Raysn | רייסן | Беларусь

A Song of the People and Landscape of Belarus

No Yiddish poet is more closely tied to the people, languages, and landscapes of his native land than Meyshe Kulbak. He was born in 1896 in Smorgon (today Smarhon, Belarus), a town in the Vilna province of the Russian Empire. His family was deeply rooted in the Belarusian soil: his father worked in the White Russian logging industry and his mother came from an agricultural settlement just outside the town.

In the early 1920s, Kulbak moved to Berlin to become an artist. There, far removed from the Belarusian countryside that so inspired him, he wrote his first major poem — a paean to the region he cherished that he called Raysn, the Yiddish name for the loosely-defined land where Jews’ neighbors spoke Belarusian.

Another Raysn-native and poet, Avrom Reyzen, published Kulbak’s long-form poem in his prestigious literary journal in New York and called it “a poem of hardy, fresh, primitive earthiness” in which the poet forges classical heroes out of everyday villagers — both Jews and non-Jews who “exude the raw, redolent scent of fields, forests, and rivers.”

In Raysn, Kulbak creates wild and experimental tableaux of life in Belarus, pulsating and flowing like the verdant Viliya River, winding through the primeval forests of Europe.

In solidarity with the people of Belarus, who have risen up against autocracy and the 26-year dictatorship of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, we share this, the first complete English translation of Kulbak’s Raysn — the Song of Belarus — and a partial translation of the poem by Yazep Siemiažon into Belarusian, published in 1970. The full Yiddish original is available HERE.

Special thanks to the families of the translators: Deborah Wolf and Naomi Wolf for their permission to use the translations of Leonard Wolf; and Aaron Betsky and Celia McGee for the translations of Sarah Betsky-Zweig. Additional thanks to Agi Legutko, Columbia University, for making the recordings of Hertz Grosbard accessible. All rights reserved.

 

Fania Brantsovsky (Fanja Brancowska) reads from “The Viliya and the Nieman” for students in Vilnius (Vilne/Вiльня) 2012.

Writer and actor Stacie Chaiken (Helix Fellow ’18–19) recites “The Viliya and the Nieman” in English.

Belarusian translator Andrej Chadanovič reads his own translation of “The Viliya and the Nieman (Вяльля і Нёман).”

Actor Adam Kantor (Helix Fellow ’15) reads the final poem in Kulbak’s cycle, “Grandfather Dying.”

Led by Minsk-native Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch, Litvakus sets “11. Antosha Plays his Bandura” to music. From the album Raysn: The Music of Jewish Belarus.