Nusekh Poyln and the ‘New Jewish Man’. The Image of the Jewish Communist in Yiddish Literature of Post-War Poland

Magdalena Ruta


After World War II, the Communist regime took over power directly after the liberation of Poland in 1945. Jewish survivors, having stayed in the country for a certain period of time, tried to revive their multilingual cultural life. Literary works of writers in that community are a fascinating testimony of their struggles: how to be loyal to the Socialist state (condition sine qua non to take part in the official cultural life) on the one hand, and on the other how to express their feelings, thoughts and convictions which they could not and did not want to ignore. Their struggles can be observed on the sample of the three most important motifs of postwar Polish-Yiddish literature: the Holocaust, Communism itself, and Polish-Jewish relations. The article discusses selected literary works of the most prominent Polish-Yiddish writers, whose main character or lyric subject is the ‘new Jewish man’ shaped according to the Communist principles. The author attempts to answer the question of what the most important features of a personality formed by Communist doctrine are, and also to learn about the circumstances of the communist world in which that literary hero lives. Close reading of the programmatic literary pieces of some Communist writers also enables observing whether and how Polish Jewish Communists managed to find a compromise between the mutually exclusive Communist internationalism and their attachment to Yiddish-language culture, and how they reacted when information of Stalinist crimes came to light and their party comrades turned the blade of antisemitism against them. The ambitious project to build a new model of secular progressive Yiddish culture (the so-called ‘nusekh Poyln’), failed to bring the expected results. In spite of concerted attempts to meet the unrealistic demands of Socialist Realism, it soon transpired that Polish-Yiddish literature under Communism was unable to deal with the lack of space afforded by Communist ideology for mourning its murdered nation or with the spasms of unease that were the reaction to the periodic antisemitism in the non-Jewish environment.

Słowa kluczowe: Yiddish literature, Communism, postwar Poland, the Holocaust, ‘new Jewish man’, Socialist Realism

Primary sources (selection)

Berlinski, S. (1946), Di Yelins, in: Yidishe shrift. Literarish zamlbukh,  Lodz: 35–38.

Guterman, G. (1948), Der opgrunt roysht, Varshe.

Guterman, I. (1954), ‘Dos lebn hot im gerufn,‘ in idem, Banayte teg, Varshe: 7-63.

Heller, B. (1948), Durkhshotn un shayn, Varshe.

Heller B. (1951), Heymerd, Varshe.

Heller, B. (1956), Dos ershte lid, Varshe.

Heller, B. (1957), Klorkeyt, Varshe.

Ivan, V. H. (1950), Oyf heymisher erd, Varshe.

Kants, S. (1952), In fabrik, in: idem, Naye teg, Varshe: 7-89.

Olitski, L. (1951a), Dodye Koval, vol. 1-3, Varshe.

Olitski, L. (1951b), Oyslendishe valyute, in: idem, Mentshn in klem, Varshe: 5-91.

Strauss-Marko, S. (1965), Geven amol a shtetl, Varshe.

Secondary sources

Berendt, G. (2008), Zamiast przypisów: Informacje przydatne w lekturze opowieści bohaterów książki, in: Wiszniewicz, J., Życie przecięte: Opowieści pokolenia Marca, Wołowiec: 759.

Estraykh, G. (2008), Yiddish in the Cold War, Oxford.

Grabski, A. (2004), Działalność komunistów wśród Żydów w Polsce (1944-1949), Warszawa.

Mirski M. (1952), Vegn L. Olitskis „Mentshn in klem”, in: Idishe Shriftn (monthly), no. 3.

Nalewajko-Kulikov, J. (2006), Czy socrealizm miał odmianę żydowską? Kilka uwag o twórczości pisarzy jidysz w powojennej Polsce, in Krzysztof Stępnik, Magdalena Piechota (eds.), Socrealizm: Fabuły – komunikaty – ikony, Lublin: 171-177.

Nalewajko-Kulikov, J., Ruta, M. (2014), Yiddish Culture in Poland after the Holocaust, in: Tych, F., Adamczyk-Garbowska, M. (eds.), Jewish Presence in Absence: The Aftermath of the Holocaust in Poland, 1944-2010, Jerusalem: 327-352.

Ruta, M. (2009), A tale of the Murdered Shtetl: The Image of the Shtetl in Yiddish Literature in Post-war Poland, in European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe, vol. 42, no. 2: 129-144.

Ruta, M. (2015), The Earth Hurts Me: On the poetry of Hadasa Rubin, in: The Legacy of Yiddish Woman Writers, edited by Rosemary Horowitz, Jefferson, North Carolina: 208-229.

Ruta, M. (2017), Without Jews? Yiddish Literature in the People’s Republic of Poland on the Holocaust, Poland and Communism, translated by Jessica Taylor-Kucia, Kraków.

Shneer, D. (2004), Yiddish and the Creation of Soviet Jewish Culture, 1918-1930, Cambridge.

Stankowski, A. (2014), How many Polish Jews survived the Holocaust, in: Tych, F., Adamczyk-Garbowska, M. (eds.), Jewish Presence in Absence: The Aftermath of the Holocaust in Poland, 1944-2010, translated by Grzegorz Dąbkowski, Jessica Taylor-Kucia, Jerusalem: 212.

Tsuzamenfor fun der Yidisher Kultur-Gezelshaft in Poyln, Wroclaw 14-16 X 1949, 1949, Warszawa (in Yiddish); Zjazd Żydowskiego Towarzystwa Kultury w Polsce. Wrocław 14-16 października 1949, 1950, Warszawa (in Polish).