Yiddish poet undergoing revival in war-torn Ukraine

Now that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has fixed the west’s attention upon that country’s turbulent history and its determination to survive, David Gofshtein may well find a new audience.

By Ben Cohen, The Algemeiner

“Through fire and ash, through smoke and battle / You raise your shattered hands / A clot of blood covers your head / But I see your face, you are alive! You are alive!”

So read the opening lines of “Ukraine,” a poem by the Jewish writer David Gofshtein that was originally penned in Yiddish.

Composed during the intense battles that accompanied the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II, Gofshtein’s poem was suddenly handed a new lease on life as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine six weeks ago, when it was widely shared on social media by Ukrainian readers struck by its relevance to their own plight today.

Born into a religious Jewish family in rural Ukraine in 1889, Gofshtein went on to become one of the Soviet Union’s most celebrated poets before he was executed on Joseph Stalin’s orders in 1952.

Despite writing in Yiddish and actively identifying as a Jew, Gofshtein “was highly regarded by Ukrainian poets,” his 85-year-old niece, Svetlana Gofshtein, told The Algemeiner on Tuesday, during an extensive interview from her home in Germany.

“Ukraine has this very strange history,” Svetlana said. “Jews were killed in pogroms, then the revolution was pushed on them, but David Gofshtein became an enthusiastic patriot. He loved Ukraine, and the other Ukrainian writers felt the same way towards him.”

In the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Gofshtein (whose surname is also spelled as “Hofstein”) emerged as one of the nascent Soviet Union’s leading poets writing in Yiddish. “He came from an educated family,” Svetlana said. “They all spoke Ukrainian and Russian as well as Yiddish, despite coming from the shtetl.”

‘A huge believer in Jewish identity’

A collection of Gofshtein’s poems published in 1922, which mourned the antisemitic pogroms waged by the counter-revolutionary “White” armies during the Soviet civil war, was illustrated by the renowned painter Marc Chagall. The two artists had met while working as a teacher at a refuge for Jewish children who fled the pogroms.

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“David greeted the arrival of the Soviet regime, and so did Chagall,” Svetlana noted. “They welcomed it because it gave them the right to move out of the shtetl to the cities, where they could obtain an education. So he was in favor of the revolution, but he was also a huge believer in Jewish identity. Writing in Yiddish got him into many unfortunate situations because he didn’t want to assimilate.”

The Bolshevik ban on the Hebrew language — along with the persecution of writers who chose Hebrew as their vernacular — aroused further protests from Gofshtein. In 1923, he decided to leave the Soviet Union, traveling first to Berlin and then onwards to the Land of Israel, at the time ruled under a British mandate.

Gofshtein spent three years in the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine, writing in both Hebrew and Yiddish.

According to Svetlana, Gofshtein decided to return to Ukraine in 1926 to raise the two sons he had with his first wife, who died six years earlier. Once he was back in the USSR, Gofshtein quickly realized that his literary output required him to write poetry adulating the ruling Communist Party, a task to which he resigned himself.

Svetlana was 15-years-old when Gofshtein was executed, and she retains some fond, if hazy, memories of her father’s brother. “He was a family person, the whole family loved him,” she recalled. “He was kind and funny, and very intelligent. As a child and a teenager, it was very special to have him as an uncle.”

Many of Gofshtein’s impassioned poems resonate with Ukrainians today as their country faces the Russian invasion. Another of Gofshtein’s works was a homage to the town of Irpin — a place most westerners hadn’t heard of until last month, when relentless Russian shelling reduced it to rubble before it was eventually liberated by Ukrainian forces.

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During Gofshtein’s lifetime, Irpin, just outside the capital Kyiv, was a place for weekend and summer vacations. The Writers’ Union of Ukraine maintained a small retreat there that Gofshtein loved.

“Among the flowers, the buzz of wasps over the meadow / Ah, is it because a year has passed / And the world is different, and you are no longer the same,” reads one verse of his poem “Irpin,” radiant with peaceful images that jar awkwardly with the town’s present-day reality.

The ‘night of the murdered poets’

In 1948, Gofshtein’s enthusiastic support for the newly-created State of Israel was to lead to his eventual undoing.

Despite an initial flirtation with the Soviet bloc, “Israel turned to America and democracy, and that made Stalin really angry,” Svetlana said. “The Jewish intelligentsia in the USSR wanted to keep their identity, to promote Jewish culture, to write in Yiddish and Hebrew, and that also angered Stalin. That’s why he started his campaign against the Jews.”

Gripped by antisemitic paranoia in the final years of his life, Stalin turned on the Jews in the Soviet Union with added venom

The wartime Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), a creation of the Soviet regime, was liquidated in 1952 — one year before the infamous “Doctors Plot,” in which a group of predominantly Jewish doctors was arrested, tortured and then convicted on charges of supporting “Zionism” among other political offenses.

Gofshtein himself was executed during the “Night of the Murdered Poets” on Aug. 12, 1952. Together with eleven other illustrious Jewish writers — including the poets Peretz Markish and Leib Kvitko and the novelist David Bergelson — Gofshtein’s death sentence was the result of the false confessions extracted through constant beatings by interrogators at the Lubyanka prison in Moscow.

“They were called ‘traitors’ and ‘nationalists,’” Svetlana said, pointing to the similarity with both Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demonization of Ukraine’s struggle for independence and his crushing of domestic opposition.

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“He keeps calling the Ukrainians ‘fascists’ and ‘Nazis’ — it’s ridiculous,” she exclaimed about the Russian leader. “I remember when we lived there, we couldn’t tell the Russians from the Ukrainians. It wasn’t like that with Jews, whom you knew from their family names.”

New audience?

In 1958, five years after Stalin’s death, Gofshtein was posthumously rehabilitated by the Soviet authorities, with a collection of his poems published in the same year. “It was impossible not to be surprised by the versatility of [Gofshtein’s] interests and the depth of his knowledge,” wrote the revered Ukrainian poet Maksym Rylsky in his introduction to the collection.

“A conversation with him about classical literature — about ancient tragedians, about Goethe, Heine, Pushkin, Shevchenko, about modern Soviet literature, about various philosophical currents, about the historical destinies of this or that people, about the development of humankind — always revealed to his interlocutor some new side of the phenomenon under discussion, sometimes giving rise to disputes, friendly and principled,” he added.

Rylsky’s concluding paragraph captured the essence of Gofshtein’s work. A poet who spoke and wrote “perfect” Ukrainian, Gofshtein “passionately loved the people who gave birth to him, the Jewish people.”

Rylsky continued: “He knew the history of this people very well, as if he personally felt their suffering endured over the centuries. Hence his no less ardent hatred for all preachers of obscurantism, national inequality, and discrimination, for fascist scum, for the echoes of the Black Hundreds in all its forms.”

Still, Gofshtein’s poetry has so far eluded translation into the English language. Now that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has fixed the west’s attention upon that country’s turbulent history and its determination to survive, he may well find a new audience.