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WINTER 2022-23

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70TH Anniversary of the Night of the Murdered Poets

Itzik Fefer

Itzik Fefer (1900–1952)

Itzik Fefer was born in Shpola, Ukraine, and was 12 years old when he began to work at a printing shop. In 1917 he joined the Bund and became a trade union activist. A Communist from 1919, he served in the Red Army. He began writing poems in 1918, and in 1922 joined Vidervuks (New Growth) in Kiev, a group of young Yiddish literati whose mentor was Hofshteyn. Fefer was known for his literary credo of proste reyd (simple speech), a concept he formulated in 1922. In the early 1920s, poetry, particularly avant-garde poetry, swamped the literary pages of Soviet Yiddish periodicals. This phenomenon worried editors and critics, who were wary of the fact that Yiddish readers usually could not identify with this style of literature. All Yiddish readers, by contrast, could understand Fefer’s proste reyd.the romantic spirit of continuous revolution runs through his writing. He describes crowds and regiments, the impersonal masses of people who “hand to hand and shoulder to shoulder, leg to leg and greatcoat to greatcoat” fight for the revolution. During World War II, Fefer was an agent of the secret police on the JAC. In 1943 he visited the United States, Canada, Mexico, and England, successfully mobilizing pro-Soviet support. National pride runs through his poetry of that period. The poem “Ikh bin a Yid” (I Am a Jew) is the best-known sample of such Soviet Jewish patriotism. Fefer enthusiastically welcomed the establishment of the State of Israel. He argued that the new state was the concern of the entire Jewish people and that the heroism of Soviet people contributed more to its creation than American Zionism. In the late 1940s, however, Stalin’s regime had no use for Communists who cherished Jewish national hopes. Fefer was arrested in 1948, together with other members of the JAC and was executed on 12 Aug ‘52.

The wine of ancient families
has strengthened me on my journey.
The torture of human beings
has not smashed my strength –

My people, my faith, everything that is
shaped and blossomed in freedom.
Still under the sword, I cried out
I am a Jew – Ich bin ein yid!

No Pharaoh, no armies of Titus,
nor Haman’s intrigues in their day
took away my pride. My teaching
rests in the hand of eternity.

My courage to live is not broken
at the stake at the gates of Madrid.
My reputation echoes timelessly
I am a Jew!

Egypt has closed in stone
my body.
I have inundated fallow land
with anger and tears

And a sun was born from that..
And the sun’s rays broke through
thistles, where my path has run through
silently stung at my eyes,
I am a Jew!

Almost forty years wandering awry
in desert sand only strengthened me,
Bar Kochba’s legend burned into my heart.
Whatever I suffer on earth, I guard
more than gold, more than velvet and silk,
the stubbornness of my ancestors
I am a Jew!

What is gold to me? Could it quiet,
my longing, my mind and will
when there was no shelter anywhere?

More strength in Samson’s hair,that Delila
stretched and burned up in front of bronze clay,
than all the world believes is in coins

The wrinkle forehead of Reb Akibe,
the wisdom of Isaiah’s Word
slaked my thirst – for love and hatred

Are the same to me, live on like
the momentum of the Maccabees
and their rebellious mind,

hear me report it from the shaves:
I am a Jew!

Solomon’s wisdom was mine.
The fate of wanderers as firm an hold,
Heinrich Heine’s crooked smile I paid for with my blood.

And how Halevi’s magic sounded,
I have it in my ear and don’t get tired
how often misplaced it, but never lost

Spinoza didn’t mind Amsterdam’s
hustle and bustle, the market noise,
to listen to the street means to remain human

the sun of Marx has refreshed the earth
and reddens my old blood, runs through
me like a fire which you never kill

And my eyes reflect the silence and the urge
of light on the hills of the Near East,
and of Mendele’s bent gait,

By the slash of Russian bayonets,
by the shine in the ears of new cut wheat,
I am a son of our Soviets

The echoing of Haifa’s port
the resonation in my voice
thanks to invisible telegraphs
that course through sea and valleys

The pulse of Buenos Aires’ squares,
The Yiddish song sung from New York
The shuddering before Berlin’s laws

I will scatter my enemies, who have already dug me a burial ground,
I will rejoice under red flags of life;
A new world wants to plant my vineyard

As a forge to my happiness;
I will dance on Hitler’s grave.
I am a Jew!
(fr Lyrikzeitung Ich bin a Jid! – Lyrikzeitung & Poetry News)

(historical source for poet bios: Yivo Encyclopedia of Jews of Eastern Europe The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe)