Mar 23, 2022
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine hits the one month mark, the editors at In geveb are anguished by the continuation of horrific violence and devastation. In the past weeks, we have turned to different resources in the field to uplift Ukrainian voices and locate resilience and resistance at this time: three poems by Yiddish poetesses from Ukraine, a compilation of teaching materials on Ukraine and a call to wrestle with the tyranny of modern-day Hamans. This week, we introduce the sorrowful, stirring poems of Osher Shvartsman (1890−1919) in Josh Price’s delicate translations. We welcome further submissions that will allow our readers to contextualize current events.
Born in 1890 in Vilnia, a village in the Zhitomir region, Shvartsman spent much of his adulthood in Kyiv, moving in 1909 to work and write in that bustling city in the company of other Yiddish modernists (including his cousin, the poet Dovid Hofshteyn). In his short life, Shvartsman found himself on the battlefield again and again: serving in the Russian cavalry in 1911, fighting in World War I and volunteering for the Red Army in 1919. He died in 1919, fighting Polish troops in Volhynia.
Though his first poems were written in Ukrainian, Russian and Hebrew, Shvartsman began to write in Yiddish in 1908, penning his first Yiddish poem, “Di kretshme,” in 1909. Although his poetic legacy was cut short, consisting of some sixty poems which were never published in book form, Shvartsman would be lionized as one of the founders of Soviet Yiddish poetry after his death, not only on the basis of his literary output but also because he was the first Yiddish poet to enlist in the Red Army who “opened a new chapter for Jewish heroism.”
Pincas Lazaro Zitnitzky, “Osher Shvartsman: der dikhter fun erlekhn vort un heldishn tat,” in A halber yorhundert Idishe literatur, (Buenos Aires: Eygns, 1952), 201.
His poetry was hailed as “new” and “fresh” in its approach to revolutionary romanticism.
Perets Markish quoted by Yosef Opatoshu in “Perets Markish,” Zamlbikher 6 (New York: 1945, 433)
Yet, as Price shared with us when he first pitched the piece, we can read the poetry beyond its specific context and find meaning in it now: “the poetry is still transcendent, timestamp included.” In some poems, Shvartsman paints the surrounding Eastern European landscapes in lyrical, striking tones, layering psychological moods with the natural world. Amidst war, Shvartsman envisions moments of recovery and renewal: he writes of longing for rest, quiet, love, nature, and joy, reminding readers that these, too, can continue to exist in times of war.
See Shea Tenenboym, “Osher Shvartsman” in Shnit fun mayn feld (New York: Shea Tenenboym bukh komitet, 1949), 439.
The comforts of an intimate, familiar interior, where “soon a kettle of tea will be ready” (“War Motifs,” 1917); the quiet after the gunfire, “the sound of rest/ Settling….on tired battlefields” (Untitled, 1918); and triumphant Songs, sprinkled throughout these poems, of a radiant future.
Click here for a PDF of the poems and translations.
The full text of Ale lider un briv by Osher Shvartsman (Moscow: Melukhe Farlag, 1961) can be accessed through the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library.