Three sonnets by Yoysef Holder, n.d. Three sonnets by Yoysef Holder: “Mayn zeyde,” “Mayn tate,” and “Mayn mame” (My Grandfather; My Father; and My Mother), n.d. "At the third meal of the Sabbath, my old grandfather used to quietly sing the old rabbi's nigun [melody]. . . ." Yiddish. RG 108, Manuscripts Collection, F23.9. (YIVO)

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Holder, Yoysef

(1893–1945?), poet and translator. One of the most important Yiddish writers in Hungary, Yoysef (Hun., József) Holder was born to a Hasidic family in Nagybocskó (Rom., Bocicou Mare; Hun., Veliky Bichkif; the town is now divided between Romania and Ukraine) near Máramarossziget (Rom., Sighet Marmației, in Maramureş), where Yiddish was spoken as a matter of course. He left the Hasidic milieu quite early, yet continued to speak his first language. At age 15, he wrote Hebrew poems and a story about the famous yeshiva of Pressburg; he published this story in the Kraków monthly Ha-Mitspeh. After writing for other Hebrew papers such as Ha-‘Olam (London), Ha-Tsefirah (Warsaw) and ‘Al ha-mishmar (Jerusalem), Holder found his calling as a Yiddish poet.

In 1911, Holder published Yiddish prose and poetry in the Máramaros periodicals Yidishe tsaytung and Yidishes blat; his first pieces included the naive poems Yekil mit dem hon (Yekil and the Cock) and Himlishes lid (Heavenly Song). These writings helped him to launch his career as a correspondent for Yiddish newspapers, and he continued to write for Dos yudishe folk, Yidishes tagblat (New York), Yidishe morgenpost (Vienna), Vilner tog, Di tsayt (Kraków), and Togblat (Lemberg). Several of his poems appeared in the anthology Yom-tov bikher (Holiday Books), edited by Tsevi Spirn in 1917. As the only modern Yiddish Hungarian poet, Holder was celebrated throughout the Yiddish-speaking world. Exclusively with him in mind, Vilna’s Der tog offered a feature called Naye ungerishe lirik (New Hungarian Poetry), for which he translated contemporary works into Yiddish.

Holder’s only volume of poetry, Oft zingt zikh (Often It Sings), was published in Vilna in 1928. His poems reflect a calm, lonely, technically refined, and melodious lyricism, and their literary sophistication compares with that of Morris Rosenfeld. Despite their melancholy tone, the works are marked by a rich choice of themes and motifs. Among the recurrent topics are the subject of poetry itself, the vanity of human life, loneliness, and abandonment. Holder’s poetry was traditional both contextually and formally, unlike the works of many of his contemporaries. Most of his poems are melancholic in their tone and address universal themes such as love, death, and faith, but all of them also carry something personal.

The images and symbols of the Hungarian poet Endre Ady had an unmistakable influence on Holder’s work. Through translating Ady and other contemporary poets, Holder came to occupy a modest but established position among Hungarian writers. He was closely associated with the most prominent Hungarian literary journals, including A Hét and Nyugat. However, he never published his greatest accomplishment as a translator, Imre Madach’s famous Hungarian national drama Az ember tragédiája (The Human Tragedy). Plans to stage the play in Yiddish theaters in New York and Warsaw did not materialize.

Throughout his life, Holder alternated between Jewish cosmopolitanism and Hungarian patriotism. Despite his Yiddish heritage, he chose to make Hungary and Budapest his home, if only for his Hungarian wife, a native of Erdély, Transylvania. His close relationship to Ady and many other contemporary Hungarian poets notwithstanding, he remained an eccentric and a loner in his personal life as well as in his poetry. During the persecution of the Jews and the German occupation of Budapest, Holder was hidden by his wife, Anna Lörincz. However, he could not bear the permanent fear of arrest. In late 1944 or early 1945, he died in his hiding place after suffering a heart attack. One year after his death, his wife buried him in a Budapest cemetery.

Suggested Reading

József Bihari, “Holder József költői és műfordítói tevékenysége különös tekintettel az ember tragédiája jiddis fordítására,” Évkönyv 1979/80 (1980): 60–84; Elemér Boross, “Holder József: A költő,” in Velük voltam (Budapest, 1969); Péter Varga, “Varianten jüdischer Selbstwahrnehmung in Ungarn,” in Jüdische Selbstwahrnehmung: La prise de conscience de l’identité juive, ed. Hans Otto Horch and Charlotte Wardi, pp. 83–99 (Tübingen, 1997); Péter Varga, “Joseph Holder: Hungary’s Yiddish Poet,” Anachronia 5 (October 1999): 133–141; Péter Varga, “Deutsch, jiddisch, hebräisch, ungarisch oder . . . ?: Sprache und Identität des osteuropäischen Judentums,” in Schriftsteller zwischen (zwei) Sprachen und Kulturen, ed. Antal Mádl and Peter Motzan, pp. 135–143 (Munich, 1999).



Translated from German by Sonja Mekel