On the Trail of Leyzer Wolf
by Roberta Newman
A Work in Progress
Leyzer Wolf is the most famous Yiddish writer you never heard of.
He was a celebrated poet in his hometown of Wilno, Poland, a city known
to Jews as Vilna, revered as a center of scholarship and culture. In the 1920s-30s, it was the home of Young Vilna (Yung Vilne), a group of
avant-garde writers dedicated to the development of Yiddish as a modern
Leyzer Wolf was one of the most famous members of the group. Known for his sardonic, sometimes fantastical verses, he also wrote tender love poems. He was a celebrity and had a reputation for literary stunts -- such as writing 1,001 poems in thirty days or publicly reciting poems he’d written in languages of which he knew only 100 words each.
He mentored and was adored by a group of younger poets from his impoverished neighborhood. But Leyzer Wolf was also an enigma. “Wolf” was his pen name and his friends marveled at the contrast between his public persona and Leyzer Mekler -- a shy, morose man.
In 1939, at the start of World War II, like thousands of others, Leyzer fled the Nazis to Soviet-occupied Bialystok. He was embraced by the Soviet Yiddish establishment, and a volume of his poems, Lyric and Satire, was published in Moscow in 1940.
When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Leyzer Wolf joined the mass exodus of Soviet citizens and refugees into the country’s interior -- as far away from the Germans as possible. He ended up in Uzbekistan, in Shakhrisabz, an ancient city famous for being the birthplace of Timur (Tamerlane). He is reported to have died of starvation there in 1943 while at work in a rope factory. He was only thirty-three years old.
His last, enigmatic letter, to his friend Leyzer Ran, was in verse. He questioned the very existence of “Leyzer Wolf” and predicted he would be forgotten by future generations:
I’ve set out on the faint trail
Of Leyzer Wolf, the biggest nothing
Of the twenty-first century,
But haven’t found him anywhere.
Not among fools
And not among the wise
Not down below
And not on high.
Indeed, today, Leyzer Wolf is a footnote in Jewish literary history, known only to scholars and Yiddishists. Almost none of his poems have been translated into English.
On the Trail of Leyzer Wolf aims to end his literary oblivion by presenting a selection of his surviving poems in English translation, making his work available for the first time to readers outside academia.
With the support of 2022-2023 Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellowship.