Leyb Kvitko was already a famous Yiddish-language poet and author when German forces attacked the Soviet Union in 1941. He had published his first poem in 1917, becoming one of the most prominent Yiddish writers of the early Soviet period in Kyiv. He also became famous for his children's poetry and short stories featuring Jewish folk traditions. Kvitko praised the Bolshevik Revolution and wrote the first two Yiddish poems about it in 1918. In these early years, Soviet authorities suppressed antisemitism and promoted the use of Yiddish to spread the Communist message among the Jewish population. Between 1928 and 1935, over 2,000 Yiddish titles were published in the Soviet Union.1
Although Yiddish was promoted by Soviet authorities, other aspects of Jewish identity were suppressed. The use of the Hebrew language, Jewish religious practices, and Zionism were heavily persecuted as part of the early Soviet state's secularization campaigns. By 1930, even secular Yiddish speakers came under attack. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin began dissolving the Jewish section of the Communist Party (the so-called Yevsektsia), and Yiddish schools throughout the Soviet Union closed in 1938.
During World War II, Kvitko was a prominent member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAFC) and one of the leading editors of its Yiddish newspaper, Eynikayt (Unity). Shortly after Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, Solomon Mikhoels and Peretz Markish founded the JAFC in Moscow. In his opening address to the first public meeting, Markish called for Jewish support in the fight against the German invaders:
"In the country of the Soviets, the Jews have found, after a thousand-year odyssey and persecution, a home and a homeland that is a mother who has healed the wounds of the past. Here in the Soviet Union Jewish people are equal among equals. Here the Jewish mother tongue is spoken anew, here its culture has blossomed anew. In less than 25 years the Jewish people have developed, thanks to the fatherly welfare of our Soviet State, an extensive literature... The Soviet Union turned Jews into engineers, inventors, physicians, scholars and artists... Jewish brothers, the time when we surrendered fatefully to the executioner is the most disgraceful page in the history of our whole people! None of us will again allow our great historical past to be stained by waiting passively for death... You are selected and called upon, everywhere in the world, using guns as soldiers bringing death or using words coming from your lips, in this holy war, the war against Fascism!"2
Outside of the JAFC, Soviet reports on atrocities committed against Jews were minimal. Eynikayt provided one of the few outlets for reports on mass killings. But the broader war effort still dominated the headlines. This allegiance to the Soviet cause was a matter of survival for the publication—which often featured a heroic image of Stalin on its front page—and the JAFC generally.
As with his other published poetry, Kvitko employs specifically Jewish references in "Etele." The featured poem appeared in the June 28, 1942 edition of Eynikayt—almost exactly one year after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941, and ten months after the mass shootings at Babyn Yar in September 1941. Kvitko's poem depicts the humiliation and death of an eight-year-old girl, Etl (Etele, in the diminutive Yiddish form). In the poem, Kvitko mourns the death of Etele, who symbolizes all of the Jewish people killed in mass shootings in his native land. Kvitko's poem uses biblical references, antisemitic prejudices, and metaphors to dramatize her fate. The poem drips with anger and irony while emphasizing the Jewish identity of the victims—an important exception to the Soviet Union's official portrayal of these victims as "peaceful Soviet citizens" rather than Soviet Jewish civilians.
Kvitko swore to defend and preserve the memory of the victims of Nazism, but he was ultimately unable to save himself from Soviet persecution. He survived World War II but was killed in the Soviet purge of Yiddish writers on August 12, 1952.