Finding Leyzer Wolf:
A Biography by Roberta Newman
A Work in Progress
Finding Leyzer Wolf is both a biography and a quest: a history detective story that will seek answers about the last days of a poet’s life and of the world of Yiddish culture at the height of its efflorescence between the two world wars.
Leyzer Wolf 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 literary language.
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. Yiddish culture was a collateral victim of the Nazis and Soviets and did not find a firm foothold among the children of Jewish immigrants and Holocaust survivors after World War II.
Finding Leyzer Wolf will be a portrait of a life and culture cut tragically short. It will include English translations of some of Leyzer Wolf’s poems. It will also explore the value of resurrecting lost poets and lost worlds. Why go on journeys to discover the past? What are we looking for there?