Tuesday, August 15, 2017

`What Are You Selling -- Corpses? Rags?'

On the day I started reading Boris Dralyuk’s 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, 2016) I also read a story in the Forward by Talya Zax about the Night of the Murdered Poets. This occurred sixty-five years ago, on Aug. 12, 1952. Thirteen literary and intellectual figures were murdered in the basement of Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. Four were poets who wrote in Yiddish, and a fifth, David Bergelson, was a Yiddish novelist. All thirteen were Jewish – “rootless cosmopolitans,” to use Stalin’s phrase. Bergelson had left the Soviet Union in 1921 to live in Lithuania and Germany but returned in 1934. Dralyuk writes in his introduction to the prose section of his anthology:

“He did his best to conform to the demands of Socialist Realism and, along with many prominent figures in Soviet Yiddish culture, was an active member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee during the Second World War. Many of the committee members were arrested in the winter of 1949; fifteen were subjected to a show trial in 1952, and thirteen – including Bergelson, Perets Markish (1895-1952), Itsik Fefer (1900-1952), Dovid Hofshteyn (1889-1952) and Leyb Kvitko (1890 or 1893-1952) – were executed on 12 August of that year, the so-called `Night of the Murdered Poets.’”

Dralyuk includes a brief, two-part story by Bergelson, “Scenes from the Revolution” (1917). Go here to read translations of two poems written by Peretz [alternate transliteration] Markish, including one from 1917 that concludes:

“What are you selling – corpses? Rags?
Or long-since-departed dads?
Hey, a buyer’s slipped a way,
he’s dying but will be reborn.”

Poets are a jealous, petty bunch, complaining about sales and tenure. But at least if you are a poet in the United States, you and your comrades are not likely to be shot in the back of the head by Stalinist goons.

[Go here to read a memorial pamphlet dedicated to the murdered poets, first published in 1973 by the National Conference of Soviet Jewry.]

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