Debora Vogel

author: Anna Kaszuba-Dębska, 2012


translated by Scotia Gilroy

Debora Vogel (Dozia) is listed as having been born in 1902 in Bursztyn, a small Galician village. However, her real date of birth, revealed by official records and her marriage certificate, was January 3rd or 4th, 1900. It seems that Debora herself gave the date of 1902 as her birth date, claiming to be younger than she was. She was from an intellectual family. Her father, Anzelm Vogel, held the function of director of the Baron Hirsh Foundation School until the First World War. Her mother, Lea, neé Ehrenpreis, ran a crafts school for girls in Bursztyn. Most of Debora's ancestors were from Lwów. Her great-grandfather, Nysała-Nosn (Abraham Nathan) Suss, was a well-known publisher, kabbalist and author of treatises. Her uncle, Jakub Ehrenpreis, was a book-seller, writer and publisher; her uncle, Israel David, continued the work of his father, Nysała Suss; another uncle, Markus Ehrenpreis, was a rabbi and Zionist activist, like her uncle, David Malz. The atmosphere and political views ingrained in her family formed Dozia's worldview as she was growing up. Her parents decided to move to the family's native city of Lwów in the 1920s, where Dozia became a student at the VIII Junior High School at 17 Dwernickiego Street. The outbreak of World War I interrupted her studies. Her family moved to Vienna, where Dozia graduated from high school on July 12th, 1918. After the war ended, the Vogel family returned to Lwów and settled there permanently, where her father became a clerk for the Israeli Community and director of the Jewish orphanage. The family lived in a house next to the orphanage, at 8 Zborowska Street. In his work with children, he was greatly helped by his wife, who was energetic and well-experienced in pedagogical work, as well as his daughter, who was well-read in philosophy, literature and art history. In 1919, Debora began studies that corresponded with her interests at the Jan Kazimierz University in Lwów. She attended courses in philosophy, history and Polish literature. She participated in seminars led by Professors Kleiner, Twardowski, Ptaśnik, and Wartenberg. She was active in Zionist social and youth organizations, such as Ha-szomer Ha-cair. During her studies she belonged to the Society of Jewish Students of Philosophy, together with her friend Rachel Auerbach. Remaining under the influence of the Jewish environment which Rachela introduced her to, she decided to write not only in Polish, but above all in Yiddish, a language that she was well-versed in. At home her family spoke Polish. She made her literary debut in Polish. Her first story, "Mesjasz" ["The Messiah"], was published in the magazine Nowa Młodzież [New Youth] when she was only 19 years old. In 1924 she continued her studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, where she worked on her PhD thesis, which she eventually defended in 1926. The title of her thesis was The Cognitive Meaning of Art in Hegel and its Interpretation by Józef Kremer. After defending her PhD thesis and receiving an excellent mark on her Polish language exam, she travelled around Europe. Fascinated by travelling, she visited Paris, Berlin and Stockholm, where she stopped and visited her uncle – the chief rabbi of Sweden – Markus Ehrenpreis. She was from a good home, young, talented, intelligent and interested in the world. Debora was described by Mejlech Rawicz as follows: …she entertained people with her vast knowledge of all kinds of art theory. She had a doctorate in philosophy. She was of medium height with a shapely figure. She had brown hair, and brown, slightly protruding eyes. Her face had slightly too much of a peasant's flush in it. She had a very melodious, delicate and friendly voice. Behind every word she spoke there were at least three books that she had read. She knew several languages, all as fluently as a native tongue. Only when it came to Yiddish did she understand every nuance and speak it in a way that showed she was prepared to learn more and more, with great devotion and love. In 1928 she began to publish reviews on the subject of art history, expressing her fascination with current avant-garde trends in Poland and throughout Europe. She was an expert on and great enthusiast of Cubism and Constructivism. She was a critic of art by Jewish painters who modelled themselves after Fernand Léger and were connected with the Lwów-based artistic group Artes, established in 1929 and active until 1935. Its founders were Jerzy Janisch, Aleksander Krzywobłocki, and Mieczysław Wysocki. The group also included Ludwik Lille, Otto Hahn, Henryk Streng, and Aleksander Riemer. Members of Artes were fascinated by Cubism and Surrealism, and incorporated certain elements of these trends into their own art. Vogel was very active in the group, especially in discussions of new realism in art, and was interested in the technique of photomontage. She wrote numerous reviews, including one on Henryk Streng, an artist who illustrated her writing. She published texts on psychology and pedagogy, simultaneously continuing her work as a lecturer of Polish literature and psychology at the Jakub Rotman Hebrew seminary in Lwów. She was involved in organizations such as The Jewish Folk University, The Society of Jewish Philosophy Students at Jan Kazimierz University, and the Polish Artists' Union, where she delivered lectures propagating a modernist view of Yiddish art and literature, and in which she took part in manifestations. She wrote poems and stories, and translated literature from Yiddish into Polish and vice-versa. Her writing was published in many journals, including Chwila [Moment], Nasza Opinia [Our Opinion], Sygnały [Signals], and Wiadomości Literackie [Literary News]. In 1929, together with her friend Rachela Auerbach, she co-founded a new journal, Cusztajer, dedicated to issues in new Yiddish art and literature. She had freedom in selecting topics, in printing illustrations and in creating her own aesthetic program. She knew Chagall personally, and wrote an article devoted to him entitled Theme and Form in the Art of Chagall. She published works by artists in the Artes group and the graphic works of Bruno Schulz, who belonged to the circle of her closest friends. She met Bruno through their mutual friend, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy) – who did a portrait of Debora during her stay in Zakopane. Mutual fascination and friendly feelings grew between the drawing teacher from Drohobych and Debora Vogel, who was younger than him by eight years, and their friendship continued through their exhanges of creative thoughts and ideas, and their vast epistolary correspondence. It was out of their correspondence that the first version of Cinnamon Shops materialized. Schulz often visited the Vogel family home in Lwów, during which they went on long walks together while having poetic-philosophical disputes. They planned to get married, but this did not happen due to the strong opposition of Debora's family. Her close friend, Rachela Auerbach, recalls: Her mother became somewhat involved in the whole situation, and depressive, hypochondriac Schulz of course agreed with her opinion that he was not a suitable candidate for a husband and father. As a result of this, she married someone else, a bachelor of respectable standing named Szulim Barenbluth, who was a civil engineer and four years older than Debora. The wedding ceremony took place on October 11th, 1931. Her connection to Schulz became less intense after her marriage, but it seems that they maintained their correspondence, in which she encouraged him to get his writing published. She made her own poetry debut in 1930. Her collection of poems, Figury dnia [Figures of the Day], was published in Yiddish. In 1936 she put Schulz in touch with her acquaintance, Mendel Neugroeschl, who lived in Vienna and was a translator of Polish literature into German and Yiddish. During this time she worked on her own literary works and critical texts, and collaborated with magazines in New York, Los Angeles, Bucharest, Warsaw, Łódź, Kraków and Lwów. In 1934 her next collection of poetry was published, Manekiny [Mannequins], and the following year a collection of stories appeared in Polish and Yiddish, Akacje kwitną [The Acacias Are Blooming]. Her correspondence with Schulz and their friendship became revived after a few years, after Debora became a mother. Her son, Asher Joseph Barenbluth, was born on May 3rd, 1936. Her late motherhood invigorated her with new energy, and marked a new rhythm in her life. Watching her son grow up and taking care of him gave her great joy. Even though it took up some of her creative time, she was still very active creatively. She participated in readings and discussions, and her opinions were well-respected by both her supporters and adversaries. Her innate sense of justice and concern for others manifested itself in the help she gave to her painter and writer friends who were in financial trouble resulting from the anti-Semitism that abounded, especially in Austria and Germany. Aware of the position of women in society, she wrote in a letter to her friend, A. Lajels: People like you are necessary for Yiddish literature… I admire your continual readiness, your sense of responsibility. This feeling partly comes from the fact that I also have this talent in me, but it has not been able to find its full expression, because... because – I'm going to make a risky statement – because of the miserable fortune it is to be a woman. The "metaphysical" role of a woman flows in a stream of daily trifles. And my professional work, which barely pays me anything – the same amount of money that I could earn by writing just two articles per month – completely absorbs me. But male competition does not allow a woman to improve her position. A few newspapers have written about the fact that men, even those who have nothing to say and are talentless scribblers, receive money for their writing, while women are rewarded merely with respect... She started associating with people from the Krakow Group, which led to further published texts about abstract art in Polish-language publications such as Gazeta Artystów [Artists' News] and Tygodnik Artystów [The Artists' Weekly]. Stanisław Ostowicz wrote in a letter to Sasha Blonder: … Here's that Vogel, the one who is extremely interested in our group. I think she should join us. From 1935 onwards she was a member of a New York-based avant-garde group of Yiddish writers, with whom she collaborated until the outbreak of World War II. Active and fond of travelling, she was constantly seeking people who understood her work, even in the furthest corners of the world. She was curious about new places and people, but simultaneously very lonely. She was a writer who was conscious of being doomed to existence outside of the cultural mainstream both due to writing in Yiddish and because of the modernist character of her work. Perhaps it was precisely this peripheral existence which allowed her to be truthful, to express the essence of things, to attain authenticity. In a letter to Bruno Schulz in 1938, during the period of their renewed intellectual connection, she wrote: It's good to exist for oneself, it's extremely good to exist for more than oneself – lonely, homeless, hopelessly abandoned by everyone. Then it's possible to see things clearly. Schulz stayed at the Barenbluth home on Leśna Street in Lwów, visiting Dozia and her engineer husband. He spent Sundays talking with his former fianceé. They went to Zakopane and walked mountain paths there, even though Bruno was engaged to Juna. In Józefina Szelińska's memoirs, she recalls that they both rescued Bruno from a spider that was attacking him, because he suffered from arachnophobia. Fate gave both of them other people to love – Debora now had her son, Aś, and Bruno had his fianceé, Juna. These relationships did not, however, lessen the feelings that had existed between them in earlier years. Dozia wrote: Yesterday, when I was so happy, wanting to revive him and begin a new series of long-ago Sundays, he left me slightly unsatisfied... And maybe we are running away from each other subconsciously, and that's why we have been surrounding ourselves with other people for the past while, whenever we meet...but our long-ago conversations and the connection between us was one of those few miraculous things which happen only once in a lifetime, maybe even once for every few or few dozen hopeless, colourless lives. After September 1st, 1939, she was involved in helping artists, writers and actors of Jewish heritage who were arriving from the Western border. She took care of them, and found food for them and places to sleep. Aleksander Wat recalls: Thankfully they didn't seize me, because I would have died, of course. I escaped from Warsaw in a summer jacket, but in Lwów a Jewish writer named Debora Vogel, a very intelligent woman and refined critic… gave me a fur coat belonging to her husband, completely worn-out but with a warm lining. I traveled across all of Russia in that coat and it saved me… In the following months of Soviet rule, she taught literature in school, but she was unable to publish anything, due to her depression resulting from the new reality. It did not stop her other literary friends from flourishing, such as, for example, Rachela Korn. Vogel consciously gave up the privileges enjoyed by other Jewish writers in the USSR. In June 1941, German troops entered Lwów, and in July there was a Ukrainian-led pogrom known as the Petlura Days. At the end of the year the Barenbluths were forced to move to the ghetto. Debora was murdered along with 15,000 people in the Lwów ghetto in August 1942, during a Nazi liquidation of the Jewish population, together with her mother, husband and sixteen-year-old son, Aś. Her body was found by her friend, the painter Marek Włodarski (known by his professional name, Henryk Streng), who was employed in disposing of the corpses of people killed during the August operation.