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2017-06-16

Regina Lilientalowa – the researcher of shtetl folklore

Regina Lilientalowa was born in Zawichoście as Gitla Eiger, the daughter of Moses (Maurice) and Fajga Blum, maiden name Halpern. With her birth date, however, we have a problem. Some reports state that she was born on June 14, 1877. This would mean that this year we celebrate the 140th anniversary of her birth. But in other writings, the year of her birth is given as 1875.

Gitla-Regina graduated from Sandomierz High School. She was also taught by private teachers. For the following few years, she lived in Zwierzyniec. In 1895, she married Nathan Liliental. The young couple moved to Warsaw. After the wedding Regina ran the house, gave birth to two children (Stanisława in 1897, Antoni in 1908). She also worked as a history teacher in Polish-Jewish secondary schools in Warsaw. She also wanted to continue her education, which in those times was not easy for women, and especially for women of Jewish origin. Thanks to her willpower and in spite of many other engagements she managed to participate in the activities of the so-called Flying University. Lectures on sociology and cultural history delivered by Ludwik Krzywicki turned out to be particularly important for her future. Recognizing her interest in folklore and a special sentiment for the Jewish folklore, he channelled her research enthusiasm. 

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Regina Lilientalowa, photo from the collection of the Seweryn Udziela Ethnographic Museum in Krakow    

She was interested in Jewish rituals, rooted in the shtetl communities, which she knew from her childhood. She began to analyse them. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, her first works on Jewish folklore were published – Przesądy żydowskie (Jewish superstitions) (“Wisła”, vol. 12, 1898; vol. 14, 1900), Zaręczyny i wesele żydowskie (Jewish betrothals and weddings) (“Wisła”, vol. 14, 1900), Życie pozagrobowe i świat przyszły w wyobrażeniu ludu żydowskiego (Afterlife and the world to came in the imaginings of the Jewish people) (“Lud”, vol. 8, 1902).

She made contact with the milieu of Polish ethnographers. She shared research problems with prominent experts in Polish folklore such as Jan Karłowicz or Zygmunt Gloger. Over time, she deepened her research. The observations of contemporary rituals and customs she combined with a profound analysis of sources from the past, beginning with the Torah and the Talmud. She searched for the distant roots of the habits, rituals or superstitions she had observed. 

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Święta żydowskie w przeszłości i teraźniejszości. Cz. 1 (Jewish holidays in the past and present. Vol. 1) 1908, photo Digital Repository of Scientific Institutes      

At about the same time, Lilientalowa also came in contact with a literary circle cantered around Icchok Lejb Perec. Moved by his Hasidic stories, she decided to make them accessible to Polish readers. Between 1906 and 1910, she published them in "Israelita" and in "Życie Żydowskie" (Jewish Life). She also translated into Polish a collection of Jewish songs and fragments of women's prayers – tkhines.

In addition to publications in ethnographic journals, Lilientalowa wrote articles on Jewish as well as more general themes, which she published also in the Polish press (among others, "Kurier Codzienny", "Niwa Polska", "Ogniwo"), the Polish-language Jewish papers (among others, "Izraelita", "Życie Żydowskie" and also in the Yiddish language "Jidisze Filologie".

In addition to articles in ethnographic journals and daily newspapers, Lilientalowa published two important works. The first of them – Dziecko żydowskie (The Jewish Child), in 1904, the second – Święta żydowskie w przeszłości i teraźniejszości (Jewish Holidays in the past and present) appeared in three parts in 1908, 1913 and 1918.

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An obituary of the researcher published in the daily press of the time, photo Biblioteka Narodowa      

Lilientalowa’s publications are also very valuable now, as she based her research on observations of Jews’ daily life, on her own childhood memories from a small town and on learning acquired at home – in short, on a broad knowledge of folklore. She based her analyses on profound knowledge of the sources that are irrevocably lost. Additionally, her works include many valuable materials on Jewish music and art. Lilientalowa was a supporter of assimilation, but she appreciated the importance of Jewish folklore and thanks to her efforts at least some of the materials have been preserved for future generations.

Regina Lilientalowa died in Warsaw on December 4, 1924. Premature death interrupted her research plans and the publication of already prepared ethnographic dissertations. 

Aleksandra Król

Bibliography:

  • Bieńkowski W., Regina Lilientalowa z Eigerów [in:] Polski Słownik Biograficzny, vol. 17, Wrocław, Warsaw, Krakow, 1972, pages 334–335.
  • Franklowa G., Błp. Regina Lilientalowa, “Lud” Ser. 2, vol. 2, (1926), pages 119-121.
  • Rajzen Z., Leksikon fun der jidiszer literatur, prese un filologje, bd. 2, Wilne 1927, k. 162-165.