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Alfred Döblin

Alfred Döblin

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Read by Wojciech Barczyński, recorded by Radiofonia Association
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English translation: Jeremi Ochab

I walk across the Szeroka market square in front of King Casimir’s Synagogue, the Old Synagogue. It is surrounded by small houses moldering away. A part of it is walled in and closed. That is the Old Cemetery. There are stories about a house that once stood there. A wedding was celebrated there, on Friday. It stretched out until the holy Shabbes. Then, it all sank into the ground – the entire wedding house, the newly-weds, and the guests. A great rabbi lived at this square, Remuh, rebbe Moses Isserles. His little house still stands here; he lived in it two hundred years ago; he is buried in the Old Cemetery. He was thirty three years old, he wrote thirty three books, he died thirty three days after the feast of Shavuos[1] on Lag b’Omer.

The wind cuts through me as I walk down the dark, silent, winding streets. The streets in the Jewish quarter on Friday evening suddenly die out. Hardly any passers-by. No delivery vehicle on its way. Tramcars run empty. Window by window gleams; they sit round the father, at a laid candlelit table. Kingly he sits; he sings.

And when across the fish market and down Ciemna street I come to Estery street, a large religious school for boys stands in front of me, a Talmud-Torah. Flocks of boys dash out from the doorway; it’s a big old house. Two barking dogs leap towards the doorway; a boy cries fearfully: “Mamme, mamme.” A young overgrown man with a red beard guides me; some others, in their long jackets, join us. A grey-haired brawny man seems to be the school’s caretaker.

 [Yes, a class.] There, on a dais, thrones a young man with a brown beard and a round skullcap; a book lies on a lectern in front of him. A strange dialogue, unintelligible for me, begins between him and a boy sitting at a desk. Other pupils sit at small desks around him. The two do not engage in a dialogue, but in a duet. At times the neighbor of the boy cuts in. The young one murmurs and then sings again. […] They all wear beautiful black yarmulkes; gleaming as if polished; their earlocks long. They stand up, the lesson is over; they rush past us to the door. Some walk, calm and serious. What a black, melancholic glint in their eyes. And another class, older boys over a passage from Talmud. The rooms are separated only by wooden partitions; the murmur, the hubbub of voices, the chanted learning comes from left and right. Over nine hundred pupils in this huge old house. I’ve never seen a school like it.

 

English translation: Jeremi Ochab
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Alfred Döblin

(1878–1957) – an eminent German writer, a physician by education, author of the acclaimed novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. The History of Francis Biberkopf. In the autumn of 1924, whilst travelling in Poland to examine the lives of non-assimilated Jews, he visited Krakow, a city that left a suggestive reflection in his notes. Although it was the Jewish district of Kazimierz that was most closely linked to the writer’s goal, Döblin would also mention Władysław Podkowiński’s Frenzy of Exultations in the Museum in the Cloth Hall, the Franciscan Church, the monument of the Battle of Grunwald, the Barbican, and St Florian’s Gate. One of the places that made the greatest impression on the writer was, however, the interior of St Mary’s Church. Here, Döblin experienced a spiritual change of heart at the sight of the crucifix on the rood beam. It is believed that communing with this masterpiece became an impulse for his conversion to Catholicism in 1940. (ezp)
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