Khalyastre (The Gang), vol. 2, 1924. The cover is illustrated by Marc Chagall and features a figure (right) holding up a flag that reads, in Yiddish: “Paris.” YIVO. (© 2006 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York/ADAGP, Paris)

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The major Yiddish cultural avant-garde movement in Poland between 1919 and 1924. Di Khalyastre (The Gang) brought together mainly poets, novelists, and artists who consciously participated in European expressionism as modern secular Jews but were also determined to construct a new lay culture in Yiddish. Its expressionist stylistics and themes distinguished it both from contemporary Soviet Yiddish culture and the New York Inzikhistn (“Inwardists”), yet placed it close to Central European aesthetics and cultural concerns. While shared aesthetic innovations distinguished the Khalyastre, ideological conflicts within the group eventually led to its dissolution.

Typical of post–World War I avant-garde groups, Khalyastre promoted itself through articles in journals, provocative poetry recitals, and exhibitions. Di Khalyastre was also the name of a journal (vol. 1 [1922] was published in Warsaw; vol. 2 [1924] in Paris) under the editorship of Perets Markish, who chose a poem by Moyshe Broderzon as the motto of the journal. This poem projects the mindset, expressionistic style, and radical poetics of the entire movement: “Mir yungen, mir a freylekhe tsezungene khalyastre / Mir geyen in an umbavustn veg, / In tife moreshkhoyredike teg / In nekht fun shrek / Per aspera ad astra!” (We, the young, a happy, boisterous gang / We’re trodding on an unknown path / through deeply melancholic days / through nights of fright / Per aspera ad astra!). The poem originally appeared in Broderzon’s journal Yung-yidish (Łódź, 1919), the first example of Yiddish modernism in Poland, and brings together such expressionist themes as alienation, apocalyptic pessimism, and art as a means of regaining one’s sanity.

Albatros 2 (1922), Warsaw. Illustration by Marek Szwarc. (YIVO)

The Khalyastre movement can be divided into three periods, each served by a distinct journal: (1) the year 1919, with the Łódź group associated with Yung-yidish; (2) the transitional period 1921–1922, with the group surrounding Mikhal Vaykhert (Michał Weichert) and Alter-Sholem Kacyzne’s Ringen; and (3) the golden period of 1922–1924, which spawned Di Khalyastre, Vog (The Scales; edited by Melech Ravitch), and Albatros, the most thoroughly avant-garde expressionist journal of Uri Tsevi Grinberg.

Broderzon’s Yung-yidish brought together Łódź’s poets and artists. The plastic artists Yankl Adler, Marek Shvarts (Szwarc), and Yitskhok Broyner (Breuner) led the way with German expressionist techniques. Eschewing prewar Peretzian aesthetics, mysticism, and Jewish folk motifs, they Judaized the Christ theme: the bloodied Jew on the cross becomes the Jewish nation bleeding to death under the impact of pogroms. Ravitch and Grinberg infused their verse with new expressionist imagery. Yung-yidish introduced Polish Jewry to the shock of the new: postwar expressionism in art and poetry, with its verbal violence and clashing imagery.

The second period began in 1921, following the Soviet–Polish War, in Warsaw, where the avant-garde now congregated. The heirs of Y. L. Peretz and S. An-ski created Ringen to link the Peretz inheritance to modernism. It might be said that the journal failed because the emerging modernist Jewish art and culture could no longer look to the past for support, as had the Peretz generation. Henryk Berlewi, the major Polish Jewish artist, wrote: “Mir hobn keyn bodn unter di fis, di amolike traditsie iz farshvunden” (We have no ground under our feet; our time-honored tradition has disappeared; Ringen vol. 1, p. 3). His art illustrates and embodies the changing trends of the Polish Jewish avant-garde, ranging from stylized folk motifs (the banner of Ringen, 1921) and an expressionist cover for Markish’s Di kupe (The Mound; 1922) to pure abstraction (the cover of Grinberg’s Albatros [3], 1923).

From Ringen (Rings), January 1921. Illustration by Henryk Berlewi. (YIVO)

Vaykhert and Kacyzne devoted the final issue of Ringen (vol. 10) to the emerging Khalyastre poets. This journal, which was now completely expressionist in orientation, welcomed Perets Markish from the Soviet Union. He organized a Sabbath morning poetry recital on 22 January 1922, with Grinberg, Ravitch, Broderzon, and himself declaiming in agitprop style that artists must destroy the old and welcome the new. The third and richest period had begun. Markish proclaimed in his manifesto that “Unzer mos iz—nit sheynkayt—nor shoyderlikhkeyt” (Our measure is not beauty but horror; Khalyastre, vol. 1). Grinberg’s manifesto displays the same expressionist credo: “Derfar dos groyzame inem lid / derfar dos khaotishe inem bild / derfar der oyfgeshrey funem blut” (Thus the gruesome in the poem / thus the chaotic in the image / thus the outcry from the blood; Albatros, vol. 1).

The years 1922–1924 marked the height of Yiddish expressionism; the Khalyastre poets and artists, with their shared aesthetic revolution, had triumphed. Nevertheless, each journal expressed a different political ideology: Markish’s Khalyastre agitated for Bolshevism; Ravitch’s Vog argued for national cultural autonomy; and Grinberg’s Albatros moved steadily toward revisionist Zionism. By the end of 1924, the Khalyastre movement had fallen apart as poets denounced each other for their political postures and left Warsaw. With the demise of the unique little journals, the Khalyastre as a movement ceased to exist.

Suggested Reading

Rachel Ertel, “Khaliastra et la modernité-européenne,” in Khaliastra: Revue littéraire, Varsovie 1922–Paris 1924, ed. Lydie Marie Lachenal, pp. 263–306 (Paris, 1989); Seth Wolitz, “‘Di Khalyastre,’ the Yiddish Modernist Movement in Poland: An Overview,” Yiddish 4.3 (1981): 5–20; Seth Wolitz, “Between Folk and Freedom: The Failure of the Yiddish Modernist Movement in Poland,” Yiddish 8.1 (1991): 26–51.