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Shmuel Halkin (November 23 / December 5, 1897 – September 21, 1960)

Updated: Apr 7, 2022

Poet, playwright and translator Shmuel Halkin was born in the town of Rogachev, Mogilev province (Belarus). His elder brother, a great connoisseur of Hebrew poetry, was his first teacher.

From an early age, Shmuel was fond of drawing. The dream of becoming an artist led him to Kiev, where he entered an art school.

His literary debut took place in 1921 in the Yekaterinoslav poetry collection “Trep” (Steps), compiled by Peretz Markish.

Thanks to the support of another Yiddish poet, David Hofshteyn, Halkin's first poetic book "Lider" (Poems) was issued in Kiev a year later by the publishing house "Vidervuks" (Young Wood). With it, he came to Moscow, where he became an active member of the circle of Jewish writers and artists. He saw his works printed in leading Soviet Yiddish literary publications: in the collection "Barg aruf" (Up the Hill), in the magazines "Shtrom" (Stream), "Shtern" (Star), "Di royte velt" (The Red World).

In 1929, Halkin published his second poetry book "Vey un mut" (Pain and Courage). There was more pain than courage in these verses. Post-revolutionary Soviet Russia was engulfed in tense everyday life, and the stormy stream of new political agenda was ruthlessly sweeping away the traditional Jewish way of life with its precepts and commandments.

Moyshe Litvakov, one of the main ideologists of Jewish literature in the USSR, wrote about the young poet in 1926: “Halkin is an interesting phenomenon. A certain Yiddish Hebraist. Hebrew recitative is heard in the rhythm of his poems. His poetic talent is infused more with the roots of Hebrew literature than with the traditions of Yiddish literature. ‟

Halkin as playwright is known for his poetic dramas “Bar-Kochba” and “Sulamith”, both based on A. Goldfaden’s operettas, as well as "Aharon Friedman" (1939), "Umshterblekhkayt" (Immortality, 1940), "Der shpilfoygl" (Songbird), and "Af toyt un af lebn” (To Death for Life, 1944-1945) - the first poetic drama in Yiddish, dedicated to the Warsaw ghetto uprising.

Halkin actively participated in the work of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), was a member of the editorial board of the newspaper "Eynikayt".

The poet translated Russian poems of Pushkin, Yesenin, Blok into Yiddish. For the Moscow GOSET Theater, Halkin translated Shakespeare's tragedy “King Lear.”

In 1950 he was arrested in the JAC case. He spent over a year in the prison hospital. He was released in 1955 and later rehabilitated.

Both in the GULAG and after his release, despite bans and ailment, he continued to create poetry.

Shmuel Halkin died in 1960 in Moscow.

The last collection of poems "Mayn oytser" (My Treasure) was released after his death.

in 1988, a collection of post-arrest poems was published in Israel: "Lider fun tfise un lager" (Poems from the Prison and the Camp). Among them there are poems in Russian, written in Jewish letters.

Of Things Past by Shmuel Halkin

Translated by A.Z. Foreman

My father's lips as if speaking someone's blessing,

His eyes turned to the hard green west and lost;

He lifts the death-cold curtain at the window

And with his fingers brushes away the frost.

Two stars, two needles stuck dead in the sky;

And the frog-rumpled marsh in silvery gray.

Oh let us keep the weekday cloth off the table!

At least let a keepsake of the Sabbath stay.

Deep graves, red clay by Shmuel Halkin

(word-by-word translation)

Deep graves, red clay -

Once I had a home.

Springtime - cedars used to blossom,

Autumn - birds used to fly away,

Winter - snow used to fall there,

Now - “Alas and alack” blossoms there.

Disaster struck my home,

Door and gate are open

For the murders, for the skinners,

Those, who slaughter little children,

Those, who hang the elder,

Those, who spare no one.

Year after year have passed,

Those graves are full,

And still redder is the clay,

That clay is now my home.

There my brothers lie,

Those torn limb from limb,

Those murdered at home,

Those shot near the grave.

Deep graves, red clay -

Once I had a home.

B. Sandler

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