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Lenski, Ḥayim

(1905–1942?), Hebrew poet and translator. Ḥayim Lenski’s parents divorced when he was an infant, and though he had been born in Slonim, he was raised by his paternal grandfather in a nearby village. During his youth he was an avid reader of Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, and German literature. Lenski wrote his first poem—rhyming verses about the fall of the tsar—at age 12. At 16, he moved to Vilna and studied at a teachers’ seminary. There, he and a friend published Leket (Anthology; 1922?), which included his first collection of poems.

In 1923, Lenski left the seminary and joined his father in Baku. Their relationship foundered, however, and in 1925 Lenski moved to Leningrad, where he worked in a factory. He rapidly became the central figure among the local Hebrew writers. He married in 1929, and that same year his only daughter was born. In 1932, he began to correspond with Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, who encouraged him to continue writing and arranged for Lenski’s pieces, with those of other Soviet Hebrew writers, to appear in journals and literary supplements in Palestine.

In 1934, Lenski was arrested, tried, and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment with hard labor for the crime of writing in Hebrew. He continued to write while serving time in a Siberian labor camp. Upon his release in 1939, he lived alternately in Moscow and Leningrad. That same year, an anthology of his poetry (Shire Ḥayim Lenski) was issued in Palestine. His remaining years were marked by hardship (his family came apart, and he struggled to eke out a living); he also rediscovered religion and became observant. Lenski was last heard of in 1942 in a camp in Kansk, Siberia, where he apparently died. His poems and translations were gradually smuggled out of the Soviet Union to Palestine, leading to a series of books that were published posthumously, the most recent in 1986.

Lenski’s poetry may be divided among four categories: lyrical poems (the majority of his works); autobiographical and satirical poems; Hebrew translations of epics; and verse dramas (copies of which are apparently lost). Abraham Kariv, who published Lenski’s poems, classifies them into three groups: “native poems,” which are rooted in the emotional and physical landscapes of the poet’s birthplace and are exemplified by the masterpiece Lita’ (Lithuania; 1934); Leningrad poems, imbued with the experiences and impressions of this city, of which the outstanding examples are the Sonetot Petropolis (Petropolis Sonnets) and the satirical poem “Delator” (Informer); and poems written in prison and exile in the 1930s, including “Be-Yom sheleg” (On a Snowy Day), “Ma‘aseh be-‘agur” (The Tale of a Crane), and “Be-Delet ha-kele’” (In the Prison Gate).

Lenski’s style is marked by simplicity and grace peppered with unexpected humor. On the one hand his voice is reminiscent of folk poetry, and on the other, of a technique used in the epigram: setting up a certain expectation and then producing a surprising outcome. Other features of Lenski’s poetics include weaving expressive tones (see especially “Lelot lilakh” [Lilac Nights; 1930]) and nurturing a single dominant image or interweaving a cluster of images around a central axis. These images frequently derive from a Jewish milieu and at the same time summon up autobiographical nuances. This formula is particularly found in Lenski’s nature poems.

In Lenski’s best poems, one detects undertones and strains of contemporary Russian poetry, particularly from Osip Mandel’shtam (in the Sonetot Petropolis and poems written in exile) and Anna Akhmatova. Most striking are the parallels between Pushkin and Lenski. A clear example of this latter influence is seen in “Delator,” a brilliant satirical adaptation of Pushkin’s “Mednyvsadnik” (Bronze Horseman). He was also inspired by the mocking tones of Heine.

Lenski attained his literary heights with two major Hebrew translations from Russian: Sefer ha-tundra (The Book of the Tundra; 1930s), an adaptation of the Siberian epic of the Mansi (Vogul) nation, Yangal Ma’ah; and his translation of Mikhail Lermontov’s poem “Mtsiri.” In Sefer ha-tundra, Lenski confirms his place as one of the most talented successors to Sha’ul Tchernichowsky in the field of poetic translations. Of the Hebrew writers who worked in Soviet Russia, Lenski was by far the most gifted.

Suggested Reading

Chaim Lensky, Shire Ḥayim Lenski, ed. Abraham Kariv (Tel Aviv, 1939); Chaim Lensky, Yalkut shirim (Tel Aviv, 1973); Chaim Lensky, Me-‘Ever Nehar ha-Lete (Tel Aviv, 1986).



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler