Gerangl (Struggle), by Leyb Kvitko (Kharkov: Tsentral farlag, 1929). (YIVO)

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Kvitko, Leyb

(1890 [or 1893]–1952), Yiddish and Russian writer. Born in Holoskovo, near Odessa, Leyb Kvitko lost both of his parents very early and was raised by his grandmother. At age 10 he began working as a quilter’s apprentice and lived briefly in Nikolaev, Odessa, and Kherson. He moved to Uman in 1915, and from there he sent several of his poems to Shmuel Niger, editor of the Vilna-based journal Di yudishe velt (The Jewish World), who rejected them as “worthless.”

1919, by Leyb Kvitko (Berlin: Idisher literarisher farlag, 1923). Illustrated by Iosif Chaikov. (YIVO)

With two other young poets, Moyshe Khashchevatski and Ezra Fininberg, Kvitko produced a handwritten journal in Uman. Around 1916, Dovid Bergelson encouraged him to continue writing and brought some of his poems to Kiev, where they were passed from hand to hand. Bergelson also arranged private lessons for him in general subjects and languages. In 1917, Kvitko was welcomed by the urban literary community as a folk talent when he arrived in Kiev wearing a coat, hat, and boots that he had made by himself. He married in 1918 and settled in Kiev, where he worked as a courier and later as a teacher at a Jewish orphanage. Following his book Lidelekh (Poems for Little Children; 1917), three more collections of his children’s poems were published in Kiev between 1918 and 1920.

Meanwhile, Kvitko became part of the Kultur-lige literary circle and published modernist poems in its journals Eygns (One’s Own; 1918 and 1920) and Baginen (Dawn; 1919). His Trit (Footsteps; 1919), welcomed by critics as a manifesto of folk poetry, was followed in 1921 by Lirik. Gayst (Lyric: Spirit). That year, he left for Kaunas, but soon moved to Berlin, where he expected to earn his living as a professional man of letters. Eventually, however, he moved to Hamburg where he worked for Soviet foreign trade enterprises.

Kvitko’s poems continued to appear in various periodicals, including the Berlin Milgroym (Pomegranate), the Moscow Der shtrom (The Stream), and the New York Di tsukunft (The Future). He became a member of the German Communist Party. In collaboration with Der Nister and the poet Moyshe Lifshits, Kvitko published a small anthology entitled Geyendik (Going; 1923) with the imprint of the Jewish Section at the Soviet Commissariat of Education. In his 1923 book 1919, he described the pogroms in Ukraine during the civil war.

Kvitko returned hurriedly to Soviet Russia in 1925, fearing that the German police would arrest him for his Communist activities. His collection of stories, Riogrander fel (Rio Grander Pelt; 1928), is based on his experience in Hamburg. Kharkov Jewish Communist functionaries “intercepted” him on his way to settle in Kiev and invited him to become managing editor of the new literary journal Di royte velt.

A tsig mit zibn tsigelekh (A Goat with Seven Kids), by Leyb Kvitko. (Kharkov: Tsentralfarlag, 1928). Illustrations by A. Sudamara. (YIVO)

In 1929, Soviet Yiddish literary circles were scandalized by Kvitko’s poetic sharzhn (caricatures), particularly one that depicted Moyshe Litvakov, editor of the Moscow newspaper Der emes, as “stink-bird Moyli,” sitting unattainably high on a roof and poisoning people’s lives with his stink. Following the publication of his sharzhn in his book Gerangl (Struggle; 1929), Kvitko’s name disappeared from Di royte velt. He ended up working as an apprentice lathe operator at the Kharkov Tractor-Building Factory, an experience Kvitko later depicted in In trakter-tsekh (In the Tractor Shop; 1931).

Although many Yiddish writers, notably Dovid Hofshteyn and Perets Markish, defended him, Kvitko was ultimately saved by the leading Russian children’s writer Kornei Chukovskii, whose praise during the 1933 Kharkov Conference on Children’s Literature later helped him to become a household name: Lev Kvitko, as he became known in Russian and Ukrainian publications. From 1933, Kvitko lived in Kiev and later in Moscow, and his children’s books in Russian, Ukrainian, and other translations had print runs in the millions.

The introduction to Kvitko’s prose book Tsvey khaveyrim (Two Friends; 1933) explained: “As of 1930, L. Kviko’s poetic route became straighter . . . reflecting . . . the revolution and Soviet reality.” This story, devoted to Slavic–Jewish brotherhood—and also known as Lyam un Petrik (Lyam [a Jewish boy] and Petrik [his gentile friend])—had arguably the largest number of editions in Yiddish and other languages of any Soviet Yiddish prose work. Kvitko, unlike Chukovskii and several other Soviet children’s writers, wrote about events in the lives of ordinary people. The universal character of many of his pieces for children facilitated their translation and popularity.

From Dos ketsele (The Kitten), by Leyb Kvitko. (Odessa: Kinder farlag fun USSR, 1935). Illustrated by L. Dayts. A Yiddish children’s book with rhyming verse by Kvitko: “But a little while later, when Mother still isn’t home—ho oh, I hear, by the door, the kitten is here!” (YIVO)

Kvitko was a delegate to the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934. He was named to the Order of the Red Banner of Labor in 1939. Thus, the authorities placed him one step lower than Perets Markish, who was named to the Order of Lenin, but one step higher than Fefer and Hofshteyn, named to the Order of Honor. According to the Soviet literary historian Hersh Remenik, Kvitko’s popularity as a children’s poet unfairly eclipsed his importance as a folk poet, whose Yiddish poetry “had revealed the sadness of a world and the rise of a new world.” While non-Yiddish readers knew Kvitko only as a children’s poet, his Yiddish poetry collections continued to appear in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as posthumously.

During World War II, Kvitko was a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC). His book Gezang fun mayn gemit (Songs of My Spirit; 1947) included poems written during the war. In 1946 he replaced Markish as head of the Yiddish Writers Section at the Soviet Writers Union. He was arrested with other members of the JAC and executed on 12 August 1952.

Suggested Reading

Delphine Bechtel, “Leyb Kvitko à Hambourg: Entre politique, science-fiction et espionnage,” Le yiddish 2 (1999): 247–271; Gennady Estraikh, “The Kharkiv Yiddish Literary World, 1920s–Mid-1930s,” East European Jewish Affairs 32.2 (2002): 70–88; Hersh Remenik, Shtaplen (Moscow, 1982).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 201, Abraham Liessin, Papers, 1906-1944; RG 339, Jacob Lestschinsky, Papers, 1900-1958; RG 372, Isaac Raboy, Papers, 1926-1952; RG 436, Joseph Opatoshu, Papers, 1901-1960; RG 767, Mark Wischnitzer, Papers, 1927-1955.