(1908–1954), Yiddish writer and cultural activist. Born in Vilna to a poor family and educated at that city’s Talmud Torah, Shmerke (Pol., Szmerke) Kaczerginski lost both his parents during World War I. As a youth, he was involved with outlawed Communist groups and was arrested several times, serving a lengthy prison term. In the 1930s, two of his revolutionary poems became popular in Poland. He wrote short stories with a radical bent and was a correspondent and reporter for literary publications, including the semilegal leftist press in Poland and the New York Communist daily Morgn-frayhayt.
Kaczerginski played a key role in shaping the writers’ and artists’ group Yung-Vilne; he organized its evening events and was the de facto publisher of its three miscellanies between 1934 and 1936. During the period of Soviet control over Lithuania in 1940–1941, he was even more active in the field of Yiddish culture, but at the same time experienced his first disappointments with the attitude of the Soviet regime toward Jewish culture. During the first period of Nazi occupation, Kaczerginski wandered through villages and towns posing as a deaf mute; after many difficulties, he ended up in the Vilna ghetto.
"Shtiller, Shtiller" (Shtiler, shtiler; Quiet, Quiet). Words: Shmerke Kaczerginski. Music: Alexander Wolkoviski (A. Tamir).Performed by Jenny Jaroslawsky with the Larkin Sisters and Max Rich and Bobby Kroll, pianos. Ghetto Lieder, Songcraft 105 mx. BT-105A, New York, c. 1950. (YIVO)
Kaczerginski was very involved in the ghetto’s cultural activities. As a leader of its youth club, he wrote its Yugnt-himen (Youth Hymn), a song that immediately became popular. In 1943, he wrote the song “Shtiler, shtiler” in memory of the mass murders committed at Ponar. Set to music that Aleksander Volkoviski (later known as Aleksander Tamir) had submitted to a contest organized by the ghetto, the song was first heard at an evening performance there and over the years became one of the best-known songs of the Holocaust.
With Avrom Sutzkever and others, Kaczerginski became part of a group of forced laborers whom the Germans designated to sort Jewish cultural treasures at YIVO and other locations. Known as the Papir-brigade (Paper Brigade), the group’s members risked their lives to hide the most significant items, smuggling them back into the ghetto or entrusting them to non-Jewish acquaintances. Kaczerginski was a member of the Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye (United Partisans Organization; FPO), and, since YIVO’s building was located outside the ghetto walls, he took part in smuggling weapons into the ghetto.
In September 1943, Kaczerginski, along with Avrom and Freydke Sutzkever and other members of the FPO, escaped from the Vilna ghetto as part of an organized group of fighters just before its liquidation. They joined a Soviet partisan unit in the Naroch Forests, where Kaczerginski fought as a partisan until liberation in July 1944. Kaczerginski’s books describe the destruction of Vilna, the partisan struggle, and his own experiences during the Holocaust period: Khurbn Vilne (The Destruction of Vilna; 1947), Partizaner geyen (Partisans on the Move; 1947), and Ikh bin geven a partizan (I Was a Partisan; 1952).
After liberation, Kaczerginski returned to Vilna, where he was involved in attempting to rebuild a Jewish life, in locating the Jewish cultural treasures that had been saved, and in founding a Jewish museum in the city. However, the museum staff quickly realized its future was uncertain under the Soviet regime, so they strove to smuggle the most important materials out of the country. The portion of the rescued documents that ended up at YIVO in New York became the Sutzkever-Kaczerginski Collection, which includes the diaries of Zelig Kalmanovitch and Herman Kruk, other documents from the ghetto and the Holocaust period, and also a portion of YIVO’s prewar collection.
In 1946, Kaczerginski left for Poland, settling temporarily in Łódź where he was a contributor and editor of the organ of Po‘ale Tsiyon. He collected Holocaust folklore materials, particularly songs, and out of that work grew the collections Dos gezang fun vilner geto (The Song of the Vilna Ghetto; 1947) and Lider fun di getos un lagern (Songs of the Ghettos and Camps; 1948). His experiences and disappointments in the Soviet period are described in Tsvishn hamer un serp: Tsu der geshikhte fun der likvidatsye fun der yidisher kultur in Sovyetn-Rusland (Between Hammer and Sickle: Toward the History of the Liquidation of Jewish Culture in Soviet Russia; 1949; enlarged edition, 1950).
From Łódź, Kaczerginski left for Paris and in 1950 settled in Argentina, where he instantly became very prominent in Jewish cultural circles as an editor and speaker. His sudden death in an airplane crash in 1954 elicited great sadness, and a year later a memorial volume was published that included tributes to his life and some of his unpublished manuscripts.
Shmerke Katsherginski ondenk-bukh (Buenos Aires, 1955). For the story of the Paper Brigade, see David E. Fishman, Embers Plucked from the Fire: The Rescue of Jewish Cultural Treasures in Vilna (rev. ed., New York, 2010).
RG 1140, Leo Low, Papers, 1948-1970; RG 1171, Bertha Kling, Papers, 1907-1978; RG 223, Abraham Sutzkever–Szmerke Kaczerginski, Collection, 1806-1945; RG 360, Shmuel Niger, Papers, 1907-1950s; RG 363, H. Rosenblatt, Papers, 1921-1956; RG 408, Arthur Schechter, Papers, 1940-1968; RG 556, Aaron Glanz-Leieles, Papers, 1914-1966; RG 584, Max Weinreich, Papers, 1930s-1968; RG 749, Sheftel Zak, Papers, 1948-1970; RG 833, Peretz Hirschbein, Papers, 1900-1957.
Translated from Yiddish by Yankl Salant