Local group of “lovers of literature” with visiting writer Yitsḥak Katzenelson (center, in white hat), Brzeziny, Poland, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)

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Katzenelson, Yitsḥak

(1885–1944), Hebrew and Yiddish poet. Born in Karelitz, near Minsk, Belorussia, Yitsḥak Katzenelson acquired his Hebrew education from his father, Ya‘akov Binyamin Katzenelson, a maskilic teacher and writer. From 1896, Katzenelson lived with his family in Łódź. His earliest Hebrew poetry was published in children’s newspapers beginning in 1899, and he quickly earned a reputation as one of the most prominent members of the generation of poets to be influenced by Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik.

In Bialik’s circle, Katzenelson’s writing stood out for its lighthearted tone, and on more than one occasion he mischievously parodied his contemporaries’ meditative, scenic, and romantic poetry. From the release of his two-volume collection Dimdumim (Twinkling; 1910), Katzenelson’s poetry was noted for its joie de vivre, optimism, and humor. A year earlier, he had published an anthology of his Yiddish poetry, Die zun fargeyt in flamen (The Sun Sets in Flames; 1909). His inclination for light, genial depictions of folk life is also detectable in his feuilletons on shtetl life that were published in the press; in his autobiographic prosaic works Bi-Gevulot Lita’ (Within the Borders of Lithuania; 1909) and Galut (Exile; 1911); and in his plays, for example Karikaturen (Caricatures), Dekadent (Decadent), and Baḥurim (Young Men), all from 1909 on, and generally issued simultaneously in Hebrew and Yiddish.

Mahatalot, kovets-hatulim metsuyar (Limericks: An Anthology of Illustrated Limericks), by Yitsḥak Katzenelson (Warsaw: Ha-or, 1921). Illustrations by Ḥayim Goldberg. (YIVO)

Around 1906, after a short stint in the army followed by a vain attempt to work in Łódź’s textile industry, Katzenelson grew interested in teaching. After a few years he and other members of his family established a network of private Hebrew schools—a kindergarten, elementary school, and secondary school—that operated under his direction until 1939. In the course of his pedagogic work, he produced 34 books and booklets of children’s literature, as well as a series of Hebrew textbooks for different age groups.

Katzenelson also devoted himself to his third love—the theater—as a playwright, director, and actor, working mainly in Hebrew but also in Yiddish. At the beginning of the twentieth century, he established a drama group in Łódź that performed plays by Y. L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, and Perets Hirshbeyn, as well as his own works. In 1912, he helped to found Ha-Bamah ha-‘Ivrit (The Hebrew Stage) Theater Company, with which he toured a number of Russian towns to perform a Hebrew version of Karl Gutzkow’s play Uriel Acosta. He likewise encouraged students to perform his plays and skits, and indeed during the interwar years he applied most of his literary creativity to writing dramas on both contemporary and biblical themes. Notable in the former category is his play Tarshish (1921), dealing with the complex relationship between Poles and Jews in post–World War I Poland; and among the latter category, the plays Ha-Navi’ (The Prophet; 1922) and Amnon (1937).

In addition, Katzenelson translated Heinrich Heine’s poetry into Hebrew, and in the introduction to the anthology of translations Sefer ha-shirim (The Book of Poems; 1923), he revealed his deep spiritual connection to the poet. Meanwhile, he continued to write original poetry, though these were never anthologized and left little tangible impression. Nonetheless, a number of his lyrical poems and children’s songs were set to melodies that were well known, especially in Palestine. Katzenelson himself, who had been active in the He-Ḥaluts movement in Łódź, had considered the option of immigration to Palestine, and even visited it twice (in 1924 and 1934), but did not follow through on his plans.

Untitled poem by Yitsḥak Katzenelson, n.d. Dedicated to Khayke Kahan, "my friend from Korelitz." "Of everything . . . / Of everything that I once had / There remains to me a heart tired and weary. . . ." Yiddish. RG 108, Manuscripts Collection, F73.12. (YIVO)

In 1938, Katzenelson published his collected Hebrew poetry in three volumes, but because of the inauspicious timing these books failed to be distributed and thus had no significant impact. The only copies that survived World War II are those that had been shipped to Palestine. For this reason, the gloomy prophecies of doom that had dominated Katzenelson’s poetry in the 1930s were little known, and it therefore came as a surprise when he, the seemingly lighthearted and affable poet, was eventually revealed as the great eulogist in verse of the murdered Jewish people.

After hiding in Łódź for three months from September 1939, Katzenelson escaped to Warsaw, and was joined by his wife and three sons. There, after months of silence and distress, he began to find new meaning in life, especially after being approached by Yitsḥak (Antek) Zuckerman and other friends from He-Ḥaluts, who enlisted him in their covert educational projects. Katzenelson dedicated himself wholeheartedly to teaching Hebrew literature and biblical studies in the Warsaw ghetto’s underground secondary school. He was a regular contributor to the underground press, and he founded and directed the movement’s drama group, which mainly staged biblical stories.

Katzenelson composed more than 40 works in the ghetto. Most of these were written in Yiddish so that they would be accessible to as wide an audience as possible, and their subject matter inevitably revolved around the sufferings of ghetto life. Two long poems written in 1942–1943 are particularly notable: “Dos lid vegn Shloyme Zhelikhovsky” (The Poem about Solomon Zelikhovsky), and “Dos lid vegn Radziner” (The Poem about the Radzhin Rebbe). Both works highlight the spiritual heroism and immense faith of Jews facing certain death.

Katzenelson’s world fell apart when in August 1942 his wife Hanna and two younger sons, Ben-Tsiyon and Binyamin, were deported to Treblinka. From then on, his literary creativity was piercingly shaped by lamentations over the loss of his family. Nonetheless, with his oldest son, Tsevi, he found the strength to join the Jewish Fighting Organization and took part in the first uprising of January 1943. After the ghetto was destroyed in April and May 1943, he escaped to the Aryan section of Warsaw and obtained a Honduran identity document. Nevertheless, he was sent to a German detention camp for foreign subjects in Vittel, France. He was imprisoned there until April 1944, and devoted most of his time to writing. Two important works were produced during that period: Pinkas Vitel (The Vittel Diary), a Hebrew composition that uses the language of an incensed diarist and reconstructs the days of terror in Warsaw during the mass deportations; and Dos lid fun oysgehargetn yidishn folk (The Poem about the Murdered Jewish People), a pathos-filled Yiddish poem that laments the destruction of the Jewish people and of the poet himself, who has been become bitterly angry with humankind and God. These two works are among the boldest and most lofty literary expressions to emerge from the Holocaust. During the war, Katzenelson also wrote two Hebrew plays, Haniba‘al (Hannibal) and Ba-Mitsba’ah ha-ra’shit (At the Military Headquarters), which trace the enmity between Jews and their pursuers through the guise of remote historical events, and through direct contemporary testimony.

All of Katzenelson’s works from his Vittel period were either buried in hiding places or were given to people he trusted; consequently, they were saved and published shortly after the end of the war. In the middle of April 1944, Katzenelson and his son Tsevi were sent to the Drancy transit camp, and from there one month later to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. In 1950, the Ghetto Fighters kibbutz built a museum and an institute for research about the Holocaust that bear Yitsḥak Katzenelson’s name.

Suggested Reading

Shelomo Even-Shoshan, “Yitsḥak Katzenelson: Tsiyunim biyografiyim,” in Sipurim u-masot, by Itzhak Katzenelson, pp. 257–279 (Loḥame ha-Geta’ot, Isr., and Tel Aviv, 1982); Itzhak Katzenelson, “Song of Hunger,” “Song of the Cold,” and “The Song of the Murdered Jewish People,” in The Literature of Destruction, ed. David Roskies, pp. 472–474, 531–547 (Philadelphia, New York, and Jerusalem, 1988); Yechiel Szeintuch, ed., Yitsḥak Katsenelson: Ketavim she-nitslu mi-Geto Varshah umi-maḥaneh Vitel (Jerusalem and Loḥame ha-Geta’ot, Isr., 1990); David Weinfeld, “Shirato ha-‘ivrit shel Yitsḥak Katsenelson ‘ad 1939,” in Ha-Shirah ha-‘ivrit be-Polin ben shete milḥamot ha-‘olam, pp. 25–46 (Jerusalem, 1997).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 201, Abraham Liessin, Papers, 1906-1944; RG 677, Abraham Rechtman, Papers, 1920s-1960s.



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler