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Halkin, Shmuel

(1897–1960), Soviet Yiddish poet. Born in Rogachev, eastern Belorussia, Shmuel Halkin was a cousin of the brothers Shim‘on Halkin, a Hebrew poet, and Abraham Halkin, a historian and Arabist. Shmuel Halkin later remembered his own father, an employee in a timber business, as a “man of solid Jewish knowledge, of clear sober mind, and of broad dreamy heart.” The youngest of nine children, Shmuel was educated by his elder brother, an enthusiast of Hebrew and Russian literature.

In 1917, Halkin went to Kiev to study painting, but soon moved to Ekaterinoslav, where in 1921 he published his first poems in the anthology Trep (Stairs), edited by Perets Markish. Halkin’s early poetry is filled with melancholic resignation, which he later interpreted as a desire to elevate mundane drabness to a level of joyful celebration. In the early 1920s, he joined the Zionist group He-Ḥaluts and composed Hebrew poetry. His first Yiddish collection, Lider appeared in Kiev in 1922; that year, he moved to Moscow.

Halkin’s poetry appeared in leading Soviet Yiddish periodicals, and he was characterized by the prominent Communist critic Moyshe Litvakov as a “deeply Sovietized national poet.” The title of Halkin’s second collection, Vey un mut (Sorrow and Courage; 1929) signifies the two opposite poles of his poetic view of Soviet reality. His lyrical hero feels lost and disoriented in the present, but cherishes hopes for a better future. A few years later, Halkin found an aphoristic expression for the predicament of the older generation of Jews, whom the Soviet regime “put up against the wall with their hands tied behind them”: their choice was to “keep pace with their children” or “head toward the abyss” (Sovetish, 1934).

Along with others, Halkin was chastised in 1929 by proletarian critics for his lack of optimism and his affection for Hebraic motifs. He responded to this criticism by adopting the norms of socialist realism, formulating his new position in his trademark tongue-in-cheek manner: “we write what we want to— / we write what we have to” (Far dem nayem fundament [For the New Foundation]; 1932). He dutifully produced propaganda poetry, but his lyrical and philosophical poems remained anchored in Judaic and European classical traditions. His collections Kontakt (1935) and Lider (Poems; 1939) contain some of the best examples of Soviet Yiddish poetry of the 1930s.

As was typical of Soviet Yiddish poets, Halkin was simultaneously a translator and playwright. His translation of Shakespeare’s King Lear was performed to great acclaim by the Moscow State Yiddish Theater in 1935; he also adapted Avrom Goldfadn’s plays Bar Kokhba (1937) and Shulamis (1938) for the Soviet stage, and received critical approval from Aron Gurshteyn for representing the “Jewish struggle for national liberation against the Roman occupation in ancient Palestine” along the lines of socialist realism. In 1939, Halkin and several other Yiddish writers were awarded the Soviet order Sign of Honor.

During World War II, Halkin was a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and of the editorial board of Eynikayt. He wrote some of the most powerful Holocaust poems in Soviet literature, among them “Tife griber, royte leym—kh’hob amol gehat a heym” (Deep pits, red clay—once I had a home), and published two postwar collections, Erdishe vegn (Earthly Roads; 1945) and Der boym fun lebn (The Tree of Life; 1948). In 1949, he was arrested following the prosecution of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Thanks to a heart attack that he suffered after his arrest, he was sent to a relatively mild prison camp in Abez’ in Russia’s far north, where he remained until 1955 with other prominent members of the Russian intelligentsia. There Halkin kept a poetic diary, in which he encoded his experiences in the idiom of philosophical reflection. Some of those poems appeared abroad during his lifetime and later were included in the posthumous collection Mayn oytser (My Treasure; 1966), but a complete edition of this unique document in Yiddish poetic literature was issued only in 1988 in Israel.

With Dovid Hofshteyn, Halkin represented the neoclassical trend in Soviet Yiddish poetry. He aspired to clarity and perfection of form, and shied away both from avant-garde experiment and proletarian populism, showing little nostalgia for the shtetl but often invoking folkloric themes and motifs. One of the most erudite of Soviet Yiddish poets, he incorporated into his poetry images and themes from the Bible, the Talmud, Kabbalah, and Hasidism, which he represented as universal symbols and metaphors. No less significant was the influence on his poems, both in form and content, of Russian and German contemplative poetry, particularly Pushkin, Fedor Tiutchev, and Goethe. The leading Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever praised Halkin for his aesthetic perfectionism, which expressed itself in the “measured balance of the word and expression”; according to the American critic Nakhmen Mayzel, Halkin was “one of the most complex and sophisticated, deepest and most Jewish Soviet Yiddish poets.”

Suggested Reading

Shmuel Halkin, “Oytobiografye,” Di goldene keyt 39 (1961): 69–86, see preface by Avrom Sutzkever; Mikhail Krutikov, “Traditsye un haynttsaytikayt in der shafung fun Shmuel Halkinen,” Sovetish heymland 7 (1987): 102–108; Nachman Mayzel, “Shmuel Halkin,” in Dos yidishe shafn un der yidisher shrayber in Sovetnfarband, pp. 253–268 (New York, 1953).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 436, Joseph Opatoshu, Papers, 1901-1960.