Rokhl Korn, ca. 1930s. (YIVO)

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Korn, Rokhl

(1898–1982), Yiddish poet and short-story writer. Raised on a farming estate called Sucha Gora (Dry Mountain) in eastern Galicia, Rokhl Korn was tutored in the classics of Polish literature. Polish was the language of her household, her neighbors, and her education. She began her literary career writing in that language in 1918, publishing two short stories, one in Nowy Dziennik, a Zionist newspaper, and another in Głos Przemyski, a socialist journal.

When World War I broke out, Korn and her family fled to Vienna. The family returned to Przemyśl after the war, where they continued to work their farm until 1941. The upheavals of war, the destruction of life, and of Jewish life in particular, were shocking to Korn. For this reason, she turned away from Polish and began to publish widely in Yiddish. With the publication of her first Yiddish poem in Lemberger togblat in 1919, she was hailed as a new poetic voice. She published poems, stories, and essays in Yidisher literarisher calendar, Dos yidishe vort, and other periodicals during this time.

Poem by Rokhl Korn, “In shotn fun tlies: Dem orient ekspres antkegen” (In the Shadow of the Gallows: Across from the Orient Express), 1932. Yiddish. RG 108, Manuscripts Collection, F73.14. (YIVO)

In the 1920s, Korn became affiliated with Tsushtayer, a Yiddish literary journal founded by Melech Ravitch to promote Yiddish culture in Galicia, where the Jewish intelligentsia was predominantly Polish-speaking. She contributed to Yiddish newspapers, journals, and magazines up to 1941 and had her best writings published in two poetry collections, Dorf (Village; 1928) and Royter mon (Red Poppies; 1937), as well as in a collection of short stories, Erd (Earth; 1936). These collections won her critical recognition as a major poet and prose writer of modern Yiddish literature.

Critics were unanimous in applauding Korn’s passionate lyrical style, her focus on nature and village life, and her successful characterizations of Jewish and non-Jewish peasants. Both her subjects and her style were new to Yiddish writing. Drawing attention to her love poetry and underscoring her ability to express the experiences of women, Zalmen Reyzen called Korn the first woman poet from Galicia. The critic Goldie Morgentaler later argued that Korn’s poetry revolutionized both Yiddish nature poetry and Yiddish love poetry. Korn’s prose was also acclaimed, particularly the first story in the collection Erd. Critics commented on her ability to take the commonplace of human experience and make it extraordinary through the use of sensual imagery.

According to critic Sol Liptzin, Korn felt rooted to the Polish earth and to the influences of Polish literature until the beginning of World War II. But as tensions increased in Europe, her poems began to reveal a change in her thinking. Her second collection of poems voiced anxieties about uprooting and visions of foreboding. “I never knew I was a stranger to you, a guest who came to you for a mere 15 or 20 generations,” she exclaims in an untitled poem written in 1939.

The tumultuous year 1941 sent Korn adrift. She traveled thousands of miles to the east to escape the Nazis. She composed poems in Soviet Russia and sang of the sorrows of her homelessness, of the loss of her people and her culture. Later Korn called the poems of this period the products of her navenad (“wandering”) years. In 1949, after learning that her family had died, Korn moved to Canada with her daughter.

Although Korn settled in Montreal, the anguish she had experienced in Europe remained at the forefront of her mind. Poet of sorrow and pain, she published two more collections of poetry (Heym unheymlozikayt, 1948; Bashertkayt: Lider, 1949) and another collection of stories (Nayn dertseylungen, 1957). About her writing, Elie Wiesel has said: “No one else has her ability to paint the landscape of a buried village or [her] eye to portray the rapport between a mother and her daughter, a vagabond and the sky, between a child and his longing” (in Korn, 1982).

From the 1960s on, Korn’s writings reflect calmer moods and themes. She introduced new landscapes, such as Canada and Israel, yet sadness and loneliness still pervaded. Commenting on her later poetry, Seymour Levitan suggests that she had moved to a “new dependence on the word.” The form of poetry itself, in his view, “supplants the home she lost” (Levitan, 1982, p. 132).

Suggested Reading

Rachel (Rokhl) Korn, Fun yener zayt lid (Tel Aviv, 1962); Rachel Korn, Lider un erd, trans. Shimson Meltzer (Tel Aviv, 1966), in Hebrew; Rachel Korn, Di gnod fun vort (Tel Aviv, 1968); Rachel Korn, Oyf der sharf fun a rege (Tel Aviv, 1972); Rachel Korn, Farbitene vor: Lider (Tel Aviv, 1977); Rachel Korn, Generations: Selected Poems, ed. Seymour Mayne, trans. Rivka Augenfeld et al. (Oakville, Ont., Canada, 1982); Rachel Korn, Paper Roses: Selected Poems, trans. and ed. Seymour Levitan (Toronto, 1985), English and Yiddish on facing pages; Seymour Levitan, “Canadian Yiddish Writers,” in Identifications: Ethnicity and the Writer in Canada, ed. Jars Balan (Edmonton, 1982); Sol Liptzin, A History of Yiddish Literature (Middle Village, N.Y., 1972), pp. 465–466; Goldie Morgentaler, Holocaust Literature: An Encyclopedia of Writers and Their Work, vol. 1, pp. 694–696 (New York and London, 2003); Zalman Reisen (Rejzen), “Korn Rokhl H.,” in Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur, prese un filologye, vol. 3, cols. 569–570 (Vilna, 1929). Korn’s archives are housed at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal.

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1174, Isaac Metzker, Papers, 1930s-1979s; RG 1253, Shloime Schwartz, Papers, 1941-1988; RG 457, Ezra Korman, Papers, 1926-1959; RG 535, Rachel Holzer, Papers, 1930s-1960s; RG 536, Noah Siegalovsky, Papers, 1950s-1975; RG 601, Leon Feinberg, Papers, 1920s-1968; RG 703, Kadia Molodowsky, Papers, 1950s-1960s.