1904 – 1981
Rosa Palatnik, daughter of a watchmaker named Fayvl Iser Wagner, was born in Kroshnik (Kra?nik), near Lublin, on the fifteenth of Kislev (November 23), perhaps—to her father’s best recollection—in the year 1904; she died in 1981 in Rio de Janeiro. Like many of her generation, she first had a traditional education but while still in her youth became enraptured with culture and learned Polish, Russian and German. By the age of sixteen she was teaching in a Jewish school and helped organize a Yiddish popular library and a dramatic circle in her native shtetl. In 1926 Rosa won a literary contest sponsored by the Warsaw Yiddish newspaper Der veltshpigl for the best 150-line autobiographical fiction, which they published a year later under the pseudonym Shoshanah (“Rose” in Hebrew). In 1927 she emigrated to Paris, where she wrote for two Yiddish press organs, Di handls-tsaytung and Der parizer paynt, using what was then her married name, Rosa Szafran. In 1936 she settled in Rio, where she contributed to such local and international Yiddish press organs as Di yidishe prese of Rio, Der nayer moment of São Paolo, Der shpigl of Buenos Aires, Der kontinent and Der veg of Mexico City, Di fraye arbeter-shtime and Morgn-zhurnal of New York and Di goldene keyt of Tel Aviv. The last of these awarded her its Fishl Bimko Prize in 1954. Rosa’s second husband, Pinye Palatnik, born in the Bessarabian shtetl Sikuran (Sokiryany) in 1903, had emigrated in 1920 to Brazil. He published some poems in Yiddish press organs in the two Americas. Filip and Ita Szafran, Rosa’s two children by her first husband, live in Brazil.
Most of the author’s stories and all of her books were signed with the name Rosa Palatnik. By her own reckoning, some two hundred of her tales appeared in various press organs. A mere selection of them can be found in the four volumes she published.
Rosa Palatnik’s work is well characterized by Solomon Liptzin in A History of Yiddish Literature: “The typical Palatnik story centers about a moment of truth in the life of Jews apparently successfully integrated in Brazil. There is a flashback to youthful years in the Old Country. There follow reminiscences of immigrant years of hard work until bread is assured and then increasing growth in affluence, a gradual realization that in the pursuit of wealth precious Jewish values were tossed aside, an effort, generally but not always successful, to return to the Jewish idealism still glimmering at subconscious levels of the soul” (403). Palatnik’s tales set in Poland and France often include these same moments of flashback, disillusionment, epiphany and renewed quest for meaning.
Two things lacking from Liptzin’s description of Palatnik’s writing are mentioned by Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever: “the richness of her language,” which includes juicy transcriptions of Polish Yiddish, as for example when she records bay undz—“among us”—as barints (Kroshnik-Rio, p. 33) and “her fine humor.” The latter does not eschew sexual innuendo, as when Palatnik portrays a matron as saying that a lascivious butcher “never put any meat in my basket” (Af tnoim [“An Engagement Dinner”], Kroshnik-Rio, p. 113), or when she recounts that a woman who wants a female heir goes on “strike” against a husband who provides her only with sons (Tsulib a meydele [“For the Sake of a Girl”], Kroshnik-Rio, p. 52).
While many Palatnik stories substantiate Liptzin’s characterization of her as celebrating forsaken Jewish values, other tales show a much more critical attitude toward tradition. Besides a rather Maskilic-like story that mocks arranged marriages (Serke in Krosnik-Rio 59–64), there is a wrenching, certainly atheistic tale of God’s complete silence in the face of Jewish suffering: Der himl hot zikh nit geshpoltn (“The Heavens Did Not Open” in Kroshnik-Rio 65–73). The story is an ironic commentary on the Jewish legend that “On Shavuot, after midnight, the Heavens open. If one finds the right moment and cries out, ‘Help!’ redemption will come to the Jews” (Kroshnik-Rio, p. 67). In a Polish shtetl, Yankev will thrice experience the inanity of that claim: when he is a child, he stays up all Shavuot night ardently praying for Jewish redemption, to no avail; when he is a young adult during World War I, German soldiers batter Yankev’s father precisely on Shavuot, accusing him of being a Russian spy; and during World War II, all the Jews of the shtetl are shipped off to an extermination camp on Shavuot. During the transport, Yankev utters a strange prayer that decries divine injustice: “Al heyt—for sins we have not committed, and—al heyt—for sins we shall never commit” (Kroshnik-Rio, p. 72). The story ends with the sentence: “And the Heavens remained obstinate this time too. They did not open” (Kroshnik-Rio, p. 73).
A theologically ambivalent tale Rosa Palatnik set in Paris—which she dedicated to her brother Yankev, her sister Khane and their spouses and children, deported from there and murdered by the Germans—shows the literal impossibility of celebrating Yom Kippur in immigrant circumstances. A woman plans to do so, but on the evening of Kol Nidrei (the prayer that introduces the service on the eve of Yom Kippur) she receives a package of piece work from her employer, with the warning that unless she completes it by the next day she will lose her job. She says to her infant daughter, “For your sake. …,” implying that traditional observance and generational continuity are at odds (Oysgeloshn s’yon-kiper-likht [“The Extinguished Yom Kippur Candle”], Kroshnik-Rio 197).
Kroshnik-Rio also exemplifies another aspect of Palatnik’s writing: her portrayal of Brazilian racism, especially the hypocritical, oft-transgressed taboos on black-white sexual and class relations. However, insofar as the stories with this theme show blacks interacting only with white Christians, Palatnik cannot in this regard be counted among certain more audacious Yiddish writers from Latin America such as her fellow Brazilian Meir Kucinski (1904–1976), the Cuban Abraham Josef Dubelman (1908–1990), or the Colombian Salomón Brainsky (1902–1955), who face the question, far more troubling to the traditional Yiddish readership, of couplings between women of color and Jewish men.
Two volumes of Palatnik’s tales exist in translation: one into Portuguese and one into Hebrew. An English version of her story Af tnoim appears as “An Engagement Dinner” in the anthology Yiddish South of the Border.
Palatnik, Rosa. Baym geroysh fun Atlantik: Dertseylungen (By the Roar of the Atlantic). Rio de Janeiro: 1957; Dois dos justos: Contos (Two of the Righteous: Stories); Portuguese trans. José Steinberg. Illustrated by Dália Szafran, Rio de Janeiro: 1975; Dreytsn dertseylungen (Thirteen Stories). Rio de Janeiro: 1951; “An Engagement Dinner.” English translation by Alan Astro. In Yiddish South of the Border: An Anthology of Latin American Yiddish Writing, edited by Alan Astro, 103–107. Albuquerque, New Mexico: 2003; Geklibene dertseylungen (Selected Stories). Rio de Janeiro: 1966; Kroshnik-Rio: Dertseylungen (Kroshnik—Rio: Stories). Rio de Janeiro: 1953; Parokhet ha-ketifah: Mivhar sippurim (The Velvet Curtain on the Holy Ark: Selected Stories). Hebrew trans. Moshe Yongman. Tel Aviv: 1972.
Brainsky, Salomón (Shloyme). “Nisoyen.” Goldene keyt 21 (1955): 113–122; Mermelstein, Moisés. “Temptation” (English translation). In Yiddish South of the Border: An Anthology of Latin American Yiddish Writing, edited by Alan Astro, 125–136. Albuquerque, New Mexico: 2003; Dubelman, Abraham Josef. “Margarita.” In Antologye: Meksikanish, urugvayish, kubanish (Anthology: Mexico, Uruguay and Cuba in Yiddish Literature), Volume 92 of Musterverk fun der yidisher literatur, edited by Samuel Rollansky, 271–274. Buenos Aires: 1982; Kucinski (Kutshinski), Meir. “A mulatke.” In Nusekh Brazil (Brazilian Style). Tel Aviv: 1963, 128–133; Astro, Alan. “The Mulata” (English translation). In Yiddish South of the Border: An Anthology of Latin American Yiddish Writing, edited by Alan Astro, 98–102. Albuquerque, New Mexico: 2003; Liptzin, Sol. A History of Yiddish Literature. Middle Village, NY: 1985; Sutzkever, Avrom. Quoted in Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur. Vol. 7 (1968), col. 82.