Written in 1920 in the wake of the massacres of tens of thousands of Jews by Ukrainian militias during the Russian Civil War, “The Wolf,” a verse epic by the American Yiddish poet H. Leivick, has as its protagonist a rabbi who awakes to find himself the sole survivor in his destroyed shtetl. He retreats to the forest, where he is magically transformed into a werewolf, and then returns to his hometown, now being rebuilt by returning refugees. There he resumes his clerical post while in human form. Dara Horn explores the poem’s symbolism, and its enduring relevance:
When I first encountered this poem years ago, I was riveted by the rabbi, whom I understood as a person disfigured by trauma. The poem, I thought, was a call for empathy for survivors. . . . [But] the poem, as I now understand it, isn’t really about the rabbi, whose point of view hardly figures in the work. It’s about the other Jews, whose shared emotions are intimately described—and all too familiar. These Jews rejoice in their survival, but they are also haunted by the horrific fact that other Jews have been murdered while they have randomly been spared—the defining fact of post-Holocaust American Jewish identity. The wolf’s presence in their midst is an embodiment of that haunting, the deep awareness of total vulnerability that lurks just beneath the surface of their daily lives.
Leivick tells us as much. As the poem’s Jews listen to the wolf’s midnight howling [coming from the forests outside of town], “they could not hear a thing anymore/ Except the beating of their own hearts.” Later, as the howling grows louder and closer, “in each turn of the voice was heard/ A hidden challenge, an appeal, and above all, a pleading;/ Which chilled their hearts more than anything,/ For it reminded them of the cry of a human being.” This disfigured beast crying for mercy is inseparable from who they are. It is part of them, one of them, the buried part of thousands of years of pain. They want that wolf to go away, but they cannot kill it without killing themselves.