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Sarah Ponichtera

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(2015 - Translation)

I Become an Invisible Man by Leyzer Ran

{translated from the Yiddish]

Growing up, what Jewish boy doesn't dream of becoming an Invisible Man?  One who sees but isn't seen, hears but isn't heard? We would read about it in the midrash on Genesis, B'reshith Rabba. It was one of our most fascinating childhood fantasies. But hard reality soon came to meet us and all magical dreams vanished into it and were nullified. The older we got, the more our childlike hopes drained out of us. No one could imagine that such a dream would ever be realized in our gray and arid reality.

However, it seemed that what was impossible in our old innocent world did not apply in the rotten land of victorious Bolshevism, where so many unbelievable things became “reality.” 

Upon my deportation to Kimri, I was accorded the Communist privilege of becoming an Invisible Man.

I paced morning after morning, who knows how many times, through the quiet worried streets and alleys, and I already know when they would hang the laundry out to dry. I knew the window where an old woman would sit, her knitting in her hands, and at what door a paralyzed man sat bound to his wheelchair. Where small children would play outside while their mother, sewing or ironing, would keep an eye on them through the open door.

I didn't know who they were or what they were called, but I recognized many of their faces and figures when I met them somewhere else, on a different street. But not one of them knew me or could recognize me. They simply didn't see me as I came and went. It was as if they looked past me, over me, or even through me, but never did they actually see me.

And then I realized: in my town of exile, I am an Invisible Man.

Day after day, I worked to make appointments with the bureaucrats in the municipal offices dedicated to zhitelstvo (residence) and pravazhitelstvo (employment). I knew that only with their official stamp could I break through the impossible barrier of the exiled: only when I had work could I have permission to reside, and only when I had permission to reside could I obtain work.

The procedure was always the same: the secretaries would ask for my reason to see this particular bureaucrat; and for my surname, which they wrote on a list which lay in front of them. Then they explained, quietly and confidentially, that I could sit and wait my turn to be seen. However, since there were so many people ahead of me on the list today, and so many other matters urgently awaiting the bureaucrat's attention, it would be better to come back tomorrow, early in the morning. When I returned early the next morning, the official was not there. He was at an important conference somewhere. On the third day he would be absent again. When would he be back? They didn't know.

I would meet the secretaries and the officials on the street sometimes. I could already recognize them from far away. They didn't recognize me from close up. They simply didn't see me. I was invisible to them.

Original in Yiddish

Sarah Ponichtera works as an archivist at the Center for Jewish History. She received an M.A. in Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at Austin in 2005, and a Ph.D. in Yiddish Language and Literature with a concentration in Comparative Literature from Columbia University in 2012. She published a translation of Der Nister's short story “The Green Man's Tale” in Joseph Sherman's anthology From Revolution to Repression: Soviet Yiddish Writing 1917-1952.This will be her first book-length translation.

Photo by Leanora Lange

Translator's Statement

The goal in translating Leyzer Ran's masterfully written and poignant memoirs is to finally make his work available to an English-speaking readership both in the United States and abroad. When we talk about six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust or 20 million people disappearing into the Gulag, the numbers are so vast and overwhelming as to feel inconceivable. Therefore, the voices and stories of individuals who lived through these events is an essential element in documenting, teaching, and informing the world as to truth of what happened. Leyzer Ran's memoirs and personal example reaffirm the way in which individuals can and must stand up and overcome oppression. These memoirs, divided into sections: Arrest and Transport; Daily Struggles: Portraits of Other Prisoners and the Authorities; Release from Prison; and Attempts to Re-enter Society are told from the perspective of a brilliant, humanistic Jewish political prisoner who not only describes his own experiences, but also consciously and deliberately describes his encounters with people of all races and nationalities. Readers will inevitably imagine themselves in the narrator's shoes, and ask how they would have fared in such circumstances. Writing of the forbidden world of prison, while being a form of revenge and exposure of perpetrators and the national political system, is also a form of humanistic engagement, a defiance of cruelty, loneliness, and isolation. By writing, Ran affirms his value and identity as a Jew, a Vilner, a Zek, and compassionate citizen of the world; he affirms the rights of others, commemorates his fellow sufferers, exemplifies the best of Jewish mentschlichkeit, and strikes a blow against tyranny. The work will make a real contribution to the field of Yiddish Literature and Jewish History, Political Prison Literature, Holocaust Literature, the memoir as a literary form, Stateless Culture, and Eastern European History.