Yung-Vilne (1934), issue no. 1. (YIVO)

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(Young Vilna) was a dynamic Yiddish literary group of writers, poets, and artists who came of age creatively in Vilna in the 1930s. The group was officially established on 11 October 1929 by Zalmen Reyzen, editor of the Vilner tog, under the headline “Young Vilna Marches into Yiddish Literature,” although a number of aspiring writers and artists had already begun gathering informally a few years earlier.

The group’s principal members during its period of greatest productivity included poets Chaim Grade, Shimshon Kahan, Perets Miranski, Avrom Sutzkever, Elkhonen Vogler, and Leyzer Volf; prose writers Shmerke Kaczerginski (also the group’s organizer) and Moyshe Levin; and artists Bentsye Mikhtom, Rokhl Sutzkever, and Sheyne Efron. In 1939, Yung-Vilne mentored an even younger constellation of writers (including Hirsh Glik, who composed the partisan hymn during the Nazi occupation) under the banner Yungvald. After the Holocaust, Yiddish bibliographer Leyzer Ran compiled a list of dozens of additional writers, artists, critics, and intellectuals who had been associated with the Yung-Vilne generation.

Poem by Leyzer Volf, “Van de Goog af Ukrayne” (Van de Goog [a Dutch name] in Ukraine). Note: "Last poem of Leyzer Wolf, given to us on 9 November 1942, Shakhrizabs, Uzbekistan." Yiddish. RG 108, Manuscripts Collection, F25.9. (YIVO)

Unlike the Yiddish avant-garde groups emerging in the immediate aftermath of World War I that strove to revolutionize Yiddish literature by aligning it with modernism and political radicalism, Yung-Vilne was more a constellation of independent artists united by generation (almost all came from the city’s working class), place, and a leftist, humanistic orientation. The group did not produce an artistic manifesto. Each of its members excelled at a different genre of writing or a different theme. Its productions included Volf’s parodies of European and Yiddish literature, Grade’s prophetic voice and explorations of the tension between the traditional world of Torah study and secular culture, Sutzkever’s neoclassical modernism and joyful poems about nature, Miranski’s fables, Vogler’s pastoral symbolism, Kahan’s earthy lyrics of the peasantry, Kaczerginski’s proletarian reportage, and Levin’s naturalism. The group’s visual artists, especially Mikhtom, developed a local iconography influenced by Vilna’s human and physical realities. The city’s Yiddish-speaking intellectuals and writers encouraged the development of Yung-Vilne at various stages in its members’ development, whether early on through the example of poet Moyshe Kulbak, who taught some of them in the city’s secular Yiddish schools; the encouragement of Zalmen Reyzen, who published their works in his daily paper; or the leadership of YIVO director Max Weinreich, who led a Yiddishist scouting movement called Bin (Bee) in the early 1930s that promoted cultural and linguistic pride of place.

Between 1929 and the Nazi occupation of Vilna in 1941, the group published three issues of its own little magazine, Yung-Vilne (1934–1936), joined with groups of fellow Yiddish writers to publish the miscellanies Naye bleter (1939), Untervegs (1940), and Bleter 1940, and actively contributed to the political, cultural, and literary life of the city and its communities. Its members published regularly in both the local Yiddish press and anthologies and in such leading international Yiddish journals as Tsukunft and Inzikh. Of the dozen new volumes of prose and poetry published by individual members in this period, Grade’s Yo (Yes) and Musernikes (Musar Students), Sutzkever’s Lider (Poems) and Valdiks (Woodlore), and Volf’s posthumously collected Lider stand out for their poetic originality.

During the Nazi occupation of Vilna, Kaczerginski and Sutzkever worked with the partisan underground in the ghetto, rescuing hundreds of the city’s most valuable literary treasures through their secret work as members of what came to be known as the Paper Brigade. An evening dedicated to Yung-Vilne was one example of the ways in which the group contributed to cultural resistance in the ghetto. Sutzkever’s writings from this period are among the most important poetic interpretations of the destruction of European Jewry available in Yiddish, while Grade’s postwar fiction recreates the lost world of Vilna Jewry. The decimation of the group during the Holocaust and the international dispersion of its surviving writers (Grade to New York, Miranski to Montreal, Kaczerginski to Buenos Aires, Sutzkever to Tel Aviv, Vogler to Paris) effectively put an end to its collective activities, even if the idea of Yung-Vilne was kept alive in the Yiddish cultural imagination by such publications as Leyzer Ran’s Finf un tsvantsik yor “Yung Vilne” (Twenty-Five Years of Young Vilna; 1955) and a special issue of Di goldene keyt (1980) devoted to the group.

Suggested Reading

Justin Cammy, “Tsevorfene bleter: The Emergence of Yung-Vilne,” Polin 14 (2001): 170–191; Justin Cammy, “The Politics of Home, the Culture of Place: The ‘Yung Vilne’ Miscellany of Literature and Art (1934–1936),” in Jüdische Kultur(en) im Neuen Europa: Wilna, 1918–1939, ed. Marina Dmitrieva and Heidemarie Petersen, 117–133 (Wiesbaden, Ger., 2004); Sol Liptzin, “Young Vilna,” in A History of Yiddish Literature, pp. 410–425 (Middle Village, N.Y., 1985); Avraham Nowersztern, “Yung Vilne: The Political Dimension of Literature,” in The Jews of Poland between Two World Wars, ed. Yisrael Gutman, Khone Shmeruk, Ezra Mendelsohn, and Jehuda Reinharz, pp. 383–398 (Hanover, N.H., 1989); Elias Schulman, Yung Vilne, 1929–1939 (New York, 1946).