The great translator André Markowicz had never heard of The Jews, a forgotten play by Evgeny Tchirikov, written in 1903 after the pogrom of Kishinev. He translated it into French and had it published by Mesures. In partnership with Akadem, we have produced an interview – with English subtitles – which gives an account of the importance and singularity of this work.
André Markowicz’s French translations of the great writers of Russian literature – Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Chekhov – have been milestones, allowing us to rediscover authors whose previous translations had often corseted them in the syntax of 19th century French, which distanced the original works from the freedom, and even the brutality, that they could have in Russian. For several years, Markowicz has been translating the theater pieces that were written and performed in Russia between 1900 and 1914, the one that accompanied the emergence of Stanislavski and Meyerhold. He has already translated some twenty plays, including Yevgeny Tchirikov’s The Jews. André Markowicz did not know this play, nor the work of its author. He learned of its existence by chance, discovering that Meyerhold had produced it in 1906, before it was banned. “I read it, and I was stunned,” he wrote in the preface to his edition published by Éditions Mesures.
Interview with André Markowicz, in French with English subtitles :
It must be said that before Chekhov, Jews had been the great absentees of Russian literature in the 19th century. When we find them, it is fleetingly and in the wrong place – in Dostoyevsky in particular, whose violently nationalistic and anti-Semitic writings André Markowicz has always refused to translate. “The Jews is the first text I know of written by a Russian, not from the outside, but from inside a Jewish home, about the fate, daily life and choices of the Jewish community in the Russian Empire at the beginning of the 20th century,” explains André Markowicz.
In the interview he gave us for K and Akadem, André Markowicz extends the context of this play that appears in his preface: “What to do? How to survive? Should we just continue to suffer, keeping our backs to the wall while trying to maintain our dignity, or should we revolt, and how should we revolt? Should one ally oneself with those outside the community, workers or students, who question the order that allows this oppression? Is solidarity possible between Jews and non-Jews, between all the oppressed of the earth, or is there no help to be expected from anyone, and should one leave; go to America, or rather, seek the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine? And what solidarity can the Russians offer? Who among them does not have, even if only unconsciously, instinctively, prejudices against the Jews? When we speak of the “Jewish community”, are we talking about real solidarity, or does this solidarity stop for certain Jews, who oppress other Jews and do business, clean or unclean, with the obviously corrupt state administration? And what should young people do if they want to leave the closed confines of the “residence zone”, which is also the zone of superstition and obscurantism of a religion that always decides on the smallest details of life? All these questions, and many others, the spectators or the readers of Tchirikov are hit right in the heart, on each page, from act to act, as the anxiety that will lead to the final scene grows. Translating these scenes, I felt I was standing before a monument of history: The Jews is like a synthesis of the life, doubts and hopes, anxieties and trials of the so-called Yiddishland.
Tchirikov wrote his play in 1903, in reaction to the great pogrom of Kichiniov which had upset the whole world, but also a part of the liberal Russian intelligentsia, sensitive to the “Jewish question” – this part of the intelligentsia which, a few years later, in 1911, would mobilize to have Menahem Beilis, accused of having committed a ritual murder in Kiev, acquitted. The “question” is in the air at the time, but one is surprised to read the play and see how familiar Tchirikov was with the debates, dilemmas and divisions that were then taking place in the intimacy of Jewish families. In particular about Zionism, the subject of questioning that is at the heart of the play, to the point of being able to divide the same character, as Furman declares in act three: “Zionism? How can I put it? I believe in it and I don’t believe in it.”
His empathy, the depth of his understanding, Chirikov never shows it more than with the character of Lia. He invents a magnificent figure in which the desire to assimilate this young rebel tempted by socialism, a high school student expelled from her school for “participation in student unrest” and a Jewish obstinacy that comes from who knows where and that never ceases to surprise her: “LIA. – The whole time we lived in Petersburg, I forgot that I was a ‘Jew’. But now I can’t get it out of my head. I swear to you! No doubt, in the depths of one’s heart, one always feels an unconscious attachment to one’s nationality, to one’s religion… BÉRÉZINE. – His religion? LIA. – Yes. Our religion does not touch me and there are many things in it that seem… inane. But sometimes, when I hear my father reading his Shabbat prayers, something suddenly stirs in my heart, far, far away, deep down, I don’t know where, something that comes back to me, something close, familiar, to me, something that I begin to feel sorry for, (lowering my voice), something that groans.”