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Leyb Kvitko and the Night of the Murdered Poets

Lawrence Bush
October 14, 2017

Prominent Soviet Yiddish poet Leyb Kvitko, an editor of the literary magazine Heymland (Homeland) who became the head of the Yiddish Writers Section at the Soviet Writers Union, was born near Odessa on this date in 1890 (some sources say 1893). Kvitko “was welcomed by the [Jewish] urban literary community as a folk talent when he arrived in Kiev wearing a coat, hat, and boots that he had made by himself,” writes Gennady Estraikh at YIVO’s Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. “He married in 1918 and settled in Kiev, where he worked as a courier and later as a teacher at a Jewish orphanage. Following his book Lidelekh (Poems for Little Children; 1917), three more collections of his children’s poems were published in Kiev between 1918 and 1920.” Kvitko rose to international prominence as a poet and children’s book writer and survived a period of censorship that nearly obliterated him as a writer in the early 1930s, but eventually he fell to Stalin’s axe on August 12, 1952, when the leaders of the USSR’s Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and other Yiddish cultural leaders were summarily executed.

“According to the Soviet literary historian Hersh Remenik, Kvitko’s popularity as a children’s poet unfairly eclipsed his importance as a folk poet, whose Yiddish poetry ‘had revealed the sadness of a world and the rise of a new world.’ While non-Yiddish readers knew Kvitko only as a children’s poet, his Yiddish poetry collections continued to appear in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as posthumously.” --Gennady Estraikh

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.