Proste trit (Simple Footsteps), by Itsik Fefer (Kiev, 1925). (YIVO)

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Fefer, Itsik

(1900–1952), Yiddish poet. Born in Shpola, Ukraine, Itsik Fefer was 12 years old when he began to work at a printing shop. In 1917 he joined the Bund and became a trade union activist. A Communist from 1919, he served in the Red Army. He began writing poems in 1918, and in 1922 joined Vidervuks (New Growth) in Kiev, a group of young Yiddish literati whose mentor was Dovid Hofshteyn. That same year, the appearance of Fefer’s small collection Shpener (Splinters) established him as a rising literary star. His poetry amalgamated the Kultur-lige poets’ revolutionary romanticism with the propagandist objectives of the workers’ movement.

Fefer was known for his literary credo of proste reyd (simple speech), a concept he formulated in 1922. In the early 1920s, poetry, particularly avant-garde poetry, swamped the literary pages of Soviet Yiddish periodicals. This phenomenon worried editors and critics, who were wary of the fact that Yiddish readers usually could not identify with this style of literature. All Yiddish readers, by contrast, could understand Fefer’s proste reyd.

In 1927, Fefer was a founding member of the Jewish Section of the All-Ukrainian Union of Proletarian Writers and, from 1928, one of the editors of its Kharkov-based journal, Prolit (Proletarian Literature). He also coedited the nonproletarian Kharkov journal Di royte velt (The Red World) from 1929. From 1933 to 1937, he edited the Kiev periodical Farmest (Challenge; known as Sovetishe literatur [Soviet Literature] between 1938 and 1941), which replaced Prolit and Di royte velt and was thereafter the only Yiddish literary periodical in Ukraine.

Because Fefer wrote about virtually all state occasions and campaigns, his books—among them Geklibene verk (Selected Works; 1929), Lider un poemes ([Short and Long] Poems; 1934), Vunderland (Wonderland; 1940), and Shayn un opshayn (Light and Reflection; 1946)—mark the major historical events of Soviet Jewish and general Soviet history. Individuals with peculiarities and personal destinies rarely appear in his poems; instead, the romantic spirit of continuous revolution runs through his writing. He describes crowds and regiments, the impersonal masses of people who “hand to hand and shoulder to shoulder, leg to leg and greatcoat to greatcoat” fight for the revolution. The victims of the struggle, too, remain nameless and faceless in his poems: “Dead Gentile women in greatcoats, / eyes grey, hunks of ice, / on their necks—not beads, / strings of lice” (Howe, Wisse, and Shmeruk, 1988, p. 246).

Fefer published his poetic cycle Bliendike mistn (Manure in Bloom) in 1929, which he presented as a travelogue of a trip he took back to Shpola. He believed that the shtetl could be revitalized as a center of Jewish life and culture and could be the grounds for a new Soviet Jewish nation. Yet his poetic eye did not overlook general industrialization projects, and he was happy to see young Jewish men and women among the romantic builders of Communist society. In the 1930s, Fefer also concentrated on the Birobidzhan nation-building project; his book Birobidzhaner lider (Birobidzhan Poems) was published in 1939. At the same time, he wrote many lyrical poems, some of which were set to music.

The creation of the Soviet Writers Union gave Fefer increased exposure as a Communist poet and apparatchik. From the beginning of his literary career, he regarded himself as a leader and represented Yiddish literature in the governing bodies of the Writers Union. In 1934, on the eve of the union’s first congress, Fefer edited the Almanakh fun yidishe sovetishe shrayber (Almanac of Soviet Yiddish Writers). In place of an introduction, he opened the work with his poem “Tsvishn himl un ayz” (Between Sky and Ice), glorifying the disastrous Arctic expedition of the SS Cheliuskin that year.

The poem’s Arctic subject matter fit well with the socialist realist theme, and included romantic figures of Soviet heroes, mastery over nature, patriotism, optimism, and Stalin’s leadership. Stalin is the main decision maker who “already sees the directions which the world will follow / and shows the world the way with his hand.” Death is not part of Bolshevik culture because the Communist cause and idea are immortal. Fefer, too, promises that the one victim who lost his life on the expedition will not be forgotten: the drowned explorer will be found; he “will stretch out, like a tree branch, his bony hand” and “we will pin a medal to his lapel.” Still, happiness in the Communist martyrs’ afterworld cannot compete with the joy of life in the Soviet Union: “We cannot live without joy / as [we cannot live] without toil and bread” are the concluding lines of the poem.

Members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee attending a memorial service for victims of the Holocaust at the Choral Synagogue, Moscow, 1945. (Front row, first to third from right) writer Itsik Fefer (with glasses), actor Benjamin Zuskin, and musician and actor Leonid Utesov. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

During World War II, Fefer was an agent of the secret police on the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC). In 1943, he and Solomon Mikhoels, the committee’s chair, visited the United States, Canada, Mexico, and England, successfully mobilizing pro-Soviet support. National pride runs through his poetry of that period. The poem “Ikh bin a Yid” (I Am a Jew) is the best-known sample of such Soviet Jewish patriotism. Fefer includes in his Soviet Jewish genealogy such figures as Bar Kokhba, King Solomon, Baruch Spinoza, Isaak Levitan, Iakov Sverdlov, and Lazar Kaganovich. In his 1948 poem “A vending tsu Peretsn” (An Address to Peretz), Fefer declares a pedigree of Soviet Yiddish literature. He crowns Y. L. Peretz as the genius of Yiddish literature, whereas Sholem Aleichem, the central figure in the Soviet Yiddish literary canon, appears only as part of Peretz’s entourage, which also includes Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, Dovid Bergelson, and Der Nister.

As did many Soviet Jews, Fefer enthusiastically welcomed the establishment of the State of Israel. He argued that the new state was the concern of the entire Jewish people and that the heroism of Soviet people contributed more to its creation than American Zionism. In the late 1940s, however, Stalin’s regime had no use for Communists who cherished Jewish national hopes. Fefer was arrested in 1948, together with other members of the JAC. He was executed on 12 August 1952.

While Soviet Yiddish critics usually characterized Fefer as an embodiment of the best qualities of a poet who had been brought up by the Communist Party, their non-Communist colleagues, notably Yankev Glatshteyn, disliked Fefer and his poems. Sol Liptzin ascribes Fefer’s rise to three factors: his proletarian orthodoxy, his power of invective, and his lyric talent. In the 1990s, the publication of archival materials dealt a blow to the posthumous reputation of Fefer: during the persecution of the JAC, his testimony was central to the prosecution’s case. Nevertheless, Fefer’s poems continue to appeal to songwriters, notably the leading Israeli singer and composer Chava Alberstein. Fefer’s “Di krenitse” (The Well) opens her 1998 album of the same name; the same album contains his poem “Di elter” (Old Age).

Suggested Reading

Gennady Estraikh, “Itsik Fefer: A Yiddish Wunderkind of the Bolshevik Revolution,” Shofar 20.3 (2002): 14–31; Irving Howe, Ruth R. Wisse, and Khone (Chone) Shmeruk, eds., The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse (New York, 1988); Joshua Rubenstein and Vladimir P. Naumov, eds., Stalin’s Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (New Haven, 2001).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 205, Kalman Marmor, Papers, 1880s-1950s; RG 372, Isaac Raboy, Papers, 1926-1952; RG 429, Louis Gross, Papers, 1937-1958; RG 436, Joseph Opatoshu, Papers, 1901-1960; RG 500, Alexander Pomerantz, Papers, 1920s-1960s; RG 523, Aaron Samuel Kurtz, Papers, 1920-1964; RG 602, Shalom Asch, Papers, .