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April 17: A Few Words in the Mother Tongue

April 16, 2015

Style: "1626769"Poet, writer, and activist scholar Irena Klepfisz, a child survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, was born there on this date in 1941. Her father Michal, a leader of the Jewish Bund, was killed on the second day of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when Irena was 2; she and her mother escaped to the countryside and lived disguised as gentiles, Irena in an orphanage. They were reunited after the conflagration and came to the U.S. when Klepfisz was 8. She was a co-founder of Di Vilde Chayes, a Jewish feminist activist group (with Adrienne Rich and Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, among other women); of the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation (of the West Bank and Gaza); and of Conditions, a feminist journal. She was also the co-editor of The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women’s Anthology. Through all of this literary and activist work, Klepfisz emerged as a leading Jewish lesbian thinker and spokeswoman, as a guardian of yidishkayt and the Yiddish language itself, and as latter-day advocate of her parents’ Bundist ideals. As a poet, Klepfisz has chronicled both Jewish and working-class damages in her profound books, Keeper of Accounts (1982) and A Few Words in the Mother Tongue: Poems Selected and New, 1971-1990.

“These words are dedicated to those who survived
because life is a wilderness and they were savage
because life is an awakening and they were alert
because life is a flowering and they blossomed
because life is a struggle and they struggled
because life is a gift and they were free to accept it...” —Irena Klepfisz, “Bashert”