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David Wolpe (1908, Keidan/Kėdainiai - 2006, Johannesburg)

Updated: Dec 6, 2022

The poet, essayist, prose writer and journalist David Wolpe could serve as a model for an almost extinct Jewish tribe, the so-called "Litvakes". They were said to have a cross in his head; to prove his case, a Litvak is ready to lie far and wide.

Wolpe was born near Kovno (now Kaunas), in the town of Keidan (now Kėdainiai, Lithuania), into a large and poor family. He received a traditional Jewish education in a cheder. Then he graduated from the Tarbut gymnasium, where instruction was conducted in Hebrew.

Under the influence of his older brother, David was carried away by socialist ideas. At the age of 16, he founded and edited the “Ha-Nesher” (The Eagle) youth magazine, an organ of the Ha-Shomer ha-tzair (The Young Guard) movement.

In 1930, David in a group of youngsters left for Palestine, where he became a member of the kibbutz Beit Zera, now one of the most respected kibbutzes in the Jordan Valley. He worked on orange plantations and vineyards in Binyamin and Petah Tikva, paved roads, and participated in the construction of Tel Aviv houses.

Wolpe got increasingly involved in the communist movement of Palestine, banned by the British administration. After his arrest and release from prison, he was forced to leave Palestine.

In 1936 David returned to Lithuania, where he was drafted into the army. In the very first days of the occupation of Lithuania by German troops, Wolpe was placed into the Kovno ghetto, and in 1944 - in the Dachau concentration camp.

In his autobiographical dilogy "Me and My World", Wolpe described his “resurrection”: he was able to get out of a mountain of corpses, destined for being burned in a Nazi crematorium.

After the liberation of Dachau in April 1945, the emaciated Wolpe was admitted to the St. Attilia Hospital in Bavaria for treatment. There he met his wife-to-be.

After almost five years in Munich (the administrative center of the camps for displaced persons) Wolpe with his family immigrated to South Africa, where his older brother had lived.

In Johannesburg, Wolpe became an active contributor to periodicals in Yiddish and Hebrew. From 1954 to 1970, he edited the local Yiddish periodical “Dorem Afrike” (South Africa). In addition, he wrote poems, short stories, articles, essays, and critical reviews on modern literature for Yiddish periodicals of Europe, Israel and the USA.

In 1959-1960. Wolpe published in the newspaper “Afrikaner Yiddish tsaytung” a book of his memoirs "A yid in der litvisher armey" (A Jew in the Lithuanian Army). In 1978, his large poetic book “A volkn un a veg” (A Cloud and a Road) appeared - a result of his 30 years’ creation.

Then followed the collections of essays "A vort in zayn tsayt” (A Word in Its Due Time, 1984) and "Mit Avrom Sutzkever iber zain lidervelt" (With Avram Sutzkever Through His Poetic World, 1985). In 1987, a collection of short stories "Heymen, khaloymes, koshmarn" (Houses, Dreams, Nightmares, 1987) was published, and in 1991 - a two-volume collection of poems and essays "Krikveg" (The Road Back).

The past did not let the writer go, thus almost all of his prose was of a memoir nature. The pinnacle of Wolpe's creation in this genre was the book "Ikh un mayn welt" (Me and My World, 1997-1999).

In 1983 in Israel, David Wolpe was awarded the prestigious Itzik Manger Prize for his contributions to Yiddish literature.

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