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Ukrainian Literature

Jewish Ukrainian literary creativity was uncommon: East European Jews generally sought acculturation into powerful imperial societies that had great literary traditions, such as Russia or Germany. Nonetheless, some Jews chose to identify with the colonial society of Ukraine even though it was routinely represented not only as powerless, stateless, and oppressed, but also as uncivilized and backward. Most of the Jews who established themselves as Ukrainian writers or expressed sympathy for Ukrainian culture made a conscious anti-imperial choice; indeed, a decision by an East European Jew to integrate into Ukrainian culture was particularly striking because Jews for centuries viewed Ukrainians as perpetrators of anti-Jewish massacres, and Ukrainians perceived Jews as sycophantic servants of the Polish gentry, Russian landlords, or, later, the Bolsheviks.

Individual Jews began to turn to Ukrainian culture in the second half of the nineteenth century, at a time when Russian authorities forbade the Ukrainian language in scholarship, education, and liturgy and perceived Ukrainian literary endeavors as subversive and disloyal. Some Ukrainian-speaking Jews aspired to cultural visibility amid the proponents of Ukrainian revivalism. Among these were Kesar Oleksandrovych Bilylovs’kyi (1859–1938), a poet; H. Hurovych, who wrote a number of skillfully constructed Ukrainian poems as early as the 1860s (published in 1904); Maksym Hekhter, whose pro-Ukrainian political journalism appeared in the L’viv-based periodical Literaturno-naukovyi vistnyk (Literary and Scholarly Herald; first decade of the twentieth century), edited by Ivan Franko; Serhii Frenkel, a member of the “Pleiada” literary group, and friend and correspondent of Lesia Ukrainka; Hryhorii Hel’man, who published a book of Ukrainian prose, Strilochnyk Danylo (Switchman Danylo; 1898); and Hryts’ko Kernerenko (b. Grigorii Borisovich Kerner, 1863–after 1911), perhaps the first Ukrainian Jewish poet. These individuals constituted a small, yet self-conscious, Jewish faction among Ukrainian intellectuals. All of them knew Russian, read the Russian press and Russian classics, sometimes published in that language, but refused to seek cultural haven under the aegis of imperial Russian culture. They also admired Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, who published essays (Fel’ietony; 1913) expressing sympathy for the Ukrainian national movement.

Bilylovs’kyi, a physician and the author of Russian books on sanitation and hygiene, was the first lyrical poet to introduce oriental themes into Ukrainian poetry. Despite his reluctance to provide any details about his Jewish identity in his autobiography (first published in 2003), his total immersion into, and identification with, Ukrainian culture did not make him immune to antisemitic accusations. Yet Jewish themes were not entirely alien to his work. He drew extensively from Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Psalms, and even Pirke avot. His Ukrainian poetry universalized Judaic ethics and avoided Christian motifs in such poems as “Zhyteis’ka mudrist’” (Life Wisdom), “Zhyteis’kyi dosvid” (Life Experience), “Chervonyi shliub” (The Red Wedding), “Elehia” (Elegy), “Desiat’ dariv na sviti” (Ten Wordly Gifts), and “Daite-bo zhyt’” (Let Me Live), published in Ukrainian anthologies between 1887 and 1907.

In contrast to Bilylovs’kyi, Kernerenko created explicitly Ukrainian Jewish imagery in his poetry and prose narratives, combining, for example, images stemming from Heinrich Heine and Taras Shevchenko. Born to a wealthy, Russian-speaking Jewish family, Kernerenko began writing in Ukrainian in the early 1880s and by the late 1890s had established links with prominent Ukrainian literati. His poems and translations from Heine, Shimen Frug, and Sholem Aleichem appeared in L’viv, Kyiv, and Khar’kiv; and his love poems were published in virtually every almanac of Ukrainian verse of the first quarter of the twentieth century. Leading Ukrainian literary figures, such as Ivan Franko and Khrystyna Alchevs’ka, welcomed him specifically as a Ukrainian-Jewish poet although acknowledging his mediocre literary talents.

In his Pravdyva kazka (A True Tale; 1890), an imitation of a Ukrainian folktale, Kernerenko challenged historical narratives that portrayed Jews as bloodsuckers and parasites. Utilizing Shevchenko’s romantic images of mentally challenged individuals embodying a quest for truth and justice, he depicted a Ukrainian girl as a bona fide redeemer who tried to stop a pogrom in her native village. In later writings, including his poem “Monopolia” (Monopoly; 1902), Kernerenko welcomed the cancellation of the old Jewish privilege for the liquor trade: now, he maintained, Jews were on the same footing as Ukrainians and could avoid accusations of immorality and corruption.

Kernerenko found Ukrainian acculturation a lonely and utopian enterprise, a feeling that he articulated in his poem “Ne ridnyi syn” (A Stepson; 1908). There, he deftly intertwined Shevchenkian images of the lonely poet-orphan and populist images of Ukraine as a mother-nurse, drawing also from Heine’s dialogue with his mother-Germany. In appending a Jewish motif to these, he created an unprecedented dichotomy: a stepson, a Ukrainian poet of Jewish descent, confesses to Ukraine, his stepmother. The poet claims to have sacrificed his freedom for the sake of his beloved stepmother who has mistreated, humiliated, and mocked him. Admitting that the only reason for this humiliation was his alien faith, Kernerenko argues that he still loves Ukraine, whatever the cost. He included this poem in the volume Menty natkhnennia (Moments of Inspiration; 1910), which was widely discussed in the Ukrainian press of the day.

In the revolutionary period following 1917, Russian-speaking Jews sought Ukrainian acculturation. In 1918, Ezra Fininberg, Moyshe Khashchevatski, Leyb Kvitko, and Andrii Chuzhyi (b. Andrii Storozhuk), formed the Uman-based futurist group Bezmezhnyky (The Unlimited Ones) that sought to promote cultural rapprochement between Jews and Ukrainians. Solomon Goldel’man and Arnol’d Margolin, prominent Jewish political figures who joined the Ukrainian independent government in 1917–1920, called for the replacement of Russian with the Ukrainian language in political discourse. In 1919, Jewish artists of the Kultur-lige, including El Lissitzky, Abram Manevich, Yisakhar Rybak, Zinovii Tolkachev, and Aleksandr Tyshler, engaged in projects with their Ukrainian counterparts, among them Les’ Kurbas, the founder of the new Ukrainian theater, and Mykhailo Boichuk, a pioneer of the national Ukrainian renaissance in painting.

In the 1920s, the indigenization campaign of the USSR brought together Jewish and Ukrainian writers as neighbors sharing the writers’ residential Slovo House in Khar’kiv, which hosted such literary figures as the Ukrainians Mykola Bazhan, Mykola Khvyliovyi, Les’ Kurbas, Valer’ian Polishchuk, Iurii Smolych, Volodymyr Sosiura, and Jews such as Fininberg, Kulyk, Kvitko, and Leonid Pervomais’kyi. Literary critics and scholars worked together well, among them the Jewish figures Ieremia Aizenshtok, Dovid Feldman, Oleksandr Leites, and Volodymyr Koriak, and the Ukrainian Mykhailo Dolengo. The proximity of Ukrainian and Jewish writers did generate cooperation among them: Pervomais’kyi, Sosiura, and Kvitko discussed their new poems; Fininberg wrote under the impact of Pavlo Tychyna; Kvitko and Feldman worked on their first Yiddish anthology of Ukrainian prose; and Kulyk discussed with the visiting Der Nister the translation into Yiddish of one of Kulyk’s novels. For a short time in the 1920s, Khar’kiv’s Ukrainian and Jewish literati welcomed Raisa L’vovna Troianker (1909–1945), who published two collections of poetry, Povin’ (Inundation; 1927) and Horyzont (Horizon; 1929) and was the first to introduce the image of the shtetl into Ukrainian poetry. In 1928–1930, the Yiddish figures Itsik Fefer, Shakhno Epstein, and Oleksandr Finkel published essays, composed in Ukrainian, on Yiddish poets and writers in the mainstream weekly Literaturna hazeta (Literary Newspaper) and the monthly Chervonyi shliakh (The Red Path).

Ivan Iulianovych Kulyk (b. Izrail Iudelevich Kulik, 1897–1937) was one of the most representative among revolutionary-minded and Ukrainian-oriented Jews of the 1920s. Born to the family of a Talmud Torah teacher, Kulyk as a boy collected Ukrainian folk objects. During his short yet adventurous life, he was a scenery painter in the Uman theater; a miner in Pennsylvania; a journalist for the Russian- and Ukrainian-language American socialist press; a colleague of Nikolai Bukharin; a commander of a Ukrainian Bolshevik cavalry regiment; a Bolshevik imprisoner of Polish legionnaires; the consul of Ukraine in Montreal; the leader of the Hart literary group of proletarian writers in Canada and Ukraine; and the first head of the Union of the Ukrainian Soviet Writers. Kulyk wrote several volumes of Ukrainian poetry, including Moi kolomyiky (My Kolomyikas [a type of folk dance]; 1921), Zelene sertse (The Green Heart; 1923), and V otochenni (Besieged; 1927); the two books of Ukrainian prose narrative Pryhody Vasylia Rolenka (Adventures of Vasyl Rolenko; 1929) and Zapysky konsula (Consul’s Notes; 1932); innumerable Ukrainian journalistic essays in U.S., Canadian, and Ukrainian newspapers; and the first Ukrainian anthology of American verse (1927).

Kulyk viewed Ukrainian as the language of proletarian emancipation and national revivalism. The literary value of his works is less noteworthy than their ideological fervor, formalistic novelty, and idiosyncrasy. He consistently amalgamated his universalistic Marxist and national Ukrainian identities, construing himself as an anticolonial Jew. In his poetry and prose, Kulyk equated Native Canadians and Ukrainian Bolsheviks, and the nineteenth-century Métis rebellion with the Ukrainian-centered socialist revolution of the twentieth:

Hey, my fertile Alberta,

Makhno will come for you!

Whatever you do

But you will rise renewed!

Hey, my British Columbia,

Your forests and marshes

Will soon learn the jokes

Of the Volynia guerrilla!

Hey, my Ontarian lakes,

Your rage will be justified

And the red smog of the battleships

Will reign over you!

And yours, Ottawa the capital

A proud House of Commons,

Will be ardently ruled

By the All-Canadian Soviet Commissariat!

(“Z tsyklu ‘Kanada’’” [From the poetic series “Canada”] in V otochenni [1927], pp. 18–19)

Kulyk also introduced images of his Jewish childhood into prose and poetry, tracing parallels between a shtetl in Poland and an Indian village in Canada. He promoted a number of artists, among them Savva Ovsiiovych Holovanivs’kyi (1910–1992), a prolific poet and writer who rarely addressed Jewish themes. Kulyk sometimes was the object of vicious antisemitic attacks; accused of attempts to create a network of Ukrainian nationalists in Ukraine and abroad, he disappeared during the Stalinist–Yezhov purges in 1937.

Kulyk’s most illustrious protégé was Leonid Pervomais’kyi (b. Illia Solomonovych Hurevych; 1908–1973). In the latter’s collection of short stories Den’ novyi (A New Day; 1927) and his novel Zemlia obitovana (A Promised Land; 1927) Pervomais’kyi crafted an unparalleled fusion of Yiddish and Ukrainian imitating the Russian–Jewish fusion of Isaac Babel. In short stories such as “Parasol’ka Pinkhusa-Moti” (Pinkhus-Motia’s Umbrella; 1926) and V paliturni (In the Bookbinding Shop; 1927), Ukrainian and Jewish inhabitants of the shtetl share their knowledge of Yiddish, Ukrainian folklore, and Shevchenko; they also shun violence, inseparable in their imagination from the xenophobic Russian White Guards and militant Bolsheviks. Portraying Jewish emancipation under socialism, at the height of his prewar literary career, Pervomais’kyi wrote the play Mistechko Ladeniu (The Shtetl Ladeniu; 1933), in which he introduced shtetl Jews to an agricultural settlement, where they become transformed into Ukrainian Jewish peasants, speaking Ukrainian bereft of colonial hybridity, and portrayed as people of the Ukrainian land.

After World War II, Soviet censorship disrupted Pervomais’kyi’s reflections on a Ukrainian–Jewish synthesis. The Stalin Prize he obtained for his book of patriotic wartime poetry, Zemlia (The Land; 1943), did not diminish his vulnerability, and attacks against him in 1949 as a rootless cosmopolitan drove him to attempt suicide. Forced to speak Aesopian language, Pervomais’kyi identified with the tragic destinies of voiceless war victims whose voices he made heard. Perhaps under the influence of the Hungarian Jewish poet Miklós Radnóti (b. Miklós Glatter, 1910–1944), Pervomais’kyi turned to discuss Jewish victimization during World War II in his prose and poetry (e.g., his novel Dykyi med [Wild Honey]; 1963) and his short story “Vulytsia Mel’nykova” (Melnikov Street; 1970). Depicting the Babi Yar massacre, Pervomais’kyi composed the monologue of a father who turned to his son at the very last moment of their lives, with a last lullaby:

Stay near me, my son, here, my son

I will close your eyes with my palm

You will see not your death—

Just the blood on my fingers under the sun. . . .

Pervomais’kyi reflected on his own fate as a Ukrainian poet of Jewish descent in his long poem Khlib pana Sheremeta (The Bread of Mister Sheremet; published in 2004), a venomous satirical rebuff to the antisemitic diatribes made against him by the Soviet official poet Mykola Sheremet (1906–1986).

Pervomais’kyi’s three volumes of poetry—Uroky poezii (The Lessons of Poetry; 1968), Drevo piznannia (The Tree of Knowledge; 1971), and Vchora i zavtra (Yesterday and Tomorrow; published posthumously in 1974)—turned him into a Ukrainian classic poet. In these works, he discovered through poetry what could be called the semiotics of creative writing. He realized that his central victimized and powerless protagonist was the poetic word unable to grasp and convey the meanings of slippery empirical reality. Now reality turned into a violent, abusive, and imposing power; and the poetic word, with which Pervomais’kyi identified, into its immortal victim.

After World War II, Natan Rybak (1912–1978), a proponent of socialist realism in literature, published what became a very widely read, ideologically correct historical novel, in two volumes, about the Khmel’nyts’kyi period, Pereiaslavs’ka rada (The Pereiaslav Council; 1948–1953). The work emphasizes Russian–Ukrainian friendship and treats Khmel’nyts’kyi as an ideal ruler with traits similar to those of Stalin. Using Saul Borovoy’s insights about several Cossacks of Jewish origin who participated in the 1648 Cossack revolution, Rybak tried to demonstrate Jews’ support of the popular Ukrainian rebellion.

Before his death, Pervomais’kyi gave his blessing to Moisei Fishbein (1946– ), a young Jew seeking Ukrainian acculturation during a new, Kremlin-orchestrated, anti-Ukrainian campaign. Many leading Ukrainian and Jewish activists found themselves in the Soviet Gulag where they established patterns of interaction and produced examples of literary symbiosis that were later collected into the volume Lysty z voli (Letters from the Places of Freedom; 1999), an anthology that includes essays pondering Ukrainian–Jewish rapprochement by two Ukrainian and one Jewish human rights activist: Zynovii Antoniuk (1933– ), Myroslav Marynovych (1949– ), and Semen Hluzman (1947– ).

Moisei Fishbein, whom critics consider the Ukrainian Paul Celan, embodies the spiritual endeavors of the 1970s generation of Ukrainian and Jewish dissidents. Born to a Russian- and Yiddish-speaking Jewish family in Chernivtsi, Fishbein wrote verse in which he presents himself as a Jewish messiah sent to Ukraine from heaven to redeem Ukrainian language and culture from Russian colonialism and enforced assimilation. Fishbein published his first collection of metaphysical verse Iambove kolo (Iambic Circle) in 1974. His collection of poems, Apokryf (Apocrypha; 1996), presents Kyiv as the narrator’s Jerusalem, Ukraine as his Holy Land, and Ukrainian as his holy tongue. Fishbein studied engineering in Novosibirsk, served in the Soviet Army in Vladivostok, worked as a new immigrant caretaker in Jerusalem, and as a Radio Liberty journalist in Munich. When he returned to Ukraine in the 1990s, his verse continued to emphasize the redeeming power of the Ukrainian language, for example, in his collection Rannii rai (An Early Paradise; 2006).

Fishbein’s “linguistic messianism” shaped his journalism, talks, interviews, poetry, and prose. He considered his linguistic mission as part of his lofty call as a bearer of the Ukrainian language and as part of his self-perception as a Jew coming to purify and redeem. In the 1990s, several Ukrainian poets of Jewish descent, such as Abram Isaakovych Katsnel’son (1914–2003) and Naum Tykhyi (Naum Myronovych Shtirel’man, 1912–1996), also turned to Jewish themes and pondered the most painful episodes of Jewish–Slavic interaction, particularly in Katsnel’son’s Poklyk vysoty: Poezii (Summons of Height; 1996) and Tykhyi’s Smak osinnioho vitru: poezii (The Taste of the Autumn Wind; 1996) and Sedmytsia (A Week; 1996).

Suggested Reading

Iaroslav Dashkevych, “Vzaiemovidnosyny mizh ukrains’kym ta ievreis’kym naselenniam u skhidnii Halychini (kinets’ XIX–pochatok XX st.),” in Ukrains’kyi istorychnyi zhurnal 10 (1990): 63–72; Marten Feller, Poshuky, rozdumy i spohady ievreia, iakyi pam’ataie svoikh didiv, pro ievreis’ko ukrains’ki vzaiemyny, osoblyvo zh pro movy i stavlennia do nykh (Drohobych, 1994); George Grabowicz, Do istorii ukrains’koi literatury: Doslidzhennia, esei, polemika (Kyiv, 2003), pp. 218–236; Yaroslav Hrytsak, “A Ukrainian Answer to the Galician Ethnic Triangle: The Case of Ivan Franko,” Polin 12 (1999): 137–146, issue entitled Galicia: Jews, Poles, and Ukrainians, 1772–1918; Taras Hunczak, “A Reappraisal of Symon Petliura and Ukrainian-Jewish Relations, 1917–1921,” Jewish Social Studies 31 (1969): 163–183; Israel Kleiner, From Nationalism to Universalism: Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky and the Ukrainian Question (Edmonton and Toronto, 2000); Pavlo Kudriavtsev, “Ievreistvo, ievrei ta ievreis’ka sprava v tvorakh Ivana Franka,” in Zbirnyk prats’ ievreis’koi istoryko-arkheohrafichnoi komisii, vol. 2, pp. 1–81 (Kyiv, 1929); Wolf Moskovich et al., eds., Jews and Slavs 5 (1996), special issue on “Jews and Ukrainians”; Wolf Moskovich, “The Axis Jerusalem–Kyiv in the Works of the Ukrainian Émigré Poet Moisei Fishbein,” Jews and Slavs 6 (1999): 389–399, special issue on “Jerusalem in Slavic Culture”; Miron Petrovskii, “Imenem Moiseia i Khrista, Buddy i Sokrata,” Zerkalo 130 (1995): 22–30; Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, “Reconceptualizing the Alien: Jews in Modern Ukrainian Thought,” Ab Imperio 4 (2003): 519–580; Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, “The Coming of a New Moses: Ukrainian-Jewish Poet in the Making,” East European Jewish Affairs 34.1 (2004): 12–28; Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, “The Construction of an Improbable Identity: The Case of Hryts’ko Kernerenko,” Ab Imperio 1 (2005): 191–255; Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, “Ukraine Jewish Culture,” in Encyclopedia of Modern Jewish Culture, ed. Glenda Abramson, vol. 2, pp. 915–921 (London and New York, 2005); Peter Potichnyj and Howard Aster, eds., Ukrainian-Jewish Relations in Historical Perspective (Edmonton, 1988); Ivan L. Rudnytsky, “Mykhailo Drahomanov and the Problem of Ukrainian-Jewish Relations” and “The Problem of Ukrainian-Jewish Relations in Nineteenth-Century Ukrainian Political Thought,” in Essays in Modern Ukrainian History (Cambridge, Mass., 1987), pp. 283–298, 299–314; Myroslav Shkandrij, “The Jewish Voice in Ukrainian Literature,” The Ukrainian Quarterly 57.1 (2006): 69–94; Vadim Skuratovskii (Vadym Skuratovs’kyi), “Ukrainskaia literature,” in Kratkaia evreiskaia entsiklopediia, vol. 8, pp. 1268–1276 (Jerusalem, 1996); Vadim Skuratovskii (Vadym Skuratovs’kyi), “Na perekhrestiakh dushi,” Suchasnist 12 (1996): 86–89; Asher Wilcher, “Ivan Franko and Theodor Herzl: To the Genesis of Franko’s Moisej,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies 6.2 (1982): 233–243.