The Wartime Revival of a Yiddish Poet

April 29, 2022 | Ben Cohen
About the author: Ben Cohen, a New York-based writer, has contributed essays on anti-Semitism and related issues to Mosaic and other publications.

Born in 1889 into a religious Jewish family in rural Ukraine, David Hofshteyn became one of the Soviet Union’s most celebrated poets. His Yiddish poem “Ukraine,” penned during the Nazi invasion of his country, has particular resonance for Ukrainians today. Ben Cohen discussed Hofshteyn’s legacy with the poet’s eighty-five-year-old niece, Svetlana Hofshteyn, who now resides in Germany:

“Ukraine has this very strange history,” Svetlana said. “Jews were killed in pogroms, then the revolution was pushed on them, but David Hofshteyn became an enthusiastic patriot. He loved Ukraine, and the other Ukrainian writers felt the same way towards him.”

A collection of Hofshteyn’s poems published in 1922, which mourned the anti-Semitic pogroms waged by the anti-Soviet “White” armies during the Russian civil war, was illustrated by the renowned painter Marc Chagall. The two artists had met while working as a teachers at a refuge for Jewish children who fled the pogroms. “David greeted the arrival of the Soviet regime, and so did Chagall,” Svetlana noted. “They welcomed it because it gave them the right to move out of the shtetl to the cities, where they could obtain an education. So he was in favor of the revolution, but he was also a huge believer in Jewish identity. Writing in Yiddish got him into many unfortunate situations, because he didn’t want to assimilate.”

In 1948, Hofshteyn was thrown into prison; many other prominent Soviet Yiddish writers soon joined him. Like many of them, he was murdered in 1952.

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