Shlomo Dikman: The Spirit of Polish Jewish Youth

Article excerpt

From the walls of Polish college halls shone the Latin words, hinc igitur ad astra -- "from here we will raise ourselves to the stars." Here, within the walls of the universities, the student was supposed to raise himself to the skies of learning and human progress. Here the mind of the citizen of the young nation on the Vistula was to be sharpened and his heart ennobled. This motto, however, could easily have been moved from the universities, where it was profaned at every step, and inscribed on many a simple Jewish home, where the young generation lived and dreamed.

Many in this generation grew up in poverty and want, and some were from the middle class, but it was a generation whose eyes were always turned toward the heights. The poverty was a "holy" one -- it did not stifle zest for life but rather urged it on to struggle. In the homes of these youths, Zionism and Bundism flourished as did both devout Jewish observance and revolutionary free thought. With these traditions, the young people went forth into the wide world. For some of them, that wider world included the Polish university.

Their numbers were not large. The historian Philip Friedman reports that in 1921-22, there were 35,000 students in all the universities in Poland, and that 8228 (24 percent) of them were Jews. In 1936-37, the overall total rose to 48,200, but the Jewish students numbered only 5700, or 11.8 percent. Many Jews in Poland went to other countries to study. In 1934, this number going elsewhere was estimated to be 3000. The number of Jewish professors and deans was minimal. Of approximately 1700 in 1935-36, there were 77 of Jewish origin, and more than half of these were converts to Christianity. Most of the balance was far removed from its Jewishness.

Jewish student circles, however, were not isolated from surrounding Jewish life. They were part of the multifaceted Jewish community. They provided the activists and the leaders for the Bund and the Poale Zion, for Revisionism and Socialism, for all the various shadings of political thought. The following lines are dedicated to the memory of Shlomo Dikman, one of that marvelous generation, who symbolized its creative potential, its spiritual energy and impetus, its love for the people and their cultural treasures.

The name of Shlomo Dikman was already surrounded by an aura of legend in prewar Warsaw. A master of Polish and Hebrew, who played like a virtuoso on both language instruments, he reached the heights of linguistic achievement while he was still in his early twenties. Shlomo Dikman, the translator of Saul Tschernichowsky (1875-1943) into Polish, in 1939 also translated all of Chayim Nachman Bialik's (1873-1934) works. He did this translation with such genius that the critics compared his work to Jabotinsky's Russian translation of Bialik, which had evoked such high praise from Maxim Gorky. (It is interesting to recall that Jabotinsky also translated Bialik in his student years.)

Was it accidental that Dikman brought precisely Bialik and Tschernichowsky to a Jewish youth steeped in Polish culture? What was it he found in those poets that made it possible to relate them to the Jewish reality? Bialik's work contains tremendous pain, hidden faith, and a summons to better days. In Bialik, and in Tschernichowsky -- who lived at the same time as Bialik but who had a different orientation -- was embodied the renaissance of Hebrew poetry. For Bialik, literature was a serious matter. He did not deceive himself, nor did he allow others to deceive themselves. He taught us to be tough on ourselves in demanding the maximum of which we were capable.

And although I know how risky it is to ascribe to poets didactic motives, it does seem to me that, through Bialik, Dikman wished to bring the assimilated Polish Jew closer to the basics of Judaism, to the eternal treasures of emotion and hope, to the essential components of the Jewish world-view and Jewish thought. …