“Foroys, land fun komunizm,” by Leyzer Volf, 1941. Poem by Leyzer Volf, “Foroys, land fun komunizm” (Onward, Land of Communism), 1941. From a notebook of poetry titled “Di broyne bestye: Antihitlerishe lider” (The Brown Beast: Anti-Hitler Poems). Yiddish. RG 108, Manuscripts Collection, F25.9. (YIVO)

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Volf, Leyzer

(1910–1943), Yiddish poet. Leyzer Volf (born Mekler), a founding member of the literary group Yung-Vilne, was one of the great parodists in Yiddish poetry. Beloved by local audiences for his outrageous artistic gestures, including an attempt to break the world record in poetry writing with 1,001 untitled lyrics in June 1930, he bridged popular and elite impulses within Yung-Vilne, making him the group’s first local star. Volf is best remembered for his lack of composure, his bizarre parodies of European and Yiddish writers, his dramatic sketches and grotesque portrayals that took on contemporary political and material concerns, his literary adaptation of folk materials from Vilna’s cultural fabric, and his endless fascination with himself as a poetic subject.

Volf lived in Shnipeshok (Pol., Snipiszki; Lith., Šnipiškis), a poor, working-class Vilna suburb, where he was introduced to literature and politics by his older sister, an avid consumer of Russian literature and an active Communist. Though he attended secular Yiddish schools, Volf skipped almost all classes except those on Yiddish literature. He was a nervous, sickly child who lacked self-confidence, prompting doctors to encourage him to be more social and physical. He joined Ha-Nesher (Eagle), the local Jewish soccer team, and later Bin (Bee), the Yiddishist scouting movement led by Max Weinreich, for which he composed the lyrics to a favorite scouting anthem. In 1933, Volf joined with other rebels to establish Shparber (Hawk), a scouting group dedicated to a more socialist brand of territorialism. Though he soon distanced himself from the group, he remained committed to the territorialist ideology, later joining the Frayland-lige (Free Land League). Volf earned his meager living by sewing the material for fingers on leather gloves. 

Volf’s professional debut came in December 1926, with the publication of the carefree ode to youth “Grine freyd” (Green Joy) in Poland’s most prestigious Yiddish literary weekly, Literarishe bleter. His adoption of the animated poetic personality Leyzer Volf was a deliberate exchange of the mild family name Mekler (meaning middleman or intermediary) for something more aggressive. That it was also the name of the Sholem Aleichem character who falls victim to the modernization of Jewish youth in the Tevye monologues enhanced the self-parody. Volf later published briefly under the names Bestye Kurazh (Beast of Courage) and Herts Nakht (Heart of the Night).

Throughout his career, Volf wrote about and performed his internal contradictions and fears. His memoirs about his childhood were submitted to the YIVO autobiography competition for youth in 1932. As late as 1942, shortly before his death, he wrote: “And I set off in the tracks / of Leyzer Volf, the greatest nothing / of the twentieth century. / . . . Who was he in the end? / A white cat trapped in a sack? / An onion on the moon? / Who really knew him? . . .” (Af di shpurn fun Leyzer Volf; published posthumously in Ran, ed. [1955], pp. 95–97).

Poem by Leyzer Volf, “Poemes: Nem nekome, tate” (Poems: Take Revenge, Father). 2@-6 November 1942. Yiddish. RG 108, Manuscripts Collection, F25.9. (YIVO)

Volf joined Yung-Vilne soon after its establishment in the late 1920s, appearing in the pages of the Vilner tog when the group was introduced to readers by Zalmen Reyzen in 1929. Throughout the 1930s, Volf’s work appeared frequently in the local press and in such American journals as Tsukunft and Inzikh. The humanism and leftist thinking that dominated Yung-Vilne found consistent expression in Volf, especially in the lyrics he contributed to the group’s magazine. In 1930, he composed, but never published, a verse drama, “Yidnland,” that was a parody of Zionist ambitions (“Salvation lies not in power / but in love”).

Volf’s first book, the self-published Evigingo (1936), was an exotic critique of the modern condition, composed entirely in trochaic tetrameter and printed in Latin letters. Its hero, the aged Gutamingo, travels through centuries of compressed European history in a failed search for an heir, witnessing in his travels hysterical book burnings, bloody battlefields, the German Enlightenment drunk on its own sense of cultural superiority, and quack Soviet science. That same year, Volf wrote a verse novella in which he took up the issue of rising antisemitism among Polish students, and in 1937 he began work on “Mizrekh un mayrev” (East and West), a novel intended to imagine and contrast different options for Jewish life in three places: a Soviet collective society, Zionist Palestine, and a socialist Freeland in the new world (both manuscripts remain lost).

Volf also enjoyed experimenting with comic portraiture and imitation. His lyrics about European writers and thinkers include pieces on Spinoza, Byron, Nietzsche, Goethe, Beethoven, Heine (to whom he was often compared), Pushkin, and a variety of contemporary politicians. He even wrote a new ending to Goethe’s Faust; Yoysef Opatoshu called this revision a work of “genius and insanity.” Such engagement with European high culture was meant to mask Volf’s anxieties of parochialism and to transform Yiddish into a sharp parodic tool.

At the same time, some of Volf’s most beloved creations drew inspiration from local Jewish culture or native literary sources. He took up the theme of Vilna, in part to puncture its mythical sense of collective self, through engagement with its Jewish physical landscape (“Vilner shulhoyf” [The Synagogue Courtyard]), its material poverty (“Di bulvanske moyd” [The Coarse Old Maid]), and with its famous historical personalities (“Ayzik Meyer Dik un di almone Rom” [Isaac Meyer Dik and the Widow Romm], “Montefiore in Vilne,” “Der Vilner Goen un der Besht” [The Vilna Gaon and the Ba‘al Shem Tov]). Volf also placed his energies into the marionette theater Maydim, the musical theater group Davke, and the Vilna children’s choir, adapting Kadia Molodowsky’s Marzipans into a children’s musical in 1938. That same year he took on the leadership of Yungvald (Young Forest), a group of aspiring teenage writers, including Hirsh Glik (later, the author of the well-known partisans’ hymn) who were inspired by having a leader of Yung-Vilne as their mentor. Volf met weekly with the group, helping it publish four issues of the magazine Yungvald in early 1939.

Volf retreated across the border with Soviet forces in October 1939, soon after publishing the volume Lirik un satire (Moscow, 1940). He died of starvation and illness in a small town 70 kilometers from Samarkand in 1943. A posthumous volume of anti-Fascist poems, Di broyne bestye (The Brown Beast), appeared in Moscow later that year and, in 1955, H. Leyvik published Lider, a collection of Volf’s poems; the edition contains a critical overview and bibliography by Leyzer Ran.

Suggested Reading

Shloyme Belis, “Leyzer Volf: Der mentsh, der dikhter,” in Portretn un problemen, pp. 115–136 (Warsaw, 1964); Justin Cammy, “Tsevorfene bleter: The Emergence of Yung-Vilne,” Polin 14 (2001): 170–191; Leyzer Ran, “Leyzer Volfs lebensveg,” in Lider, by Leyzer Volf (Leizer Wolf), ed. H. Leyvik, pp. 7–42 (New York, 1955); Elias Schulman, Yung Vilne, 1929–1939 (New York, 1946); Avrom Sutskever, “Leyzer Volf,” Di goldene keyt 26 (1956): 36–51.