Fun Amerike (Of America), by Ayzik Platner. (Minsk: Melukhe farlag fun Vaysrusland, 1934). (YIVO)

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Belarusian Literature

Translations of books of the Hebrew Bible (most frequently Psalms) and other religious texts into the Old Belarusian language and into a Belarusian version of Old Church Slavonic marked the beginnings of Jewish participation in Belarusian literature. Several of the extant manuscripts of those texts date from the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century (Vilna Codices 52 and 262, containing the Five Scrolls, Daniel, Job, Proverbs, and Psalms) and are considered to be the projects of local Jewish translators who worked directly from Hebrew on behalf of fellow Jews or Judaizers, or were commissioned by a Christian amateur.

These renditions influenced translations of books of the Bible into Old Belarusian and into Polish by Francishak Skaryna and Szymon Budny and thus had great impact on the development of Christian polemic literature on Belarusian lands, as well as on the religious situation and culture of Belarusian society in the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries in general. When the Old Belarusian language was banned from official use in 1696 as a result of the union of Lublin, vestiges of Belarusian literature survived only in the “school plays” produced in Christian seminaries, and in the works of some Polish writers of Belarusian origin. Both types of works include depictions of Jewish characters, as in Komedia (Comedy; 1787) by Kaetan Marasheuski and in Jan Barszczewski’s Szlachcić Zawalnia, czyli Bialorus w fantastycznych opowiadaniach (Gentleman Zawalnia, or Belarus in Fantastic Stories; 1844).

The relatively tolerant attitude of the local population and authorities in the period of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania made Jews an essential part of society, and this is reflected in Belarusian folklore. Jews, often represented in a humorous way, populated the “inner” universe, together with Polish landlords and the predominantly peasant Belarusian population, while Russians and Gypsies dwelled somewhere outside it. In Belarusian folklore, Jews are often depicted with mild humor, manifesting in their Belarusian speech patterns a feature called sabesdiker losn (confusion of the s and sh sounds), characteristic of the northeastern dialect of Yiddish spoken by Belarusian–Lithuanian Jews (Litvaks), with an occasional admixture of Yiddish words supposedly known to the reader. The beginning of new Belarusian literature is associated with the anonymous poem “Taras na Parnasie” (Taras on Parnassus) and dramatic works by Vintsent Dunin-Martsinkievich. “Taras na Parnasie” includes several references to Jewish themes, such as “noise louder than in a Jewish synagogue.” In Dunin’s Hapon (1855), a Jewish innkeeper plays a crucial role in the plot.

Emerging roughly at the same time and place as Yiddish literature, Belarusian literature experienced somewhat parallel influences and faced analogous problems, especially with reference to Polish and Russian literature, which were the dominant two great literatures in the region. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Jews and Belarusians showed mutual interest in each other. Jewish and Belarusian periodicals published materials about the two groups, notably by such leading authors as Shmuel Niger on the Jewish side and Anton Lutskievich on the Belarusian.

Lider (Poems), by Ianka Kupala. Translation of poems by Kupala into Yiddish by Zelik Akselrod. (Minsk: Melukhe-farlag fun Vaysrusland, 1936). (YIVO)

The poet Shmuel Plaunik (1886–1941), who started his literary career in Hebrew and Yiddish, became one of the founders of the new Belarusian literature under the pen name Zmitrok Biadulia. The first regular newspaper in Belarusian, Nasha Niva (1906–1915), had Jews among its contributors (Vulf Sosenski, Shmuel Plaunik) and published a considerable number of articles on Jewish topics. Ianka Kupala, one of the founders of Belarusian literature, wrote a poem titled Zhydy (Jews; 1919), in which he attempted to give a general outline of the relations between the two peoples. Pointing to the tolerance and friendliness of Belarusians, he suggested that Jews in turn would support Belarusian national aspirations.

After the 1917 Revolution, a significant number of Jews were attracted by new opportunities in education and in the development of the national cultures of the former Russian Empire’s minorities. A number of Jews became involved in creating Belarusian literature in the 1920s and 1930s. Among them were Biadulia, poets Iuli Taubin (1911–1937) and Edzi Ahniatsviet (Kahan; 1913– ), playwright Iosif Dorski (1911–1964), and critic Ales Kuchar (1910– ). Yiddish poets Moyshe Teyf (1904–1966), Motl Grubyan (1909–1972), and Ayzik Platner (1895–1961), and critics Yashe Bronshteyn (1897–1937), Khaskl Dunets (1897–1937), and Uri Finkel (1896–1957) published some of their works in Belarusian. Many Jewish writers were persecuted as Belarusian nationalists and died under Stalin’s regime; others were killed in the Holocaust or at the front during World War II. Later Jews who composed works in Belarusian were the prose writer Uladzimir Miekhau (Niakhamkin; 1928– ), poets Karlas Sherman (1934–2005) and Navum Halpiarovich (1948– ), playwright Arkadz’ Mauzon (Maushenzon; 1918–1977), and critic Ryhor Biarozkin (1918–1981).

A number of Jewish writers wrote on Belarusian and Jewish topics in Russian, and their works are considered part of the general literature associated with Belarus. Among these are poets David Simanovich (1932– ) and Veniamin Blazhennykh (Aizenshtat; 1921–2000); prose writers Ilia Klaz (1922–1980) and Mikhail Hierchyk (1932– ); playwright Uladzimir Laurou (Idelson, 1926– ); and critics and literary scholars Isaak Bas (1913– ), Navum Hubler (1933– ), and Siamion Bukchyn (1941– ).

Jewish topics can be found in many works by Belarusian writers. Thus the works of Jakub Kolas (Khayim Rybs; 1921; and Symon Muzyka [Symon the Musician]; 1925) and Maksim Haretski (Rodnaie karennie [Native Roots]; 1914) feature Jewish millers, shopkeepers, innkeepers, artisans, and teamsters among their characters. Though a number of works portraying Jewish characters appeared before the revolution, the period after 1917 saw, along with the development of a new, Soviet Belarusian literature, numerous Jewish characters in the works of Belarusian writers, new and old.

Belarusian writers depicted life before the revolution, changes in the traditional life of the Jewish town in war and revolution, and its Sovietization. Writers included Tsishka Hartny (Soki tsaliny [Saps of the Virgin Soil]; 1922–1930), Mikhas Charot (Karchma [The Inn]; 1926), Zmitrok Biadulia (Piket [Picket]; 1933; Nablizhennie [The Approach]; 1935; U drymuchykh liasakh [In the Drowsing Forests]; 1939), Piatrus Brouka (Minsk; 1934), Symon Baranavykh (Borka Nachimionak; 1930), Kandrat Krapiva (Harelik i iaho zhonka [Harelik and His Wife]; 1931), and Michaś Lynkou (Hoy [Goy]; 1926; U miastechku [In Shtetl]; 1927; Benia balahola [Benia the Teamster]; 1928). The new Soviet way of life and Jewish characters adapting to it are shown in Siastra (Sister) by Kuzma Chorny, Shlomka pernichnik (Shlomka the Gingerbread Maker; 1932) by Ryhor Murashka, Zapiski Samsona Samasuia (Records of Samson Samasui; 1929) by Andrei Mryi (Shashalevich), and a cycle of stories Dziesiats (Ten; 1930), Tavarysh Minkin (Comrade Minkin; 1930) by Biadula, L’shano Habo’o Biyrushalaim (Next Year in Jerualem; 1933) by Iurka Vitsbich, and Iche (1929) by Khviados Shynkler. In these works, among the new occupations acquired by Jewish youth are train operator, engineer, Red Army officer, and even pig tender (Svinarka Freida [Freyda the Pig Tender]; 1934, by Biadula). “Reactionary” types such as rabbis or storekeepers are represented in a grotesquely negative light in Rabin (Rabbi; 1929) by Mryi and Holy zvier (Naked Beast; 1926) by Mikhas Zaretski. In general, characterization in the literature of this period is often schematic and poster-like, lacking depth and development.

After World War II, the range of topics and characters employed by Belarusian writers widened. In addition to Jewish characters in works depicting the “heroism of the Soviet peoples fighting the Nazis,” it included historic characters and types drawn from contemporary life. These include Red Army soldiers (Vasil Bykau’s Zhurauliny kryk [The Cry of the Crane]; 1960; and Iaho batalion [His Battalion]; 1976), and workers in the rear, toiling for the war effort (Uladzimir Novik’s Shakhtavyia maistry [Masters of the Mines]; 1961), but the typical character was “a peaceful Soviet citizen of Jewish ethnicity,” the victim of genocide. One of the first works mentioning the tragedy of the Jews was Dzieviats asinavych kolliau (The Nine Aspen Poles; 1942) by Ianka Kupala.

Though Jewish characters in literary works about World War II are not always depicted as passive victims, they are usually only secondary figures, present in contrast to the heroism and bravery of the central characters, Belarusians, and other non-Jews. Examples would include the Jewish partisans and resistance fighters in Handliarka i paet (The Market Woman and the Poet; 1976) by Ivan Shamiakin, Ruiny straliayuts (The Ruins Fire Back; 1962) by Ivan Novikau, and Niamihi kryvavyia berahi (The Bloody Banks of Niamiha; 1962) by Uladzimir Karpau, as well as victims of the Holocaust such as the young Jewish girl Basia in Sotnikau (translated as The Ordeal; 1972) by Bykau, and Jewish ghetto inmates in Apraudannie kryvi (Justification of Blood; 1977) by Ivan Chyhrynau and Danuta (1960) by Alaksei Karpiuk. Only rarely is Jewish suffering shown from the inside, as in the novel Iskry u popelishchy (Sparks in the Ashes; 1970) by Lidzia Arabiei, which depicts the plight of Minsk Jews and of the main protagonist, the young girl Raia. The tragedy of the Holocaust is presented in the poems “Heta” (Ghetto; 1946) and Birka (Identification Tag; 1968) by Maksim Tank, and “Aktsyia” (Aktion; 1944) by émigré Belarusian poet Natalla Arsiennieva. Another émigré author who touched upon the Holocaust is Masiei Siadniou (Raman Korziuk; 1985).

In historical novels, Jews were portrayed positively through characters such as the typographer Tovii and his wife Ruf. Negative characters existed as well, including the merchants Maisiei and Lazar in the trilogy Heorhi Skaryna (1946–1947) by Michas Klimkovich; the young Jewish girl Estarka and a Jewish subplot in the play Khlopets z Kroshyna (The Lad from Kroshyn; 1965) by Iazep Dyla; the writer Zmitrok Biadulia in Barys Mikulich’s novel U Minsku (In Minsk; 1958); emancipated Jewish girls in Synu maiho syna (To the Son of My Son; 1961) by Ales Asipienka; various Jewish shtetl characters in Za svabodu krainy (For the Country’s Freedom; 1965) by Tsishka Hartny; and the young Jewish revolutionary Hesia Helfand in I bylo kakhannie (And Still There Was Love; 1971) by Uladzimir Miekhau. Sometimes Jewish characters are wicked, as the greedy miller Khayim Nozhyk in Arkadz Charnyshevich’s novel Zastsenak Malinauka (The Hamlet of Malinauka; 1965), but they are usually balanced by other sympathetic Jewish characters, such as the peddler Auram Vypustak in the same novel.

Jewish participation in the revolution and civil war is represented by Red Army soldiers and sympathizers in Piatro Hlebka’s play Sviatlo z uskhodu (The Light from the East; 1957), Siarhiei Hrakhouski’s novel Rudabelskaia respublika (The Republic of Rudabielka; 1967), Kastus Hubarevich’s play Brestski mir (The Peace of Brest; 1969), and Mikola Loban’s novel Shemety (The Shemet Family; 1961–1968). Jewish characters are also artfully presented in the trilogy Paleskaia khronika (The Chronicle of Palessie; 1961–1976), by Ivan Mielezh—one of the best works of the Belarusian literature of the Soviet period. Yosel, Nokhim, and Hodla in this series are full-blooded and well-crafted personalities with their own voices and ambitions. Depicted as an integral part of the local people, they present a memorable image of Belarusian Jews.

Contemporary Jewish characters are less common in the works of Belarusian authors. Nevertheless, one can find rather elaborate Jewish figures, “Soviet citizens of Jewish ethnicity,” though often without a viable traditional Jewish background, such as the engineers and other professionals in Raman Sabalenka’s Zausiody u darozie (Always on the Road; 1965) and Ivan Shamiakin’s Most (The Bridge; 1965); young Communist league activists as in Ihnat Dubroski’s Kamsamolski pismiennik Shalom Aleikhem (The Comsomol Writer Sholem Aleichem; 1958); and ordinary neighbors of the main characters in Ivan Ptashnikau’s Mstsizhy (Mstsizhy Village; 1972) and Valantsin Mysliviets’s Love at Dawn (1986).

Among post-Soviet works by Belarusian writers are the poems “Mark Shahal” (Marc Chagall) and “Aposhnia paety iaureiskiia” (The Last Yiddish Poets) by Ryhor Baradulin, and short stories “Moi siabar Vova Tsymerman” (My Friend Vova Tsymerman) and “Prarotstvy Rozy Hertsykovich” (Prophesies of Roza Hertsykovich) by Uladzimir Arlou—in which Jews are likable, if somewhat different from others, and are a disappearing group of people. Though Jewish topics ceased to be taboo in public discourse, post-Soviet Belarusian literature has fewer Jewish characters than it did before 1989, perhaps because of withering memory of the traditional Jew, and because of emigration that drastically reduced the Jewish population of Belarus.


[The following list identifies and briefly describes Belarusian Jewish writers who are not the subject of an independent biographical entry.]

Ahniatsviet, Edzi

(1913– ), writer of lyrical poems and poems for children. Ahniatsviet (Kahan) translated into Belarusian works of Russian, Ukrainian, and Latvian poets, including poems by Pushkin. She also wrote librettos to children’s operas.

Biadulia, Zmitrok

(1886–1941), the pen name of Shmuel Plaunik, one of the fathers of modern Belarusian literature. He wrote poetry and prose also in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian. In the period after 1910 through the early 1920s, he was active in the Belarusian nationalist movement. His poetic works in Belarusian appeared under the pseudonym Yasakar. Biadula was especially renowned for his short stories about the life of Belarusian peasants, and for children’s stories. In two autobiographical novels, Nablizhennie (The Approach; 1935) and U drymuchykh liasakh (In the Drowsing Forests; 1939), he described life in his traditional Orthodox Jewish family and his studies in heder and yeshiva.

Biarozkin, Ryhor

(1918–1981), author and critic. Biarozhkin wrote several books about the classic writers of Belarusian literature—Maksim Bahdanovich, Ianka Kupala, Arkadz’ Kuliashou—in which he tried to evade the dogmatism of socialist realism and presented balanced and unorthodox studies of the lives and works of outstanding Belarusian poets.

Taubin, Iuli

(1911–1937), poet and extremely nuanced and versatile lyricist who experimented with new forms of verse. Taubin belonged to the Uzvyshsha literary group, which was later declared counterrevolutionary. He died during the period of Stalin’s repressions, and was considered to be a Belarusian nationalist.

Suggested Reading

Anton Adamovich, Opposition to Sovietization in Belorussian Literature, 1917–1957 (Munich, 1958); Moshe Altbauer, The Five Biblical Scrolls in a Sixteenth-Century Jewish Translation into Belorussian (Vilnius Codex 262) (Jerusalem, 1992); Arnold McMillin, A History of Byelorussian Literature: From Its Origins to the Present Day (Giessen, Ger., 1977); Vera Rich, “Jewish Themes and Characters in Belorussian Texts,” in The Image of the Jew in Soviet Literature: The Post-Stalin Period (New York, 1984).