Litvak Poet Laureate
Moyshe (Meyshe, in Lithuanian Yiddish) Kulbak was born in Smorgon, Vilna Province of the Russian Empire on March 20, 1896. The small town had a legendary status among the Jews of the area.
The town’s noble Radziwill family had set up a circus bear training academy in the town and created thriving leather and tanning industry as well as a tar manufacturing concern. The surreal mix of circus bears and local laborers making their living from the land would eventually be immortalized in Kulbak’s work.
As a boy, Kulbak took afternoon classes in a reformed kheder and spent the first part of the day studied in the Crown Jewish folk-school. In 1914 the eighteen-year-old Kulbak continued his traditional education at the famed Volozhin yeshiva.
20 March 1896 – Autumn 1937
Words Like Fire
Kulbak's first published volume of poetry from 1920, Shirim, which opens: "I've seen Yiddish words like little fires..."
Kulbak, pictured here with his wife Zelda (later Genia) and their son Elye (later Ilya) around 1929. They also had a daughter, Raia, the sole survivor in the family of the bloody twentieth century.
A well-loved teacher in Vilna with his students on a trip to Lake Narocz — today Narach, Belarus — in July 1927, Kulbak sits at right.
Boytre the Bandit
Kulbak's play Boytre was originally performed by the Moscow State Yiddish Theater in 1936. This program was from the production performed in 1961 by the Vilna Yiddish Collective.
During his brief time at Volozhin, Kulbak became strongly influenced by the ideas of Ahad Ha-Am, who advocated the rebirth of Jewish culture through a revival of Hebrew literature and language. But his time at the yeshiva was cut short, interrupted by the outbreak of the World War. Forced to return to his parents’ home, Kulbak devoted himself to reading and continued to perfect his Hebrew, as well.
In the fall of 1916, he submitted two poems to the editors of the Vilna’s לעצטע נייַעס (Latest News), among them was Zalmen Reyzen, who published the poem “שטערנדל (Little Star)” in his literary journal. The poem, written in a folk style, was the prayer of a Jewish soldier, separated from his family and his hometown while stationed at the front. “Shterndl” was set to music and became extremely popular, so much so that it was often credited in various publications as an anonymous folksong.
Here’s Louis Danto singing an exquisite version of “Shterndl”:
Little star, little star, little harbinger blue,
In my little home-town be my messenger true.
There’s a little street you will note, which you can follow
Until you reach my ravaged home in a hollow.
In her solitude, by the darkened windowpane,
Sits my wife steeped in sadness and pain.
Comfort her, brighten up her home, my little star,
Tell her the Almighty will take pity on her.
Ask about Yankele, and my two little daughters,
Tell them I’m reading their letter before all others.
Let them spare nothing for Yankl’s sake later,
Enough with the coddling, he must go to kheyder.
Let him learn the kaddish, he should know it in full,
Perhaps… no one knows… God will be merciful.
שטערנדל, שטערענדל, בלויער שטאַפעטעלע
זייַ מיר אַ שליחל, פאַל אין מייַן שטעטעלע.
זען וועסט אַ געסעלע, נאָך דעם אַ גריבעלע,
דאָרטן באַפינט זיך מייַן חרובע שטיבעלע.
עלנט אַליין, בייַ דער פינצטערער שייַבעלע,
זיצט דאָרט פאַרטרויערט און דאגהט מייַן ווייַבעלע.
טרייסט איר, דו שטערנדל, לייַכט איר אין שטוב אַרייַן,
זאָג איר׃ דער אויבערשטער וועט זיך מרחם זייַן.
פרעג וואָס מאַכט יאַנקעלע, לאהצע און ריוועלע?
זאָג זיי איך לייען און קוש זייער בריוועלע.
זאָג זיי, אַז יאַנקלען זאָל מען ניט זשאַלעווען,
געבן אין חדר, גענוג אים צו באַלעווען.
זאָל ער זיך אויסלערנען קדיש ווי ס׳דאַרף צו זייַן,
אפשר… מען ווייסט ניט… נאָר גאָט וועט מרחם זיין.
Kulbak arrived in Vilna at the start of 1919, where the intellectual establishment already recognized him as an important, up-and-coming young poet and he worked as a teacher in the Vilna Jewish folk-school. In 1920, Kulbak published his first collection of poetry appeared and, that autumn, left Vilna for Berlin, which was emerging as a central European Yiddish center. After two years in the big city, Kulbak was too strapped for cash to remain in Berlin.
He returned to Vilna early the next year and worked for the next five years as a teacher of Yiddish literature for various grades at the Jewish gymnasium (secondary schools) and at the Jewish Teachers’ Seminary. Upon his return he married Zelda Etkin. The Kulbaks would eventually have two children: a son, Elye (Ilya) born in 1926 and a daughter, Raia (Raisa), in 1934.
In October 1928, the Kulbaks left Poland for the Soviet Union. After settling in Minsk, Kulbak wrote and published poetry in various literary journals and a hundred-page volume of his work.
Over the next few years, Kulbak was at work on his book length poem דיסנער טשייַלד האַראָלד (Childe Harold of Dysna) and his novel, Zelmenyaner, fragments of both appeared in the major Minsk-based Yiddish literary journals, and a series of his plays were produced successfully.
Kulbak was arrested in September 1937 and for decades after Kulbak’s disappearance, no one knew his fate for certain. When Kulbak’s widow returned from the Gulag and attempted to learn more about his whereabouts in the 1950s, she was told he was dead, though no details were provided.
In 1991, Kulbak’s daughter learned from now-declassified documents that her father had been condemned to death and shot after a brief trial a month after his 1937 arrest.