I’m reposting this piece, which I saw on facebook on a page called der Shtetl. It should certainly be mentioned and reflected on in Schlemiel-in-Theory. The piece – cited in full below – begins by mentioning Yiddish writer Menachem Kipnis who loved to write schlemiel stories. He ventured a daring (fictional) proposition: he wrote a series of stories ‘as if’ he were a journalist “reporting from Chelm,” telling, humorously, of its characters, their daily rhythms, and the town’s foolish happenings.
The obvious question and the comic conceit of the Kipnis’s venture is: How could a journalist remain objective in Chelm? Isn’t it the case that a reporter’s job is to ‘cover’ reality not fiction? But this evokes another question. Are there “real” schlemiels who exist in reality and not Chelm? The answer is yes. However, the city of Chelm – although a real place and a fictional place in Poland – is ultimately fictional KINDERLAND.
The last lines of this piece hit on what I’ve been discussing in the last blog: the smile. Remember how Walter Benjamin, drawing on Baudelaire, points out that even the smile is “Satanic.” Can we say that about Chelm? When we innocently contemplate such a place like Chelm, will we smile with what Benjamin calls a “Satanic Serenity?”
I would expect a Satanic smile if I said I was reporting on hell. But on Chelm?
Now, can we imagine what would happen if I, like Professor Ruth Bernuth (who also does research on the schlemiel and is mentioned below in this article and in this quote), were to tell people, today, that “I’m working on the schlemiel?”
Professor Bernuth notes how “when I meet people, especially elderly people, and tell them I’m working on Chelm,” she said, “they smile.”
This addition “especially elderly people,” denotes the fact that they knew of Chelm and we do not – well, only some of us do.
Let’s narrow this down. The Chelm reporter, Menachem Kipnis, taught his readers that Chelm is on the one side, and the world on the other.
But Kipnis wrote before the Holocaust. As this article below notes, Chelm and the world tragically collide during the Holocaust. Many of the people who identified with Chelm and called themselves “Chelmers” were, as the article notes, killed in the Holocaust. If anything, this puts a horrific and Satanic-slash-historical twist to the Chelm story.
Nathan Englander, a contemporary Jewish-American author, takes this historical shift as a main focus in his short story, “The Tumblers.” But in his story, the Chelmers survive the Nazis by acting “as if” they are clowns and not Jews – they act as if they are Jews. And this is the tragic irony. But perhaps Englander is telling us that the greater tragic irony is the historical one in which Chelmers died a real death during the Holocaust.
(Here’s an essay I co-authored and published which addresses Englander and the post-Holocaust Schlemiel: http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/modern_fiction_studies/v054/54.1feuer.html)
Nonetheless, there is an enigma for us to ponder. After the end of the schlemiel in Europe, it lives on here in this blog and in Nathan Englander’s story, in Woody Allen’s films, in Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, in Sasha Baron Cohen, Ben Stiller, etc and has virtually become a “cultural icon,” as Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi says, in America. What does this mean? Does this represent, as Ezrahi claims, a failure to mourn or does its “after-life” represent something else? Does the American schlemiel have a, so to speak, different, mission?
And can I, a latter day Menachem Kipnis, still report from Chelm? Can there still be a schlemiel reporter after the Chlemites were killed in the Holocaust?
Schlemiel-in-theory contends that there can be. It contends that Chelmers can still exist and can still be reported on. This blog post and this writer – who shares the same first name as Menachem Kipnis, the first schlemiel reporter – take on the task of sharing the news and mourning the passing of the European Schlemiel in the Holocaust.
(Note: in Hebrew the name Menachem is associated with the comfort that is offered to those who mourn.)
By the turn of the 20th century, what originated with a collection of German stories in 1597 had become the literary canon known as Chelm.
In the 1920s, the Yiddish writer Menachem Kipnis wrote a series of humorous articles in the Warsaw newspaper Haynt in which he identified himself as a journalist reporting from Chelm. These dispatches were so popular that a mother from the real Chelm is said to have written the paper begging it to stop printing them — she was afraid she would never be able to marry off her daughter.
This anecdote might be just another Chelm story. But von Bernuth did notice that as the stories gained in popularity people stopped referring to themselves in print as “Chelmers.” Chelm was no longer just the name of a town — it was a joke, one that somehow remained funny even after hundreds of Chelm’s real Jews were marched out of the town and shot by German troops in late 1939 and thousands of others were sent to the death camp at Sobibor.
“In addition to the already mentioned Hersh Welczer, whose widow and his orphans later escaped from Chelm to Wolyn,” reads a description of the events of 1939 in a memorial book later published by survivors, “the following popular Chelm Jews were shot during the slaughter: Dr. Oks, the photographer, Rozenblat, the three Lewensztajn brothers — rich iron merchants, Gamulke, a former lieutenant in the Polish military and Itshe Sznicer, owner of the perfumery.
“Their dead bodies were then handed over to their orphaned families by the peasants who knew them,” the account tells us, and the rest were buried together, 50 to a grave.
It became clear long before that war that the world of the Chelm stories was disappearing, and their role changed — they became less a living culture’s joke about itself than a wry love letter to an endangered species.
The stories might have survived when so much else of Yiddish culture was lost because “their absurd, humorous logic gave them a certain life,” said Yechiel Szeintuch, a Yiddish professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. (Though interest in Yiddish culture is increasing worldwide and new Yiddish departments are opening up in places like Lund, Sweden, Hebrew University shut its own department down in 2008. Szeintuch calls this “a modern-day Chelm story.”)
Over time, Chelm became popularly seen as one of the purest expressions of Jewish folk traditions from Europe. For German scholars before WWII, on the other hand, the Yiddish stories were derided as foreign corruptions of the original Schildburg fables.
In fact, von Bernuth said, the only way to understand Chelm is as the joint creation of different people who lived in the same place and listened to their neighbors’ stories.
“These stories are one of the most interesting examples of how German and Yiddish culture influenced one another,” she said. “It shows how intertwined they were.”
“To tell the story of Chelm, you need to know about German culture and German literature. Otherwise it’s rootless,” she said.
Von Bernuth is used to raised eyebrows from scholars who hear how she spends her time — “Some of them think I’m crazy,” she said. But there are advantages.
“When I meet people, especially elderly people, and tell them I’m working on Chelm,” she said, “they smile.”
Photo credit: Illustration from F. Halperin’s, ‘Khakhme Khelm,’ Warsaw, 1926