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Gildin, Khayim

(1884–1944), Yiddish writer. Born in Nikopol’, Ukraine, into a worker’s family, Khayim Gildin was 12 years old when he began working in a factory. He was then twice arrested for revolutionary activity. From 1908 to 1914, he lived and worked in Warsaw, where he published articles on labor issues and belonged to the circle of literati directly influenced by Y. L. Peretz. Gildin returned to Ukraine in 1915 and lived in Odessa. After the 1917 Revolution he was a member of the Fareynikte, the United Jewish Socialist Workers Party.

During the civil war, Gildin served in the Red Army, joining the Communist Party in 1919. He lived in Moscow from 1920 to 1925. In October 1920, during the First All-Russian Congress of Proletarian Writers, he spoke as a representative of the Yiddish members, arguing that poetry of political agitation had to supplant aesthetic literature. It is not clear whom Gildin actually represented during the Congress. His own poem, “In fabrik” (In the Factory), published in 1919, was a rare example of Yiddish industrial poetry:

At the tongs, crucible, and giant machines,

With bared chests and rolled up sleeves,

Numerous figures are rushing,

Darkened and blackened by dust and soot.

The machines, hammers, and tongs sing,

The engine growls and buzzes.

Molded from chaos, created from strokes,

It sounds in harmony with the time—

The triumph song of a powerful chorus.

The first actual meeting of a Moscow Yiddish proletarian group took place much later—on 5 January 1922. On that day, a small number of people, including Moyshe Taytsh and Shmuel Persov, gathered in Gildin’s flat. Subsequently, other young writers such as Yoysef Rabin and David Utkes joined them, though in 1923 the group failed to launch its journal Royte heftn (Red Notebooks). During the First Congress of Ukrainian Proletarian Writers in 1927, Gildin recollected how he had “desperately struggled” for four years to create a Yiddish proletarian organization in Moscow.

Gildin left Moscow in 1925 and spent the rest of his life in Ukraine, working at various Soviet Jewish institutions, coediting the Kharkov-based journal Prolit (Proletarian Literature), and publishing poems and stories, some of which were translated into Russian and Ukrainian. His most significant books were published in Kharkov, including two editions of his collected stories, Brunems (Wells; 1929 and 1932), and Gezamlte verk (Collected [Poetic] Works; 1932). In 1932 and 1933 he edited the last two issues of the journal Di royte velt (The Red World). Gildin was not popular among his fellow literati. Perets Markish, for instance, did not hide his disdain for the “proletarian parasite” Gildin, who denounced Markish for having a Polish passport.

Gildin’s 1934 story “Mendl Graf,” published in Russian translation in 1940, belongs to the Soviet literature eulogizing the gulag (the Soviet labor camp system) for its methods of “reeducating” criminals and political prisoners. In this story, Gildin chose a high-profile real-life model—Semen Firin, the son of a Jewish peasant—who went through fire and water to become the gulag’s deputy head. “Mendl Graf” is a striking illustration of the thesis that the state and the party, rather than writers, were the true authors of works of socialist realism. Indeed, the same subject line was used by Russian playwright Nikolai Pogodin (Aristokraty [The Aristocrats]; 1935) and Belorussian prose writer Mikhas Lynkov (Baian [Accordion]; 1935). Six years later, Gildin himself vanished in the gulag; rumors claimed that he had criticized Soviet generals responsible for failures during the Soviet–Finland War in 1939–1940.

Suggested Reading

Gennady Estraikh, “A Touchstone of Socialist Realism: The 1934 Almanac of Soviet Yiddish Writers,” Jews in Eastern Europe 37 [3] (1998): 24–37; Gennady Estraikh, “Yiddish Literary Life in Soviet Moscow, 1918–1924,” Jews in Eastern Europe 42 [2] (2000): 25–55.