Jewish motives in Ukrainian poetry

Updated: May 3

According to historical data, Jewish communities on the area of the present-day Ukraine began to form in the 15th century. However, signs of the Jewish population of these lands can be traced much deeper into antiquity. The Israeli historian Shmuel Ettinger assessed that on the eve of the mass extermination of Jews by Bogdan Khmelnitsky and his Cossacks, in the middle of the 17th century, there lived 51,000 Jews within Ukraine.


During almost three centuries which followed, the Ukrainian Jewish community was growing to become one of the largest ones in the world. According to the 1897 census, there were 1.87 million Jews in the eastern and central parts of today's Ukraine, which accounted for 41.3% of the Jewish population of the Russian Empire and almost 10% of the region’s total population.


In its historical development, Ukrainian Jewry experienced both periods of spiritual prosperity (the birth of Hasidism, intensive development of diverse religious and secular culture) and tragedies (the above-mentioned Khmelnitsky’s and other Cossacks’ attacks, the Uman massacre in 1768, Menachem Mendel Beilis’ case in 1911, the 1918-1920 pogroms, not to mention the Holocaust).


Before the October Revolution of 1917, the vast majority of the territory of present-day Ukraine was lying inside the Pale of Settlement. The Jewish population there was quite compact, but geographically and economically it lived in significant interaction with the surrounding non-Jewish population.1 On the eve of that revolution, over 40% of Ukrainian Jews lived in cities and towns side by side with Ukrainians, Russians and other nationalities.


This explains the rather close Jewish-Ukrainian cultural contacts. The Ukrainian dialect of Yiddish has absorbed much more Slavicisms than other dialects, including hundreds of words of Ukrainian origin. The Ukraine-born Yiddish writers never hid their cultural ties with the local population: just the opposite, they willingly incorporated words, phrases and entire paragraphs of Ukrainian speech in their works. This is typical of two of the three classics of Yiddish literature: Mendele Moicher Sforim and Sholom Aleichem.


After that revolution, the Ukrainian influence on Yiddish literature went on growing. For example, in Der Nister's historical novel “The Mashber Family” some Ukrainian folk songs are included in their entirety, as well as detailed descriptions of Ukrainian folk singers.


Even more Ukrainian motifs can be found in Soviet Yiddish poetry. Osher Shvartsman, Perets Markish, Leib Kvitko and many others dedicated series of their poems to Ukraine and to everything it symbolizes.


In the light of the horrifying military and political events unfolding in front of our eyes, I would especially like to mention the poem "Ukraine", written in 1942 by David Hofstein (1889-1952) and included in his collection "Ikh gloyb" ("I Believe", 1945). It contains a prophecy that Ukraine will shudder with horror, but it will be able to heal its bleeding wounds.

Here and below, the verses are given in word-by-word translation.


UKRAINE


I see you raise your wounded hand

From smoke and grief, from fire and shame.

Here your head is rising in gore.

I see your face! It's alive, yes, it is!

Your gaze, still childish, is already riddled with maternal grief.

And there shines a joy that comes after danger,

Understanding that comes after confusion/dazedness and error

Like spring waters from under the ice,

I see your body rising, I watch your image,

On which the remnants of clothing barely hold -

And dirty rags are falling off your body.

It is already possible to distinguish that you’re not a child, but an adult woman,

This light body shining with beauty

Through shame, mockery, and enemy’s violence,

This is a young, pure, self-confident force,

Who resists, cleaning itself and laughing,

Who will soon heal her painful wounds and overcome her shame -

This is Ukraine, my home,

Ukraine, my country.


Yiddish poets dedicated their works to prominent Ukrainian writers, to the beauties of Ukrainian nature, expressing their spiritual attachment to that land. For example, Itzik Fefer (1900-1952) addressed the Ukrainian poet Maxim Rylsky:


Rich in your smart wealth,

I am singing songs about Ukraine with you.


Of course, tragic pages of Jewish-Ukrainian relations are widely reflected in Yiddish literature as well, but this is a subject for a separate discussion.


Now let's take a look in another direction: Jewish motifs in Ukrainian poetry. While mentioning this theme, the first to come to mind are the anti-Semitic lines from the poem "Haydamaks" by the major classic of Ukrainian poetry, Taras "Kobzar" Shevchenko (1814-1861):

So in the morning a filthy kike

Was scoffing at a Cossack.

...

"Open it, you damned kike,

Or else you will be beaten, open it!”

...

A heeb is counting the money

Under the bed, a damned one...


These passages are typical of Shevchenko's poetry. Almost constantly, "kike" or “heeb” appears in it as a collective, impersonal, negative image.


But Shevchenko is loved and recognized by the Ukrainians not for that, but for the fact that the main motive of his creation was the trampled national pride of his people.

Throughout their history, Ukrainians have almost always been under someone's dominion: either Polish or Russian. Therefore, as the national poet "Kobzar" was obliged to hate strangers, the Jews being included in the category of "aliens". Moreover, economically the Jews were (more precisely, seemed to be) more prosperous than the poor Ukrainian peasants.


Now let’s recall a beautiful (in all respects) poem "Moses" by another classic of Ukrainian literature - Ivan Franko (1856-1916), in which he "forced" the tongue-tied Jewish prophet to speak Ukrainian.


In the image of Moses, a legendary Jewish historical figure, Franko embodied the traits of an ideal national leader and expressed the dream that one day the Ukrainians would have a leader of the proper magnitude. In this poem, Moses addresses his people with determination and elation:


O Israel! If you only knew

What my heart is full of!

If you only knew how much I love you!

How I love you unspeakably!

You are my family, you are my child,

You are all my honor and glory,

You contain my spirit, my future,

And the beauty, and the state.


The enduring spiritual greatness of the Jewish people was mentioned also by the leading Ukrainian poets of the Soviet period: Maxim Rylsky, Volodymyr Sosiura, Pavlo Tychyna, Dmytro Pavlychko, Mykola Bazhan and many others. This idea was especially vividly embodied during the World War II, when the humanistic Ukrainian intelligentsia strongly dissociated itself from the bloody deeds of the Ukrainian policemen in the Nazi-occupied areas.


For example, Pavlo Tychyna (1891-1967) wrote in his poem "To the Jewish People" (1943):


The Jewish people, the glorious one! I am not intending

To comfort you. Everyone should listen it:

At this time when your sons are destined

To die from the Nazi butt -

I want to anthem your strength, your strength -

The immortal, eternal power of your spirit!


In the Jewish themes of the Ukrainian poetry of that epoch, the key words were: brotherhood, unity, steadfastness, common destiny.


It is worth to separately discuss the Jewish "notes" by one of the greatest Ukrainian poets Larysa Kosach, known under the pseudonym Lesya Ukrainka (1871-1913). Here the word "notes" has a double meaning, since Lesya created poems called "A Jewish Melody", "Jewish Motives". They are lyrical and melodious indeed, their rhythm has a pronounced Jewish character. The poetess also wrote the historical poem "Israel in Egypt".


We can feel that the ancient themes of slavery and struggle for freedom seriously occupied the Ukrainian literature classics and led them to parallels between the destinies of the Jewish and Ukrainian peoples.

In 1904, another wonderful poem by Ukrainka appeared, which begins with the following lines:


And you once fought like Israel,

My Ukraine! God himself set

The relentless force of blind fate.

Against you.


This poem has one negative issue from the Jewish point of view: Bohdan Khmelnitsky, represented as some analogue of Moses, is chosen as its main character. In the poem, he acts as a leader paving way to the "Promised Land" for his people. This figure, who is guilty of deaths of many thousands of Jews and has rightly deserved the Jewish saying “Let his memory be erased”, is considered a national hero of the Ukrainian people, since he led their uprising against the Polish yoke and contributed to the emergence of an independent Ukrainian state, albeit for a short period (1651-1654). During that period, two thirds of the Jewish communities of Ukraine were exterminated. However, in this poem Bohdan appears not as the Jews’ executioner, but as the Ukrainians’ consolidator, as a fighter for their freedom and independence against

…the nations that growled seeking your blood,

Like lions in the desert.


In this poem, Khmelnitsky complains that because of the hatred between the brothers


... the spirit suddenly betrayed.

Again darkness, and horror, and discord.

And again the Egyptian captivity began,

But not in a foreign land, but in our own.


The poetess compares the Egyptian slavery of the Jews with the spiritual exile of the Ukrainians. The final strophes of the poem are imbued with a downright Zionist spirit:


How long, O Lord, how long

Will we wander searching for

The native land on our own land?

What sin had we sinned against the Spirit,

For which He broke his great covenant?

Then, maybe, the homesickness

Will teach us, where and how to seek the homeland.

Then the father will show his son

A silver haze in the distance

And he’ll say, “This is the land of your people!

So fight for the homeland and attain it,

Or else you’ll perish in exile

As a stranger, as an alien, in disgrace / dishonor.


At the moment of its creation, Lesya Ukrainka's poem had a tremendous impact on Ukrainian national identity. It was widely popularized in democratically minded circles of the Ukrainian intelligentsia. During the Soviet period, this work was virtually forgotten, the reason for which is clear: the censorship could not tolerate such obvious parallels between the fates of the two peoples.


At last, fresh winds began to blow. In 1994, the full text of the poem was recited on Ukrainian television by the famous actress Ada Rogovtseva, and it was published in the Kiev newspaper "Eynikayt" ("Unity"), issued by the local Society of Jewish Culture and Education named after Sholom Aleichem.


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