In the 1930s, Poetry Was Essential in Fighting Fascism
A group of Communist Party–aligned Yiddish poets in the 1930s sought to bridge national and cultural divides through language. Their poetry remains a milestone of internationalism in the arts.
- Interview by
- Benjamin Schacht
Seventy years ago — on August 12, 1952 — Soviet authorities executed a group of thirteen Jewish writers and intellectuals, among them the poets Peretz Markish and Dovid Hofshteyn. Known as the “Night of the Murdered Poets,” the event is infamous not only for its contribution to Stalin’s bloody legacy but also because many of the executed had been enthusiastic communists and leading opponents of fascism during World War II, helping the Soviet Union prevail against Nazi Germany.
In her book Songs in Dark Times: Yiddish Poetry from Scottsboro to Palestine, Amelia Glaser tells the story of Communist Party–aligned Jewish poets in the decades prior to that dark episode. Focusing on these poets’ avowed commitment to proletarian internationalism, Glaser shows how they used poetry, Jewish history, and the Yiddish language to promote solidarity among groups in different parts of the world struggling against oppression.
For insights into the internationalist poetry and politics of these left-wing Yiddish writers and their continuing relevance to current events, Jacobin interviewed Glaser.
Your book focuses on Communist Party–aligned Yiddish poets during the 1930s. What led you to this topic, and how do you define the boundaries of the “long 1930s”?
I wanted to write a book about how the theme of “the Other” became important in the 1930s. I was fascinated by these Yiddish writers who, in the ’30s, stopped writing about Jewish things and started to write about other peoples, other groups — Ukrainians, African Americans, Spanish Republicans. They did this in very similar ways to how people had written about Jewish things a decade earlier.
The period that I consider is roughly 1927–1943, because 1927 is when you begin to see the momentum toward the Third Period in the Communist International, which became official policy a year later. A variety of things changed in the party in the late 1920s. First, this period is seen as the beginning of high Stalinism — when Joseph Stalin essentially declared that you’re either with us or against us. But this is also a moment when colonized peoples, including agrarian peoples, came to be considered workers. That opened a whole new discussion about the way power worked in the world.
I started the book on the eve of the 1930s because it was a complicated time, and I think it’s important to talk about polarizing moments. It was important to me not to whitewash the terrible things about this time. Some poets left the party, and others stayed longer because they saw it as the most powerful force fighting fascism. I wanted to understand what these poets were trying to do politically and poetically as the 1930s unfolded.
I end the book in 1943, which is the end of the Communist International. Stalin never really liked the Comintern because he was more interested in building socialism in one country, and that’s the year that he dissolved the organization.
In your chapter on Yiddish poetry about the Spanish Civil War, you quote the literary scholar Cary Nelson, who says, “Just how quickly poetry took a significant place in the war remains startling even today.” Why does poetry become so important to left-wing political movements in general, and to Yiddish-oriented leftists in particular? What accounts for the cultural and political currency of poetry during the period you write about?
Poetry is a genre that people turn to when emotions are heightened. Also, it’s fast. You’re not going to sit down and write a novel about the war while you’re in it, because it’s just not going to be done in time. If you want to effect change, you need to write quickly. And poetry is a declarative genre. It’s often written in the first person. It’s not usually dialogic. It’s not “there’s this, but what about this?” There were novels written in Yiddish as well, but those were not of the moment in quite the same way.
There is also the issue of the politics around literature. The Soviet Union took literature very seriously. There was an effort to translate a large canon of literature into Russian as well as into other languages of the Soviet peoples. Poets who aligned themselves with the party had an opportunity to publish their work and to be paid for it. So writers in the Soviet Union played a key social role, and they could often support themselves on their writing.
Outside the USSR, poets usually held multiple jobs, but the left-wing press valued literature in America. For example, the editors of the communist daily Frayhayt (which received funding from the Comintern and had, at its height, a circulation of over twenty thousand) included a poetry page, which helped to promote poetry in the Yiddish-speaking world. The Frayhayt was the central Yiddish-language organ of the Communist Party in the United States.
But this was a period in which much poetry was being written in many different languages. The Harlem Renaissance was taking place at the same time, and some of those poets had very similar politics to the Yiddish poets I examine.
Picking up on what you said earlier about Jewish writers turning to write about the Other — two of the central concepts of the analysis that you perform throughout the book, which are related to the question of how these poets see the Other, are passwords and the translocating of culture. Could you describe those concepts? How are they connected to the internationalist politics of the poets you write about?
Translocation is the term I coined for the transference of a poetic idea from one person’s context to another person’s.
I wrote my PhD dissertation about the nineteenth-century interactions between Ukrainian, Russian, and Yiddish writers in the Pale of Settlement. At the same time, I was working as a literary translator, and was compiling a collection of American Yiddish leftist poems. This was when I first noticed that a lot of the proletarian poems written in Yiddish were actually not about Jews at all. They were about other groups, and I found that fascinating.
It was very striking to me that many of the Yiddish poems written before the 1930s were about pogroms — anti-Jewish grassroots incidents of violence. This of course makes sense, given the waves of pogroms at the turn of the twentieth century.
There was a major wave of pogroms in the early 1880s, immediately following the assassination of Alexander II. There were more pogroms, in the early 1900s, throughout the Pale of Settlement, the most famous being the pogrom in Kishinev of 1903, which killed over forty people. This number was horrific, but it paled in comparison to the numbers lost during the pogroms that accompanied the Russo-Polish War of 1918–1920.
But beginning in the 1920s, and increasingly in the 1930s, you begin to see the focus shift, and Yiddish poets (occasionally the very same poets who had described pogroms earlier) begin looking to the violence committed against other ethnic groups. The poems that struck me the most were the poems about lynchings. The lynching theme was really the impetus for this book. These Yiddish poets were taking the model of the pogrom poem and using it to write poems about lynchings. Often, as in the case of Beresh Vaynshteyn, we find poems about lynchings and pogroms that are almost identical. Vaynshteyn wrote a poem in 1933 that’s about a pogrom in Berlin, and he basically rewrote it in 1936 to be about a lynching. If you read these poems together, you will see that he uses the same images, and a lot of the same words. This rewriting of Jewish poems as poems about other groups is what I termed translocation.
But to help to explain the process of translocation, I used the concept of the password. Once I had written chapters about the Yiddish poems of Scottsboro, Sacco and Vanzetti, Chinese workers, and Spain, I suddenly realized, “Oh, there are passwords that are allowing them to do that.” The password is a word or phrase that lets people into a formerly closed place. These poets were assigning Jewish terms from liturgy or from earlier Jewish poetry to non-Jewish suffering. By doing so, they were letting other groups into the fold, at least poetically.
I’ll give you the first example from my book. When H. Leivick writes about Sacco and Vanzetti’s death, he is writing for an American Yiddish readership. Leivick writes that it’s “the same death from kateyger to kateyger.” A kateyger is a Yiddish term for a prosecuting angel, which comes from the term for prosecutor in the Talmud, via Hebrew and Greek. The word has been used in Yiddish literature as an accusing force, almost a kind of devil’s advocate, but it’s a very Jewish concept for the devil’s advocate — the one who says, “What if I push against you, what if I try to argue against the right thing to do?” Leivick uses this term kateyger, and I see his use of the term as a way of bringing the executed Italian anarchists into the Jewish fold. It’s a way of expanding the concept of “us” to include non-Jews, usually members of ethnic minorities or persecuted groups, as part of a common struggle.
Several of the poets you write about, Peretz Markish and Dovid Hofshteyn, for example, were executed by Stalin in 1952 as part of the infamous “Night of the Murdered Poets.” I know this takes us a little outside of the period you focus on, but could you explain what this episode was all about? Why did Yiddish poets and writers become the objects of Stalin’s murderous paranoia and repression?
On August 12, 1952, several of the most prominent Soviet Jewish cultural figures who had been members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were shot in the courtyard of the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. They had been arrested a few years earlier. This was a dark episode in Stalin’s protracted purge of writers and intellectuals he didn’t trust.
Ironically, many of the same Yiddish writers had been very useful to the Stalinist government from the period of the Popular Front to the end of World War II. They had been useful in promoting the fight against Adolph Hitler, all the more so for being Jewish. After the war, however, Yiddish was not useful anymore, and even presented a potential threat. This was part of a general, mounting paranoia about opposition. When news got out about what had happened, most of the Yiddish writers outside the USSR who had not already broken ties with the party did so.
Ukraine plays a significant role in your book. In your first chapter, you write about Crimea as a potential site for a kind of Soviet Jewish utopia, what ultimately becomes Birobidzhan in Russia’s far east. Later, you have a chapter devoted to Dovid Hofshteyn’s Yiddish translations of the nineteenth-century Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. Why did you include this?
The history of Ukrainian-Jewish relations is complicated, and there have been episodes where Jews and Ukrainians have found themselves on opposite sides of conflicts. But there have also been important moments of unity between the two groups. Most of my previous scholarship examined Jewish-Ukrainian-Russian literary relations, so I had a lot to say about this relationship.
What the poets I examine help us to remember is that there were significant moments of solidarity between Jews and Ukrainians (among other groups), including during the Soviet period. When he felt that Jewish culture might be disappearing in the years of high Stalinism, Dovid Hofshteyn turned to the Ukrainian writer Taras Shevchenko for inspiration. It was Shevchenko who had spoken out in the nineteenth century against the suppression of Ukrainian culture under the tsars.
Both groups — Ukrainians and Jews — were large minorities under the tsars, and even in the Soviet Union. And both groups were a source of anxiety among rulers who saw them as potentially spreading the seeds of rebellion. Moreover, the simple fact that a large part of the Pale of Settlement included the territory of Ukraine means that these groups have coexisted for centuries. So it is not at all surprising that many Jews in Ukraine would consider themselves Ukrainian patriots.