was born in 1887 in Cracow, Poland. He lived there all his life and
never left that city. He started to write Yiddish poetry in 1904 and
became famous when he began to sing his own poetry. Like all other
troubadours, Gebirtig created both the lyrics and the music.
The hallmark of
Gebirtig's poetry is simplicity of style and language. He
became so renowned that Jewish actors frequented his house and
placed orders with him for Yiddish stage productions.
During World War II,
he, together with other Jews, were interned in the Cracow Ghetto.
Even though he suffered from starvation and pain, he did not cease
to create his Yiddish poetry. He died in the gas chamber.
children and wrote poetry for them and about them. In the poem that
follows ("Motele"), he describes a boy who is actually acting like a
boy. He is mischievous and full of fun.
In the next poem
included here, "It Burns", it seems as if the author had a
premonition of things to come; the Second World War and the
Holocaust. The village on fire can be taken literally and
Until the outbreak of
World War II, Itzhak Katzenelson was known as a dramatist and
Yiddish-Hebrew poet. His poetry was replete with cheerfulness, joy and
happiness. He wrote poetry especially for children. In both Yiddish and
Hebrew day schools in Poland, children would learn and sing them on
Under Nazi Occupation
in Poland, his mood changed but his writing became more prolific.
Obviously, the new mood was due to his witnessing the annihilation of
his people. His greatest achievement at this time was the "Song of the
Slaughtered Jewish People".
Katzenelson died in the
gas chambers on April 17, 1944.
In his poem "The Sun is
Sinking in Flames", the poet has mixed emotions. On one hand he sees the
decline and frustration in the world, and on the other he believes it
will make a comeback in happiness and sunshine. As for him personally,
he beholds only sorrow and affliction.
"To the Heavens" is a
fragment of a much bigger literary work called "The Song of the
Slaughtered Jewish People". The author is angry with the heavens because
they witnessed the annihilation of the Jewish people, especially the
million Jewish children, and did not do anything.
Leivick's theme in
Yiddish literature is the suffering of mankind and the Jewish people.
At the age of seventeen
he joined the revolutionaries of the Jewish Labor Movement in Russia. In
1910 he was arrested and imprisoned. He was sentenced to a life term of
hard labor in Siberia. There he wrote his first drama, "The Chains of
In addition to writing
dramas, he also wrote poetry and essays. Other works of his are: "The
Golem" and "In the Days of Job". Leivick was constantly in search
of the reasons for man's suffering.
In the poem, "My People
are Being Slaughtered", the poet takes to task the world for its
callousness to the slaughter of six million Jews by the Nazis.
It was noted above that
Leivick's theme in Yiddish literature was the suffering of mankind
including the Jews. The following poem
"Eibik" is a classic example.
Each one of the stanzas deals with a different catastrophe that occurred
to the Jewish people. The road of Jewish history abounds in pain and
suffering. Leivick fuses his personal suffering with that of the Jewish
people such as: hopelessness of the Russian Revolution, the futility of
trying to depose the Czar, the Spanish Inquisition, prison, the
proletariat, and the gentile workers' betrayal of their Jewish comrades.
Is it a poem of hope or frustration? It is probably neither...It is a
poem of the Holocaust. The reference to the constant burnings are
evidently the fumes of Treblinka and Auschwitz.
In the poem, "Two
Goblets", Leivick portrays the anguish and suffering of a mother in
Israel who lost two sons in the prime of life in the war for
independence. next >>
J. L. Peretz
J. L. Peretz was born
in Poland. He was a versatile personality and prolific writer. Like all
Jewish writers of his time, Peretz began his literary career by writing
in Hebrew, but in 1888 he switched to Yiddish. His home was in Warsaw
which had become a center for all Jewish authors whether they wrote in
Yiddish, Hebrew or Russian.
Peretz had a profound
impact on the Jewish community life. He helped to raise the self-respect
of the Jewish people, and became the spokesman of the downtrodden and
inarticulate masses. He was particularly interested in the conditions of
the working class, and he joined the Bund, i.e. the Jewish Socialist
workers. He was the leading figure at the Czernowitz World Conference on
Yiddish in 1908, and first of the builders of the Yiddish school.
In his little poem,
"Hope and Trust", the poet speaks of the better times that are bound to
come to mankind if you believe and strive for it. He also hopes that
this happiness will come to the Jewish people who have been persecuted
for generations. Peretz also wrote poetry for children.
"Ettie" is a classic
example of this genre that he enjoyed.
Avraham Reisen was born
in Russia, and at the age of thirty-two he settled in the United States.
He was a good-natured
man and had compassion for the weak and the poor, the meek and the
downtrodden. He wrote poetry about the unassuming and plain folk; about
tailors, shoemakers, storekeepers, maid-servants and Yeshiva students.
Reisin never wrote
poetry exclusively for children. However, his poems are so well written
that both child and adult can enjoy them. They are a paragon of
simplicity. He was very much concerned with the suffering of mankind in
the world, but optimistic with regard to redeeming it from grief and
sorrow. He was not a belligerent person, but rather meek. He was a poet,
teacher and friend. Because of his popularity among the Yiddish-speaking
masses, many of his poems were set to music and sung by both young and
In the poem, "The
Gemara Melody", the poet describes the plight of the Yeshiva bukher
ambition is to become a learned man, a rabbi. He tells us of the
hardship s the student had to endure, e.g. homesickness, sleeping on a
bench, loneliness, shyness and hunger, not the least of which was
lacking "days to eat" because no host invited him.
"On the Nile" is a
charming poem, almost an idyllic scene. Although the king is vicious,
the water in the Nile seems to have respect for the child in the basket.
(pseudonym for Sholom Rabinowitch) was born in the town of Pereaslov,
Russia. He was the third of twelve children. At thirteen his mother
died, and at twenty he married and settled in Kiev. In 1905 he came to
America, but did not stay very long and returned to Europe. After the
outbreak of World War I, he managed to escape with his family to the
United States and settled in New York City.
manifested a talent during his boyhood when he managed to discover a
ridiculous aspect in every situation and a caricature in every person.
One of his contemporaries was a writer by the name of Shomer, who fed
the Yiddish reader with nonsense such as: the Melamed, the Hebrew
teacher who became a Lord, and the Jewish cleaning girl a princess, and
other embellishments of the trite French-type novel.
Sholem Aleichem was a
realist. He wrote about the simple folk, good-natured Jews, plain women,
crude craftsmen, Jewish girls and Jewish musicians.
Sholem Aleichem is
known far and wide throughout the world. He has even been translated
into Chinese and Japanese. What makes Sholem Aleichem so popular is his
humor and the universality of his themes.
Regrettably, he is
mainly known for his prose and not for his poetry. The following is a
fragment of a cradle song which Jewish mothers used to sing to their
babies, how the father has gone to America and he will soon send them
steamship tickets to come to the United States.
The Museum of Family
History presents one of Aleichem's poems, entitled "Sleep
At the age of sixteen,
Yehoash was acclaimed as a gifted poet with a bright future ahead of
him. No other than J. L. Peretz admired his talent and encouraged him.
Yehoash (pseudonym for
Shlomo Blumgarten) was born in Lithuania, and in 1898 arrived in New
York. His type of poetry was different from his contemporaries like
Bovshover and Wintchevsky whose main theme was class struggle. He
revealed in his poetry a universal trend, a love of nature and delved
into Jewish history seeking poetic perfection. In 1907 he began to
implement his great dream -- a translation of the Bible into Yiddish.
However, he never ceased to write fables, children's poetry, travelogues
In his poem "A Jewish
Feeling", he reiterates his view: when you hit the Jews, they grow
stronger and more unified.
The poem, "Rachel's
Tomb", is based on Hebrew folklore. The Bible tells us that when Jacob
returned from Padden-Aram to Canaan, a short distance away from
Bethlehem, Rachel gave birth to a son and died. She was buried in the
vicinity of Ramah, alongside the road leading to Bethlehem. Later, a
monument was erected over the grave, and it was regarded as a holy site.
Tradition has it that
in time people began to believe that at night bitter weeping is heard.
This is the voice of Rachel, weeping for her children who had been
driven from their land into exile.