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Leyb Kvitko, "Etele"

Kvitko, Leyb poem 1942
US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Leyb Kvitko was already a well-established Yiddish poet and author when German forces invaded 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 Kiev. 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 masses: between 1928 and 1935, over two thousand Yiddish titles were published in the Soviet Union.1

At the same time, Jews committed to Zionism, the use of the Hebrew language, and Jewish religious practices were heavily persecuted as part of the early Soviet state's secularization campaigns. By 1930, however, 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 lead 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 thus provided one of the few outlets for reports on mass killings. The greater war effort, however, 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.

Kvitko employs specifically Jewish references in his published poetry, including "Etele," which appeared in the June 28, 1942 edition of Eynikayt. Published almost exactly one year after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941 (and ten months after the Babi Yar massacre, in which over 30,000 Jews were shot over two days at the end of September 1941), Kvitko's poem depicts the humiliation and ultimate 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 Jews killed in mass shootings in his native land. Kvitko's poem deploys biblical references, antisemitic imagery, and metaphors to dramatize her fate. The piece 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 Jews.

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 only to be killed in Stalin's purge of Yiddish writers on August 12, 1952. 

Arno Lustiger, Stalin and the Jews: The Red Book: The Tragedy of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and the Soviet Jews (New York: Enigma Books, 2003), 46.

Quoted in Lustiger, Stalin and the Jews, 97.

Kvitko references the traditional Christian accusation that Jews ordered the killing of Christ.

German, "Jew-dog"; German (in Hebrew characters) is used here to mirror the Nazi terminology.

A medieval accusation against European Jewry that claimed Jews used the blood of Christian children in order to make the Passover matzah.

A reference to the supposed Jewish control of international banking and finance, another traditionally antisemitic trope.

A reference to German troops, preventing the fictional Etele from crossing over to Soviet territory.

Refers to Shulamith, the biblical beloved of the Song of Songs, who also symbolizes the archetypal Jewish woman. 

Meaning, the Germans pursue Etele as the Biblical Israelites looked for the dove in the aftermath of the flood.

"All is vanity."

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Etele

 
I swear to preserve her memory until that day,
When judges pass judgment on evil's last remnants,
I swear to cast a word with full weight
On behalf of this child, tormented, taunted.
With a clear head, for her, the shoemaker's Etele,
Who in her eighth year came to know her hard fate:
Renounced dolls, anxiously stifled her voice,
On her shoulders took up her ancient nation's burden.
"Etl" is her name no more, not Etl with the charming freckles, the dark ones,
She is the one who crucified Christ,1 Jude is her name, Jude-Hund.2
For many centuries she's been draining Aryans' blood for matzo,3
And she’s active in the international bankers' league.4
That's why she's hiding now in forests, in pits,
To avoid being preyed upon and hunted by human beasts.
At night with other children in fever terror she drifts,
And comes to the border, but the brown plague won't let her cross over to us.5
Her curly head, her neck that stems from the Song of Songs,6
Afflicted by mange. And only her dreams—
They seek in the Flood, like the dove from the Ark,7
And from her narrow eye peeks indifference: hakol ha'evel.8
No, this I cannot, this won't let itself be forgotten,
Neither tears nor curses can measure out the shame.
Come to my arms, let me press your dear face to my heart,
Little Etl, Etl, what they have done to you and your country!
How they've made the world loathsome in your eyes,
How they covered its face, like your mother's, with sores.
Can I discern how, with which gaze you look upon it—
Allow me, Etl, with weapons to call the world to account to you!

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Date Created
June 28, 1942
Page(s) 3
Author / Creator
Kvitko, Leyb
Publisher
Eynikayt
Language(s)
Yiddish
Location
Moscow, Soviet Union (historical)
Document Type Poem
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