Pauline Wengeroff is the author of an extraordinary two-volume work in German, Memoirs of a Grandmother: Scenes from the Cultural History of the Jews of Russia in the Nineteenth Century (1910).
Wengeroff’s memoirs richly depict traditional Jewish society in Russia, its unraveling during the nineteenth century and the devastating impact this dissolution had on families and especially on women. Wengeroff treats her life as a microcosm, weaving together personal narrative, anthropological description and the tale of tumultuous social change—the first time in the annals of Jewish literature that a woman uses her life as a lens to refract Jewish history as a whole. Wengeroff’s memoirs are sharply distinguished from those of her contemporaries, the maskilim (leaders of the Jewish enlightenment movement in Russia, the Haskalah), in making women’s experience central to the emergence of Jewish modernity and to grasping what Wengeroff sees as the fundamental tragedy of modern Jewish history: the loss of traditional Jewish culture. This catastrophe, she asserts—and illustrates through the tragedies of her life—was a consequence of women’s loss of power in the modern Jewish family and the arrogance and short-sightedness of modernizing Jewish men. Her narrative is thus markedly gendered in its consciousness, not only in focusing on women but also in assigning global value to their experience.
An astute social observer and gifted writer, Wengeroff also produced a first-class piece of literature whose importance was recognized by such cultural leaders as Gustav Karpeles (1848–1909), a Jewish literary historian who was the editor of the Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums, Theodor Zlocisti (1874–1943), a pioneer of Zionism, in Germany, and Solomon Schechter (1847–1915), an eminent rabbinics scholar and president of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Unlike Glueckel of Hameln, who wrote only for her family’s eyes, Wengeroff sought publication of her work both in Germany, where she succeeded, and, in translation, also in the United States and England. The latter efforts failed, but she was clearly a woman writer of self-confidence and ambition.
Born Pessele Epstein in Bobrujsk, northern Belorussia, Wengeroff grew up in Brest-Litovsk (which Jews called Brisk), in the Minsk district. Hers was a wealthy and very pious household, though, for its time, also a culturally forward-looking one. Her father, Yehuda Yudl Halevi Epstein (d. Warsaw, 1879), like his father, Simon Semel Epstein (d. Warsaw, 1854), manufactured bricks and was a contractor to the Tsar in road and fortress-building projects. He was also a Talmud scholar, which Wengeroff claims was his main occupation, made possible by his business success. His record of publishing several extensive rabbinic works bears out this claim.
Wengeroff gives no family background about her mother (d. ca. 1860), whose name she does not record. However, she writes a great deal about her and makes clear that she was a formidable force in the household, both as a strict enforcer of traditional behavior and parental authority, and as a foe of the emerging Haskalah movement. Wengeroff’s evocation of the world of traditional women’s piety and ritual which she witnessed and experienced in the company of her mother, sisters and other women, is one of the most salient and valuable features of Volume One.
In sharp contrast to the memoirs of the maskilim, Wengeroff depicts traditional Jewish society nostalgically and defensively, though not uncritically. Of particular note in this regard is her sympathetic portrait of her kindly melammed (teacher of young children), as opposed to the depraved, sadistic melammed who is a fixture in maskilic memoirs. This portrait is also a rare glimpse into the formal education of girls in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Volume One traces Wengeroff’s girlhood in the 1830s and 1840s through descriptions of a year’s cycle of festivals and fasts and the routines of daily piety of men and, more especially, women, in whose image Wengeroff was being groomed for her own projected role as a traditional matriarch. This socialization is pivotal to her later disappointment with, and rage against, Jewish modernity.
Alongside her depiction of ancient, seemingly timeless patterns comes testimony about the events of her own time and place. The decades of Wengeroff’s childhood and adolescence were the years in which the Haskalah was transformed from a marginalized intellectual current among beleaguered mavericks, persecuted and often silenced by traditional authorities, to a movement with institutions, publications, and especially, schools. This transformation was the result of Tsarist policy that gave the Haskalah funding and power in the Jewish community. In telling vignettes, Wengeroff depicts the inroads the Haskalah made in her own family in the 1840s and the generational and marital conflicts this engendered.
Wengeroff depicts her father as open and even welcoming to the pedagogical reforms the Haskalah propounded, if not to other aspects of its program. He even took his sons-in-law (whom he supported so that they could study Talmud) to meet Max Lilienthal (1815–1882), the German rabbi sent by the Tsarist government in 1840 to advocate “enlightenment” to Russian Jewry, when Lilienthal visited Brest. Wengeroff’s mother opposed this and several times confronted her sons-in-law about their maskilic activities (reading novels, conducting scientific observations), to the point that one of them fled for a time, abandoning his family. Wengeroff gives other evidence of the growing impact of non-traditional culture on her generation: sisters who attempted to don European fashion; to promenade with a husband on the Sabbath; to meet a bridegroom in an arranged marriage before the wedding ceremony—efforts quashed by both parents. In Volume Two, she writes of a brother as a budding maskil who, because of an unhappy arranged marriage, emigrated to America, where he converted to Christianity. Wengeroff’s depiction of the “Lilienthal era” and its disruptive effects on traditional Jewish society is extremely valuable testimony.
For all her defense of Jewish traditionalism, it would be a serious misreading to say that Wengeroff was an enemy of the Haskalah or that her memoirs are an anti-modern polemic. Wengeroff herself was utterly the product of modernity; she wrote in German, the language in which European “enlightenment” reached Russian Jews, citing great European writers as well as Jewish sources. She implicitly criticizes some of her parents’ traditionalism, as in the instances cited above regarding social mores. Like the maskilim, Wengeroff writes rhapsodically of the coming of “enlightenment,” which she depicts as inevitable. Like them, she wrote to justify her life, and sought publication and influence.
Wengeroff rejected not the Haskalah per se, but rather the manner of its implementation by men who, she claims, were incapable of the moderation of embracing European culture while maintaining Jewish traditions. In proclaiming the need for both, Wengeroff is indistinguishable from moderate maskilim. She is distinct from them, however, in articulating a gendered indictment: modernizing Jewish men, she claims, seduced by the blandishments of modernity to abandon the treasures of Judaism, usurped power within the household, displacing women—who, according to her, did know how to embrace both the Haskalah and Judaism—robbing them of the ability to shape or transmit culture. The result was a generation, that of Wengeroff’s children, bereft of their past and of any transcendent values. This, for Wengeroff, is where women’s narrative converges with the larger Jewish narrative: women’s loss of power in modernity leads to the loss of Jewish culture as a whole. Modernity for Jewish men may have spelled unprecedented educational and occupational opportunity and personal, material gain; for women—and for Jewish tradition—it spelled catastrophic loss.
Volume Two of Wengeroff’s memoirs describes the unfolding of the Haskalah (a term she uses for both the intellectual movement and the societal changes of this era) during the 1850s–1880s, and the shattering of tradition. Her husband, Chonon (Afansyi) Wengeroff, son of adherents of Habad Hasidism, lost his faith while on pilgrimage to his rebbe (the dates indicate this would have been Menahem Mendel Schneerson, the Zemah Zedek (1789–1866), third rebbe of the Lubavich dynasty), details of which she says Chonon never provided. Conflict with his parents and with her ensued as Chonon trimmed his beard and donned Western-style clothing, announcing his break with traditional Judaism. He refused her entreaties to return to the old ways, demanding obedience and citing his “rights as a husband” to silence her.
She describes the couple’s frequent moves in search of business success for Chonon. They finally settled in Minsk, where Chonon became director of the Commercial Bank and served on the City Council from 1880 to 1892. Volume Two ends abruptly with Wengeroff’s distraught account of Chonon’s death in 1892 after he had delivered a defense of the city’s Jews in the Council.
Wengeroff shows the growing impact of the Haskalah alongside and in conflict with traditional culture in the places in which she and Chonon lived, some of which—Kovno, Vilna, Minsk—were among the Pale of Settlement’s most important communities, and others—St. Petersburg, outside the Pale, and Helsinki, Finland—where Jewish acculturation and assimilation were rampant.
One of the key motifs of Volume Two is the conflict within the marriage regarding Jewish observance. Chonon’s religious lapse progressed once he was out of his parents’ home. However, he also pressured Wengeroff, who had undergone no similar crisis of faith, to diminish her own observance. Close reading shows that Chonon ridiculed her traditionalism particularly in St. Petersburg, where Russia’s wealthiest and most assimilated Jews lived. Wengeroff describes her failed efforts to give their children a Jewish education, despite the insistence of Chonon—in concert, she insists, with other modernizing Jewish men—that “the children need no religion!” (II:135). Similarly, she relates her attempts to resist his pressure to relinquish her traditional marriage wig and, above all, her kosher kitchen. The latter was a particularly traumatic loss, to which she devotes an entire chapter. Finally, she says, to end fifteen years of debilitating conflict in which her attachment to tradition was labeled “obstinacy,” she yielded on all points but one, insisting on keeping kosher for Passover. Wengeroff angrily cites Chonon’s (and she claims, other Jewish men’s) hypocrisy in propounding liberal values (“liberty, equality, fraternity”) in society, while at home acting like “despots” to their (traditional) wives (II:136).
Two sons eventually converted when faced with anti-Jewish educational quotas. It was, she says, the greatest tragedy of her life. Yet, in one of the Memoirs’s most significant features, Wengeroff resolutely puts this personal tragedy in larger historical context. Parental authority in general, she insists, not only hers, was unraveling in this era; Jewish women as a class, not just she, lost control of their homes and children to modernizing Jewish men. Her children, she says, converted, as did many others when faced with similar pressures, having been kept ignorant of their religion and seduced by the promise of an outside world that ultimately rejected them as Jews.
In Minsk, she and Chonon practiced a philanthropic Judaism, founding vocational schools for impoverished Jewish children. The schools also gave instruction in Judaism and observed Jewish holidays and dietary laws—implementing the “moderate” Haskalah Wengeroff would have wanted to see in Jewish society and in her own home. They were an enormous source of pride and comfort to her as well as to Chonon, who in his final years increasingly rued his lapse from Judaism and began a return to its traditions—ultimate vindication of Wengeroff’s position.
Perhaps in keeping with the peculiar nature of the personal in Wengeroff’s memoirs—as a lens through which to tell a larger tale and its moral—she is not precise about such basic family information as the number or birth order of her siblings, or even of her own children. She seems to have had seven siblings. The memoirs speak of four children of her own who survived infancy: Lise, Simon, Volodya and Sina—with scant details given only about the sons. However, we know from other sources of three more daughters: Isabella, Maria and Faina. Several of Wengeroff’s children were highly accomplished, a fact she also omits. Simon (Semyon, b. Lubny [Luben], 1855; d. Petrograd, 1920) was an eminent Russian literary historian and critic, and professor at the University of St. Petersburg. He converted to Russian Orthodoxy. Volodya (Vladimir) was a gifted cellist. Sina (Zinaïda, b. 1867, d. New York, 1941) was a noted literary critic and translator of European and Russian literature. Isabelle (b. Minsk, 1877, d. New York, 1956) was a pianist who taught at the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music and at several schools of music in the United States; among her students was Leonard Bernstein. Faina (b. Konotop, 1857, d. New York, 1944) studied medicine; she and her husband, Leonid Slonimski (1850–1918), a political writer, converted to Russian Orthodoxy, had their children baptized, and denied even having Jewish origins.
Writing, for Wengeroff, was clearly an outlet for a prodigious gift. In 1902, she published reminiscences of her life (in Russian) in Voshkhod, then the most important Russian-language Jewish periodical, making her one of a handful of Russian Jewish women then published. (Another was her daughter, Zinaïda, who also wrote for Voshkhod). Wengeroff says she wrote to soothe her loneliness in her old age and to leave her children a record of her life, but she obviously had other purposes. She is clearly angry at her loss of control over her household and what she feels was the theft of her proper matriarchal role in it. Her writing seems to be a powerful revenge against Chonon, whom it is clear she loved, as well as an attempted vindication of herself, guilt-ridden over her failure not only to run a traditional home but even to prevent the ultimate of Jewish tragedies: her children’s conversions.
Despite her assumed authorial stance as a grandmother and her saying that she wrote so that her children might know her story (II:29), Wengeroff’s intended audience was clearly not her biological offspring. She does not even mention grandchildren, while her narrative several times excoriates her children and their generation precisely for lack of regard for their parents’ experience. Wengeroff’s intended audience seems surely to have been young Jews in Russia and also in Germany, who at the turn of the twentieth century were rediscovering Jewish culture and asserting pride in Jewish identity in a variety of ways. Wengeroff mentions the Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) movement warmly. She seems to have viewed her memoirs, with their meticulous recording of customs, liturgy, even recipes, as source material for those on the search for identity. Finally, she seems impelled by a desire to give a beloved culture a respectful memorial, as well as to assure that she herself would not be effaced.
All translated citations are from the 1910 edition.
Magnus, Shulamit S. “Pauline Wengeroff and the Voice of Jewish Modernity.” In Gender and Judaism. New York and London: 1995, 181–190.
Idem. “Kol Isha: Women and Pauline Wengeroff’s Writing of an Age.” Nashim 7 (2004): 28–64.
Idem. “Sins of Youth, Guilt of a Grandmother: M. L. Lilienblum, Pauline Wengeroff, and the Telling of Jewish Modernity in Eastern Europe.” Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry 18 (forthcoming).
Wengeroff, Pauline. Memoiren einer Grossmutter: Bilder aus der Kulturgeschichte der Juden Russlands im 19 Jahrhundert. Vol. 1, Berlin: 1908; republished with Vol. 2, 1910; 1913; 1919; 1922).
The first reference to and citation of Wengeroff in English may be Louis Greenberg. The Jews in Russia, the Struggle for Emancipation, vol. 1: 62. New York: 1976. Other scholars, such as Shaul Ginsburg. Historishe verk, vol. 2: 82–90. New York: 1937 and Sinai Leichter. “Zichronoteha shel savta minskait Paulina Wengeroff.” In Minsk, Ir va-Em, edited by Shlomo Even-Shoshan, 200–201, vol. 1. Tel Aviv: 1975, were clearly aware of her. Wengeroff’s work first appeared in English in Lucy Dawidowicz’s translation of several discontinuous excerpts from Volume 2 in The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe. New York: 1976, 160–168. An abridged translation by Henny Wenkart, edited by Bernard Cooperman, with various alterations to the original, appeared under the title Rememberings. College Park, Maryland: 2000. An unabridged critical edition is forthcoming by Shulamit Magnus, University of California Press.
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Magnus, Shulamit S.. "Pauline Wengeroff." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 29, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/wengeroff-pauline>.