O-A, by Itsik Kipnis. (Minsk: Tsenterfarlag, 1929). Illustration by Zfania-Gedali Kipnis. The work includes two stories for older children. (Hillel Kazovsky)

Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the

Kipnis, Itsik

(1896–1974), Yiddish fiction writer. Itsik Kipnis was born into a family of craftsmen in Sloveshne, Ukraine. As a child, he studied at heder and with private teachers; he later worked with his father as a tanner. In 1920, Kipnis went to study in Kiev, where he met Dovid Hofshteyn, who became his literary mentor. Kipnis’s first publications were children’s literature and a book of poems titled Oksn (Oxen; 1923) that celebrated modern, urban existence with an optimistic tone and minimalist poetic language. However, his real entry into the world of Soviet Yiddish literature was his first book of fiction, Khadoshim un teg: A khronik (Months and Days: A Chronicle), which was published with an introduction by Yitskhok Nusinov (1926).

Critics immediately recognized the book as the first significant achievement of Soviet Yiddish fiction. The first-person narrator is a young man from the shtetl Sloveshne who describes his own experience with both pogroms and revolutionary action. The book achieves a unique blend of the meaningful moments in the life of a pair of young lovers, on the one hand, and the fear and horror of murder and violence, on the other. The individual scenes have the detailed immediacy of a close-up, but the book’s composition is built on rapid transitions from one subject to another and on the alternations between refined and primitive language. Khadoshim un teg creates an atomized and fragmentary narrative world that is at once idyllic and full of horror.

The fact that Kipnis’s book about pogroms and revolutionary triumphs in the shtetl only included characters with minimal ideological consciousness placed Soviet Yiddish critics in an embarrassing position.This did not, however, hamper the critical success of the book outside the Soviet Union. Khadoshim un teg enjoyed great popularity among the Yiddish-reading public, and a Russian translation was published in 1930. Nonetheless, the book was never reprinted in the Soviet Union.

From Itsik Kipnis in Kiev to Yoysef Opatoshu and H. Leivick in New York, 18 January 1934. Kipnis reports that he has just published an article in the Soviet press criticizing his own novel, Khadoshim un teg (Months and Days), for its bourgeois and kulak nationalism. Included in the article was mention of his correspondence with "the foreign writers Opatoshu and Leivick," in which he admitted that he had relied too much on his own judgment instead of that of his "writer comrades" and "our whole proletarian organized society" when depicting the real people on which his characters were based. But he doesn't want them to get the wrong idea: Opatoshu and Leivick are held in great esteem in the USSR. He himself is involved as little as possible with politics and does not always approve of the comrades' attitude toward foreign writers, but what can he do? He is the exception and they are the rule, so he can't make too many waves. He regets the tone of his "al-khet" (confession) and feels sullied by the experience. He asks them to please not judge him too harshly. In a postscript, he acknowledges that he hasn't been writing or publishing lately but says that in the near future a book of his stories, 12 Stories, will be published, as well as some children's literature. Yiddish. RG 436, Joseph Opatoshu Papers, F224. (YIVO)

During the rest of his career as a short-story writer and novelist, Kipnis generally wrote about subjects connected with his hometown, and his narratives focused on the shaping of dramatic historical events that destroyed the ostensibly idyllic nature of the past. His cast of characters includes both simple craftsmen, rooted in the rhythm of their daily life and work, and young intellectuals who, while trying to blaze a new trail, wind up not very far from the old one. The novel Di shtub (The House; 1939), which takes place in Sloveshne in the years before and during World War I and the revolution, creates a tension between the narrow world of the male craftsmen and the vague erotic and intellectual desires of the women. Even the novel Untervegns (Under Way), finished by Kipnis in 1945, is marked by a shtetl atmosphere, although its loose structure is built upon the attempts of the protagonist to discover new horizons.

At the end of the 1940s, Kipnis went back to describing his hometown in detailed memoirs, which later appeared as Mayn shtetele Sloveshne (1971). The use of a shtetl youth as first-person narrator marks a large part of Kipnis’s work. Artistically, however, he never again achieved the modernist complexity of meaning apparent in Khadoshim un teg, from the remote, naive tone of the narrator as alleged chronicler on the one hand to the drama of his material on the other.

Kipnis was very active in the field of Yiddish children’s literature and was the author of more than 30 publications in Yiddish for children and young people from the 1920s until 1940. His first children’s pieces are noted for their blend of realism and fantasy, but his work in this genre from the 1930s on was marked by the accepted Soviet rhetoric of the day. In the 1920s and 1930s, Kipnis was also a prolific translator of literature into Yiddish both for children and adults.

With the outbreak of the German–Soviet war in 1941, Kipnis was evacuated from Kiev, and did not return until 1944. Notes from his diary during that period are the core of the book Tog un tog (Day and Day), published posthumously as the fifth volume of his collected works. Kipnis strove to revive Yiddish culture in Kiev after the Holocaust, and his heightened national feelings in those years were expressed most clearly in his short story “On khokhmes, on kheshboynes” (Without Calculations; 1947). The complete version of the story was at that time printed only in the Warsaw periodical Dos naye lebn (the censored Soviet Yiddish Eynikayt published only an abridged version); in it, Kipnis expresses his wish that “all Jews” who were among the Soviet soldiers then on the streets of Berlin “should wear on their chest, along with their orders and medals, a beautiful little Star of David.” As a result of this story, a smear campaign was launched against Kipnis, a sign of the coming destruction of what remained of Soviet Yiddish culture.

In 1949, after having been expelled from the Ukrainian Writers Union, Kipnis was arrested in Kiev and exiled to camps, and remained imprisoned until 1956. Even after his release he was not permitted to resettle in Kiev, and until 1958 he was forced to live in the nearby village of Boyarka. In the last years of his life and after his death, his Geklibene verk (Collected Works) were published in five volumes (1971–1980), as were “Untervegns” un andere dertseylungen (“Under Way” and Other Short Stories; 1960); Tsum lebn: Dertseylungen (To Life: Short Stories; 1969); and Untervegns: Roman, dertseylungen, noveln (Under Way: Novel, Short Stories, Novellas; 1979).

Suggested Reading

Mordechai Altshuler, “Itsik Kipnis: The ‘White Crow’ of Soviet Yiddish Literature: The MGB File of 1949,” Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe 2 [53] (Winter 2004): 68–167; David Goldberg, “Fantasy, Realism and National Identity in Soviet Yiddish Juvenile Literature: Itsik Kipnis’s Books for Children,” in The Field of Yiddish, 5th coll., pp. 153–201 (Evanston, Ill., and New York, 1993); Samuel Niger, Yidishe shrayber in Sovet-Rusland (New York, 1958), pp. 132–138; Ester Rosental (Shnayderman), “Itsik Kipnis, aza vi ikh ken im,” Di goldene keyt 61 (1967): 123–168.

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 436, Joseph Opatoshu, Papers, 1901-1960; RG 465, Kinder Zhurnal and Farlag Matones, Records, 1920s-1960s.



Translated from Yiddish by Yankl Salant