Rememberings : The World of a Russian-Jewish Woman in the Nineteenth Century

Rememberings : The World of a Russian-Jewish Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Pauline Wengeroff, Translated by Henny Wenkart, edited by Bernard D. Cooperman, The University Press of Maryland, $18

In the introduction to this vivid, engrossing memoir, Pauline Epstein Wengeroff modestly writes. “I ask the readers for their indulgence. I am not an author nor do I wish to appear as such. Think of this work as the writings of an old woman who, in the quiet twilight of her life, simply tells about the eventful times through which she lived.” But Wengeroff does herself a disservice: her richly detailed and lovingly evoked account of her childhood in Lithuania, her marriage and ensuing life as a wife and mother, offers readers an abundance of writerly observations and gifts. Here is her description of helping the rebbetzin: “Sometimes I rocked the baby…sometimes I floured the paddle with which the rebbetzin pushed the loaves of bread into the oven, sometimes I found the egg…If the egg was still warm, I loved to rub it across my eyes.”

Born in Lithuania in 1833. Wengeroff was part of the pivotal, transition generation, one that brought the Jews of Eastern European into the modern world. She herself spoke several languages and read German poetry in her youth; with her banker husband and their children, she lived in such cosmopolitan cities as St. Petersburg and Minsk. Yet her account of the changes she witnessed is laced with longing and regret. When she is forced by her husband to give up her kosher kitchen and her wig, she writes that she had to “… gradually drive the old beautiful customs out of my house. No, I did not drive them out. I accompanied each one to the outermost portals of my home, sobbing and weeping. My heart bled as I watched them leave…”

Her memoir, then, assumes a deeper meaning, for embedded in it is a plaintive call to action. Grieved by the fact that her own children have discarded the religious life she held so dear, she attempts to describe — and therefore preserve — that life for her grandchildren. There is a hope, a wish, expressed in all these pages and that wish is abundantly clear: come back is its mournful cry, come back.

Wengeroff also describes the changing fortunes she and her family experienced due to events beyond their control: the Crimean War, Imperial edicts and cholera epidemics all take their toll on Wengeroff’s sense of peace and security. Still, she emerges from these pages shrewd and insightful, about both her own situation and that of the Jews around her. Henny Wenkart’s accessible translation, along with the wealth of supplemental materials — photographs, family tree, glossary and cogent afterward by Bernard D. Cooperman — give even fuller dimension to this fierce, vibrant woman. Along with the newly popular Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln (which chronicles the life of an independent German Jewish woman in an earlier time), Pauline Wengeroff’s touching story deserves an honored place on our bookshelves.