Today in Yiddishkayt… June 11
Birthday of Yisroel Shtern, Poet & Journalist
Yisroel Shtern was born on June 11, 1894 in Ostrołęka, Białystok district. He studied in the prestigious yeshivas of Slobodka and Łomża. At the outbreak of World War I, Shtern was living in Vienna, where he was imprisoned as a Russian national. In Vienna, Shtern became acquainted with contemporary European literature and philosophy, yet despite his interest in secular literature, he maintained a deep connection to his religious upbringing.
At the end of the war, Shtern settled in Warsaw, where he became affiliated with the Musar movement. Shtern’s first poems were published in 1919 in the weekly periodical Dos folk and later in the literary journal Der sne, edited by Hillel Zeitlin. From 1921–1922, Shtern contributed to the modernist publications Ringen (Links) and Khalyastre (Gang). He gained fame in 1923 with the publication of a long poem entitled Shpitol lider (Hospital Poems), which was based on Shtern’s own lengthy illness. In the period before World War II, he contributed to many newspapers and periodicals. He adhered to no Party and his work appeared in Bundist and Zionist publications as well as in the Folkist daily Moment. The majority of his poems reflected existential distress and the economic hardships suffered by Jews.
Shtern also published literary criticism, primarily about his distaste for shund (“trash”) in contemporary Yiddish literature, as well as articles about current affairs. In October 1939, he attempted unsuccessfully to cross the border of occupied Poland into the Soviet Union. In the early 1942, he nearly died of hunger, but was saved by his writer colleagues Rokhl Oyerbakh and Yosef Kirman, who placed him in a refugee hospice. Despite ill health, Shtern continued reading and writing poetry in the ghetto. In September 1942, he was deported to the Treblinka death camp and did not survive.
“It Screams In the Night” (1919)
(translated by Miriam Koral)
You devour beauty and spit it out,
the stars are fading out of shame;
there’s no room beneath your brows for God,
the sky is darkening above.
You draw suffering and sin close to your breast,
you frighten yourselves just for a joke,
like dogs, you lick at maidenly feet,
your soul, in its hunger, can’t sleep.
A curse spends the night above your beds,
you kiss bitter lips and quake;
the night plays dreamily over there somewhere.
But you devour your joy and spit it out.
And if God excuses your loneliness, and tries
to lull night‐time worlds in your heart, ‐‐
you lie, tired latecomers, and hear
the cock’s yawn in the grey of dawn.