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.