Itsik Fefer: A Yiddish Wunder Kind of the Bolshevik Revolution
Estraikh, Gennady, Shofar
Itsik Fefer (1900-1952) was one of the most prominent Soviet Yiddish writers, who perfectly combined the two talents of a poet and an apparatchik. His 1922 poetry collection, Splinters, established him as a rising literary star. The same year he formulated his literary credo of "simple speech," which would become the trademark of his work. By 1924, Fefer already occupied one of the highest places in the hierarchy of Soviet Yiddish literature. In 1927 he was one of the founding members of the Ukrainian Association of Yiddish Revolutionary Writers. He combined editorial positions at both Yiddish literary journals, Prolit (Proletarian Literature) and Di royte velt (Red World), published in Ukraine in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The creation of the Writers' Union increased Fefer's importance. He represented Yiddish literature on the board of the Soviet and Ukrainian's Writers' Unions. During WWII, Fefer became a leading figure in the Jewish Antifascist Committee. In 1943 he, together with Solomon Mikhoels, visited the United States, Canada, Mexico, and England. Fefer finished his life in prison, accused of Jewish nationalism and of spying for the Americans.
Revolutions treasure young people and despise the older generations. The oldtimers are considered to be suspicious and, therefore, have to vanish as soon as possible. In 1924 the young proletarian Yiddish poet Izi Kharik preached:
Fargeyt, fargeyt, ir umetike zeydes,
mit berd tseshrokene, farlofene mit shney!...
In letstn brokh, in letstn vey
zayt ir farblibn letste eydes, --
fargeyt, fargeyt, ir umetike zeydes!
(Pass on, pass on, you lonely grandfathers,
With frightened beards covered with snow,
In the last sorrow, in the final grief
You're still here, the final witnesses.
Pass on, pass on, you lonely grandfathers!(2))
David Bergelson, the founder of Yiddish literary impressionism, in his novel Mideshadin (Severe Judgement), tried to show that even the old guard of the Bolsheviks had to be replaced by young people.(3) The regime needed people like the protagonist of Perets Markish's story "Khaveyrim kustarn" ("Comrades Artisans"). This young Jewish communist, a demobilized Red Army soldier, is always ready to return to his squadron, and therefore he never, even in the heat of the summer, takes off his military greatcoat.(4)
Among the Yiddish writers, too, young people were to occupy central positions. The poet Itsik Fefer was one of the most prominent among these Yiddish "children of the revolution." Fefer was born in 1900 in the shtetl of Shpola, Kiev Region. His father was a teacher, his mother was a stocking-maker. He was only 17 when he became a member of the Bund and a trade-union functionary. On 4 June 1918 -- we know the date exactly(5) -- he wrote his first poem. 1919 was a stormy year in Fefer's life. He left the Bund and became a Communist; the White Guard police arrested him as a member of an underground group and incarcerated him in the infamous Lukianovka Prison in Kiev; after the liberation he volunteered for the Red Army. In the prison, his cellmate was Isaac Nusinov, later a significant Yiddish -- and even more Russian -- literary theorist and critic. After the Civil War, Fefer edited a provincial newspaper. In 1922, the Central Committee of the Ukrainian Communist Party transferred him to Kiev and placed him at the head of the artists' trade union.
In Kiev, Fefer joined the local group of young Yiddish literary talents, called the Vidervuks (New Growth). This literary nursery emerged on the ruins of the organization Kultur-lige (Cultural League), which had created a network of Yiddish educational, publishing, and cultural institutions all over Ukraine as well as in some neighboring countries. The Kultur-lige had also yielded the first post-revolutionary harvest of Yiddish literary talents, such as David Hofshtein, Perets Markish, and Leib Kvitko, who -- together with a few more experienced writers, most notably David Bergelson, Der Nister, and Lipe Reznik -- became referred to as the Kiev group of Yiddish writers. …