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[Page 537]

Yosef Tunkel - Der Tunkeler

Translated by Eial Dujovny

Yosef Tunkel, the humorist writer, who was known among the Jewish masses in Poland and America by his pen name Der Tunkeler (the Dark One or Scoundrel) was born in Bobruisk in 1881.[1] His father was a poor teacher, and as a child, who was sickly, lame and shortsighted, he captured the attention of his elders due to his talent for drawing. Some local intellectuals took him under their wing and Tunkel was sent to the Vilna Art Academy at the age of 16, completing his studies in 1899. However, due to his shortsightedness Tunkel could not dedicate himself to painting and instead, devoted himself wholeheartedly to literature, as he wandered from city to city, returning occasionally to his hometown.

In 1901, his first poems were published in the paper Der Yud, published by Yosef Luria and from that point forward he was a prolific writer of poems, stories, feuilletons, humorous sketches, plays and children's stories in Yiddish. Most of these were published in the Yiddish newspapers of Europe and America and served as material for broadcasters and reciters who performed his material on stage.

From 1906 to 1910 Tunkel traveled for the first time to the United States and founded several humorous newspapers, of which the Der Groyser Kundes[2] continued to circulate long after he returned to Russia. In 1911 Tunkel was a regular contributor to the Warsaw paper Der Moment and served as the editor of the weekly humor supplement called Der Krumer Spiegel (The Crooked Mirror). During World War I, Joseph Tunkel left for Bobruisk and from there to Kiev and Odessa and only returned to Warsaw after the cessation of hostilities.

In the spring of 1931 Der Tunkeler visited Israel and described his trip in his book “Fort a Yid kein Eretz-Yisroel” (The Travels of a Jew in Israel) (Warsaw 1932). In 1939, Der Tunkeler was on holiday in Belgium when the Second World War began. With the Nazi invasion of Belgium, Der Tunkeler escaped across the border into France where he was arrested by the Vichy government and was interned in a camp with other foreign Jews. Tunkel succeeded to escape captivity in the Spring of 1941 and made his way back to the United States, where he became a regular contributor to the newspaper Fervarts (The Forward). In the final years of his life, he was ill and his eyesight failed him. He died in New York on the 14th of the month of Av, Tashat (9.8.1949).

During the years that Yosef Tunkel resided in Bobruisk, he published humorous pamphlets that reflected the life and goings-on of the city. Unfortunately, these pamphlets have not found their way to us. A humorous description of Bobruisk in 1910 appears on page 600 in this book. Below is a selection from Der Tunkeler's autobiographical notes on his trip from Bobruisk to Vilna at the age of 16.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. According to documents uncovered by this translator, Joseph Tunkel listed his date of birth as January 1, 1878. Return
  2. “The Big Stick” (1908 – 1927) Was a pro-democratic journal that was opposed to Russia, big-business and Reform and Assimilated Judaism. Return

[Page 538]


by The Tunkler

Translated by Odelia Alroy

While still a boy I drew people, houses, horses and so forth. My boyhood friends were enthusiastic, but I was not popular with the adults.

One time I drew a big picture of a Turk riding a horse and holding a sword. This picture made a big impression and soon there was a controversy. Zalma-Itche, the calligraphy teacher at our school, first looked at the picture and discovered that the picture, although it looked true to life, was not correct, because the Turk had only one eye, one ear and one foot. The same for the horse.

Our town photographers, Gospodin Rend, argued that it had to be that way, because it was drawn in profile. But the teacher argued that profile-shmofile, nature decrees that a person, even a Turk, must have two eyes, two feet and two ears.

So I added another eye, another foot and another ear to the Turk and to the horse. And everyone decided that I have a great talent for art and if I develop this talent, I could be a great artist.

In that time there began to develop a big culture movement in Bobruisk. Many culture supporters appeared in the Bobruisk area. They were called the intellectuals. They formed two groups to promote education. One branch of the group was to spread education, which was in Petersburg; the other, to develop art in general. And what a devoted idealistic group they were, and they did their work with devotion. Students would give free lessons, distribute books to read, provide materials for artists. There was a warm glow in the town. The president of both circles, the dentist, Getzov, whom everyone agreed was a great idealist and intellectual, gave a fiery speech that held that much talent among the Jews was wasted. If not for that neglect, each of us could be an Antokolsky or an artist like Vorobaitshik (who was a self-taught sign painter.)

The arts council decided to send me to Vilna, where there was a school which was called an art school. They arranged a talent evening to raise money for my travelling expenses. We had many free participants. One student recited Efuctin's “The Crazy One” and Gorky's “The Storm Bird.” The midwife Senderovitch sang songs by Nadson, “My friend, my brother, exhausted, suffering brother” and Frug's “Carry away my soul far” and it was a great success. The evening brought in six rubles. They gave me five rubles and the other ruble was for the evening expenses.

[Page 539]

Dr. Mordechai Rabinson

Translated by Odelia Alroy

A girl from the group, Sarah Aryeh's, gave me a letter to her mother in Vilna, who had a dairy store on the German street.

At the railroad station it was lively. Aside from my intimates, friends from the circle came to see me off. I remember how the President, the dentist Getzov, brought me the money, five rubles. A second member gave me a box of colored pencils. My neighbor, Maitin, brought me a book, “Nivo” the popular Russian illustrated journal in that time. The Hebrew teacher kept comforting me and encouraging my father and told me:

“When you become an adult, don't give your craft and talent to strangers, but to the Jewish people.”

And the fifteen year old boy went out into the big world-to Vilna.

[Page 541]

From My Life

by Mendel Elkin

Translated by Odelia Alroy


I was born in 1874 in the village of Brozha, near Bobruisk. My parents were middle class people. My father-Hirsch Brozher-was a master of Torah, very religious. In 1892 we were chased out of the village. The family moved to Bobruisk and that brought a radical change to our lives: Father became more “worldly,” his long coat gets changed little by little to a modern jacket. At home everything began to look “European.” Mother, always a free thinker, took to “education.” In the Bobruisk Jewish Folk-Library there wasn't a book (except technical material) that she didn't read. She was enthusiastic about Yiddish literature, she would befriend only the “radical” youth, and her free spirit ruled over our home, as soon as we moved to Bobruisk.

As a boy I studied in the cheder in the village with good teachers that did not satisfy me and at 10˝ I came to a yeshiva in Bobruisk. I rotated eating in different homes on different days and I was a good student and studied at the “big table.” In my free time I devoted myself to learning Russian and Bible. When I was just 12, I left my father's house “in search of a bit of bread”-my parents were very poor. By 18, I had worked my way up. I supported my parents and studied as an extern. Then I left my business and I went to Odessa with two friends and we became real externs, with examinations and countless troubles and experiences. In other words, because of other reasons, none of us can enter Odessa University (and as for Moscow, Kiev and others, certainly not) and we left: one to Leipzig, one to Dessau. I started to study dentistry. In 1902, I finished the school of dentistry at Kharkov University. I worked at the profession for five years. Later, I gave up the uninteresting, for me, work and took to journalism. I was the editor for two years of a radical Russian newspaper in Minsk (Voices of the Province). I worked at other newspapers in Moscow and Petersburg. In the course of the years I worked in Kugels' (Theater and Art), in Beskin's “Stage,” and I was a merchant for a long time.


I became active in the world of theater in 1896. In the cities and towns of the “Pale of Settlement” this was an activity, good for the Jews of the Bessarabia area, where there then was a great need and also in Bobruisk these performances in Russian, naturally, because of the need. In the first performance I appeared with great success in Aznitzes' comedy “The Rooster.”

This dramatic company asked me to be a member and I was soon selected as secretary of the company. At that time the best Russian provincial troupe played in Bobruisk. In summer, the famous troupes of the major cities would come to Bobruisk. At that time there played there (in the summer for about five or six years) the famous director and artist Gregory Motkovsky and a group of artists (Olga Rachmanova, Nazimova-now in America-Lansky, Maturin, Kramov, Gaeda and others). This troupe became my theatrical school; Motkovsky and Rachmanova became my teachers. The first, directing and theater art, the second, diction and declamation. In about two years I was elected director of the local theater company, where I worked with an especially good amateur group for almost four years, performing every two weeks. It was such a success and I was engaged as the director of the Minsk Theater Company. I worked there for about two years.


At the end of 1902 I moved to Bely (near Moscow), where I took a position as a dentist in a gymnasium, practiced privately, and was elected director of the local drama circle. The events of 1905 forced me back to the Pale of Settlement. The temporary “freedom” pushed me to the Yiddish theater, and I took to my work. The first time I appeared on the Yiddish stage was in January, 1908, again in Bobruisk with Jacob Ben-Ami, Lazar Fried, Nara Lalskaya, Sam Adler, Teitleman others. In the Moscow “Skirmunt Farlag” in the first almanac in which was printed a play by David Ben-Aryeh “Lives” (recently reworked and printed in “Zukunft” under the title “Two Generations.”) I put on this play with the troupe. The first appearance on the Yiddish stage was a success. The troupe went to Kiev and in a few months I was invited to be the director of the Kiev Theater “Bergania” and later in the summer theater.

Two Yiddish-German troupes played in Kiev-Sam Adler's, in which I worked, and Abraham Fishson's. I became close to Sholem Asch, Peretz Hirshbein, A. Veiter and started earnestly to reform the “Yiddish-German” and began to introduce new methods, but it was too early. After working but a short time, I left this theater overlooking the good relationship to my friends and Sam Adler, who didn't want me to leave. But I didn't have anything to do and I returned home where I organized performances from time to time by drama groups, which I founded and developed. At that time I published together with A. Feinstein and others a weekly (Bobruisker Weekly) which offered many opportunities for theater issues. (In this weekly participated: S. Anski, S. Asch, P. Hirshbein, A. Veiter, Dr. Mukdony and others.) The following participated in the work of the theater fund which was founded by I.L. Peretz, H.D. Nomberg, Podlishevsky, S. Rosenfeld, Z. Reisen, Dr. Mukdony, A. Veiter and others. As long as I was in Bobruisk and Minsk, there was a kind of provincial theater center. My home was a drama center for a small city, and people would always turn to me about theater issues, about organizing troupes. I was always involved in Russian Artists Union.

In the years 1910-1914 I made special trips to Germany and I became acquainted with the theater arts there. Reinhardt, Fuchs, The “Volksbien” I studied their work for a long time.


The World War broke out. Every activity changed. I am sent to the east.

In 1916 I was mobilized into the army and assigned to the Western Front, where I was until April 1917. After the revolution, I was released from the military, and I went home (to Bobruisk where I lived from 1915) and threw myself into the storm of “Freedom Work.” In the beginning of 1918 I founded the Yiddish “Camer Theater,” to which I drew in Granovsky. In the first rehearsals of the theater, the following took part: S. Niger, A. Veiter, Bal Machshoves, and partly Dr. Mudkony, who would often visit Petersburg. In 1918 the rehearsal (in the Grosser Club) and on June 12 (I think) the premiere performance (in the Yiddish Club). In July Granovsky and I were called to Moscow, where the Yiddish Commissariat discussed changing the Camer Theater to a Soviet one. The negotiations were stopped because of activities of the German Ambassador Mirbach.

The political activities of that time brought our plans for a permanent theater to naught.


The difficult economic situation in Petersburg forced me, in time, back to Bobruisk to my family. I worked there until 1919 as theater manager in the art department of the Education Commissariat. In that time I organized more than ten small theaters and personally was involved with two in Bobruisk-a Jewish one and a Russian. H. Tshervakov, the President of the White Russian Republic, then the manager of the Education Commissariat, helped me a great deal.

It was not fated for me to return home. In the beginning of 1919 the Poles occupied Bobruisk. People were being arrested and I had to flee the city. With great difficulty I left Bobruisk and went to Vilna. There I participated in organizing the theater company. Manager of the theater (in the troupe: Ezra, Zhelioza, Lubatzky, A.A. Almit, Birnbaum, Rivkina, and later also Schneur and director David Harmon). We put on A. Veiter's “In the Fire” and “The Wall.” In 1920 Vilna was occupied by the Red Army and I was immediately selected as the director of the theater section, in the Education Commissariat, and I immediately organized three theaters: a Polish, a Yiddish, and a Russian. Aside from that, I organized a folk-conservatory with Professor Galkovsky as the head. The work didn't last long. The Lithuanians took over the city. Then the Poles came again and disturbed the work.

When the situation improved a bit, I was invited by those from Vilna who were in Warsaw, to produce Sholem Asch's “Amnon and Tamar” and “The Sinner.” In 1920 I was elected as President of the Yiddish Artists Union in Poland and remained in that position until January 1923, when I left for America.

[Page 544]

A Warm Home (1910)


by Peretz Hershbein

Translated by Odelia Alroy


The troupe was lodged in a couple of hotels near the German street. And not only was there no money to pay rent, there was no money to satisfy the hunger.

On a rainy morning, I went down the stairs of the hotel to the street and I was planning how to walk between the raindrops so as not to get wet; and before I take my first step on the wet sidewalk, a stout Jew with a wide before comes over to me. Half rabbi, half priest, he looks me over, stops and asks in Russian:

“Perhaps you can tell me where I can find Mr. Hirshbein?”

“That's him, Hirshbein himself, before you.”

“Let's go inside. It's hard to speak in the rain.”

I'm thinking hard, who this man could be; and perhaps he isn't one of Elijah, the prophets, relatives.

The Jew with the long beard says:

“I come from Bobruisk. My name is Epstein. I have a theater there. Bobruisk is a fine city. Good theaters and good Jews. Mr. Elkin, who saw you in Warsaw, told me about your troupe and recommended you strongly. If you are ready to come and play for us, Pesach, that would be good. The best Russian troupes and the greatest actors in the world have played in my theater. And perhaps you need a hundred or so for expenses, or a few hundred, I can surely lend it to you. I'm sure we will do good business.”

I heard what he said and I also heard how my heart was pounding. If I hadn't been ashamed before him and the people around, I would have sung aloud and later washed my face with hot tears.

“Mr. Elkin” was no other than our Mendel Elkin. He proposed that to me in Warsaw. A slim, straight man with a dreamy face. He was then in his thirties. He complimented us and left.

But Mendel Elkin was then trying to convince the theater troupes to allow better plays to be put on. Three years before, when I first came to Odessa, I received a letter from Mendel Elkin from Kiev in which he asked for permission to put on my plays. Now his name is mentioned in connection with Bobruisk.

“How long will we be able to play in Bobruisk?”

“Certainly a month, if you want.”

“Will the police allow us to play that long?”

“The police do that which I find necessary.”

The joy of the troupe was great. They began to dance. A person came with open arms, brought us a city, a theater and expense money! What more did you want, heart?

We packed and energetically prepared to go to Bobruisk, and we ourselves didn't believe that we would arrive at such a friendly home, as Bobruisk was then.


Our troupe arrived in Bobruisk for Pesach. We all felt at home. All because of one person, who greeted us there, showed us affection and deep interest. That was the still quite young, elegant Mendel Elkin, who was ready to move heaven and earth for us.

In Elkin's beautiful home, the troupe assembled, and Mendel and his wife Rivke fussed over us, tried to wash away our gloom, which we had brought with us. In no other city, except perhaps a year earlier in Yekaterinoslav, did we receive such a warm welcome from the Jewish community. Mr. Epstein, the Jewish owner of the theater, under Mendel Elkin's influence, was like a father to us. His long heavy beard was fitting to his role.

We played that first time in Bobruisk quite successfully. Certain pieces we played again and again. But Jewish Bobruisk wasn't strong enough to keep us too long. By the second week, although there was no obstacle, not from the police nor from the theater owner, we had to begin to look for another place to go from Bobruisk.

Mendel Elkin advised us not to hurry, to play however much was possible. He helped us in our further plans. Even though he had a big lumber business, he didn't neglect us, he didn't leave Bobruisk as often as his business warranted.

The joy of the troupe was great. They began to dance. A person came with open arms, brought us a city, a theater and expense money! What more did you want, heart?

We packed and energetically prepared to go to Bobruisk, and we ourselves didn't believe that we would arrive at such a friendly home, as Bobruisk was then.

[Page 546]

Mendel Elkin and His Guest


by Rachel Feigenberg

Translated by Odelia Alroy

I knew him in Bobruisk. I remember a quiet Jewish street in that provincial city of White Russia-a street with a one storied, wide houses where the setting sun shines on cleanly washed window panes and on the hot summer days.

Shadows are cast here and there by the oak tree whose trunk is black with age

At the corner where an old oak stood watch, Mendel Elkin lived. A nice, well built house it was, with five rooms and a balcony toward the street. The dwelling appeared elegant with soft salon furniture made of red wood and mirrored doors on the cupboards-in the homey style of that time. The tall plants which added green to the corners were picturesque. On a glassed terrace were vases and flower pots which added color.

Mendel Elkin was known to poor and rich. He was a dentist, an artist, a journalist, an editor, a lecturer, an author of theatrical sketches, a translator and supporter of Yiddish theater.

Among all the activities of Mendel Elkin which form a part of his official biography, there is another-an ordinary lumber dealer.

Most of all, that is how I remember him in his home town. It was then a time of material success for him. Because of his lumber dealings he was in the good graces with the gentlemen of the area and became friendly with the officials. The son of one of these officials would often visit him. He liked to eat the Jewish delicacies, a friendly drink of cognac and his lovely wagon with the gentlemanly span of horses was always ready not only to serve him but also his guests-the Jewish writers

Peretz Hirshbein and A. Veiter were visiting. Both were very at home there. They would sometimes come for a short visit, only for Shabbos, and stay for a longer time, sometimes for several weeks. A room was always ready for them at their friend Elkins' house, And he, Elkin, who became successful as a lumber dealer, as proud of his friendship with these two famous Jewish writer, one of whom (A. Veiter ) was deeply involved in the Jewish Socialist workers movement of that time and the other (Peretz Hirschbein) was in his books, a proletarian romantic of an important degree.

As an ardent Yiddishist and lover of Yiddish literature he, Mendel Elkin, had the personal ambition to be close to his distinguished Yiddish authors like at tast time, the wealthy young man, Boris Arkadevitch ( B. Lletzkin ), the later benefactor of Yiddish literature in Poland, who in the forests of area built a Jewish factory town and there on the roof of his beautiful house built a light studio. He decorated the walls with pictures and furnished it tastefully, reserving it for Yiddish writers. David Bevgelson was there for a year until he wrote his famous novel, “After Everyone.” And after the book was issued he often came as a guest and wrote during certain hours of the day.

It was very pleasant to work there, even in winter, when the surrounding woods were frozen and blanketed with snow. From time to time Peretz Hirshbein would come and A. Veiter would be like a son at the village home of Boris Avkadevitch.

There was no shortage of wagons and sleds with teams of horses to go for a ride in the neighborhood and Mendel Elkin generously tried to do the same in his beautiful house on the quiet Jewish street of his home town

His wife Rivka helped him in this. He had married her when he was quite young. In her hospitality to her husband's famous friends Peretz Hirshbein and A. Veiter, she demonstrated wifely tact and goodwill. She was well-born. She stemmed from a rabbinical family and was, it seems, a clever girl. Instead of marrying someone from a comparable class, which, because of her background was expected, she fell in love with a poor extern-lad who came from a village and then became Mendel Elkin.

He wasn't always the prosperous lumber dealer. She went through difficult years of Yiddish cultural activities in word and deed.

But afterward it showed that his Yiddishist dreams were worth something and they were also an honor and decoration even in his business dealings

In town it was told about Mendel Elkin and how generous he was to Yiddish activities and how he supports Yiddish writers in the manner of a rich man. He corresponded with I. L. Peretz and when it became known that I. L. Peretz would visit in the area and be a guest at Boris Arkadevitch newly built Jewish factory town, where Jewish writers come as to their own home, then we let ourselves believe that he, the great I. L. Peretz would be a guest of Mendel Elkin. At that time his wife and daughter were very happy. She, his only daughter, as a young girl who played the piano.

And that was on the threshold of the fatal year 1914.

[Page 550]

Trefet A Ragendl

by Noakh Gorelik

Translated by Odelia Alroy

A Rainfall

Rain is falling
Rain is falling
Tip, tap
On the sills
On the roofs
Clip, clap

And the birds
And the hens;
Chip, chip
To the streams
To the flowers
Hip, hop

But the children
In the rain
Hop, hop.

In the pure
Clear water
Slosh, slosh

It is raining
Tip, top
And the children
In the rain.
Oh! Oh.

The rain is over
The sun is shining
How nice.

But the children
Still in the water
Fine, fine!

[Page 551]

Quiet night

by Henokh Schvedik

Translated by Odelia Alroy

Quiet night
A black shadow on the wall. -
My father is praying
Beating his chest with a clenched fist
Swaying and bending to the ground, piously
And praying.
I look and suddenly it seems so heavy
The night is pressuring my young ox I think-
My father is pulling me to the ground.
He's not letting me rise, he's not letting me grow.

And suddenly I see: It's not my father.
That's death piously swaying.
And hatefully I throw him to the swallowing ground
It falls, it flies and it becomes so easy for me-
I rock the last sounds of the cradle
My hands tremble
It's free
My father falls quietly to the ground.

(“Start” Minsk, 1934)

[Page 552]

At the Window

by Henokh Schvedik

Translated by Odelia Alroy

You hear how Yiddish poetry calls
How our poems beg:
Brother, poet, hurry up!
We have to save the poetry!

Oh, I have lost a lot,
I have lost too much
Close, close tonight
Cheerful winds are coming

I stand at the window
The sun is setting
Flags are fluttering
And pale, worried and quietly reminding
And demanding revenge
My old mother's face drives me.

(“To Victory,” Moscow 1944 Side 60)

Chicken's Cackling

by Henokh Schvedik

Translated by Odelia Alroy

What is sadder, what is nicer
What is closer to my heart
Than the sudden cackle of chickens
In the middle of the battlefield

Amid the heartrending whistles and grimaces
Amid the thundering calls
The sound of chickens in the middle
So close, so intimate.

What good is the song of birds
And clarinets' call and fiddle
If the hoarse common cackling
Wakes so much feeling in me

My heart longs
Through fire, through blood
For that white Russian Jewish town
Where I was happy

What is sadder, what is nicer
What is closer to my heart
Than the sudden cackle of chickens
In the middle of the battlefield

(“To Victory,” Side 61-62)

Bobruisker Clothing Factory

by Sarah Kahan[1]

Translated by Odelia Alroy

Bright lighted windows, like clear, flaming eyes
You have lighted my spirit today.
Wiped out the signs “Mens, Ladies”
Has your fiery, giant factory

I look about confused, my eyes blinking
And I am blinded by the lights, by the brightness, by the shine
And suddenly-I am reminded
Of the one time lamps
Which dimmed girlish eyes once.

Where people-happy lads -
Are drawn asking for positions in their new home.
I remember sadly
How we were bent over sewing
From working 15 hour days, in a damp lime place.

(“[unknown], Minsk 1938, Side 77-78)

Translator's Footnote

  1. A Bobruisk Jewish-Soviet poet. Her first collection of poems “On the Way” was published in 1934 in Minsk Return


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