"Poet of the Sweatshops"

Morris Rosenfeld

The Yiddish poet of the American sweatshops, Morris Rosenfeld was born on December 28, 1862 in the settlement of Boksze, a rural village situated on a glacial lake today located in the very northeastern corner of Poland on the Lithuanian border.

Rosenfeld traveled briefly to America in 1882, returned to Russia before immigrating to London, where he worked in the needle-trades. In 1886, he decided to try his fortune again in the United States, settling in New York where he found work in the sweatshops as a presser.

Two years later, he published his first volume of poetry. His poems were immediately popular and were soon set to music and sung in the shops — while Rosenfeld continued to eke out a meagre existence as a shop-worker.

Harvard professor of Slavic Cultures Leo Wiener (the first Jewish professor at the university and a native speaker of Yiddish), took an interest in the young poet and translated his work into English where he found a wider audience and became world-renowned as the “Poet of the Sweatshops.” Upon achieving such recognition, Rosenfeld began to be embraced by the Yiddish literary elite that had originally rejected his proletarian poetry.

Don’t look for me where myrtles grow!
You will not find me there, my love;
Where lives wither at machines;
That is my resting place.

:ניט זוך מיך וווּ די מירטן גרינען
.געפינסט מיך דאָרטן ניט מייַן שאַץ
— וווּ לעבנס וועלקן בייַ מאַשינען
.דאָרטן איז מייַן רוע־פּלאַץ

Watch a video of students on the 2013 Yiddishkayt Helix Project singing Rosenfeld’s famous song “Mayn rue plats (My Resting Place)” by the shores of Lake Boksze, in the poet’s native region, the Polish-Lithuanian borderlands: