Yehuda Elberg: Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man

Elberg with Golda Meir

“A literary master living among us” is how the influential Globe and Mail newspaper described Montreal author Yehuda Elberg after his two brilliant novels, Ship Of The Hunted and The Empire of Kalman the Cripple, rolled off the presses nearly four years ago.

Translated from the original Yiddish, the books were published in English by the Syracuse University Press as part of its prestigious “library of modern Jewish literature.”

Elberg says he sent both manuscripts to Syracuse, asking them to consider one or the other, and was delighted when they accepted both. Authors such as Cynthia Ozick, Arthur Miller and S.Y. Agnon are also represented in the series.

“At the age of 85, I gave birth to twins,” he joked after the double publication.

These days the 88-year-old Montreal resident, who winters in Florida, says he is expecting triplets sometime soon, having readied three more Yiddish books for publication in English. Their titles are: A Man Is But A Man, A World Unto Itself and A Ladder to Heaven. Each consists of a novelette and a selection of short stories, chosen from among the hundreds that he penned for literary magazines over the decades.

Born into a rabbinical family in Zgierz, Poland, in 1912, Elberg worked during the 1930s as a journalistic correspondent for Yiddish and Hebrew newspapers, and published his first short story in 1932. Many more stories followed throughout the 1930s, but most were lost. “I didn’t keep copies,” he said. “It was like an earthquake, what we went through — being deported from one place to another, not being able to take anything with us.”

He was active in the Polish resistance during WWII, first in Lodz and then the Warsaw ghetto. Immediately after the war, he returned briefly to Lodz and helped reorganize Jewish cultural life, establishing both a writers’ union and a press agency. He edited a Yiddish magazine in Paris for 18 months, moved to New York in 1947, and settled in Montreal in 1956. Having survived the Shoah while hundreds of his relatives didn’t, he says he feels a sacred duty to write about the Holocaust and the vibrant shtetl life that the Germans destroyed.

“I feel like I’m a messenger. I feel like I was saved, one survivor out of a large family, in order that I should be a witness. I feel the obligation of testifying.”

Unfortunately, two of Elberg’s early works were destroyed in the Warsaw Ghetto. The unpublished manuscripts were historical novels: one was about the Jews in the time of Herod the Great, the other about two 17th-century Hamburg rabbis and the religious controversies that surrounded them.

“I never came back to these books. The thought of researching them again! I thought, ‘The Holocaust is more important.’ I felt obliged to write about the Holocaust as a witness. That’s what I told myself — I have to save my life to be a witness.”

His Holocaust novel, Ship Of The Hunted, is a gripping book that captures one family’s horrendous experiences as its various members try to survive the Nazi scourge in the Warsaw Ghetto and the Polish countryside; its final, redemptive scenes show survivors on a boat bound for Palestine. Esteemed Holocaust writer Elie Wiesel said the book “is fashioned from the cloth of truth” and that “the Warsaw Ghetto has finally found its novelist.” Film rights for the story have been secured by producer David Brown, whose credits include the film Driving Miss Daisy.

The Empire of Kalman The Cripple hearkens back to the interwar period and records the colorful characters — saints, dunces, Jews, non-Jews, rabbis and petty politicians — that populated a Polish shtetl. At first presented as a scheming, ill-tempered rogue, Kalman changes during the story and ultimately redeems himself.

Elberg was a contemporary and distant cousin of the late legendary Yiddish writer and Nobel laureate, Isaac Bashevis Singer, whom he says was not a warm person. “He wasn’t the kind of person to embrace you — I don’t mean physically, I mean emotionally.” He observes that he and Singer presented contrasting views of the shtetl in their fiction.

“Bashevis Singer was a pessimist. He looked at the shtetl with the smirk of irony, and you can’t blame him for it because he looked at life the same way. This was his personality. It came out in his books that all Jewish homes are dirty and all Jews have crooked noses. He didn’t paint them beautiful. But what he wrote was masterful.”

Elberg’s fiction, by contrast, seems to retain the wholesome homespun values of the shtetl, no matter how far his characters are forced by circumstance to stray from these humanistic ideals.

“I was born in the shtetl, I grew up in the shtetl, I became a writer in the shtetl, and I admire the Jewish life in the shtetl. I may exaggerate a little bit because I see the high values of the shtetl. I know what the shtetl gave me and I would like to transfer these values to my children and grandchildren.”

Like Singer, Elberg acknowledges being strongly influenced by Fyodor Doestoevsky, the 19th-century Russian author of psychological novels like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. “I think Doestoevsky made me a writer,” he said. “Reading him, I got the desire to do the same thing.”

He credits the late renowned Yiddish writer Chaim Grade, who was “a bosom friend and like a brother or father to me,” for showing him the importance of perseverance as a writer. “We lived (after the war) in the same building in Paris, and one day he came in and said, ‘Why aren’t you writing?’ in a fatherly tone. And I said, ‘It just doesn’t go.’ He said there was no such thing, that it was just an excuse to be lazy. He said, ‘Sometimes I have to throw out the first nine pages and start again.’ So I tried the same method and found that it worked.”

Elberg was quick to explain that Grade wasn’t really being unkind when he famously commented that it was “a tragedy for the Jewish people” that Isaac Bashevis Singer had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1978. “He didn’t mean it that way,” Elberg said, explaining that many of his contemporaries resented Singer’s uniquely perverse, albeit highly colorful, vision of the shtetl.

“They say it was only jealousy that made other writers criticize Singer after he won, but that isn’t so. I love the writing of Bashevis Singer, and I think I learned from him. But I used to give a lecture entitled Jewish History vs. Bashevis Singer. I confronted his description of a shtetl, of Jewish life, with quotations from the history books of the same time. And the history books often say just the opposite of what Bashevis Singer has written.”

Elberg has also collected numerous prestigious awards for his Yiddish writings. A frequent visitor to Israel, he has won that country’s Prime Minister’s Award for excellence in literature, a prize given out only once previously to a non-Israeli, Isaac Bashevis Singer. He has also won the Itzhak Manger Prize, which is often called the Nobel Prize of Yiddish literature. Golda Meir, in her last public appearance, presented the award to him at the Habima Theatre in Tel Aviv.

Although well past retirement age, Elberg still maintains a writer’s routine as he works on a new novel and polishes some stories and novelettes. “Every morning I get up, I have a juice, and I go to my desk. I only have to do a bit of writing, then I take care of other things. It gets me out of bed earlier.”

Towards Yiddish, his mother tongue, he retains an undying affection. “It’s not just a language, but a culture,” he said, adding that he has faith that the Jewish people won’t let Yiddish die out. “I don’t feel that such a people would let such an important treasure perish or be forgotten,” he said.

“I don’t accept what people say that Yiddish is dead or dying. Something that is dead doesn’t still grow. There are still new words being created and new books being written in Yiddish. It’s a living literature.”

Still, Elberg seems thrilled that his works have found a new and much wider audience in English translation. While several publishers have expressed interest in producing the author’s latest trio of works in English, he said he hasn’t made a final determination. Whatever his choice, lovers of great Jewish literature can only hope that Elberg’s triplets will arrive safely, sometime soon. ♦

© 2002