University of Judaism, spoke to members of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, and gave an interview to Santa Monica's Lithuanian Melodies Radio. At a dinner for Friends of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, she introduced her 2006 book "The Zionist Movement in Lithuania" (in Lithuanian, with extensive summaries in English and German).
Dr. Bendikaite's visit was sponsored by Grant Gochin (whose grandparents emigrated from Lithuania), the Los Angeles chapter of the Lithuanian American Community, the Department for National Minority and Expatriate Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania, and the Friends of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute.
The magazine Lithuania in the World (Vol. 14, No. 5, 2006; http://www.liw.lt/index.php?shid=1163067766) has devoted a feature article to VYI research director Prof. Dovid Katz. The article spotlights Prof. Katz's biography, academic and scholarly career, and unique place in today's Vilnius and Lithuania as a world recognized Yiddishist. The appearance of the article celebrates Prof. Katz on his fiftieth birthday. The celebration itself took place amid the scholar's wide circle of Vilna colleagues and a good 100 of his dear Vilna friends going back to 1990, the year of Prof. Katz's first visit to Lithuania. Among the toasters were British ambassador Colin Roberts, Canadian ambassador Brian Herman, former Lithuanian ambassador to Israel Romas Misiunas, and European Parliament member Emanuelis Zingeris, founder of the Jewish State Museum of Lithuania. Chairing the happy event was Dr. Shimen Alperovitch, president of the Lithuanian Jewish community. Dr. Maria Krupoves, Prof. Katz's colleague at the VYI, enhanced the evening further with a bouquet of Yiddish folksongs. The event was coordinated jointly by the Jewish Community's research secretary Prof. Israel Lempert and its vice president, Ms. Masha Grodnik.
The Newsletter is produced by the Vilnius Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University.
Editor: Professor Sidney Rosenfeld
|2005 VILNIUS YIDDISH INSTITUTE. Solution: Neosymmetria|