24 February 2018
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“My writing is about Vilna,” says Abraham Karpinovitch in a new film

Thieves, whores, and gangsters
who supplied color to our lives

By Ellen Cassedy

“My writing is about Vilna,” says Abraham Karpinovitch in a new film – “not about the Vilna Gaon [the renowned rabbi of 18th-century Vilnius] or about the clergy or the intelligentsia, but about the thieves, whores, racketeers, and gangsters who supplied color to our lives.”

The film is the latest in a series about Jewish writers directed by Boris Sandler, the editor of the New York-based Yiddish newspaper ForvertsSandler presented the film, in Yiddish with English subtitles, at the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington, D.C., on October 18, under the auspices of Yiddish of Greater Washington

Before World War II, Vilnius was home to 60,000 Jews.  Among them were not only scholars, writers, merchants, and political activists – but also a vibrant underclass. 

The Vilnius-born Karpinovitch (1913-2004) set about recording and memorializing this multi-colored underworld.  To his chosen task, he brought a finely tuned ear for slang, an eye for evocative detail, a talent for blending fact and fiction, and an abiding affection.

As the son of a Jewish theatre director, Karpinovitch was exposed early to the treasures of stage culture.  “I feasted on a rich stew of folk cuisine,” he says, “and that’s how I became a writer.”

Before the outbreak of World War II, Karpinovitch immigrated to the Soviet Union, where he was arrested and sent to Siberia.  After the war, he settled in Israel.  For more than 30 years he managed the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.  “I wore a suit and tie all day,” he says, “then sat down and wrote about the Vilna underground.”

Sandler interviewed and taped Karpinovitch and 20 other Yiddish writers in Israel in 1995. 

“Tall Tamare,” a story translated into English by Helen Mintz, tells the tale of a Vilna streetwalker who helps to organize a union for her fellow brothel employees, then behaves with striking dignity at the killing field of Ponar (Paneriai) in 1941. The writer’s work has been translated from Yiddish into Hebrew, Polish, Russian, German, and Lithuanian. 

As the chronicler of a bygone world, Sandler said, Karpinovitch “was able to invoke in his own way the mourner’s prayer for his beloved compatriots.  He brought his fellow Jews to life so that we, their surviving descendants, could see ourselves in them and remember them.” 

Sandler’s film invites viewers to stroll through the old Jewish quarter in present-day Vilnius, where, the director says, “in the streets and alleys and walls and buildings, shadows are looking at us.”


Ellen Cassedy traces her Jewish family roots to Rokiskis and Siauliai.

Her book, We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust, will appear in Lithuanian in 2013 under the title Mes esame čia: Atsiminimai apie holokaustą Lietuvoje.

Category : Litvak forum

  • It is near impossible to chronicle all the contributions and achievements of the Jewish community in Vilnius. However, to bring out the colorful and sometimes seamier side of life gives us a more 3-dimensional insight, and an increased appreciation of a lost culture. Makes one wonder of what could have been.

    Thank you for opening the window to Abraham Karpinovitch.

    November 06 2012
    • Boris Bakunas

      "What a clever idea — writing about the underworld in the Jewish community in Vilnius!" At least that was what went through my mind at when I read the first paragraph of your article, Ellen. Then I clicked the link and read "Tall Tamare." And a world of real human beings living hard lives while trying to catch, like Hershl the Porter, a glimmer of love in the arms of Tamare, or Tamare herself, who preserved her dignity by refusing to obey the nameless German soldier who ordered her to undress before firing his machine gun, reminded me of so many similar stories I've heard from people from all parts of the globe. I wish i could write at least a few of these stories, but now my heart weeps for Tamare and the word "clever" sounds like a blasphemy.

      Thank you for giving us a great gift by introducing us to the stories of Abraham Karpinovitch and the courage and dignity of Tall Tamare.

      November 03 2012


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