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Litvak, A.

(1874–1932), pseudonym of Khayim Yankl Helfand, socialist, Yiddish writer, translator, and editor. Helfand was born in Vilna to a strictly observant Jewish family. He went to heder until the age of 12 and subsequently studied at a yeshiva and taught himself Russian. At the age of 19, he joined an illegal study group in Vilna organized by the Jewish Social Democratic Group in Russia, the organization that later established the Bund in 1897.

The Jewish socialist intelligentsia in Vilna immediately recognized Helfand’s usefulness to the movement, as he was a native Yiddish speaker with a traditional Jewish background and competency in Russian. In 1895–1896, he participated in the work of the Zhargon Committee, which translated works of fiction, science, and politics into Yiddish, created workers’ libraries, and published materials in Yiddish for dissemination among Jewish workers. Along with other so-called “half intellectuals” (young recruits to the movement educated in heders rather than in Russian schools and universities), he played a major role in spreading Yiddish-language socialist publications.

Helfand was arrested and exiled to Siberia, but returned to Vilna in 1904. From 1905, he began writing under the pseudonym A. Litvak. Between 1905 and 1914, he was one of the most influential and prolific Yiddish writers for the Bund. He edited Der varshaver arbayter in 1905, organ of the Bund’s Warsaw division, and wrote regularly for the party’s legal daily press: Der veker (1905–1906), Folks-tsaytung (1906–1907), and Di hofnung (1907). As a leader of the Bund’s national wing, Litvak opposed reunification with the Russian Social Democratic Party in 1906. Between 1908 and 1910, he came out publicly against the ideology of national neutralism, and thus opposed Vladimir Medem’s position that the Bund should declare neutrality about the future of the Yiddish language, Yiddish culture, and Jewish nationality. In 1910, Litvak was elected to the Bund’s central committee.

During World War I, Litvak settled in America, where he supported the Jewish labor movement. Following the Russian Revolution, he returned to Russia and was active in the anti-Bolshevik faction of the Bund. In 1921, after the liquidation of the Bund in Soviet Russia, he moved again to Vilna. There he played an important role in the party as well as in secular Yiddish cultural institutions, including the Central Yiddish School Organization (TSYSHO) and the Kultur-lige. In 1925, he returned to America, joined the Jewish Socialist Farband (the anticommunist wing of the Jewish socialist movement), and edited its organ, Veker. In 1925, a collection of Litvak’s writings was published in Vilna as Vos geven: Etyudn un zikhroynes (What Was: Writings and Memoirs; 1925); the volume contained his celebrated essay on the Zhargon Committee, and is the most important primary source on the subject.

Suggested Reading

Mordkhe-Velvl Bernstein, “Litvak, A.,” Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, ed. Shemu’el Niger and Ya‘akov Shatski, vol. 5, pp. 83–90 (New York, 1963); Jonathan Frankel, Prophecyand Politics: Socialism, Nationalism, and the Russian Jews, 1862–1917 (Cambridge, 1981); Zalman Reyzen, ed., “Litvak, A.,” Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur, prese un filologye, vol. 2, cols. 129–135 (Vilna, 1928; rpt., Amherst, Mass., 1999).