Letter from Elkhonen Vogler to Yehoshue Grosbart, 1939. From Elkhonen Vogler in Vilna to "Sz. Wielkobroda" (Yehoshue Grosbart) in Warsaw, 3 June 1939. He's been sick but has won the Peretz Prize from the Pen Club, triumphing over his "enemies." (Note: "Wielkobroda" is a joke, a literal Polish translation of the recipient's real name, Grosbart, which means "big beard" in Yiddish.) Yiddish. RG 107, Letters Collection. (YIVO)

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Vogler, Elkhonen

(1907–1969), Yiddish poet and essayist. Elkhonen Vogler (born Rozhanski) was a symbolist poet and a leading member of the interwar Yiddish literary group Yung-Vilne. His three volumes of Yiddish verse, A bletl in vint (A Leaf in the Wind; 1935), Tsvey beriozes afn trakt (Two Birch Trees by the Highway; 1939), and Friling afn trakt (Springtime by the Highway; 1954) are hymns to the Lithuanian and Belorussian countryside.

Vogler combined a fabulist’s predilection for anthropomorphism with a modernist’s interest in symbolism and the nuances of folk idiom to produce poetic worlds that were applauded for their originality, even as they were criticized for the incomprehensibility of their metaphoric language. His romantic themes and rural settings offered a deliberate alternative to the highly politicized urban social realism that dominated Yiddish writing in Poland in the late 1930s.

Vogler was seven when his father died. His mother was forced to move her four children from their comfortable life in Vilna to a country village, where she herself died a year later. Vogler was placed in an orphanage and, when he returned to Vilna at the age of 16, he lived in dire poverty. The landscapes of his youth made a strong impression on the sensitive young man, who increasingly withdrew into himself. In the poem that introduced him as a member of Yung-Vilne in 1929, Vogler presented himself as “inhabiting a palace of my own silence.”

Vogler’s poetic beginnings owe much to the influence of Moyshe Kulbak, whose poetic cycle Raysn (1921) about the Belorussian landscape near Vilna struck Vogler as one of the few positive examples of “summer in Yiddish literature.” He adopted the pen name Vogler (“Vagabond”) with the publication of his first poem in 1925. This new persona called attention to his self-image as an orphan, to his emotional homelessness, and to the elusive, meandering quality of his verse.

The title of Vogler’s first volume, A bletl in vint, underscored the sense of someone tossed about by forces beyond his control. The book-length poem is a pastoral romance about its human speaker’s courtship and marriage to an animated plum orchard. The volume’s highly Slavicized Yiddish (including a glossary of rural Yiddish terms) and its speaker’s love for the land reflected a highly individualized possession of place: “My brother is the dirt road of Vilna / My wife, the hot Lithuanian earth.” In Vogler’s imagination, all of nature moved to Jewish rhythms: the trees and wind whispered psalms, canaries chirped the marriage blessing, and wolves howled the mourner’s prayer. But the death of the plum orchard in the volume’s final section both anticipated political realities and reflected the book’s autobiographical origins. The orchard’s death forces its lover—the poem’s speaker—to resume his lonely wandering, while the orphaned children—a bushel of fruit—are cannibalized by hungry humans.

Vogler’s second book-length poem, Tsvey beriozes afn trakt, which was awarded the Peretz Prize by the Yiddish PEN club of Warsaw, is about the false messianism of secular political culture. The character of the Young Wind—”our dream and our hope”—symbolizes the many political ideologies competing for the hearts of Jewish youth, all of which begin full of charm but are later revealed as charlatans. Into this universe of betrayal comes the innocent poet-speaker, who wanders the countryside inquiring about justice, truth, freedom, and love. Vogler’s metaphoric world ultimately presents the poet as the only figure capable of redeeming society from its illusions and cruelty.

Vogler spent World War II as a refugee in Kazakhstan. He made his way via Moscow back to Łódź in 1947 and settled permanently in Paris in 1949, where he worked as a journalist for the Yiddish press and as an essayist for such international Yiddish journals as Tsukunft and Di goldene keyt. In these latter papers, he published significant literary memoirs about Yung-Vilne and Moyshe Kulbak.

Suggested Reading

Shloyme Belis, “Bay di onheybn fun Yung-Vilne,” Di goldene keyt 101 (1980): 11–65; Sore Rozhanski, “Mayn bruder Elkhonen Vogler,” Naye prese (October–November 1970); Elias (Elye) Schulman, Yung Vilne, 1929–1939 (New York, 1946), pp. 35–39; Elias (Elye) Shulman, “Mit Elkhonen Vogler in Vilne un in Pariz,” Di goldene keyt 101 (1980): 112–121.