Texts & Translation

ס’געוויין פֿון הונגעריקע קינדער

The Cry of Hungry Children

Yoysef Papyernikov

Translation by Tal Hever-Chybowski


As the war con­tin­ues, we are col­lect­ing Yid­dish lit­er­ary respons­es that help us think with the present moment, includ­ing trans­la­tions like this one of his­tor­i­cal texts with con­tem­po­rary res­o­nances. This work does not nec­es­sar­i­ly reflect the polit­i­cal opin­ions of In geveb or its edi­tors, but speaks to the way Yid­dishists are find­ing their work mean­ing­ful in a time of cri­sis. We wel­come fur­ther addi­tions to these efforts. Send your sub­mis­sions and sug­ges­tions to info@​ingeveb.​org.

War­saw-born poet Yoy­sef Papy­ernikov (18991993) is known for his pro­found poet­ic and bio­graph­i­cal ties to Palestine/​Erets Yis­roel (Land of Israel), where he lived from 1924 to 1929 and again from 1933 until his death in 1993. His most famous and endur­ing­ly pop­u­lar poem, Zol zayn” (“It May Be”), was penned in March 1924, just before or short­ly after his depar­ture from Poland. 1 1 Yoy­sef Papy­ernikov, Heymishe un noente (der­mo­nun­gen) (Tel Aviv: Far­lag Y. L. Perets, 1958), 186. Yet, the major­i­ty of his poet­ry was craft­ed in his adopt­ed home­land,” cap­tur­ing the land­scape and expe­ri­ences of the Jew­ish colony in Pales­tine as it tran­si­tioned into state­hood. His debut col­lec­tion, In zunikn land: Pales­tine lid­er (“In the Sun­ny Land: Pales­tine Poems”), pub­lished in War­saw in 1927, res­onat­ed wide­ly with the sec­u­lar­iz­ing, polit­i­cal­ly active Jew­ish youth in Poland. Its sen­ti­men­tal­ly ori­en­tal­iz­ing vers­es were often recit­ed at gath­er­ings of young Zion­ists prepar­ing to leave their homes and go to the sun­ny land.” 2 2 Yoy­sef Hilel Levi, Y. Papy­ernikov,” in Gezamlte shriftn (Lon­don: Miryem Levi, 1958), 197 – 199

Active from a young age in the Zion­ist social­ist labor move­ment, Papy­ernikov infused his poet­ry with a strong social aware­ness, address­ing the strug­gles and dire con­di­tions of the work­ing class. His sec­ond poet­ry col­lec­tion, Royt oyf shvarts (“Red on Black”; War­saw, 1929), marks a tem­po­rary shift away from palestin­er motivn” (“Pales­tine motifs”) to focus on social issues. 3 3 The expres­sion palestin­er motivn” in ref­er­ence to Papy­ernikov can be found, for exam­ple, in Kaboles-ponem far dem yungn palestin­er dikhter Papy­ernikov,” Lublin­er Tog­blat, Octo­ber 17, 1929, 4; and Moyshe Shimel, A lirish­er grus fun erets-yis­roel,” Haynt, Jan­u­ary 14, 1938, 7. A notable poem from this col­lec­tion, S’geveyn fun hun­gerike kinder” (“The Cry of Hun­gry Children”), 4 4 Yoy­sef Papy­ernikov, S’geveyn fun hun­gerike kinder,” in Royt af shvarts (War­saw: Naye kul­tur, 1929), 16 – 17. Repub­lished with minor punc­tu­a­tion changes as Geveyn fun hun­gerike kinder” in Yoy­sef Papy­ernikov, Gek­libene lid­er fun heym, bunt, krig un khurbn (New York: Ikuf far­lag: 1946), 21. trans­lat­ed here, is root­ed in the real­i­ty of the impov­er­ished work­ing class in inter­war Poland. This poem is often high­light­ed as a prime exam­ple of Papyernikov’s empa­thet­ic por­tray­al of the work­ing class’ suffering. 5 5 Yoy­sef Hilel Levi, Y. Papy­ernikov,” in Gezamlte shriftn (Lon­don: Miryem Levi, 1958), 198; Khay­im Leyb Fuks, Yoy­sef Papy­ernikov,” in 40 yor Papy­ernikov in erets-yis­roel (Tel-Aviv: Far­lag Y. L. Perets, 1965), 93; M. Tsanin, Der dikhter fun zayn folk” in ibid., 99 – 101. Accord­ing to Yoy­sef-Hilel Levi, the poem was also pop­u­lar as a song among Pol­ish Jew­ish youth, set to melody by Papy­ernikov him­self prob­a­bly, as he had done with oth­er works, includ­ing Zol zayn.”

The poem does not anchor its por­tray­al of unbear­able hunger in any spe­cif­ic social or his­tor­i­cal con­text. Although it con­cludes with a ref­er­ence to the Jew­ish rit­u­al of plac­ing can­dles near the deceased’s head, the depict­ed hor­ror tran­scends par­tic­u­lar cir­cum­stances, acquir­ing a uni­ver­sal qual­i­ty. Some motifs in the poem might nev­er­the­less be drawn from per­son­al accounts found in Papyernikov’s 1958 auto­bi­og­ra­phy, Heymishe un noente der­mo­nun­gen (Famil­iar and Inti­mate Reminiscences).

Ear­ly in these mem­oirs, Papy­ernikov recounts his impov­er­ished child­hood in War­saw, men­tion­ing that chil­dren engaged in play­ful tasks to for­get the hunger,” a phrase that res­onates with the poem’s open­ing lines. The chil­dren in the poem report to their par­ents: Mir hobn alts geton shoyn, alts – / Dem hunger tsu fargesn” (lit­er­al­ly: We have tried every­thing, every­thing / to for­get the hunger”). In the rhymed trans­la­tion here, these lines are ren­dered dif­fer­ent­ly to high­light hunger as the dom­i­nant psy­cho­log­i­cal force shap­ing the chil­dren’s experience.

At the end of the poem, with­in the children’s dream, the nar­ra­tion shifts away from them, increas­ing­ly reveal­ing the hor­ri­ble real­i­ty that was pre­vi­ous­ly con­cealed. We see chil­dren deformed by hunger, with large heads and twist­ed legs, a depic­tion that par­al­lels Papyernikov’s mem­oir of the cat­a­stroph­ic hunger dur­ing the Ger­man occu­pa­tion of Poland in 1918: as the hunger brought to the world new­born chil­dren with­out nails on their hands and feet, and took away from chil­dren who had already been walk­ing for a while their abil­i­ty to walk and stand, and made them sit down with their par­a­lyzed lit­tle legs below them.” Fol­low­ing this pas­sage, Papy­ernikov recalls the des­per­ate attempts by his old­er broth­er Kive to make a soup from dried pota­to peels he found in the garbage. This motif resem­bles the chil­dren’s actions in the poem: Mir hobn dare shtik­lekh / Lang un gut gepru­vt tsekayen” (lit­er­al­ly: We tried to chew on dried scraps, long and well”). In the trans­la­tion, the deci­sion to con­cretize dare shtik­lekh” as dry pota­to skins” is con­scious­ly informed by the pas­sage in Papyernikov’s autobiography.

My moti­va­tion to trans­late this poem arose from the har­row­ing real­i­ty of chil­dren starv­ing in Papyernikov’s adopt­ed home­land today. This is not a dream with­in a poem, but an intol­er­a­ble truth. This real­i­ty becomes even more unbear­able in light of those who, on the oth­er side, attack aid trucks meant to alle­vi­ate this hunger, spilling food bags onto the road. As the ide­al­is­tic dreams of Papyernikov’s gen­er­a­tion dis­in­te­grate into a man-made human­i­tar­i­an cat­a­stro­phe, may the pro­found human­ism and uni­ver­sal­ism of his poem serve as a call to halt this relent­less destruc­tion, striv­ing to restore hope to that once sun­ny land.

I wish to thank Natalia Kryn­ic­ka, David For­man, Sha­har Fineberg and the edi­tors for their com­ments on the translation.

Click here to down­load a PDF of the text and translation.

ס’געוויין פֿון הונגעריקע קינדער

— טאַטע, ברויט!
— מאַמע, עסן!
מיר האָבן אַלץ געטאָן שוין, אַלץ —
דעם הונגער צו פֿאַרגעסן;
מיר האָבן זיך שוין אויסגעשפּילט אין אַלע שפּילערײַען,
און ער לאָזט זיך נישט פֿאַרשפּילן;
מיר האָבן אַלע דאַרע שטיקלעך
לאַנג און גוט געפּרוּווט צעקײַען,
און מיר קאָנען אים נישט שטילן
און פֿאַרשלאָגן;
מיר האָבן שוין די פֿינגער ביז די ביינדלעך אויסגענאָגט
און — ס'הערט נישט אויף צו נאָגן;
מיר האָבן מיטן הונגער שוין געפּרוּווט
זיך לייגן שלאָפֿן —
לאָזן זיך די אויגן־לעפּלעך נישט פֿאַרמאַכן, —
ליגן מיר אַזוי, די אויגן אָפֿן,
שלאָפֿן אומרויִקע,
ווי מיר וואָלטן וואַכן,
חלומט אונדז : אַ שטוב — אַ קבֿר,
ס'לויפֿן מײַז פֿון ליידיק קאַלטע טעפּ,
אין מיטן שטוב — פֿיר ברענענדיקע ליכט,
אויף דער ערד — צוויי טויטע,
נעבן זיי — מיט גרויסע קעפּ
און פֿיסלעך אויסגעדרייטע —
וויינען קינדער,
רײַסן פֿון זיי טויטערהייט
און בעטן מיט די לעצטע כּוחות:
— מאַמע, עסן!
— טאַטע, ברויט!..

The Cry of Hungry Children

– Mommy, food! – Daddy, bread!
We’ve done everything to think of something else instead
But we cannot forget the hunger.
We’ve played every game we know
But hunger always wins.

We’ve tried chewing on dry potato skins,
Chewing long and chewing well.
It doesn’t quell the hunger.

We’ve gnawed our fingers to the bone,
But hunger doesn’t pause.
It gnaws and gnaws.
We’ve tried to go to bed unfed.
Our eyelids will not close.
And so we fall into a restless doze
With open eyes as if we were awake.

In our dream: a room – a grave.
Mice pouring out of cold and empty pots.
At the center of the room
Burning, candles four.
Two corpses lying on the floor.
And next to them, large-headed
And with twisted legs,
Children cry,
And with their final breath
They nag their parents
As if they were not dead:
– Mommy, food! – Daddy, bread!

Papyernikov, Yoysef. “The Cry of Hungry Children.” In geveb, June 2024: Trans. Tal Hever-Chybowski. https://ingeveb.org/texts-and-translations/hungry-children.
Papyernikov, Yoysef. “The Cry of Hungry Children.” Translated by Tal Hever-Chybowski. In geveb (June 2024): Accessed Jun 16, 2024.


Yoysef Papyernikov


Tal Hever-Chybowski

Tal Hever-Chybowski, born in the United States in 1986, grew up in Jerusalem where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in history. In 2008, he moved to Berlin to continue his studies and earned a master's degree in history from the Humboldt University of Berlin. He then relocated to Paris in 2014 to lead the Maison de la culture yiddish - Bibliothèque Medem. In 2016, he launched Mikan Ve'eylakh: Journal for Diasporic Hebrew, a project between Berlin and Paris. The following year, he founded Yiddish in Berlin: Summer Program for Yiddish Language and Literature at the Free University of Berlin. In 2021, he directed the Yiddish play Jacob Jacobson at the Théâtre de l'Opprimé in Paris. Engaged in writing, translation, theater, and cinema, he is currently working on his doctorate at the University of Göttingen.