‘Songs in Dark Times’: Yiddish poets engage mid-20th century crises and traumas
The Scottsboro Nine with two visitors, Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Laura Kellum / Ernest W. Taggart, 1936, National Portrait Gallery (Creative Commons)

If you belonged to a tribe of people who had been enslaved, expelled from homelands, your villages ransacked in waves of murderous, drunken raids, your womenfolk raped, your faithful burned at the stake, your millions of men, women, and children incinerated in ovens, you might start to feel especially chosen to suffer a life of trauma imbedded in your very DNA. Words like “pogrom,” “Inquisition,” “slavery” and “holocaust” would summon up vast centuries of unending communal tragedy. You might even begin thinking no one people practically since the onset of recorded history, ever had it that bad.

This morbid experience contributed to what some historians have called the “lachrymose” version of the past, the tendency to highlight all the crimes and dispossessions committed against your people without considering what faults you also might have carried nor, more important, what successes, achievements, and genius your culture managed to create despite it all.

Yiddish writers in the mid-20th century were caught in the maw of an ancient dialectic that actually goes back as far as the Jewish people goes: How to be a nation with its own particularistic character while living amidst a universe of human beings with their own various particularities as well as universal needs for food, shelter, and community?

What do we even mean when we use a simple word like “we?” We Jews? We survivors? We anti-fascists? We people of social conscience? We humans?

And was it even so that the Jews always had it worse than anyone else? As these Yiddish poets came into contact with the rest of the world—the Asian masses, the Indigenous peoples, the descendants of Africans brought to the New World in chains, the proletarians and rural workers of modern industry—could they withhold their sympathies, their humanity, in the face of all the woes of the world? For those billions too, words like “pogrom,” “Inquisition,” “slavery” and “holocaust” held their own and equally tragic resonances.

In her new, deeply probing study Songs in Dark Times: Yiddish Poetry of Struggle from Scottsboro to Palestine, scholar Amelia M. Glaser places a magnifying glass over the work of those Jewish poets, most of them on the left politically, who during the “long 1930s”—dating from the late 1920s to the onset of World War II—drew upon their own collective trauma to reach out, empathize, and raise consciousness about the sufferings of other marginalized nations.

She shows how certain Jewish “passwords” are employed to relate the particular experience to the lot of others, and in turn, how Yiddish poets also incorporated terms and concepts from the wider world into their own outlook. A good example of the latter is the commonly recalled expression “No pasarán!” from the Spanish Civil War, its use instantly signifying an awareness, a stance, and a commitment. In short, the overarching themes of class struggle and national liberation are elevated into the first rank of importance, subsumed under which are the more particular, deparochialized concerns of what today we would call “interest groups.”

Glaser focuses her work on a few critical episodes that highlighted the role conscious 20th-century Jews should be playing in the world, and how the ideological wars of the period played out in verse. Poets in almost every society have the gift—and the responsibility—of encapsulating in a minimum of syllables what broad swaths of the population are thinking and feeling. So it is not merely an esthetic exercise to examine how ideas were expressed in poetic form. It’s revealing to note that an earlier monograph by Glaser (with David Weintraub) was the 2005 Proletpen: America’s Rebel Yiddish Poets, which seriously discussed and anthologized the Communist agitational writers of the extremely tendentious “Third Period,” when not just the bosses but even sincere and honest socialists were excoriated with red rage.

Her understanding of what draws writers—and people in general—toward political movements is warm and nonjudgmental. It is certainly no accident that of all the writers she analyzes, she singles out the poet Aaron Kurtz (1891-1964), who identified with the Communist Party for the longest uninterrupted time, as the very first words of her Preface and again in the very last paragraph of her Afterword. “[O]ne of the last believers in the age of internationalism,” she concludes the book, Kurtz “maintained his faith that suffering was not to be guarded within an isolated national community; it was to be translated.” (Kurtz was married, incidentally, to another poet whose name is well known in American literary circles, the Trinidad-born Olga Cabral.)

A cartoon by artist William Gropper in Morgn Frayhayt, Sept. 1, 1929 (credit: Craig Gropper, reprinted on p. 80 in ’Songs in Dark Times’). The horseman is British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, and the caption reads: “He brings calm and order to Palestine,” a clear indictment of British imperialist rule.

In six meticulously researched and footnoted chapters, Glaser lifts up the work of Yiddish poets grappling with the issues of their day. The first is “From the Yangtze to the Black Sea: Esther Shumiatcher’s Travels,” in which we meet a young American woman who married a well-known Yiddish playwright, Peretz Hirschbein (1880-1948), his literary acclaim allowing the couple to travel widely. Their sojourns in China in the late 1920s—when the Comintern was actively (and successfully) helping to establish and support the Communist Party of China—and soon after in Soviet Crimea, produced a body of work from Shumiatcher (1896-1985) that is at once feminist, propagandistically Communist, and an example of unconscious, exoticizing Western “Orientalism” that attempted to place the Jewish people itself in the orbit of “Asiatic” nations.

In “Angry Winds: Jewish Leftists and the Challenge of Palestine,” Glaser shows how ethnic and internationalist priorities caused a rift among the Yiddish poets. A wave of violence in Palestine in 1929 summoned up, for some, the same pogroms against Jews from which hundreds of thousands fled Russia. But that was not the Comintern’s interpretation. The violence reflected, in its view, revolutionary Arab resistance to increasing Jewish settlement under the British Mandate, watching as their lands and water started gradually transferring into the newcomers’ hands. An angry Soviet writer Moyshe Teyf (1904-1966) had no patience whatsoever with Jewish claims against the Arabs: “Woe to the holy home/ —a city of slaughter!/ Woe to the holy resting places/ —a bloody sacrificial altar!—/ you are no anointed one, you are uninvited guests, why have you stolen the blue and white colors/ from our honest heavens?/ No!/ Even the tenth generation/ will not wash away/ the innocent blood you’ve spilled here!”

H. Leivick, 1940 (public domain)

Chapter 3 is “Scottsboro Cross: Translating Pogroms to Lynching,” wherein many Jewish poets inevitably reached for the Christian symbol of the cross and the crucifixion to represent the legal lynching they saw in the case of the Scottsboro Nine. The very word “Scottsboro” became, almost overnight, a new, internationalized “password.” Glaser is aware that, writing in Yiddish for almost exclusively Jewish readers, there is the danger of “appropriation” of other people’s pain. Writers, such as H. Leivick (1888-1962), were also sensitive to this. Even before Scottsboro, in 1922, he wrote: “I know, Negroes, I won’t change places with you,/ not from close up and not from far away;/ we won’t become one, we won’t become equal,/ And we won’t trade skins…./ I suppose—What?—I am a solitary sufferer,/ a hung man, like you, on a race-rope;/ to you my looks are no less vile,/ than the looks of anyone from the lynch mob.”

No Pasarán: Jewish Collective Memory in the Spanish Civil War” offers an especially rich field for Glaser’s thesis. Jews all over the world recognized in Spain the deepening encroachment of fascism into democratic institutions. What was already happening in Germany (and in Italy and Portugal) would be exported to yet another land that had only recently become a republic. Spain presented a unique case because of its hundreds of years of physical persecution and expulsion of Jews. In a very literal sense, it appeared that combined fascist and Church forces were now conspiring to bring back the feudal Inquisition.

Anti-lynching poster from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, USSR, 1931 (public domain)

It is no surprise that the number of Jews in the International Brigades that fought for the Republic far outpaced the Jewish percentage of the world’s population. They streamed in from the U.S., the USSR, Poland, England, France, and elsewhere. For a time, the ethos of the Popular Front helped to heal the rift over Palestine as supranational concerns trumped particularism. The Mexican Yiddish poet Jacobo (Yakov) Glantz (1902-1982) placed Spain’s history in a modern, global perspective: “The Hebrews have arisen from their graves/ and one at a time/ bone at a time/ bone by bone,/ let themselves out/ and they call:/ Dress yourselves in bodies.—/ And together with the bricklayer against the Inquisition/ register in the ranks of the militia.” (The rhyme is startling and fresh between inkvizitsye and militsye.)

Dovid Hofshteyn / Biographical Dictionary of Yiddish Writers, New York, 1986.

“My Songs, My Dumas: Rewriting Ukraine” is something of a shift in focus. This chapter concerns the 19th-century Ukrainian nationalist and Romantic poet Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), whom the Soviets elevated in status as part of their campaign to heroize certain—but certainly not all—the prominent national figures among its many ethnic republics. The idea was to show that internationalist ideas had always been imbedded in their work as forerunners to today’s Soviet, collectivist project. Specifically, this chapter relates how one of the great Soviet Yiddish poets, Dovid Hofshteyn (1889-1952), translated Shevchenko’s oeuvre into Yiddish—still then recognized in the USSR as the Jewish national language. Hofshteyn’s job was to bring out the parallels between the oppression of the Ukrainian serfs and the Jews, while deftly feeling his way around Shevchenko’s frequent expressions of anti-Semitism. Author Amelia Glaser can be seen in a lecture about Hofshteyn’s Kyiv here.

In her last chapter, “Teshuvah: Moishe Nadir’s Relocated Passwords,” Glaser takes up the quirky, always controversial literary and political poseur and the term “teshuvah,” which means repentance or literally a “return” (to Judaism or by extension, to the right path). Earlier in his career, Nadir (1885-1943) had “repented” his sardonic, apolitical formalism to join with the Communist Party’s serious ennoblement of working-class struggle. And in the late 1930s, after the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, he “repented” again, finding in the Jewish tradition he had absorbed in his youth the personal comfort zone he no longer felt with the Communist movement.

Glaser treats his case as emblematic of most of the Yiddish writers. “Along with the tragic loss of millions of Jewish lives, World War II marked the end of the age of internationalism,” she summarizes, curiously stopping at that supreme worldwide effort to rid the world of fascism. Although it’s just beyond the horizon of her “long 1930s,” what she doesn’t mention is the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel, which drew many Jews back toward the particularistic—and in their mass collective mourning, it’s easy to understand why, especially so as the Cold War heated up.

Peretz Markish prison photo, 1949 / Central Archive of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, Moscow (public domain). Markish would be executed in 1952.

I believe Glaser makes this point perhaps a little too categorically, however, not taking into account many of the post-war events that still soared with “internationalist” wings—the struggles against colonialism for national independence, the emergence of China, reconstruction in Eastern Europe, the United Nations, the civil rights movement, and others in which Jews participated shoulder to shoulder alongside millions. But yes, for Yiddish poets as such, the shameful liquidation of the greatest Soviet Yiddish writers in 1952 seemed to spell a final blow to Jewish aspirations in the USSR; and the factors of Holocaust plus global assimilation trends plus the use of Hebrew, not Yiddish, in Israel, also severely wounded, if not quite fatally, the Yiddish language.

On one small point or another, I might have questioned the author, for example, when she says “Sacco-Vanzetti…constituted what may have been the first leftist-internationalist password.” How about “to each according to his need,” or the Paris Commune, or even before that, the fall of the Bastille? How about the date 1917? And in a work that is essentially all about this topic, it’s remarkable that she never cites the Biblical command, which all of these poets surely knew, to “remember the stranger, for you were once slaves in Egypt.” This “password” that is repeated no fewer than 36 times in the Bible is of critical centrality to the Jewish formulation of the place Jews occupy in the world.

Glaser’s work sent her rummaging amongst the pages of long forgotten Yiddish Communist magazines and newspapers, notably the CPUSA-affiliated Morgn Frayhayt (Morning Freedom) in New York, and Soviet literary journals. As a much appreciated bonus, she includes an Appendix with her own translations of ten poems previously unavailable in English, including Malka Lee’s “God’s Black Lamb,” H. Leivick’s “A Sacco-Vanzetti Year,” Peretz Markish’s “Spain,” Aaron Kurtz’s “Kaddish,” and Esther Shumiatcher’s “At the Border of China.”

She writes with broad awareness of the scholarship and the politics, and with a minimum of peremptory summation, allowing, with her many excerpts, the eloquent voices of the poets to be heard once more. The poets took different paths, but Glaser appreciates where they were coming from, and where they went.

Amelia M. Glaser
Songs in Dark Times: Yiddish Poetry of Struggle from Scottsboro to Palestine
Harvard University Press, 2020
353 pp., $39.95
ISBN 9780674248458


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.