Poetic Voice of Young Vilna

Leyzer Wolf

Leyzer Mekler, who went by the pen-name Leyzer Wolf, was born in Shnipishok (today, Šnipiškis), a working-class suburb of Vilna. He attended secular Yiddish schools and in 1933, helped establish שפּאַרבער (Hawk), a scouting group dedicated to socialist territorialism.

Though he soon distanced himself from the group, he remained committed to the ideology, later joining the פרייַלאַנד־ליגע (Freeland League). Wolf earned a meager living by sewing the material for fingers on leather gloves.

Fraidy Katz sings the classic tribute to the Leyzer Wolf’s hometown — Vilne, written in America by A.L. Wolfson and set to music by Alexander Olshanetsky.

Wolf’s writing debut came in December 1926, with the publication of his ode to youth גרינע פרײד (Green Joy) in the most prestigious Yiddish literary weekly, ליטעראַרישע בלעטער (Literary Pages). He adopted the pseudonym Leyzer Wolf, the name of the butcher in Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories.

Wolf later published briefly under the names בעסטיע קוראַזש (Beast of Courage) and האַרץ נאַכט (Heart of the Night). Wolf joined the Yung Vilne group of writers soon after its establishment in the late 1920s. Throughout the 1930s, Wolf’s work appeared frequently in the local press and in American journals such as צוקונפט (Future) and אין זיך (Introspection).

leyzer_wolf_fpWolf consistently expressed the humanism and leftist thinking that dominated Yung Vilne, especially in the lyrics he contributed to the group’s magazine.

Wolf’s first book, the self-published Evigingo (1936), was a critique of the modern human condition, written in the Roman alphabet. Its hero, the aged Gutamingo, travels through centuries of European history in a failed search for an heir. That same year, Wolf wrote a verse novella in which he took up the issue of rising antisemitism among Polish students, and in 1937 he began work on מזרח און מערבֿ (East and West), a novel intended to imagine and contrast different options for Jewish life in three places: a Soviet collective society, Zionist Palestine, and a socialist Freeland in the new world.

Wolf also wrote poems about European writers and thinkers such as Spinoza, Byron, Nietzsche, Goethe, Beethoven, Heine, Pushkin, and a variety of contemporary politicians. He even wrote a new ending to Goethe’s Faust, which Joseph Opatoshu called a work of “genius and insanity.” Wolf often drew inspiration from local Jewish culture or native literary sources. He wrote about Vilna’s physical landscape and famous historical personalities in poems such as “ווילנער שולהויף (The Synagogue Courtyard)” and “אַיזיק מאיר דיק און די אַלמנה ראָם” (Ayzik Meyer Dik and the Widow Romm).”

Wolf was active with the marionette theater מיידים (Maydim), the musical theater group דװקא (Davke), and the Vilna children’s choir, adapting Kadia Molodowsky’s Marzipans into a children’s musical in 1938. That same year he took on the leadership of יונגװאַלד (Young Forest), a group of aspiring teenage writers, including the partisan poet Hirsh Glik. Wolf met weekly with the group, helping it publish four issues of the magazine Yungvald in early 1939.

Wolf retreated across the border with Soviet forces in October 1939. He died in a small town 70 kilometers from Samarkand in April 1943. Not long after his death, a volume of anti-Fascist poems, די ברוינע בעסטע (The Brown Beast), appeared in Moscow and in 1955, H. Leivick published לידער (Poems), a collection of Wolf’s poems.