(The following is a post by Ann Brener, Hebraic area specialist in the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division.)
This Chanukah, it will be exactly one hundred years since a Jewish artist in revolution-torn Moscow presented his young stepdaughter, Tanya, with a wonderful Chanukah gift: a hand-lettered Russian fairytale in which the little girl herself plays the starring role. And because that little girl’s stepfather was none other than Joseph Tchaikov (1888-1979), one of the greatest Jewish artists of the day, the fairytale was illustrated with nine pen-and-ink drawings of the greatest charm imaginable. Now, one hundred years later, “Little Princess Tanya” once again brightens the Chanukah season, this time as the latest acquisition of the Hebraic Section in the Library of Congress.
“Little Princess Tanya,” let it be known, actually began life as a commoner – and a Yiddish-speaking commoner at that. She was the creation of Moishe Broderzon (1890-1956), a Yiddish writer and theater director who lived in Moscow during the heady days that followed the February Revolution in 1917. Moscow was in the throes of a “half-refined, half-wild Russian Futurism,” to quote one contemporary critic, and Broderzon belonged to a circle of Jewish artists and writers best known today through the works of Chagall and El Lissitzky. One of Broderzon’s works during this period was a Yiddish children’s book called “Temerl” [“Little Tamar”], illustrated by Joseph Tchaikov and published in an inexpensive paper edition in 1917. Like Broderzon, Tchaikov belonged to the circle of Jewish artists on the cutting edge of the Russian Avant-Garde. But in his illustrations for “Temerl,” Tchaikov followed a somewhat different path, opting for a style more characteristic of the Jugendstil or Art Nouveau (an ornamental art movement that began in late 19th century Europe with a strong influence on applied art and architecture):
“Temerl” [“Little Tamar”] tells the tale of a little girl who grows up in a traditional Jewish home, somewhat stuffy and cramped,
but when she opens a book, finds herself in an enchanted forest with wonderful new friends:
and then sails off to adventure on the back of a seashell,
and becomes, among other things, the princess of an African tribe:
Like many Russian fairytales, “Temerl” is the story of a magical journey and one in which the figure of a bird looms large. “Think of ‘The Firebird,’” Barbara Dash, cataloguer in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, reminds us, “and all of its variations.” Only, unlike the traditional Russian tales, as Dash goes on to point out, Temerl’s transformation is due not to the intervention of an enchanted bird but to the power and magic of books. It is books that take “Little Tamar” out of her cramped home into the leafy bower of the next illustration, complete with a lion for a pet. Jennifer Baum Sevec, Head of the Library’s U.S. Monographs Section, agrees with Dash’s observations. “Look at this picture,” she says, pointing to the illustration in which a crowned Temerl sits enthroned. “There’s a real dialogue going on between the figures; one native is attentively taking notes, another avidly discusses some point with the princess – look at their hand gestures. A dove with a peace-offering hovers overhead in the space between them, and the overall composition imparts a sense of balance, and the dignity of learning.”
The freedom and magic of learning find an eloquent symbol in the bird, a familiar motif in many Russian tales. In the first illustration, the bird is caged in the corner of the room, but by the third frame, when Tamar first opens up a book, the bird is uncaged and free.
It was Broderzon, the Yiddish writer, who created the figure of Temerl, but it was Joseph Tchaikov, the artist, who gave us her image in pen-and-ink. It is easy to like Temerl: no Victorian miss she, but a little girl with an edge, sassy enough even for us today and obviously with a mind of her own.
Tchaikov must have liked her, too, for he hand-wrote a Russian version of “Temerl” called “Little Princess Tanya” and then presented it to his stepdaughter, Tanya, for Chanukah. The choice of Russian suggests that Tanya did not know Yiddish, or at least was more at home in Russian. This in itself is interesting, for in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, the question of language became an important element in the creation of a corporate Jewish identity, as Jews struggled between the competing demands of Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian. If Tanya needed the story in Russian, her family was likely among those who hoped that the Revolution would enable the Jews to fully assimilate into Russian society.
Perhaps the most interesting difference between the two versions of the story, Yiddish and Russian, is that in “Little Princess Tanya,” Tchaikov ended the book with a picture of the artist at work – surely a self-portrait of Tchaikov himself down to the details of his Russian-style clothes and the nibs of his pens and his inks. Most unusually, the Jewish year (5677) is inscribed here in Roman numerals:
This self-portrait of the artist strengthens the suspicion that “Temerl” and “Little Princess Tanya” contain another portrait, too – namely that of Tchaikov’s stepdaughter, Tanya. What, one wonders, made Tanya ripe to be the heroine of these two books? Was it the message about the value of reading? Perhaps the “real” Tanya was a mischievous child, little inclined to books and study. Here, then, was a powerful vehicle to convince her of the importance of both, and the ability of books to transport you into totally different realms of the imagination and mind.
“Temerl” and “Little Princess Tanya” were created together at a special moment in Russian history, but that they have remained together through all the vicissitudes of the past hundred years is nothing short of a miracle. But then Chanukah itself is all about miracles, and here is one more to celebrate. How fitting that we do so now at the Library of Congress, where we celebrate the magic and power of books all year round.