(1895–1952), Yiddish poet, prose writer, playwright, and essayist. Perets Markish was born to impoverished parents in Polonnoye, a town in Volhynia. He received a heder education and left home at a young age, working at various incidental jobs, including as a choirboy for a cantor. During World War I he was drafted into the Russian army. After his discharge from the military during the March Revolution of 1917, he settled in Ekaterinoslav.
Shveln (Thresholds), a poetry collection by Perets Markish. (Kiev: Yidisher folks farlag, 1919). Cover illustration by Iosif Chaikov; also illustrated by El Lissitzky. (Gross Family Collection)
Markish began writing Russian poetry in his youth but made his debut in 1917 with poems in Yiddish, which were infused with the declarative pathos and the apocalyptic mood that would remain characteristic of his writing through the 1920s. In 1918, he relocated to Kiev and took part in the Eygns anthologies (1918–1920), which heralded renewed Yiddish literary creativity in Ukraine after World War I. Four collections of his poetry appeared in Ekaterinoslav and Kiev in 1919. The most extensive among them, Shveln (Thresholds), was acclaimed by critics alongside Dovid Hofshteyn’s Bay vegn (At the Roads) and Leyb Kvitko’s Trit (Steps). Other collections quickly followed, including a wide-ranging book of verse, Stam (Just So; 1921–1922); the long poems Nokhn telerl fun himl (After a Saucer in the Sky; 1919) and Volin (1921); a volume of poetry and poetic prose, Inmitn veg (Midway; 1919); a collection of essays, Farbaygeyendik (In Passing; 1921); and a volume of children’s poems, Shtiferish (Pranks; 1919).
The wide scope of Markish’s early literary output drew mixed reviews from Yiddish critics. Yekhezkl Dobrushin considered him a “strong poet” who placed individuality at the center of the poetic world; Dobrushin was thus prepared to overlook the untamed, chaotic nature of Markish’s work. Dovid Bergelson, however, expressed reservations about Markish’s poetry; in a key article from 1919, “Dikhtung un gezelshaftlekhkayt” (Poetry and Social Life), which deals with the problems of contemporary Yiddish literature, Bergelson points to the “naked lines” in Markish’s poetry, which, according to Bergelson, are characteristic of futurism.
As was the case with many Yiddish writers, Markish left Kiev. Convoluted wanderings brought him to Warsaw in 1921, and he remained there until his return to the Soviet Union in 1926. However, during those years he also spent periods of time in Berlin, Paris, and London, and visited Palestine. The first decade of his artistic career was the most dynamic in terms of his literary, ideological, and personal quests and accomplishments.
In Warsaw, Markish allied himself with poets Uri Tsevi Grinberg and Melech Ravitch, who in the early 1920s transformed the city into the center of Yiddish modernism in Eastern Europe. Their frenetic literary activity included publishing projects, written and verbal polemics, and literary events in Warsaw and other Polish locales where they came into close contact with a wide public and created an audience for modernist poetry.
Markish’s poetry, as one of the most characteristic incarnations of Yiddish expressionism, evoked strong opposition from Hillel Zeitlin and other writers. Ravitch countered their criticism with a brochure titled Pro Perets Markish (1922). This polemic illustrates the provocative impulse that was then so characteristic of Yiddish modernism in general, and of Markish in particular.
Vokhnteg (Weekdays), by Perets Markish (Moscow, Kharkov, Minsk: Tsentrfarlag, 1931). Illustration by L. Radniev. (YIVO)
Markish, Grinberg, and Ravitch all edited literary publications that were fated to be short-lived. Markish’s almanac Khalyastre (Gang) appeared in 1922, coedited with I. J. Singer. In its manifesto, written with hyperbole, Markish declares: “Our criterion is not beauty, but horror.” The second and final issue of Khalyastre, edited with Oyzer Varshavski, appeared in Paris in 1924 with a cover illustration by Marc Chagall.
In the opening essay of his book Farbaygeyendik (1921), “The Ways of Yiddish Poetry,” Markish formulates the “dilemma” of “the new poetry: [was it] to serve as a receptacle of the lowly past, or the great present?” His poetry then tackled a wide gamut of themes and styles, and its broad scope was also evident in its genres: Markish primarily wrote long poems or poetic cycles whose parts were not connected by any clear compositional principle. Volin depicts traditional Jewish life before the revolution with dense, detailed description and with a slightly idyllic hue; in contrast, the unfinished chapters of his long poem, Veyland (Sorrow Land; 1920–1922) evoke a majestic, all-encompassing apocalyptic landscape that evolves into deadly nightmares and the destruction of all accepted values. In cycles such as Feldzn (Rocks; 1919), and Tshaterdag (Chatyr-Dag [A Mountain Plateau in Crimea]; 1919–1920), a nature panorama, with its embodiment of infinite power, serves to communicate the poet’s own tangled emotions. Nature would play a similar role in his later work.
Markish’s most important poetic achievement at that point was his long poem Di kupe (The Heap; 1921 [Warsaw], 1922 [Kiev]). Its horrifying opening image is a pile of corpses laid out in the middle of the marketplace of a shtetl in Ukraine after a pogrom. The poet gives voice both to the unburied and to himself in a series of poetic monologues whose intent is to shock with their blasphemy while expressing the desire to freeze time in an apocalyptic desecration of God and death. The sharply expressionistic language and extensive use of Slavicisms create an ostensibly low stylistic register. At the same time, the poem features such classic stanza forms as the sonnet, a form well represented in Markish’s work in his later years. The assonant rhymes, which Markish introduced in Di kupe and in his other works from that period, became one of the hallmarks of his poetics.
In 1924, Markish was a cofounder of the weekly journal Literarishe bleter in Warsaw. In the first year of its publication, Markish became one of its regular contributors, and submitted literary portraits and feature articles about cultural and literary questions. His sonnet series Fun der heym (From Home) and Zkeynes (Old Women), both from 1925–1926, reveal his deepened and enriched lyricism.
In 1926, Markish settled in the Soviet Union, a move that had a fateful effect on his life and work. This decision closed the modernist period of his writing, although the Soviet editions of his books included some of his earlier writing in reworked and censored versions. Initially he clashed sharply with the leading figures of Soviet Yiddish cultural life, and suffered attacks by the so-called Proletarian writers. This, however, did not hinder his enormous literary productiveness, which came to clear expression in 1929, when Markish revealed his broad literary range—lyric and epic poetry as well as prose—through the publication of three books: a selection of his existing poetry under the title Farklepte tsiferblatn; the first volume of his novel, Dor oys dor ayn (Generation Goes, Generation Comes); and his ambitious epic poem Brider (Brothers). These last two works are set largely during the period of the Russian Revolution, the civil war, and the pogroms in Ukraine. They attempt to weave together several parallel plot lines, with each one taking place over a very wide geographic area. Soviet critics expressed reservations about the structural weakness of these works, but above all they criticized Markish’s too-vivid highlighting of the Jewish national ethos. The second volume of the novel Dor oys dor ayn (1941) adhered much more strictly to the guidelines of Communist dogma.
Poem by Perets Markish, “Tsum hafn: 'Ruh,'” (To the Harbor: "Rest") n.d. "Day after day, the wandering ship caravans. . . ." Yiddish. Permission courtesy of David Markish. RG 108, Manuscripts Collection, F46.14. (YIVO. Published with permission.)
The 1930s saw the establishment of Markish’s status as one of the most important Soviet Yiddish writers; he was, for example, the only Yiddish writer to receive the Order of Lenin (1939). In the poem that opens the first volume of his Gezamlte verk (Collected Works; 1933), the poet situates himself on the border between eras, with his mission being to serve simultaneously as “a stretcher and a cradle”—that is, to seal the past and herald a new epoch. His works on the past that appeared during the 1930s were largely reprints of his early output (for instance, his poem Volin). In long poems he addressed contemporary Soviet subject matter, and these reflect a declarative optimism that often veers into the realm of shallow propaganda. His novel Eyns af eyns (One by One; 1934) is a characteristic example of the contemporary literary party line: at the center stands a Jewish worker who returns to the Soviet Union from the United States in order to build socialism. The propagandistic bent of this subject is self-evident. The basis for the novel was the screenplay that Markish had written for one of the few Soviet Yiddish films, Nosn Beker fort aheym (The Return of Nosn Beker; 1932), with Solomon Mikhoels in one of the leading roles.
From 1939 to 1943, Markish headed the Yiddish section of the Soviet Writers Union, and he joined the Communist Party in 1942. He was a member of the executive board of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and of the editorial board of its journal, Eynikayt. Along with Ilya Ehrenburg and Yitskhok Nusinov, he thought the committee should be active in Jewish affairs within the Soviet Union and should not limit itself to the propaganda abroad that was demanded of it by the Soviet leadership.
As with other Soviet Yiddish writers, the beginning of World War II triggered a significant change in Markish’s work. In 1940 he wrote a long poem Tsu a yidishe tentserin (To a Jewish Female Dancer), which dramatically interweaves themes that are far removed from each other: on the one hand, the difficult fate of Jewish refugees in the Soviet Union, portrayed as one link in the chain of the collective Jewish historical experience; on the other, the figure of the dancer, with her sensual, erotic power. At the time, the poem could not be published in the Soviet Union, but with the outbreak of the German–Soviet war, opportunities arose to express Jewish national feelings that were merged with Soviet patriotism.
Markish strove to combine these sentiments in two ambitious works in the 1940s: his epic poem Milkhome (War) that appeared in 1948 just before the liquidation of Jewish culture in the Soviet Union, and his novel Trot fun doyres (The March of the Generations), rescued by his family at the time of his arrest and only published in 1966. Both works connect the motifs of Jewish and Soviet might with Jewish martyrology during the Holocaust. Some parts of these works take place in the Soviet Union, on the front lines and amid the wanderings of Jewish refugees, while others portray the annihilation of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis. The resistance and uprising in the Warsaw ghetto figure at the center of Trot fun doyres. Large sections of Milkhome bear the stamp of Soviet poetic style.
During this period, Markish also wrote dramas—most of them about Soviet Jewish life—that were performed in the Yiddish theaters in the USSR. His last play, Der ufshtand fun geto (The Ghetto Uprising), about resistance in the Vilna ghetto, shares some topics with Milkhome. After the death of Mikhoels in January 1948, which the Soviet authorities officially presented as a “car accident,” Markish wrote a long poem, Sh. Mikhoels—a ner-tomid bam orn (An Eternal Light at Sh. Mikhoels’ Coffin), where he depicts Mikhoels’s death as a murder.
Markish was arrested in January 1949 as part of the liquidation campaign undertaken against the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and against the remnants of official Jewish cultural activity in the Soviet Union. After an extended period of suffering in prison, an orchestrated trial sentenced Markish to death along with most of the accused. The verdict was carried out in secret on 12 August 1952 in Moscow.
Markish’s widow Esther and his sons, literary scholar Shimon Markish and prose writer David Markish, actively set out to redeem his memory. Following Markish’s official rehabilitation in November 1955, several comprehensive editions of his poems appeared in Russian translation. His posthumous Yiddish publications include the poetry volume Yerushe (Heritage; 1959), the aforementioned novel Trot fun doyres, and the long poem Der fertsikyeriker man (The Forty-Year-Old Man; 1978). A broad selection of his poetry is featured in the anthology A shpigl af a shteyn (A Mirror on a Stone), edited by Khone Shmeruk (1964). Di kupe has been translated into French. A Hebrew translation of the novel Dor oys dor ayn (1962) has appeared, as has a smaller selection of Markish’s poetry, including bilingual editions. Markish’s valuable letters to Yoysef Opatoshu and other Yiddish writers are included in the collection Briv fun yidishe sovetishe shraybers (Letters of Soviet Yiddish Writers), edited by Yeḥezkel Lifshits and Mordechai Altshuler (1979).
Esther Markish, The Long Return (New York, 1978); Vladimir Naumov and Joshua Rubenstein, eds., Stalin’s Secret Pogrom (New Haven, 2001), pp. 119–143; Samuel Niger, Yidishe shrayber in Sovet-Rusland (New York, 1958), pp. 229–261; Avraham Novershtern, Kesem ha-dimdumim: Apokalipsah vi-meshiḥiyut be-sifrut yidish (Jerusalem, 2003), pp. 142–150; Melech Ravitch, Dos mayse-bukh fun mayn lebn, vol. 3 (Buenos Aires, 1975); Seth L. Wolitz, “A Yiddish Modernist Dirge: Di kupe of Perets Markish,” Modern Jewish Studies Annual 6 (1987): 56–72.
Translated from Yiddish by Rebecca Margolis