Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Moyshe Kulbak, Childe Harold of Dysna
Naydus Press, 2020, $15.00

Translated by Robert Adler Peckerar

In 1920, the young Yiddish writer Moyshe Kulbak moved from Vilna (Vilnius), then a great center of Eastern European Jewry, to Weimar Berlin. He was to live there for three years, impoverished but active in the Yiddish literary circles that were part of the enormous artistic ferment which we associate with Berlin during the twenties. Kulbak, born in Smorgin (now Smarhon’, Belarus) in 1896, was already regarded as a rising star of Yiddish literature when he moved to the German capital. An assimilated Ostjude hungry for personal experience of central European culture—Expressionism, jazz, cabarets, and inevitably, the rising political tensions between socialism and fascism—Kulbak, after his Berlin sojourn, returned to Vilna, married, and in 1928, moved to Minsk, in the Soviet Union. Dedicated to the ideals of Soviet communism, but writing increasingly under the influence of modernism, Kulbak continued to produce both fiction and poetry. Childe Harold of Dysna (Dizner Tshayld Harold), written between 1928 and 1933, marks a distinct change from his earlier romantic poetry: it is, like its namesake, a satiric narrative that looks back on Kulbak’s Berlin years, offering a mordant but still sympathetic vision of a young Jewish émigré confronting the decadence of Weimar. Parts of the poem, along with excerpts from his novel Zelmenyaner, were published in Yiddish literary journals in Minsk; his plays were also successfully produced. But like many Soviet Yiddish writers, Kulbak’s end was tragic and premature: in 1937, during one of Stalin’s purges, he was accused of espionage, arrested, tried, and summarily executed.

Childe Harold of Dysna looks back not only to Byron’s Childe Harold, but to such works as Heine’s Deutschland: ein Wintermärchen and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Its young protagonist, called Shmulik Pipeman, seems at times both naïve and cunning, a romantic idealist who is nevertheless quick to take advantage of the situations in which he finds himself. Impoverished, he sets off to Berlin: “A young lad ventured out to find romance / With nothing but a set of ribs” (5). His Jewish bookishness is fundamental to his being: “Suddenly he’s in a railcar. He’s off to study, / Off to Europe. Each must do his thing: a skylark croons, / A Bolshevik makes revolutions, and Pipeman—it’s in his blood— / Must study” (7). Arriving at his destination, he quickly adjusts to this “Wondrous Land! Where electricity passes / Through wires, and through arteries—champagne— / And Marx and Engels cheer the working masses / And shop-keeps swear by Kant’s immortal name” (11). The irony of the narrative quickly establishes itself:

Childe Harolds by nature eat quite seldom,
And so does this Childe Harold of Dysna;
Lean, lanky, and dark to those who beheld him,
He’s clean, although his shave’s abysmal,
There wafts from him a tailor’s scent
Bequeathed by legacies of toil and want—
Now Pipeman’s found a Bellevue room to rent
And washes dishes in a restaurant.
In the sultry blue of a Berlin evening
He’s now grown continental, well, nearly;
To be European, all he’s lacking:
Pyjamas, a dog, and a dose of V.D. (12)

It’s sometimes hard to nail down Kulbak’s tone and his attitude toward Pipeman. In the Translator’s Foreword, Robert Adler Peckerar observes that “The flow of the poem is marked by an increasing discord between the young idealistic hero and the cynical narrator, making clear the distance of the poet in ideology, and also time from his hero.” But this “discord” is palpable from the beginning. What does it mean to be “European”? The narrator’s attitude, as is clear from the last line of the stanza, indicates that there is something absurd for this son of a Jewish tailor from Dysna, a classic instance of the pintele Yid (the little Jew, understood as the spirit of essential Jewishness), to yearn for “continental” sophistication.

This absurdity takes on greater significance—indeed, it is central to Kulbak’s vision—when Pipeman becomes the object of the affections of a “blond, young bird from Tauenzienstraße” (according to the Notes, a “large avenue in central Berlin...popular in the interwar period with artists and intellectuals”). The blonde Fräulein Weichert imagines her Jewish boyfriend to be “the Cossack, Herr Kriuchkov,” who fought heroically against the Germans in World War I, although Pipeman, thinking of his origins, tells her “Mein Papa war ein alter Kavalier / Von Iron-Shears, known for slinging / Taters out of white hot flames” (24). Meditating later on his identity crisis, Pipeman is disturbed when Fräulein Weichert tells him that it’s Goethe Tag, the great German poet’s birthday. In contrast to the exalted German sense of Geist which Goethe represents, Pipeman declares:

Mademoiselle, O, I am ill,
Ill, like this young century and indisposed.
To myself I even once proposed
A leap from my dad’s windowsill.
Reckless, daring, and youthful folly,
A bit of Blok, some Schopenhauer,
Peretz, Spinoza, and kabbala.
Rootless, despair and more despair.
Something waits to be comprehended—
But soon all will brightly shine out.
When my youth has been expended,
And I’m left with nothing but doubt. (42)

Something does indeed wait to be comprehended, and in that comprehension is the answer to the “Jewish Question” that had hovered over European Jewry for centuries, and which was coming to a head in the years before World War II and the Shoah. Here, the historical importance of Kulbak’s poem emerges clearly. The authors and works that shape Pipeman’s sensibility—Alexander Blok, the Russian symbolist poet; Schopenhauer, the pessimistic Idealist philosopher (who was also something of an anti-Semite); I. L. Peretz, one of the founders of modern Yiddish literature; Spinoza, the first secular Jewish thinker, excommunicated by the rabbis of Amsterdam; and kabbala, the revered tradition of Jewish mysticism—represent a variety of cultural and intellectual affinities and pull him in different directions in regard to ideology and world-view. The Jews of Central and Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries faced a number of choices. Were they to cling to traditional Jewish observance, to the synagogue and study hall? Were they to opt for a bourgeois lifestyle, lose their sense of themselves as Jews, even convert to Christianity? Were they to modernize Yiddishkeit and create their own secular, often left-leaning culture? Were they to join non-Jews in the political struggles which led to the Russian Revolution (and the failed Communist uprising in Berlin in 1919)? Were they to embrace Zionism, emigrate to Palestine, and build a new Jewish homeland? Not all these paths are represented in Kulbak’s poem, but the question of Jewish identity is paramount.

The last section of Childe Harold of Dysna is called “The Other Germany.” The writing is more expressionistic than in the earlier parts of the poem, more “cinematic,” as Peckerar observes, since it moves away from Pipeman’s individual perspective. It also recounts events in Berlin which took place years after Kulbak left, specifically the violent “Bloody May” riots in Wedding, a working-class neighborhood. As Peckerar notes, “In this politically-driven violence, Kulbak retrospectively prophesies the imminence of fascist disaster.” At this point, Kulbak, we should recall, was writing as a dedicated communist in Minsk, though what he gives us is hardly socialist realism:

And then: ranks pour out into the night
A shadow shadows another shadow,
A knot of shapes in darkness. A salvo.
And there: entangled in a wire,
The concretion of a car. A holler
Penetrates the night, a stampede of feet.
The same blood-crusted fringes cover
All the battered heads that bleed— (54)

Kulbak’s camera jerks violently from one image to the next, as a lurid vision of social collapse is laid before us. Meanwhile, Pipeman and his artsy friends in stylish clothes look down on Alexanderplatz from a safe vantage point, mocked and condemned by the narrator. The poem’s final stanza resolves into a furious declaration:

O, Europa, Europa for you we bear
Your javelin, your mighty sword.
On beds unmade and rumpled,
How you sin—you old Sodom!
Down with Beethoven and with Goethe!
Down with the cathedral in Cologne!
The distant skies are turning gray
And we turn gray along with them;
We—the last of wolves that bay
In the ruins of the system. (60)

But in the end, of course, it was Stalin’s wolves who turned on the poet himself.

* * *

Childe Harold of Dysna is the first book published by the Naydus Press. Named for the Yiddish poet Leyb Naydus (1890-1918), its mission, according to its website, “is to increase awareness of and access to Yiddish literature by supporting Yiddish translators and publishing their translations into English.” If this first book is any indication, this is very promising news indeed, considering how much modern Yiddish literature remains untranslated. The original Yiddish does not appear in this edition; it is mainly for English readers. In addition to Peckerar’s Foreword, there is an informative Introduction by Boris Dralyuk, and a set of notes which helps contextualize the poem culturally and historically. These notes are useful, but for this reader at least, they could have been even more extensive. (Why, for instance, is it significant that Pipeman and his friend Abbo are wearing green neckties in the last section of the poem? I tried to determine whether green was a color associated with the socialists, but couldn’t confirm it.) The edition has some wonderful pen and ink drawings by the artist Beynish which complement the text perfectly.

Peckarer’s translation is in twelve-line stanzas, which I assume corresponds with Kulbak’s original (Byron’s Childe Harold uses a nine-line Spenserian stanza). Each stanza uses three sets of rhyme, which is to say it is divided into three quatrains, either ABAB or ABBA, with free use of off-rhyme. The meter moves irregularly between a four and a five-beat line, again, with a great many substitutions. I wish that overall, the translation was more metrically regular, given the snap of satiric rhyme one gets in Byron, but again, I’m not sure how this corresponds to Kulbak’s Yiddish. Peckarer’s Foreword has a lot to say about Kulbak’s imagery and tone, but it does not address matters of versification.

Be that as it may (for these are only quibbles), Childe Harold of Dysna is very welcome indeed. American readers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, need constant reminding of the variety—no, the contradictions—of Jewish life, especially during the volatile, transformative period when Kulbak was active. They need to understand these contradictions historically, if for no other reason than they remain the case today. Since Yiddish is now, for the most part, a “post-vernacular language” (as Jeffrey Shandler calls it in his marvelous study Adventures in Yiddishland), it has become a site where these contradictions play out in an especially poignant way. In her chapter on Kulbak in Strangers in Berlin: Modern Jewish Literature Between East and West, 1919-1933, Rachel Seelig argues that “Tracing Kulbak’s trajectory from Belorussia to Berlin and back again, it becomes clear that the roots he sought for Yiddish could not be planted territorially but only poetically.” True enough—though I would venture to say that in the end, all poetry is extraterritorial.

Post by Norman Finkelstein on 1/2/2021 at 12:00 PM