The ‘Golden Age’ of Soviet–Yiddish Literature That was Brutally Destroyed

The ‘Golden Age’ of Soviet–Yiddish Literature That was Brutally Destroyed

From the Autumn 1965 issue


An extraordinary rich anthology comprising selection from the works of twelve Soviet–Yiddish writers, all of whom have become the victims of the Stalin terror, has recently been published in Israel.

The book, A Shpigl Oif a Shteyn, which runs to over 840 pages, has been edited by Dr. H. Shmeruck, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In an excellent introduction he presents in a nutshell the history of Yiddish literature in the Soviet Union. In the best scholarly manner there are biographical details about each of the writers represented in the Anthology and a scholarly apparatus regarding each item included in it (sources, dates of first publication, explanatory notes indicating variations in style and text etc.). Both from a literary and historical point of view the book is of the greatest value; typographically, too, it is a model of representation.

The twelve writers are: Bergelson (1884–1952); Der Nister (1884–1950); Hofshteyn (1889–1952): Persov (1890–1952); Kushnirov (1890–1949); Kvitko (1890–1952); Markish (1895–1952); Kulbak (1896–1940); Halkin (1897–1960); Kharik (1898–1937); Fefer (1900–1955); Akselrod (1904–1941).

The October Revolution of 1917 continued a process of emancipation of the Jews in Russia, which started with the February Revolution of the same year. All legislation of a discriminatory character was abolished and all restrictions on Jews lifted. For the first time in the history of Russia, the Jews really felt equal with all other citizens. A great wave of enthusiasm swept over the millions of Jews living in that country; they welcomed the Revolution wholeheartedly. Jewish youth flocked in their thousands to join the revolutionary ranks to defend the revolution against the attacks by the Whites from within, and against the interventionist armies of fourteen states, aiming at its destruction.

Jews became very prominent in every facet of political, economic and cultural activity in Russia, and were to be found in the Communist Party’s leadership and administration, in the Red Army, and in other positions of influence. They felt like being released from prison where they had been locked up for centuries.

Very soon, this new experience found its reflection in the new Yiddish literature and culture. It seems that the outburst of revolutionary activity and energy in Russia also led to a unique manifestation of exceptional, literary and artistic talents among Russian Jews. This was particularly felt in the Ukraine, where a whole galaxy of extraordinarily gifted writers of both poetry and prose appeared on the scene. This renaissance of Yiddish culture manifested itself also in literary criticisms, in art, and in the theatre in Moscow, Kiev and Minsk. This period between 1917 and 1928 is practically unique in Yiddish literature and without parallel in the history of Jewish literature except perhaps in the ‘golden age’ of Spain.

This group of brilliant young writers such as Dovid Hofshteyn, Peretz Markish, Leib Kvitko, Arn Kushnirov, Der Nister, Dovid Bergelson, Moishe Teyf, I. Kipnis, and many others, breathed new life and vitality into Yiddish literature. Their impact was profound. The rebellious poet Markish, who has often been compared with Byron, welcomed the revolution with his famous lines, ‘I have put the top hat on my feet, and my boots on my head.’ Hofshteyn, in more lyrical tones, greeted the revolution as a great act of liberation and emancipation of the Jews. In one of the most memorable poems ever written in Yiddish, superb in style and with great economy of words, he gave a gripping survey of the sufferings of the Jews throughout the ages, and with a remark of utmost contempt dealt with the Christian attitudes to the Jews. The Song of My Indifference, first published in 1921, is the most powerful, and at the same time most lyrical condemnation of antisemitism, and a militant manifesto for Jewish equality. It is a poem without sentimentality, bold in its imagery, and yet highly lyrical.

A New Type of Writer

Both Markish and Hofshteyn represented a completely new departure in Yiddish poetry. There is a remarkable affinity between Hofshteyn’s poetry of the early 20s and that of Blok, particularly with the latter’s famous poem, Twelve. To the present writer, The Song of My Indifference is even more striking than Twelve. Hofshteyn’s mastery of rhythm and richness of associations has no equal in Yiddish poetry. He, more than any one of his contemporaries, also showed a remarkable range of European culture and, at the same time, was deeply steeped in Hebrew literature and medieval Hebrew poetry.

Both these poets represented a new type of Yiddish writer — one who was deeply loyal to the October Revolution, while at the same time retaining strong layers of Jewish national consciousness. This led often to contradictions, clashes, and conflicts within themselves. After the Civil War had subsided, both these writers became restless, and left Russia. They spent some time in France, Germany and Poland; they also visited Palestine. Disappointed with the conditions they found there, they returned in 1929 to the Soviet Union. But a certain duality remained with them to the end of their days.

Together with the great upsurge of outstanding poetry, new fields opened up for prose writing as well. Two great writers of prose, who began their literary careers before the Revolution, found new outlets for their talents. They were Dovid Bergelson and Der Nister. They had already made their mark before 1917, and were hailed as outstanding talents by the greatest Yiddish writer of the time, Y. L. Peretz. In their short stories, novels and plays they showed exceptional depth and power of portrayal, presenting a vivid picture of the experiences felt by Jews during and after the October Revolution.

In his play, Der Toiber (‘The Deaf’) Bergelson portrays with great sensitivity the sufferings of an exploited man, and in his great epic, Baim Dnieper (‘At the Dnieper’), he presents a vast panoramic picture of the life of the Jews in a small town in the Ukraine before the Revolution and immediately after.

Der Nister was a talent of a different calibre. Influenced by mysticism and symbolism, he became the only great Jewish symbolist writer. His short stories are deeply lyrical and have a great affinity with the writings of Bely, the famous Russian symbolist writer. He also drew heavily on early Hassidic lore. His great novel, The Family Mashber, stands unrivalled for its unusual style and deep humanistic feelings.

The Victims

This flourishing period of Russian Jewish literature lasted till the middle 30s. By then the Yewvsektsia, the Jewish section of the Bolshevik Party, was closed down, and Jewish cultural activities became restricted. A number of Yiddish writers and cultural workers fell victims of the purges which began late in 1934. The following writers, poets, novelists and literary critics were executed between 1936 and 1940: Isi Kharik, an exceptionally gifted poet from Minsk; Moishe Kulbak, a distinguished and highly talented poet, playwright and novelist, who settled in Russia after leaving Poland in 1926; Moishz Litvakov, an eminent literary critic and the all-powerful editor of Der Emes, a Yiddish daily in Moscow; Alexander Khashin, who began his career as a prominent polemicist of the Poale Zion and as a literary critic of distinction; and finally, Yasha Bronstein, who fled from persecution in Poland and became the youngest, and in many respects the most brilliant literary critic amongst Yiddish writers in Russia.

Yet in spite of growing restrictions Yiddish writers continued to produce important works. The Second World War led again to a resurgence of Yiddish literary activity. All the Yiddish writers threw themselves wholeheartedly into the fight against Fascism, as active members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, set up in Moscow under the chairmanship of Solomon Mikhoels, the eminent Yiddish actor and director of the Moscow State Jewish Theatre. He and the poet Fefer toured America and Britain in 1943, mobilising material and financial support for the Soviet Union in the war against Hitler Germany.

Oustanding among the works produced during the war is the great epic poem, Milkhome (‘The War’) by Peretz Markish, which gives profound expression to the sufferings of the Jews and of mankind in the life-and-death struggle against the Nazis. This very long poem is full of passion and vigour, and the greatest expressionist poem in the Yiddish language.

The end of the war created new problems for the Jews in the Soviet Union. In spite of the fact that the Soviet representative at the United Nations, Mr. Gromyko, in November 1947 supported the creation of a Jewish State, and the Soviet Union was one of the first states to recognize Israel, when it was established in May 1948, the Soviet Government took strong measures to combat any desire on the part of Russian Jews to have any connections with the new State of Israel. In November 1948 all Jewish cultural institutions and all Yiddish publications were closed down and the leading Yiddish writers and cultural workers arrested. These arrests followed the death of Mikhoels in February of that year. At the time it was stated that he was killed in a car accident, but it has since been admitted that he was murdered in cold blood in Minsk by government secret agents. The arrested writers, after years of imprisonment without trial, were executed on the 12th of August 1952. This was revealed years later by the Polish Communist Party in April 1956.

After Stalin’s death all the Yiddish writers have been posthumously rehabilitated and their works have since re-appeared in Russian translations, but not in Yiddish.

The Anthology entitled A Shpigl Oif a Shteyn (‘A Mirror on a Stone’), taken from a line of a very significant poem by Markish, is a worthy monument to the memory of the martyred writers. But it is more than that. Dr. Shmeruck has rendered a great service to literature in general, and to Yiddish literature in particular, by bringing together in one volume a representative collection from the works of twelve outstanding writers whose achievements merit the widest attention beyond the limited circles of Yiddish readers. Let us hope that these remarkable writings, especially the beautiful prose of Bergelson and Der Nister, and the poetry of Hofshteyn, will one day be translated into English, and that an enterprising publisher will be found to make them accessible to a wider public unable to read Yiddish or Russian. They are excellent examples of a great literature that was deliberately destroyed; it would be sad and tragic if it were allowed to be lost and forgotten.