Khumesh-lider (Bible Songs), by Itzik Manger (Warsaw: Farlag “Aleynenyu,” 1935). (YIVO)

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The dynamic development of Yiddish poetry in Eastern Europe charts a complex interplay between ideological approaches, cultural factors, and literary models profoundly influenced by historic events. For instance, each generation of Yiddish poets had at its disposal the diverse forms of the Yiddish folk song with its broad range of themes and genres: love songs with their ostensibly naive language; lullabies sung largely in a mother’s voice; children’s songs; songs about soldiers and conscripts; songs about the underworld; ballads; and songs with religious, mystical content. However, Yiddish poets differ in the extent to which they used this creative source; this is one of the keys to understanding the changes in literary sensibilities and cultural attitudes.

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

For Yiddish Haskalah poetry, the Yiddish folk song, with its apparent simplicity and naiveté, could only serve as a very limited source of inspiration. The maskilic approach relegated Yiddish primarily to those literary genres that would reach a broad readership and fulfill the mission of depicting contemporary Jewish life in a critical, realistic manner. Thus narrative prose and the comedy became the primary genres of Yiddish Haskalah literature; Yiddish poetry played a secondary role during this period.

Shloyme Ettinger was the only outstanding Yiddish Haskalah writer whose corpus featured a significant body of poetry, but even he focused mainly on the fable and epigram, genres with a clearly didactic intention. Yehudah Leib Gordon, the most important Hebrew poet of the Haskalah, published only a single slim volume in Yiddish under the telling title of Sikhes khulin (Mundane Conversation; 1886), which creates the impression that Yiddish poetry takes its strength from verbal communication, and that its form and language must evoke an everyday conversation. The Haskalah movement did not develop the lyric poem in Yiddish. It was the satirical poems of Mikhl Gordon, Velvl Zbarzher (Benjamin Wolf Ehrenkranz), and others that became popular and beloved as songs and thereby helped to disseminate maskilic values among the masses. Some of them were crafted as dramatic monologues in a humorous vein, assigned to characters whose “old-fashioned” ideas the Haskalah sought to deride. The tendency to generalize is evident in the maskilic poem: some texts seek to paint a broad canvas of contemporary Jewish society and its faults, while others depict the universal human way of life from a remote perspective that is often ironic and resigned.

In the late 1870s and 1880s the Yiddish poem in Eastern Europe entered a new phase. The operetta became the chief genre of the Yiddish theater that Avrom Goldfadn founded in 1876, and the songs performed on his stage enjoyed very wide influence. To some degree, they followed the approach of maskilic satire, but quickly became infused with a national, romantic sensibility and a folksy tone while also expressing the ideals of Ḥibat Tsiyon. Elyokem Tsunzer’s badkhonim poetry falls into a similar category. Its declamatory tone interweaves pathos with irony and humor.

Lider (Poems), by Leyb Naydus (Warsaw: Kinderfraynd, 1938). Yiddish poems published in a series of literary works for young readers. (YIVO)

The three classical writers of Yiddish literature gave primacy to prose, but poetry played a significant role in Y. L. Peretz’s work. He made his debut as a Yiddish writer with a long poem, “Monish” (1888), which should be considered as the significant beginning of modern Yiddish poetry. With a playful folksy tone employing balladic elements, the poet depicts the ironic fate of the hero whom love and sensuality lure away from the traditional Jewish world. The penchant for romantic irony that characterizes “Monish” is also apparent in Peretz’s poetry of the 1890s, and it becomes even more scathing when his poetry touches upon social themes. Sometimes the passionate tone creeps to the fore in these poems, which became especially popular in radical Jewish circles.

A concrete indication of the higher status of Yiddish literature in general, and Yiddish poetry in particular, in the 1880s is the fact that it attracted the Hebrew writer David Frishman and the Russian Jewish poet Shimen Frug. From his Russian poetry writing, Frug introduced the syllabotonic meter into Yiddish, which became the leading prosodic norm in Yiddish poetry until World War I and beyond. The nationalist theme that dominated his poetry resonated widely among Jewish readers at the turn of the twentieth century.

In the period until World War I, Avrom Reyzen was the most popular Yiddish poet. In most of his poems, the poet assumes the posture of an average person trapped in the limited confines of a world he is unable to escape. The sentimental potential of Reyzen’s poem is often checked by the terseness of his lines and the simplicity of his language, and his love poems stand out for their delicate irony. Reyzen’s poetry exudes an atmosphere of resigned pessimism, of shattered hopes and ideals. However, in spite of this, he was widely accepted in radical Jewish circles because of his depictions of the life of the poor, found throughout his poetry as well as in a small number of poems that call for social struggle.

The close association of Yiddish poetry with the ethos of popular Jewish folk life at the turn of the twentieth century is evident in the enormous popularity of Mark Varshavski’s poems, which appeared in book form under the title Yidishe folkslider mit notn (Yiddish Folk Songs with Musical Notes) in 1901. That same year marked the publication of Sha’ul Ginsburg and Peysekh Marek’s extensive collection of authentic folk songs, Yidishe folkslider in Rusland (Jewish Folk Songs in Russia). Varshavski’s poems immediately met the objection that their melodies were far removed from the folk song, and an analysis of their content would reach similar conclusions. They were, however, accepted as “folk songs” in the sense that they celebrated traditional Jewish popular life and created the impression that they represented the voice of the average folk-person.

Vokhnteg (Weekdays), by Perets Markish (Moscow, Kharkov, Minsk: Tsentrfarlag, 1931). Illustration by L. Radniev. (YIVO)

Bialik’s Yiddish poems, written between 1899 and 1915, attest to the expanded stylistic and thematic range of Yiddish poetry. Bialik was initially attracted to Yiddish poetry because he perceived it as a potential means to evoke his childhood experiences. Soon, however, he crafted a prophetic style with elevated diction in his poem “Dos letste vort” (The Last Word; 1901), a style that he brought to new heights in his own Yiddish translation of his Hebrew poem “Be-‘Ir ha-haregah,” under the title “In shkhite-shtot” (In the City of Slaughter; 1906). Bilingual Yiddish–Hebrew texts by a single author were an accepted reality in prose but not in poetry. In this sense, Bialik’s own translation was an exception that sheds light on the dominant literary norm: the significant stylistic and thematic distance that separated Yiddish from Hebrew poetry.

The multifaceted Yiddish literary output that followed the failed Russian Revolution of 1905 emerged out of a deep struggle between conflicting trends: the dream of a national-cultural revival, and concerns of a deep spiritual crisis. Peretz’s two dramatic poems, Di goldene keyt (The Golden Chain; 1907–1912) and “Bay nakht afn altn mark” (A Night in the Old Marketplace; 1907–1914) herald Yiddish poetic modernism. Di goldene keyt captures the characteristic atmosphere of a Hasidic court where the desire for the continuity of traditional yidishkayt clashes with the lure of the modern world. The focal point of the work is the dramatic monologue of the Hasidic rebbe: a vision of redemption that links Jewish and secular concepts in using an elevated poetic diction. In “Bay nakht afn altn mark,” Peretz has intertwined familiar literary and cultural motifs in a new artistic configuration whose main features are linguistic compactness, an apocalyptic atmosphere, vivid grotesque elements, and the unrealistic merging between the worlds of the living and the dead that pushes the hero to the brink of madness.

During the years before and during World War I, Yiddish poetry was characterized by a feeling of resignation and decadence concurrent with an increased sense of individuality covering a broad emotional gamut. At the center of Dovid Eynhorn’s poetry lies the sentimentalization of traditional yidishkayt as a vanishing way of life, with the emptied besmedresh as its tangible symbol. In Galicia, the development of modern Yiddish poetry began with a tendency toward neoromanticism, with Shmuel Yankev Imber as its outstanding figure. Leyb Naydus, who died young in 1918, strove to introduce a new model to Yiddish poetry: rich musicality and complex poetic forms in an atmosphere of emotional and cultural colorfulness. He also undertook many translations, in particular from Russian and French. Osher Shvartsman’s nature and love poetry are characterized by an impressionist technique and folksy tone, but by virtue of the revolutionary romanticism of his final poems written just prior to his death in 1919, he was later regarded as a forerunner of Soviet Yiddish poetry.

World War I marked the end of an era for purely biographic as well as literary reasons: Avrom Reyzen’s emigration to America, Peretz’s death (1915), and the fact that both Eynhorn and Imber’s short-lived poetic impetus was diminishing by the end of the first decade of their writing. After World War I, a productive group of Yiddish poets embarked on literary careers under radically different historic and literary circumstances.

Poem by Perets Markish, “Tsum hafn: 'Ruh,'” (To the Harbor: "Rest") n.d. "Day after day, the wandering ship caravans. . . ." Yiddish. Permission courtesy of David Markish. RG 108, Manuscripts Collection, F46.14. (YIVO. Published with permission.)

The first poetry collections by Dovid Hofshteyn, Perets Markish, and Leyb Kvitko published in 1919 mark the symbolic beginnings of a new era in Yiddish poetry. These writers did not constitute a literary group with a shared poetic credo per se, but for the first time in the development of Yiddish poetry, critics could point to a pleiad of young and promising writers rather than mere individuals. The explosive development of Yiddish literature rapidly rendered Hofshteyn’s impressionist poetry into an exemplary model due to its controlled emotionality and restrained dynamics, its compact style and melodious sound. His poetry creates simultaneously a sense of harmony between disparate elements and a heightened tension between the concrete sensuality that characterizes the world of the individual and his feeling of facing a blind and indifferent wheel of fortune. Markish, in contrast, crafts a poetic “I” that sees no boundary to its expansive emotional power. The beginnings of Kvitko’s poetic career are marked by a synthesis between a prosaic tone and poetic refinement, most striking in the representation of the gruesome Ukrainian pogroms in his book of verse, 1919 (1923).

The map of Yiddish literary creativity in general, and Yiddish poetry in particular, changed radically after World War I. In the years 1917–1920, Kiev became a dynamic center until, spurred by the difficult conditions due to the revolution and pogroms, most of its key figures left the city. Yiddish writing in the Soviet Union began to develop simultaneously in several centers: Moscow, Kiev, and Minsk. In these cities, poetry reached a position of primacy due to the work of groups of new writers, among them Shmuel Halkin, Lipe Reznik, Itsik Fefer, Izi Kharik, Arn Kushnirov, Zelik Akselrod, Ezra Fininberg, and others. Nascent Soviet Yiddish poetry developed, stemming from the tension between concrete and original imagery on the one hand and clichéd generalities on the other. It was trapped between the poets’ desires to present themselves as self-conscious participants in the surrounding social and historical process, and their yearnings to set aside a place for their own personal worlds. In these poems, a virtually univocal affirmation of the revolution coexists with ambivalent feelings vis-à-vis the crisis of the shtetl in particular, and the destruction of the traditional Jewish way of life in general.

In the beginning of the 1920s, Warsaw became the focal point of Yiddish modernism in Eastern Europe. Its most important figures were Uri Tsevi Grinberg, Markish, and Melech Ravitch, all of whom were drawn to Warsaw from different geographic regions and who brought with them varied cultural baggage. Grinberg and Ravitch came from Galicia; their poetic debut in the years before World War I was influenced by neoromanticism, which served as a dialectic point of departure for their new modernistic phase with its conspicuous elements of German expressionism. In contrast, Markish was influenced by Russian futurism. These poets engaged in frenetic literary activity: they published journals and literary almanacs that were fated to be short-lived (Khalyastre, Albatros, Di vog); they formulated provocative manifestos; and they came into close contact with a wide reading public at countless literary events.

From Meyer Shternberg in Bucharest to J. Gruder in America, 5 February 1936, asking him to arrange for the sale of his brother Yankev Shternberg's new book of poems, Shtot in profil (City in Profile), in America, and reporting that the political situation in Romania is worsening. Yiddish. Romanian and Yiddish letterhead: Di Vokh, Bucharest, with names of editorial board: M. Altman, Y. Shternberg, Dr. Sh. Bikel. RG 107, Letters Collection. (YIVO)

During this period, Łódź also grew into a hub of Yiddish modernist culture, thanks to Moyshe Broderzon’s dynamic initiatives. These brought together writers, painters, and theater people, first in Broderzon’s journal Yung-yidish (1919) and later in his theater troupes, notably Ararat (1926 and beyond). In the 1920s and 1930s, Romania—especially the city of Czernowitz (Rom., Cernăuți)—became a Yiddish literary center where significant poetic figures were active during different phases of their literary careers: among them were Itsik Manger, Eliezer Shteynbarg, Yankev Shternberg, and Yankev Fridman.

The lives of most Yiddish poets during the 1920s and 1930s were marked by peripatetic wanderings that had a concrete impact on their writing. In 1923, Grinberg relocated to Berlin and shortly thereafter immigrated to Palestine, where he almost entirely stopped writing in Yiddish. Markish left Warsaw for the Soviet Union in 1926, a decision that closed the modernist period of his writing. Moyshe Kulbak made the transition from late neoromanticism to modernism during his Berlin years (1920–1923).

After World War I, poetry became, more than prose, the locus of innovation in Yiddish literature, in particular due to the dynamic surge of modernism. Its spiritual world was marked by a complex synthesis of the Jewish spiritual heritage and leanings toward cultural cosmopolitanism and religious syncretism. The dramatic events of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Ukrainian pogroms drove Yiddish authors to shape in their writing an apocalyptic atmosphere that links elements of destruction, violence, and fear of death with ambivalent hopes for a new world order. Most of the modernist works in Yiddish poetry do not emphasize any concrete object, but depict a kaleidoscope of themes: bittersweet memories of childhood and of the traditional Jewish world; eroticism and violence; a highly charged emotional relationship with the emblem of Jesus on the cross; and an ambivalent stance on modern ideologies. This wide thematic and poetic range is particularly manifest in Markish’s poetry, which paints a broad canvas of traditional Jewish life with a sharp and at times ironic intensity alongside his expressionist poems.

The drive to express this multifaceted thematic gamut as a single poetic cluster led modernist Yiddish poets to an expansive textual form: the long poem or the poem series whose parts are not connected by any apparent principle. In Markish’s “Di kupe” (The Heap; 1921–1922), the mound of corpses that awaits burial after the pogrom is depicted as the epicenter of blasphemy and of destructive powers that vies with the established world order. Grinberg’s Mefisto (1921–1922) portrays the innermost world of the poet as an emptied void from which God has turned away and that is being ruled by cosmic evil. His second central poem, “In malkhes fun tseylem” (In the Kingdom of the Cross; 1923), marks a breakthrough in his writing and an exception to contemporary Yiddish modernism, which had declaratively avoided espousing open ideological commitments: the point of departure in Grinberg’s poem is the Jewish destruction in Europe presented in its apocalyptic dimension, but it concludes with his postulating Zionism as a portent of salvation.

The fact that Yiddish modernists stressed cultural cosmopolitanism elicited strong opposition from those writers who maintained that Yiddish literature must emphasize its Jewish character. Arn Zeitlin attempted to express this approach in his poetry and to create a synthesis between modernism and Jewish tradition through his extensive use of kabbalistic and mystical motifs. Yisroel Shtern’s poems, which remained uncollected through his lifetime, create a highly original poetic synthesis of the central tendencies of Jewish modernism: a sharply apocalyptic atmosphere and a spiritual affinity with the marginal merge with a pantheistic attitude that emphasizes elements of religiosity. In the 1930s, this tendency also found clear expression in Khayim Semyatitski’s poems: using a minimalist language, he conveys a feeling of cosmic harmony where the passage of time is presented as a revelation under the supervision of divine providence. Yankev Fridman’s first poetic attempts are characterized by a pantheistic worldview and a mystic quest.

Portrait of Avrom Reyzen from the frontispiece of Shriftn (Writings), the first volume of his Gezamelte lider (Collected Poems; Kraków: Yosef Fisher, 1908). Reyzen has inscribed the book in Yiddish to Dr. Shmul Ellisberg in New York, “a good friend, a comrade, and lover of Yiddish literature.” (YIVO)

Even during the highpoint of modernism, Yiddish poetry developed along several streams; in the second half of the 1920s and in the 1930s, it became impossible to point to any one poetic school, style, or movement that was dominant. The connection with the lives of the masses and the desire to express the creative power of spoken Yiddish is one of the most manifest tendencies in Yiddish poetry in Eastern Europe, and it was expressed through several distinct models. The wide popularity of Mordkhe Gebirtig’s songs made him a symbolic folk poet. Miryem Ulinover’s first and only book of poems, Der bobes oytser (My Grandmother’s Treasure; 1922), portrays the world of the traditional Jewish woman in a poetic language that reveals obvious traits of a stylized folksiness. Yekhiel Lerer’s long poem, Mayn heym (My Home; 1937), employs dense descriptiveness with an idyllic undertone to depict the world of the Polish Jewish shtetl in the clash between tradition and the modern world. Shteynbarg’s Mesholim (Fables), which appeared posthumously in book form (1932), represents a unique phenomenon in contemporary Yiddish poetry: his strivings to lend a more Jewish character to the international motifs and topics of the fable helped make the richness and idiomatic features of Yiddish along with its traditional sources into the most distinguished feature of his poetic style.

Another aspect of the closeness of East European Yiddish poetry to the life of the folk lies in the ample room it grants to motifs of village life intimately connected with nature. This particular subject matter permitted the shaping of a poetic Yiddish diction that approximated spoken Yiddish, with a noticeable proportion of Slavicisms coupled with an intense vividness. Kulbak’s poem Raysn ([Jewish] Belorussia; 1922) demonstrates how important a role this subject played for the poets who interwove neoromanticism and modernism in their writing. Rokhl Korn’s books of poems, Dorf (Village; 1928) and Royter mon (Red Poppies; 1937), present daily village life as a difficult prosaic struggle with deeply conflicting dimensions.

Manger was the central figure in the interwar period among those who sought to place a stylized and refined folksiness at the heart of their poetry: his writing links neoromantic and modernist influences and his lyric songs, ballads, and sonnets introduce Hasidic motifs alongside Christian ones. The idiomatic language of his ballads along with their connection to the world of Yiddish folklore create an intimate atmosphere for the Yiddish reader, but their characters move in a nonrealistic demonic world of nightmares, terror, and madness. His Khumesh-lider (Bible Poems; 1935) and Megile-lider ([Purim] Megillah Poems; 1936) evince an altogether different character: these works place their biblical heroes in the background of an East European landscape and transform them into folksy types.

During the second half of the 1920s, Yiddish critics began to regard Yiddish women’s poetry as a distinct corpus with shared features. Awareness of this corpus was prompted by Kadia Molodowsky’s first volume of verse, Kheshvndike nekht (Nights of Heshvan; 1927): one of its most vivid series of poems, “Froyenlider,” creates the impression that the emotional world of the Jewish woman and her struggle with tradition and the modern world lie at the core of Molodowsky’s writing. However, from its beginnings and in particular in the 1930s, Molodowsky’s poems depict a broad range of motifs. The same holds true for the other female poets who lack obvious common ground. Dvora Vogel’s poems stand out in their striving to avoid open emotionality; they highlight the relationship between poetry and art in general, and painting in particular. Reyzl Zhikhlinski’s minimalist modernism borrows its motifs from the prosaic everyday, but she also tackles portraying episodes from the biblical topics using the same poetic technique.

The urban motif is one of the markers that link Molodowsky’s and Vogel’s poetry with that of their contemporaries. In portraying the human panorama of the big city in its moments of loneliness and hardship, a group of young poets in Poland sought to connect their personal lyricism with their political engagement and social protest. Some of these poets identified with the radical left camp, including Borukh Olitski, Binem Heller, Yoysef Kirman, Moyshe Knapheys, and Ber Shnaper. Vogel’s picturesque technique, in contrast, aims to portray the urban theme in a modernist context that emphasizes moments of static and anonymous alienation.

Cover of In shotn (In Shadow), a book of poetry by Ben-A. Sochachewsky (Warsaw: A. Gitlin, 1923), cover illustration by Moshe Apelboym. RG 409 Jehiel Meir Ben-Abraham Sochachewsky Papers. (YIVO)

The depiction of the big-city panorama indeed offered the Yiddish poets wide creative possibilities. Moyshe Kulbak’s poem Disner Tshayld-Harold (Childe Harold from Disna [a town now in Belarus]; 1933), written in Soviet Minsk, brings to life the full cultural spectrum of Berlin during the Weimar era as refracted through the eyes of a young member of the Jewish intelligentsia who has come to the big city to broaden his intellectual horizons. The poetry from Yankev Shternberg’s Romanian period, collected in his book Shtot in profil (City in Profile; 1935), stands out in the colorfulness of its spiritual landscape and the richness of its literary and cultural associations. Shternberg’s poetic horizons span the traditional world of the shtetl through the urban landscape as evoked by the unique atmosphere of Bucharest, a city on the margins of the Jewish map. It is this segment of his poetic world that reveals Shternberg’s virtuosity in its interplay of lyric and grotesque elements.

The interwar period also marked the rapid development of Yiddish children’s poetry, a significant branch of children’s literature that was closely associated with the modern Yiddish school. Y. L. Peretz laid the foundation for this genre and devoted the final years of his life to writing poetry for small children. Der Nister’s children’s poems highlight elements of the fantastic and evoke motifs of Yiddish folklore. Molodowsky’s children’s poetry, penned in interwar Poland, blends the fantastic with a clear social message. Yiddish children’s poetry achieved great stature in the Soviet Union, and Kvitko gained wide renown thanks to his translations into Russian and other languages.

In the 1930s and beyond, historic circumstances left their stamp on Yiddish poetry in Eastern Europe, as evidenced first and foremost in the Soviet Union. Many books of Yiddish verse published in the Soviet Union are filled with flat, propagandistic poetry. Personal lyric poetry generally portrays poets in full command of their thoughts and feelings, with a self-conscious awareness of their vocation. The drive to attain intellectual equanimity is also evident in Halkin’s love poems, collected in his book Erdishe vegn (Earthly Roads; 1945).

Soviet Yiddish poetry devoted itself largely to the long poem, written mostly against the background of the revolution or contemporary themes, including Jewish colonization or the building projects in the Soviet Union. Within the confines of this genre, poets such as Markish, Fefer, and Kharik were forced to meet specific requirements: they had to place positive characters who embodied Soviet Communist values at the center of their works. In many cases, the background that depicts the shtetl way of life is artistically much more successful than the portrayal of “positive” characters. Translations of nineteenth-century Russian literature or of world literature often served as a creative refuge for Soviet Yiddish poets such as Hofshteyn, Halkin, and others. These translations met the Soviet requirement that poets demonstrate constant productivity and also introduced major works from world literature to Yiddish.

Rokhl Korn, ca. 1930s. (YIVO)

The most visible group of writers to appear on the Yiddish literary scene in Poland in the 1930s was Yung-Vilne. Its participants, mostly poets, espoused diverse literary models. Chaim Grade’s poetry interweaves autobiographic elements with a sharply apocalyptic tone. The spiritual break with Jewish tradition plays a pivotal role in the first stage of his writing and forms the focal point of his long poem Musernikes (Musarists; 1939). Leyzer Volf’s poems seek to shape motifs of the grotesque fantastic filtered through refined irony and an ostensibly light folksiness. The neoromantic concept of nature and an aestheticized approach to the character of poetry itself lie at the foundations of Avrom Sutzkever’s early poems, especially in his autobiographical poem “Shtern in shney: Sibirer poeme” (Stars in Snow: Siberia Poem; later reworked under the title Sibir [Siberia]) and in his second book of poetry, which appeared on the eve of the Holocaust, Valdiks (Of the Forest; 1940).

Many writers trapped in the grip of Nazi occupation in Poland and Lithuania continued to write under extreme circumstances, in the ghettos and even in the camps. In the Warsaw ghetto and in the camps, Yitsḥak Katzenelson (who also wrote in Hebrew) primarily composed dramatic long poems in Yiddish that evoke the beginnings of modern Yiddish poetry in their direct communicativeness. His last Yiddish work, Dos lid fun oysgehargetn yidishn folk (The Poem about the Murdered Jewish People), blends a lamentation for the Jewish life of yore with a first-person account of the horrors of mass murder, and a call for revenge. A range of diverse elements are at work in Sutzkever’s poetry penned in the Vilna ghetto and in the woods: an intimate modernist confessional poem; an epic portrayal of Jewish fate in the Holocaust era; and an elevated poetic diction that calls for spiritual and physical resistance. These widely varied rhetorical modes express one central motif: the struggle of the poet face-to-face with death.

At the onset of the World War II, a significant number of Yiddish writers joined the wave of refugees who fled to the Soviet Union, and they had to conform to the norms of Soviet Yiddish literature in whatever writing they managed. During the years of the German–Russian war (1941–1945), Soviet cultural politics were more liberal, and this permitted the Yiddish poets extensive expression of national sentiments. However, their charged language, imbued as it was with pathos, was a stumbling block to their efforts to depict the exceptional horror of the Holocaust, a problem that is acutely manifested in Markish’s sweeping epic poem Milkhome (War; 1948). The end of the war marked the termination of the political policy that had permitted relative artistic freedom. The liquidation of the final vestiges of official Jewish culture in the Soviet Union at the end of 1948 sealed the fate of Yiddish poetry in that country.

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

After liberation, Poland briefly served as a center for rescued Yiddish writers, but most of them permanently left their East European homelands in the second half of the 1940s: Grade, Reyzl Zhikhlinski, Sutzkever, Korn, and others. During the years of the Soviet Union’s imposed prohibition of the Yiddish printed word, Yiddish poetic creativity nonetheless continued. Halkin’s poems, written both in a Soviet penal camp and after his liberation, stand out for their intellectual rigor. At their center lies a striving for harmony between opposing spiritual inclinations.

The founding of the journal Sovetish heymland (1961) presented Yiddish writers in the Soviet Union with new possibilities for publication. The poetry that filled the journal’s pages strives to be communicative and cultivates a simple and easily comprehensible language with a tendency toward an ostensibly stylized folksy tone. Soviet Yiddish poetry from the 1960s and 1970s derives its material from the emotional and intellectual mundane and exhibits a tendency towards clichéd optimism. It avoids profound depictions of the exceptional experiences that might set poets apart from ordinary surroundings.

The combined factors of waves of emigration from Poland, the immigration to Israel of a large number of renowned Soviet Yiddish writers in the 1970s and beyond, and the collective aging process all served to reduce the remnants of Yiddish poetic creation in Eastern Europe. In the 1980s and 1990s, only a few individual Yiddish poetic voices were left attempting to maintain the tradition of Yiddish literature in Eastern Europe.

Suggested Reading

Justin D. Cammy, “Tsevorfene bleter: The Emergence of Yung Vilne,” Polin 14 (2001): 170–191; Irving Howe, Ruth R. Wisse, and Chone Shmeruk, eds., “Introduction,” in The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse, pp. 1–50 (New York, 1987); Benjamin Hrushovski, “On Free Rhythms in Modern Yiddish Poetry,” in The Field of Yiddish, ed. Uriel Weinreich, pp. 219–266 (New York, 1954); Avraham Novershtern, “Yung Vilne: The Political Dimension of Literature,” in The Jews of Poland between Two World Wars, ed. Yisrael Gutman, Ezra Mendelsohn, Jehuda Reinharz, and Chone Shmeruk, pp. 383–398 (Hanover, N.H., 1989); Avraham Novershtern, Kesem ha-dimdumim: Apokalipsah u-meshiḥiyut be-sifrut yidish (Jerusalem, 2002/03); David Shneer, Yiddish and the Creation of Soviet Jewish Culture, 1918–1930 (Cambridge, 2004), pp. 179–213; Seth Wolitz, “Between Folk and Freedom: The Failure of the Yiddish Modernist Movement in Poland,” Yiddish 8.1 (1991): 25–51.



Translated from Yiddish by Rebecca Margolis