Being a poet, it was an unexpected treat for me to encounter so much poetry among the JPFO materials. A political speech closes with a poem. A eulogy includes lines of poetry. A fundraising effort has an associated call for poetry. A speaker’s guide for a holiday evening is made up chiefly of suggested readings, many of which are poems. In the I.W.O. organ, “The Spark” (Oct-Nov, 1932), Nachum Vaysman delivers his report on a teacher’s conference in the form of a ten-section-long poem. Of course, children’s school curricula include poetry, their compositions are often poems, and (often well-known) poets contribute to the children’s magazines.
Even in the thick of World War II, the JPFO published Kalman Marmor’s brief biography of poet Dovid Edelstadt. After the war, they published an English poem, Never to Forget, by Howard Fast, elegizing the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, accompanied by illustrations by William Gropper.
During WWII, one major focus of the JPFO was in aiding the Soviet Union in its war effort. They devoted considerable resources to fund-raising campaign “for Soviet tanks and airplanes.” The tanks were to be named after Jewish heroes. https://digital.library.cornell.edu/catalog/ss:21072643
This may seem strange, but even knowing what we do now, it’s important to realize: first, how many Jews were behind Soviet lines; and second, that the Red Army, pushing from the East, was in closer proximity to the death camps and better placed to liberate Jews than the Americans were. With Roosevelt and Stalin “on the same side”, the JPFO believed that they could now be openly pro-Soviet without being accused of disloyalty.
In any case, in the summer of 1942 the Morgn Frayhayt put out a public call to their readers to write and submit tank poems, in the hopes of inspiring people to donate to the campaign. Many readers responded. Some of these poems are awful. Other contributions came from established, published poets. It is interesting and impressive to me to see the rank-and-file and the literati joining together in the same campaign.
A great resource on the poets associated with the Yiddish left is the book Proletpen: America’s Rebel Yiddish Poets, edited by Amelia Glazer and David Weintraub (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005). Here is an excerpt from Dovid Katz’s foreword to that book [as reprinted in Jewish Currents], in which he describes why these poets are less known than he thinks they ought to be:
“In the mid-1950s, the Rekhte, in their own literary publications, particularly the Tsukunft, were applying unwritten rules that can be summarized with a simplicity so stark that it is almost embarrassing: Whoever left the Linke for the Rekhte after the Hebron riots of 1929 was completely kosher; whoever left after the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 was sufficiently kosher; whoever waited until confirmation of the Moscow murders of 1952 was treyf, banished from the canon; and whoever stayed with the Linke after that was not ever to be mentioned.
“So it came to pass that the canon of American Yiddish literature in English translation that thrives to this day was a creation, in part, of 1950s American political conformity…”
Many of the poets who are included in that Proletpen anthology also make an appearance somewhere in Cornell’s I.W.O./JPFO collection, including: Malka Lee (Rappaport), Moyshe Nadir, Aaron Kurz, Shifre Vays [or Weiss], Yosl Cutler, and Meinke Katz. I’m sure there are a few others I missed. You can try putting their names in the search field to see what comes up, keeping in mind that some of these names have more than one possible transliteration.
Of course, the presence of someone’s poetry in a leftist songbook, magazine, or evening program is not necessarily an endorsement. Some literary works were beloved by groups of every ideology. Some poets might have allowed their work to be published anywhere, or may not even have known what uses their work was being put to. For example, a file in the JPFO archive held a loose sheet of paper with part of a Sutzkever poem, which was probably read at a holiday or cultural evening.
Rontsh – Among those of the Proletpen poets Y. A. Rontsh had particularly close and enduring ties to the JPFO. The copy of Rontsh’s 1947 book of selected poems, “Lider”, in Cornell’s Olin Library is inscribed to his friend Rubin Saltzman. Rontsh turns up in several places in the archive, not only for his poetry, but also his prose writing on various subjects, generally related to education and/or literature. He has articles in the two JPFO Almanacs (note- these are large downloads) and in several issues of the I.W.O.s “The Spark”. When he wants to move to California, Saltzman writes to the Ordn schools there looking for a post for him. He also makes an appearance as a courier, bringing Bella Chagall’s books from Marc Chagall to the Ordn’s office.
A Few Links
Search the collection with the word “poetry” and you will get around 100 hits to browse through. Many of these are school journals or magazines for children— I will talk more specifically about these in my next blog post. But you will also find letters accompanying poems submitted to the Morning Freiheit or other Ordn publications, tank poems, public speeches that include a poem, issues of The Spark, letters back and forth planning a culture congress, holiday evening speaker’s guides, and more.
While going through this material there were one or two occasions when I just couldn’t resist translating a couple of lines, in order to try to give something of the feel of a poem, along with the content. Here’s the first stanza of a poem by Shifre Vays [Weiss]:
“My torn-out heart
Where did you go?
If to the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto
Give them my hands to clasp
And kiss their eyes
Take the lead from their skies
Promise them, this too will pass.”
Here is Kalman Marmor’s biography of Dovid Edelstadt:
A loose page with last 10 stanzas of Avrom Sutzkever’s poem “Teacher Mira”
Press proofs of an essay by Y. A. Rontsh. Several items in the archive have a penciled note on them “H & D”, for the awkwardly-spelled Heym (or ‘Heim’, or ‘Haim’) un Derziung (‘Dertsiyung’?). Formerly ‘Proletarishe Derziung’. This was the Ordn’s education journal, targeted to teachers and parents.
Rontsh’s article views American literary history and culture through the lens of Sears Roebuck catalogs. The article has no title, and the long strips make it slightly awkward to read. Follow the page numbers all they way down column 2, then 3 (even though it’s printed on the left), then 4.
On Poetry and Politics: The word “front”.
The word ‘front’ has often been used in two ways with regard to the Communists. Describing an activity as part of the “culture front” is a way of saying that they believed all their cultural activities were helping build the proletariat into an educated and enlightened force. Thus, in arguing for financial support for the schools, an official might address a meeting with the sentiment that nothing is more important than the next generation of revolutionaries. Because a major purpose of creating culture is to lift up and energize the class, much of the JPFOs poetry contains direct social or political content. There are few pure love poems, for example, or lyric nature poems as such.
The second way the word ‘front’ was used was to call the I.W.O. a “Communist front organization,” From the McCarthyite point of view, everything the Ordn did was merely cover for its singular and sinister purpose of taking over the United States. This was basically the rationale that the New York State’s Insurance Department and the Attorney General used to shut the organization down. They reasoned that the political activities posed a ‘risk’ to the insured, and then seized all the agency’s assets (proving themselves right).
The matter of the intersection of politics and poetry is, frankly, over my head. Instead of making a stab at it and embarrassing myself, I will share another few links which are related to that intersection. But I will also say, given how thoroughly poetry is marbled through every one of the Ordn’s activities, I am convinced that they believed in poetry as more than merely a front, or a means to an end. I’m convinced that in their vision for a world “after the revolution,” whether implicit or explicit, the proletariat would not lay down their weapons of cultural warfare forever. On the contrary: Everyone would now have ample time for the good life, which would give pride of place to music, poetry, and art.
A pamphlet for discussion, which takes a broad view both of the role of culture in the ongoing work of the order, and of the concept of ‘fraternalism’. By Abraham Maymudes.
A 1937 letter from H. Leivick [Leyvik] and Yosef Opatoshu to [Chaim] Henri Slovès of IKUF, regarding an international cultural conference, which they fear will end up not being representative of Yiddish culture as a whole, but only of the hard left. They ask Sloves to postpone. Leyvik would later cut ties with the Communists after the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939.
Finally, another song book for my friend Arnold, who faithfully reads all my blog posts, and who loves Yiddish music. A ‘lid’ in Yiddish can be a song or a poem. Only a long narrative poem, or dramatic verse is typically called a ‘poeme’. And, of course, many Yiddish songs were first poems. So a song book is not off the topic. This one is from 1932, titled Mit gezang tsum kamf or, roughly, To the Battle with Songs. As the title suggests, these are not love songs, and if something is titled ‘lullaby’, don’t buy it. The pages are numbered from the end, and on page 4, Kalman Marmor (yes, him again) discusses the role of song in the struggle.