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RACHEL KORN / ARTICLES

Chronicle Review/Oct. 1972, p. 17

Russian Jewry
Destruction of Yiddish Culture
By Rochl Korn

Editor’s Note: Rochl Korn was a noted Yiddish poetess in Poland when she fled to Russia in 1944.  Upon her arrival in the Soviet capital in that year she was warmly greeted by the luminaries of Yiddish poetry in Russia.  In her two year domicile in Moscow she came to know them well.  In this moving eulogy delivered at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto recently, Miss Korn pays fitting tribute to the martyred poets.  Miss Korn is currently a resident of Montreal.

            Just as we still stand in the shadow of the tragedy unable to grasp the destruction of one-third of our people by the Nazis as being something that surpasses human conception, we similarly are simply unable to grasp or sense the mindless savagery of murdering the greatest Yiddish writers, artist, and cultural leaders by the Soviet power in carrying out the destruction of Jewish cultural life in that country.

            Those who have by some miracle escaped both disasters must not only guard and cherish the memory of our martyrs but at the same time they must preserve all that is known to them of that dark and sinister period in spoken word and in writing to ensure that it remains forever engraved in the national memory. 

            I see them now before my eyes as I saw them in Moscow: Shloime Mikhoels, the great actor and orator; Leib Kvitko, the poet with his broad open face always ready to embrace part of the freezing world with his broad fur-covered arms to keep it warm; Shmuel Halkin, the quiet, sensitive lyricist who asks Providence “not to set the weekday tablecloth-let there be some vestige left of the Sabbath!”

            There was David Bergelson, in his personal life full of wisdom - in literature a master of Yiddish prose who brought into it his inimitable style – and upon this finely woven texture of his writing style was pressed the heavy jackboot of “Soviet realism” forcing him to turn from Gedalia Hurwitz to Commissar Philipoff.

            There was Itzik Feffer who wrote an Ode to the tyrant: “When I say Stalin, I speak of beauty!” yet who, in his career as a political commissar in the Red army, remained essentially a genuine man of the people and a warm Jew. 

            There was “Der Nister” who had never cut of his spiritual link with the past and who never compromised in his writing.  He saw things more profoundly and more clearly for he had at his disposal the long generations of experience of the Jewish people.

            And there was Peretz Markish – that favorite of the gods whom nature endowed with great talent, who possessed unusual physical beauty and was an eloquent speaker who would carry an entire audience with him.  His multicoloured verses glorified the Russian landscape with the courage of a Jewish fighting man.

            I should really have listed them all and given their characteristics as personalities and as writers, as I saw them and knew them – Zuskin and Dobrushin, Kushniroff and Nusinoff and Strangin – but unfortunately my time is limited.  The tragedy of their death has pushed aside to a second level the silent tragedy and constant insecurity of the lives, their long waiting in the night for the “knock on the door”.

            In the Soviet Union every citizen is exposed to dangers which lie in wait for him not only from the outside but often from inside his very home where one’s own child may be the informer having learned this task at school in the Young Pioneers.  In the words of the satiric poem:

            “You’ve betrayed your father – good!  Very Good!

            But those exposed to all kinds of danger are those at the top, those seen most by the public, those raised to higher posts because of their services to the Soviets.  You might compare it to a forest.  When a lightning storm strikes it, only the tallest trees are struck down by the thunderbolts.

            Once the Stalinist purges began, only the best were cut down by his sadistic cruelty: the brilliant military strategist General Sukhatchevsky, General Yakir, the hero of the Civil war, Isak Babel the foremost writer of hi day, Izzi Charik, and Dr. Tsinburg.

            Yes, the Soviet Union is a country where dead writers get the most attention and respect.  This is one way of being sure they will not deviate from the political line the party has decreed.  Nor are they in a position to protest if certain things are read into their works that are considered necessary in the interest of the Ministry of Propaganda.

            For instance, when Maxim Gorky expressed his concern about Stalin’s new tactic, Stalin ordered that he be silently done away with and then be given a grand state funeral.  He was administered a poison in the hospital where he lay ill.  It was so arranged that a Jewish doctor named Levine be assigned the task.  Shortly afterwards this doctor also vanished, to ensure that no living witness of Stalin’s monstrous crime should survive.

            In addition to his native talent, a writer in the Soviet Union had to develop the ability of hewing to the line, a line which changed from year to year.  He had to develop within himself a sixth or seventh sense that could forecast the party-line of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.

            The careers and the works of these writers remind me of the people forced to walk on soil that has been planted with landmines.  You put your foot down on the ground and you never know when you may be stepping on the explosive.  You take one step forward, you pause and you breathe more freely – you’ve averted the danger.  But you cannot stop, you must keep going.  You go forward again and you tremble with fear.

            Man is essentially an optimist.  He tries to cover up the horrors of yesterday in the hope they will never be repeated.

            How else can we construe it when both the writers in the free world tried to forget the recent past. How long ago was it that, enticed and attracted by “poems of hopefulness”, stories and articles about the tremendous blossoming of Yiddish culture in the USSR a wide circle of writers from abroad rushed to that land to share in this expression: from Poland there was Chayim Gilden; from Vilna, Moishe Kulback and Max Eric; from Vienna the prose-writer Zuskin Lev.  At first they were received with great acclaim as this served the current propaganda purpose.  But after a while a silence fell upon them.  They disappeared from the surface of things as though they had never existed.  Their names, too, disappeared from the pages of Soviet editions.

            And during World War II when Hitler’s armies drew close to Minsk all the prisoners were evacuated – that is, all the criminal prisoners.  The political prisoners among whom were the poet Israel Axelrod were shot on the roadway by the NKVD. 

            In 1948 when we began to hear the rumours that all was not well with the writers and cultural leaders the local Communists, all afroth at the mouth, began to attack those who dared to express their suspicion and concern.  “What did they mean by dreaming such a palpable libel!  The Yiddish writers are alive and well and living in Moscow, Kiev and else-where – in a veritable Paradise!  The only reason we don’t hear from them is that they’re busily engaged in producing new writings!”

            Great works f these murdered writers have remained – works which we can still decipher to discover the true and essential meaning concealed in the camouflage of an imposed propaganda policy.  And only now can we guess how greatly they could have enriched Yiddish letters if they enjoyed the possibilities that existed under freedom away from the pressure and compulsion from above.  But most of all – they would be alive – and with us!

            Three episodes that characterize the Soviet Jewish writers and the conditions under which they lived have carved themselves into my memory.

            In February 1941 when along with Alter Katzisne and Shnafer I was invited to Moscow by the Writers Alliance and we were received with great pomp and ceremony at various public events, Shmuel Halkin arranged a private party at his home for us.  The leading lights of Jewish culture were there.  The noted Cantor Moshe Kussevitsky – a refugee from Vilna who was just then in Moscow as part of an operatic tour – was also there.  They all turned to Kussevitzky and asked him to sing something in Yiddish.  He responded with a series of Jewish folk songs.  Then they pressed him further to sing something “really Jewish” and he sang Weinper’s well known poem about the wagon with the bones of the little lambs.  After he had finished and the applause wore down, Mikhoels came up to Kussevitzky, put his arm on his shoulder, looked into his eyes and said “Now sing something really Jewish.  Here you’re allowed to.”

            Then Kussevitzky’s brilliant voice rang out with the words and melody of Kol Nidrei.  Everyone remained seated, their heads unmoving as though frozen to the spot.  Shmuel Halkin stood glued to the wall.  I looked over at him.  His face was white as a sheet and tears, large tears, were rolling down his cheeks.  He did not so much as try to wipe them off – or perhaps he was not even aware that he was weeping?

            It was then that it grew clear to me for the first time that these writers and prominent cultural spokesmen and leaders who wore on their lapels medal and honours of the Soviet Union were nothing more and nothing less than – Marranos!

            Around the same time I was a guest at the home of David Bergelson and his wife Tzipe.  One day he took me by the arm and led me into his study.  He stopped in front of his portrait which hung on the wall asked: “Do you see him?”  I answered: “Yes, who painted it?” being sure he wanted to comment on the painter.  But as though he had not heard my question he kept pointing his finger at his own portrait and like one possessed he shouted into my ear: “Look at him, take a good look at him – I hate his guts – the filthy scoundrel!”

            Only later did I begin to grasp the full tragedy of this scene.  This was David Bergelson’s way of turning to the free world and asking that he not be judged too harshly for having given in, and having served a false idolatry both in his work and in his personal life.  He realized that he was already a prisoner of Soviet reality but I, who was still a Polish citizen, still had a chance to leave this prison that housed 200 million.

            And now the third episode.  In the month of April 1946 as a repatriate I was given an exit-permit to Poland.  I went to Markish to say goodbye.  In the beginning Markish had tried to dissuade me from leaving.  No where, he said, would I as a Yiddish writer enjoy such bright and favorable conditions to write and publish my books.  When he saw that I had firmly made up my mind he said: “Go, in the best of health, but don’t stay in semi-fascist Poland, go from there to America – or Israel!”

            Just at that moment, Der Nister walked in.  When I wanted to take leave of him he said: “I’ll see you off, half an hour before your departure.”

            I was rather surprised at his suggestion but I felt that, whatever it be, I would agree to it.  When I saw Der Nister in his apartment just before I left Moscow, I found him sitting before an open Hebrew volume.  His dark deep eyes beamed from under his scholarly forehead.  Since there wasn’t time for casual conversation he got to the subject immediately:

            “I didn’t want to say good-bye when you were at the Markishes as I had something important to say.  I have no secrets that I keep from Markish.  We tell each other everything and he knows about what I am going to tell you.  But a third person must not be present.  And I’ll tell you why.  Suppose you were arrested before you go away – which is quite possible – and they begin to torture you.  If someone else had also been present you would have to confess, nothing could help!  But if I were the only other person present I could simply deny it.  You, of course, could equally insist that I am not telling the truth, as long as there is no other person.  But once there’s a third person it’s too late – we’re all destroyed.  So – tell the Jews of America and everywhere else.  Let them know that Yiddish and Jewish culture is dying here!”

            This was early in April in the year 1946.


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