Texts & Translation

Selections from Yidishe dikhterins

Dina Libkes and Hinde Roytblat

Translation by Reyzl Grace MoChridhe


As I write, Russ­ian forces have reached the north­ern edge of Kyiv, which once was home to both of these poets and the edi­tor in whose anthol­o­gy I first encoun­tered them — Ezra Kor­man. After leav­ing Ukraine, Kor­man came to the Unit­ed States and, buck­ing con­ven­tion in his choice of res­i­dence as in so many oth­er things, set­tled in the Mid­west. Though he spent the reminder of his life in Detroit and I find myself in Min­neapo­lis, as a fel­low immi­grant to the region I can’t help but feel a kin­ship with Kor­man, who ded­i­cat­ed much of his career to try­ing to under­stand what this dis­tant place — so far from Kyiv or even New York — could do for the cause of Yid­dish cul­ture and the free­dom of cre­ative expression.

Pub­lished in 1928, Korman’s anthol­o­gy of poet­ry by women writ­ers, Yidishe dikhterins, was one of many efforts to reach out to oth­er kinds of periph­eries of the Yid­dish lit­er­ary world and to raise up oth­er voic­es from the mar­gins. As a poet, I was struck by the hon­esty, per­cep­tion, and skill of its con­trib­u­tors. As a lin­guist and trans­la­tor, though, what stood out to me most was the abun­dance of ellipses. An astound­ing pro­por­tion of the poems con­tain at least one, as though to high­light how small a por­tion of any life a poem cap­tures, or to sug­gest how every poem remains unfin­ished until every gen­er­a­tion has had its chance to read, or to remind us of all that, for so many rea­sons, must remain unsaid — or even unlived.

Dine Libkes’s On the Oth­er Side of the Wall” is not her the­mat­i­cal­ly deep­est or her most tech­ni­cal­ly daz­zling poem, but it is among her most heart­felt. Orig­i­nal­ly from Slovet­shno, Ukraine, Libkes moved to Kyiv as a young woman, work­ing first as a teacher and then as an assis­tant librar­i­an. Her fic­tion, poet­ry, and trans­la­tions appeared reg­u­lar­ly in left-wing pub­li­ca­tions and, dur­ing that brief, promis­ing time when it seemed the Rev­o­lu­tion of 1917 might yet bring free­dom to the peo­ples of the Russ­ian Empire, she became a sig­na­to­ry to the found­ing of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Jew­ish Writ­ers. There­after, her life becomes a series of ellipses. She sur­vived the khurbn by going to Cen­tral Asia and was last known to be liv­ing in the vicin­i­ty of Kyiv again after the War, leav­ing us to won­der what her life was like in that ter­ri­ble cru­cible and its after­math, and whether the long­ing and intense affec­tion for oth­er women that glows at the heart of so many of her poems was ever requit­ed. As an LGBT librar­i­an and teacher myself, fac­ing a slew of attempts here in the Mid­west to ban mate­ri­als like Libkes’s poems and lis­ten­ing to promi­nent fig­ures on the right exhort my fel­low cit­i­zens to sup­port Russia’s inva­sion of Libkes’s home­land because there are no Pride flags in Rus­sia,” I have so few weapons with which to fight back oth­er than her ellipses.

Hinde Royt­blat was born in Cher­nobyl, which, as of this writ­ing, has been cap­tured by Russ­ian forces. As a teenag­er, she was deeply affect­ed by the 1905 Rev­o­lu­tion, join­ing the Russ­ian Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty and tak­ing fac­to­ry jobs in Kyiv. Although she start­ed pub­lish­ing in 1912, she dis­owned her ear­ly work after the 1917 Rev­o­lu­tion, declar­ing that it had no mean­ing … now” and reded­i­cat­ing her­self as a work­er on the cul­tur­al front.” Lis­ten­ing to Pres­i­dent Zelensky’s speech­es, I think often of Roytblat’s We March” and its sense of qui­et resolve and patient ded­i­ca­tion, even as Royt­blat finds a kind of action in the busy[ness]” of mourn­ing as much as in the prover­bial sol­dier­ing on.’ Still, what haunts me is the ellip­sis at the end of Snitkov,” with its descrip­tion of the ruined shtetl and the bare fig­ure of Lenin, whose stat­ues have been com­ing down so quick­ly since the annex­a­tion of Crimea that the Ukraini­ans have dubbed the process Lenin­fall.” A few days ago, Israel began prepa­ra­tions to receive refugees from Ukraine. It is to be hoped that this war will include no ded­i­cat­ed pogrom, but it is still cer­tain that what remains of Ukraine’s ven­er­a­ble Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties will be fur­ther emp­tied, both into Israel and into the dias­po­ra. It is unavoid­able that price­less trea­sures of Jew­ish cul­tur­al her­itage still resid­ing in Ukraine’s syn­a­gogues and cul­tur­al cen­ters, muse­ums and libraries, will be lost or destroyed. There will, once again, be ruins of shtetlekh and, indeed, deep­er ruins made of what are already the ruins of shtetlekh. What, then, is Roytblat’s ellip­sis? Is it a reminder that life — and specif­i­cal­ly Jew­ish life — car­ries on? Or is it a reminder that there is so much of what is lost that will nev­er be described tru­ly, or maybe even men­tioned again? Per­haps both.

I know these few words of mine will be quite dat­ed by the time they are read. I cast them onto the chop­py sea of the future, uncer­tain where they will land or how they will be read. In this, I am again like Kor­man, who put out his anthol­o­gy to dis­mis­sive reviews and lost his pub­lish­er — L. M. Shteyn — a tidy sum. Kor­man died in 1959, hav­ing lived long enough to see the Sovi­et régime dash the hopes of Dine Libkes and Hinde Royt­blat and so many oth­ers for a grow­ing free­dom — long enough to see the offi­cial­iza­tion of Yid­dish in Ukraine reversed, the last Yid­dish the­atre in Ukraine closed (in Cher­nivt­si in 1950), sev­en of Ukraine’s bright­est lumi­nar­ies extin­guished in the Lubyan­ka on the Night of the Mur­dered Poets (only a few of so many vic­tims of Stal­in­ist ter­ror). Yet the anthol­o­gy he assem­bled in 1928 car­ries the voice of each of its poets still as some­thing liv­ing: an expres­sion of long­ing for inti­ma­cy and com­mu­ni­ty, a dec­la­ra­tion of defi­ance toward con­ven­tion and ter­ror, an open­ing of the heart into a break­ing world that could end in noth­ing oth­er than an ellipsis …

Note from the edi­tors: We have repro­duced the Yid­dish text accord­ing to the orthog­ra­phy of the orig­i­nal volume.

Click here to down­load a PDF of the text and trans­la­tion. The full work is avail­able at this link from the Steven Spiel­berg Dig­i­tal Yid­dish Library.

פון יענער זייט וואַנט

געווידמעט ל. ר.

פון יענער זייט מיין כיידער־‎וואַנט
שלאָפט אַ יונגע מיט מיר בּאַנאַנד;
ווייס איך, ווייסט זי,
אַז פון יענער זייט וואנט! . . .

טרעפט אַמאָל אין כאָלעם,
רוקט זיך אָפּ די וואנט,
דערפיל איך איר נאַקעטן ווארעם —
איר האנט —

בּרויז אין מיר מיין יוגנט אוף,
איך כאַפּ זיך אוף —
אַ וואנט !
ווערט טויט-פאַרדראָסיק פאַר ווענטישער אַלטקייט,
פאַר שטיינערנער קנלט . . .

פון יענער זייט וואנט
שלאָפט אַ יונגע מיט מיר בּאַנאַנד;
ווייסט איך, ווייסט זי,
אַז פון יענער זייט וואנט . .

The Other Side of the Wall

for L. R.

On the other side of the school wall
a girl is sleeping with me;
I know, and she knows,
just on the other side of the wall! . .

Sometimes, in a dream,
the wall drops away.
I feel her naked warmth –
her hand –

My youth blazes up within me,
and I wake with a start –
A wall!
Its senescence and its stony cold
grow wearisome.

On the other side of the wall,
a girl and I are sleeping together;
I know, and she knows,
just on the other side of the wall . . .

מיר שפּאַנען

מיר שטייען געבּויגן די קעפּ פאַר די אָרנס,
און רירן פּאַמעלאַך מיט ציטריקע פינגער
דעם רויטן געוואַנט.
איר זיינט ניט די לעצטע,
פאַר וועלכע מיר זינגענדיק קניען.
צום וועג פון בּייסאוילעם
פיל רויטע און שוואַרצע געוואַנטן זיך ציען.
מיר שפּאַנען.

אַ וויילע פאַרנעמט ווער פון אונז
אייער לעצטן פאַרבּאָרגענעם טרויער.
געבּויגן די קעפּ פאַר די אָרנס,
פאַרהאַלט זיך אַ וויילע דער אוילעם בּאַם טויער.
מיר שפּאַנען.

פון אונז ווער פאַרטראַכט זיך אַ וויילע —
ווער זיינט איר, הארוגים, פון וואַנען?
מיר שפּאַנען.

We March

With bent heads we stand before the coffins
and slowly touch the red cloth
with trembling fingers.
You are not the last
for whom we will kneel, singing.
Many red and black cloths flutter
on the way from the graveyard.
We march.

Your latest buried sorrow
keeps one of us busy for a while.
With heads bowed before the caskets
the crowd tarries at the gate.
We march.

One of us loses herself in thought for a while —
Who are you, you slain ones, and from where?
We march.


סניטקאָוו — אַ שטעטל
אַ שטעטל בּאַם גרעניץ,
אַ שטעטל, ווי אַלע —
גרויס, ווי אַ געניץ.

ענגער — די געסלאַך,
און גרעסער — די פּלעצער.
בּלאָטיקע הייזלאך
פון בּרעטער און קלעצער.

נאַקעט דאָס שטעטל —
אַ ליימיקער בּאָדן.
קיין בּוימל קיין גרינינקס,
קיין גרינינקער פאָדים.

מיין צימער אין שטעטל —
דער שענסטער פון אַלע:
מיט דיל א פּאַרקעטן,
בּאַדעקט מיט ווארעטן.

מיט זאכלאָזן בּילד,
פון פאַרבּן בּאַפלעקטן.
מיט א ליימענעם לענין,
נאָך ניט קיין דערקלעפּטן.

עס רייסט מיר דאָס האַרץ
אף דעם נאַקעטן שטעטל,
וואָס ליגט, ווי פאַרוואָרפן,
אף שאכמאטענעם בּרעטל . . .


Snitkov — a shtetl.
A shtetl by the border.
A shtetl, like all of them,
as large as a yawn.

Narrow the alleys
and broader the squares.
Muddy small houses
of boards and beams.

Naked is the shtetl
— a floor of clay.
No little tree, no greenery,
no green-winding thread.

My room in the shtetl —
the prettiest of all:
a parquet floor
covered with designs,

an abstract painting
spattered with colors,
a clay figure of Lenin
not yet affixed.

My heart is torn for
the naked shtetl, lying
as though thrown down
on a chessboard.

Libkes, Dina, and Hinde Roytblat. “Selections from Yidishe dikhterins.” In geveb, March 2022: Trans. Reyzl Grace MoChridhe. https://ingeveb.org/texts-and-translations/three-poems.
Libkes, Dina, and Hinde Roytblat. “Selections from Yidishe dikhterins.” Translated by Reyzl Grace MoChridhe. In geveb (March 2022): Accessed May 22, 2024.


Dina Libkes
Hinde Roytblat


Reyzl Grace MoChridhe

Reyzl Grace (הי / she) is a transfeminine Ashkenazi writer and librarian originally from Cascadia, whose academic and professional work centers on the role of libraries in serving minoritized language communities and supporting language revitalization. You can find more of her work at her website or by following her on Twitter @reyzlgrace.