The family correspondence Of I.L. Peretz

This year is dedicated to Isaac Leib Peretz, called “the father of Yiddish literature”.

Wide perec w pelerynie2

Issac Leib Peretz (1851–1915) one of the most talented authors writing in Yiddish, called “the father of Yiddish literature”. Peretz wrote poetry, plays and novels. His work as a “collector” of Jewish folk songs is also worthy of recognition. He was a highly educated person, having studied law and worked as an attorney. 

In 1937 the “JIWO BLETER” (Yiddish — JIWO pages) scientific journal published a wide selection of Issac Leib Peretz’s family correspondence from 1877 to 1914. The letters, concerning both important and trivial issues, are addressed to his fiancé Helena Ringelheim and son Lucjan. Their form, rich vocabulary and a very characteristic language, full of mistakes typical of an assimilating Jew, are very worthy of attention. 

Below we present selected fragment of Peretz’s letters. The letters were written at a time when the author lived and worked, running his own law firm, in his hometown — Zamość.

Dear Helena!

[…] So I will tell you a sad story from may Lawyerly Life.-

[…] today I bought the debt of a certain Jew from the New city of Zamość, to the sum of Rs. 24, having paid off 50%. After winning the case I didn’t wish to be cruel and seeing how I divided the debt into monthly installments (of one Rouble each). I thought that I fulfilled the obligation of a decent man and no one can call me a vexatious litigant; It never crossed my mind that to a poor person even this can be a burden. 

And when six or 7 months passed, I, having not received even a farthing from the debtor, became angry and last Friday I took a hansom and, with a debt collector, went to get my revenge…

We entered.-

What we saw was the saddest picture. The house was empty, horrible, the walls scratched by the hands of time, weeping tears of dampness, no furniture but for one ancient sofa, and on the sofa… the only living creature there, a girl in rags, ill, with sallow skin and closed eyes-

The sallow complexion and the frequent, exhausted cough revealed a miserable sickness, hope less consumption:-


The girl, hearing our footsteps, raised her head with difficulty and opening her half-dead eyes looked at us with fear…

That is how, I thought to myself, a sheep looks at an approaching wolf…

-Father’s not in, Sir, she moaned, Mother has gone to town… We opened our mouths but neither one of us could find what to say, silence and we lowered our heads like the guilty. […]

This sad picture became desperate when the Mistress of the house soon joined us and seeing us gave the moan of a wounded hyena and followed us with

Eyes, insane with desperation, and when the debt collector came to himself and announced, in the name of the law, the purpose of our visit, the miserable woman’s desperation knew no bounds. She trembled all over, her eyes became bloodshot and she kept wailing terribly and incoherently. 

-Mother! Calm yourself, cried the sick child with tears in her voice, father will come and manage this, God will not abandon…

But the horrible cough interrupted the child’s words.-

These words had an effect of a kind on the mother.-

- You are right daughter, the Gentlemen will not harm us… everything is fate’s work… We suffer! Gentlemen! I am at your service… Fulfill your terrible task…

- In the absence of the Master of the house, our debtor, police assistance is required…  

Said with dignity and affected cool, the debt collector. Come Sir, he turned to me, let us find someone… 

We left without a farewell, it would have been hypocrisy.-

 When we reach the street the debt collector asks me

 - You know Sir that I could have sent anyone for the police?

 - I understand…

- And have you guessed why I led you out of the room?

- I have!

- And?

- Let’s go.-

The hansom driver cracked his whip and as soon as we saw the walls of Zamość. — I sighed in relief. 

- How much do I owe you? I asked the debt collector, awkwardly. 

- A mug of beer and something to snack on.-

I fulfilled the noble debt collector’s wish and since then I have never bought a debt for any price. 


And a second letter, showing both L. Peretz’s way of thinking and his sense of humor. 

[…] I had a client today, a small town nobleman. 

Seeing your photograph on my desk he asked if that is my wife

- In spe, I answered.

Not understanding he added:

- You live much too cramped! I though you a bachelor, that would have been alright but in this case…

- The wife has gone… so I live smaller now, living being so expensive, I lied…

- Where did she go? 

- To the hot springs…

- I the winter?

- Whim!

- Oh, these women, women! He said sentimentally! 

I would swear that he wished for such a whim on the part of his wife… Xanthippe without Socrates… […] 


Source: I.L. Peretz’s family correspondence from 1877 to 1914, “JIWO BLETER” 1937, issue no. XII (1–3), pages 2–144

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