The lives of the Yiddish writers murdered by the Soviet state 70 years ago were honoured by Montreal’s Jewish Public Library (JPL)’s Yiddish Café this week through performances of poetry and music.
“On the night of August 12, 1952, some of the most prominent Yiddish poets in the Soviet Union were executed by the state,” said Esther Frank, a recently retired lecturer in Jewish literature at McGill University who acted as the evening’s master of ceremonies. “On that night, 13 [Jewish] citizens of the Soviet Union were executed… That date is now understood to be a marker of the moment when Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union came to its tragic end.”
Known as the “Night of the Murdered Poets,” among the 13 Soviet Jews murdered were five prominent writers involved with the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee: Itsik Fefer, Dovid Hofshteyn, Leyb Kvitko, Perets Markish, and Shmuel Halkin.
Organized by the JPL’s Yiddish Cultural Committee in partnership with the Montreal Arbeiter Ring—who were the first in the city to organize commemorative events of this kind—Ukrainian-Jewish Dialogue, and KlezKanada, the event on June 16 was an intimate and moving affair.
While a fierce thunderstorm raged outside, as we waited for the arrival of those delayed by the weather, Janie Respitz, Henri Oppenheim, and Bronna Levy entertained the audience with an impromptu musical performance.
Throughout the evening, poems and songs were recited in honour of the murdered writers, and in memory of other Yiddish writers from the former Soviet Union more broadly, some of whom were killed by the Soviet authorities at another date. Interspersed between performances, Frank guided the audience with the biographies of the poets and insight into their work.
Pinchas Blitt, a veteran of Montreal’s Yiddish theatre, opened the evening with a powerful recitation of an elegy by Melech Ravitch about the writer Perets Markish. (Ravitch settled in Montreal and later served as head of the JPL).
Blitt’s reading was moving and emotional, imbued with the musicality of Yiddish expression.
Also on hand were acclaimed translator Lazer Lederhendler, who recited excerpts from two poems by Perets Markish, and KlezKanada director Sebastian Schulman, who gave poignant interpretations of two harrowing poems by Shmuel Halkin.
On the musical side, Raizel Fishman Candib performed a folk song by Moyshe Kulbak (murdered in 1937), which her father once heard performed by Kulbak himself. Janie Respitz sang works by Hofshteyn and Kvitko in two captivating performances.
Later in the evening, Bronna Levy and Henri Oppenheim performed two poems by Itsik Fefer set to music by Eli Rubenstein (a tune written for a production of A Khasene in Shtetl in Montreal) and by Israeli singer-songwriter Chava Alberstein, both of which had the audience singing along.
Special tribute was paid to Solomon Mikhoels, actor and artistic director of the Moscow State Jewish Theatre, under whom the mother of Canadian Yiddish theatre, Dora Wasserman, once studied.
Mikhoels famously performed as the titular role in the Yiddish production of King Lear (most recently brought back to public attention through Dara Horn’s podcast Adventures with Dead Jews) and the audience was treated to a clip of his iconic 1935 performance. The actor Benjamin Zuskin who portrayed the Fool in the production was also killed that August evening in 1952.
Before the evening’s conclusion, Yiddish Cultural Committee co-chair Rivka Augenfeld presented a photograph from the JPL archives of a visit to Montreal of the official Soviet Jewish delegation in 1943. In the picture are Mikhoels and Feffer surrounded by admirers, being received by then-mayor Adhémar Raynault at City Hall.
Though seven decades have passed since the tragedy half a world away, the Canadian Jewish community is part of the living, breathing story to which the Night of the Murdered Poets belongs, and the pain of its aftermath remains deeply personal.
The event came to a close with the performers joining together to recite Itsik Feffer’s poem “Ikh bin a yid” (“I Am a Jew”). This powerful affirmation of the obstinate survival of Yiddish culture is testament to the fact that, through evenings such as these, its prime movers will never be forgotten.