My Lexicon - Shloyme Berlinski
Born 1896* in a shtetl near Kelts (Kielce); Lodz; Warsaw; since 1939--Soviet Union.
Do you know the melancholy of the courtyards (hoyfn) of Lodz, their whitewashed gutters running so deep a small child might drown in them? Do you know the melancholy of the courtyards paved with round stones of all sizes, all roundness and all sharpness? Do you know these courtyard’s windows, crevices level to the dirt (bayerdik), so often filled by a girlish, disheveled head, hands folded beneath its chin, lost in dreams? Do you know the outside stairways of these courtyards, ways leading to ramshackle floors, their railings as rotted and chipped as the teeth in a poor child’s mouth?
If you know this melancholy it will be easy for you to understand the authenticity (ufrikhtikayt) of Sh. Berlinski’s novellas.
“I labored among women with hands swollen from gales of chlorine and washing soda (esndike zode), from threshing and rubbing on battered washboards.” A quotation from Berlinski.
Lodz is an artificial city, a city of contrasts, a great carnival which attracts the parapelegiac beggar and the fat bellied merchant in equal measure, Lodz is an inexhaustible literary topic, and, as a city with such a colossal Jewish population, it will long remain inexhaustible to Yiddish literature.
Asch and Singer wrote about Lodzh looking down from above (oybn arop), so to speak. There are, however, writers who write about Lodz looking up from below (untn aruf). From the perspective of the basement window...there are many such writers. Among them is Sh. Berlinski.
A regular Jew, working class and bone-tired. A Jew with an eternal rent anxiety (eksmisye-zorg) written across his just-another-working-stiff-Jewish face. His mouth in an eternal grimace of complaint, of surely justified complaint. Maybe he lives with his wife and children in an attic and maybe in a cellar, but surely not on the floors in between. Let’s not play dumb--that eternal rent anxiety is the anxiety of millions.
Perhaps Berlinski’s novellas are more matter than art, more reality than poetry, more truth and lie--I would dare to say that...
Perhaps.-- A melancholy of truth blows out from them. When you read novellas so rich in mimetic truth (lebns-emes) and depressed grief you just want to cry out: May I live to read these in a better world…
The God who formed the nebulous worlds of the universe, the galaxies, the stars, the planets, the face of the moon, and human faces too gave me, for whatever reason, a round face--moreover, I have an inclination towards fatness. This God, the Almighty and the Just before all sorrows, gave Berlinski a gaunt face, pale and coarse, all cheekbones--a face loved at first sight by the textile manufacturers of Lodz, a collective weaver-face, a face suffused with strikes, wage hikes, revolutions, a face of the knowingly exploited...a face reduced or raised up to waking dream on sleepless nights…
And no matter how often he came to Warsaw, no matter how often he stayed in Warsaw, he would always need something from me--a dybbuk in him would growl at me. He didn’t quite like my face. In his constant rent anxiety (dire-gelt-zorg), he thought constantly about apartments, and behind my face--it seemed to him--stood a comfortable, four room apartment with credenzas and heavy oak cupboards, with portieres, candelabras, gleaming chandeliers, pier glass (groyse vantshpiglen), rugs, muted lights, and hell if I know what else his fantasy fancied.
Once, Berlinski needed something from me very early in the morning, so he came by my private apartment. The mere fact of his coming appeased him. I lived only a few steps from the most congested street in Warsaw, Smocza, on Nowolipki street. The courtyard appeased him still more. The four broken wooden stairways leading up my apartment in the “attic” had the effect of a balm on him, so that by the time me knocked on the door and first saw the slumped walls and boarded-up windows looking out onto the roof, he greeted me with a wide smile--perhaps the only smile I ever saw across his face:
“So why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
“You’re really one of us, put ‘er there (derlang a fiftl.)”**
(I decidedly don’t mean to brag about my deprivation--I simply wanted to leave near Smocza street and there was a serious apartment shortage in Warsaw.)
But it certainly won me Berlinski’s affection.
*- The leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur lists Berlinski’s birth date as January 15, 1900.
**- I believe that “derlang a fiftl” (lit. give a fifth) means “give me your hand (to shake)” in a colloquial register. Y. Y. Trunk glosses the similar phrase “tok ayn s’fiftl” as “give me your hand” (gib mir di hant.)