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April 27: Poet of the Vilna Underground

April 26, 2015

Katsherginski_02A leftwing Yiddish poet who served as leader of Young Vilna, a literary circle that include Avrom Sutzkever and Chaim Grade, Shmerke Kaczerginski died in a plane crash on this date in 1954, age 45. Confined by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators to the Vilna Ghetto in 1942, Kaczerginski immediately joined the Jewish resistance, which he inspired by writing consoling and defiant songs and by organizing theater productions and educational programs. With Sutzkever, he was a member of the “Paper Brigade,” a group of YIVO workers who preserved and smuggled cultural items into the ghetto, and of the United Partisan Organization (Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye or FPO), which undertook an armed uprising in September, 1943. Kaczerginski and other fighters then withdrew into the forests between Lithuania and Byelorussia and fought as partisans until the war’s end. He also served as brigade historian, writing down stories and songs of the partisans. In August 1944, he participated in the Soviet liberation of Vilna. After the war he toured Occupied Germany, giving lectures in Displaced Persons Camps and gathering songs and writings. In 1947 he contributed ghetto and partisan songs to the anthology Undzer Gezang (Our Song), the first Jewish songbook printed in post-war Poland, and published his own edition of Yiddish songs and poems from Vilna, Dos Gezang Fun Vilner Geto (The Song of Vilna Ghetto). Kaczerginski settled in Buenos Aires, where he lived as a writer, itinerant lecturer, and cultural anthropologist until his untimely death flying home from a speaking engagement.

“In ordinary times each song would probably have travelled a long road to popularity. But in the ghetto we observed a marvelous phenomenon: individual works transformed into folklore before our eyes.” —Shmerke Kaczerginski