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[Page 149]

Our Two Writer-Martyrs

brz149.jpg -   Chaim-Lajb Fuks

by Chaim-Lajb Fuks

Translated by Renee Miller

Edited by Fay Bussgang

[Page 151]

Jakob-Ber Gips

J. B. Gips, the poet and Yiddish teacher from Brzezin, was an unusual person.

Always eager for maysim [action], for teaching, and for beauty, he devoted himself whole-heartedly to the new Yiddish culture and literature. They occupied his entire being and replaced the Gemore [Torah commentaries] and Haskole [Enlightenment] literature imbibed during his earlier youth between the walls of the besmedresh [house of study].

Born in Brzezin in 1892 into a middle-class family, Jakob-Ber displayed, at a very young age, in his kheder [elementary school] years, an extraordinary passion for learning. At the age of five, he already knew Chumash [Torah] and chapters of Tanakh [Scriptures]; by twelve he had outgrown the traditional religious school with the Gemore teachers and had to travel to Lodz and Skierniewice to study. In Lodz, his rebbe [Hasidic rabbi] was Reb Chaiml Kotsker [from Kock]. From him he heard many, many Hasidic stories, and through him, he began to become absorbed in the world of Jewish mysticism. All through the night he read books about Kabole [Jewish mysticism], about the search for the infinity, about the essence of life.

Through this his ideas matured; through this he acquired his own view of the world. From there he was drawn to worldly knowledge. In those years his second home was the Yiddish section of the T.K.O.[1] library, which satisfied his thirst for knowledge. There he came to understand Yiddish literature, which opened wide horizons to him and engraved in his blood the longing for a national way of life. In the Lodz Poale Zion circle he matured into someone who also responded to world problems, political issues, questions concerning the awakening Jewish workers' movement, the revolutionary happenings in Russia and in the world. He became one of the early members of the first circles of writers and poets just beginning to be formed in Lodz.

Gips sought out the evening courses that Lazar Fuks and the attorney Anders arranged for young people without tuition. From that time on, Jakob-Ber Gips became an enthusiastic admirer of Labor Zionism, of the left wing Poale Zion party, and of Jewish culture.

He dreamt of becoming a teacher––and particularly a teacher in the folk language, in Yiddish. His dream was interrupted when World War I broke out.

Like all those who had lived in the shtetlekh [small towns], he was drawn back home during that time. He came back to Brzezin during the terrible days when, because of the war, all activity was completely brought to a standstill. The tailoring machines that previously had clothed half the world were silent. Songs were no longer heard––those melodies of a new time that the Jewish worker had sung about, when he'd been able to bring bread into the house.

The town, which drew a great deal of its livelihood from Lodz, was confused and discouraged. The manufacturers and merchants had saved a little, but not the Brzeziner tailors, who had barely made a living from their day-and-night toil.

Jakob-Ber did not rest. Already in the first week, when operations had been suspended and the Germans had occupied Lodz and Brzezin, a meeting was called at Jakob-Ber's initiative, and the first savings and loan bank, the first cooperative, was founded as a department of the arbet-heym [workers home]; the main institution was in Lodz.

In those days he created his first poems, which he brought to Icchok Kacenelson. The first poem that gave him recognition was published in the first number of Lazar Kahan's Folksblat [People's newspaper]. He even wanted to return to Lodz, but duty to his Brzeziners dispelled any such thought. He had to be in the place where he was most needed. He was cofounder of a number of institutions. He made use of his time to complete the preparation of his life's aim––to become a teacher of Yiddish. Since a position became available in the town of Lowicz [Wovich], he went there and also took over, in addition to the Yiddish courses, the entire Poale Zion party and its cultural work.

In 1922 he settled in Lodz. There, new journals were born every month––Yung Yiddish [Young Yiddish], which presented the new tone of stirring poetry, and three Yiddish daily newspapers. And Jakob-Ber Gips came to Lodz with only his poems and his dreams. The young writers group received him as one of their own, which signaled his future destiny. He became, with all his heart and soul, a friend and co-builder of Yiddish culture.

In those days Jewish secular schools were expanding. Thousands of Jewish children drank in the growing fruits of the Yiddish folks-shul [folk school].

Jakob-Ber Gips became one of the teachers in the large Borochov school in Lodz [named for Marxist-Zionist leader Ber Borochov]. He taught the children Jewish history, the subject that he loved most in the world and that he felt would help build a Jewish people's homeland. He instilled in his students the spirit of khalutsim [pioneers] through the ancient sources of Medresh [post-Talmudic literature based on the Bible] and Tanakh [scriptures]. He did not teach the children only from books but also recreated, through his visions and images, the times of the past, when Jews were a people on a par with other peoples. The children loved him like a good friend, like a father. He was very happy. His dream had sprouted wings.

In those days he was unusually creative. He published his works in newspapers, in the periodicals of the young Lodz writers group––Vegn [Paths], Shveln [Doorsteps], S'feld [Domain], in the Poale Zion press, and several in the publication Das Kind [The Child], where he considered himself a founder. He wrote poetry, public affairs commentary, and literary criticism.

In 1925 he became an editorial staff member of the new daily newspaper Lodzer Morgnblat [Lodz Morning Paper], which was later merged with the Ekstrablat [Extra Paper]. There he also wrote about Jewish politics and set the tone for the daily issues of Jewish life in Lodz and in Poland in general. With Izrael Raban [Rubin?] and Chaim Lajb Fuks, he became coeditor of the Literarishe Vokhnshrift [Literary Weekly], which later opened for him the doors of the editorial room of the oldest Lodz newspaper, the Lodzer Togblat [Daily Paper], where he became a very important internal associate. There he also published, in addition to current events, political articles, fiction, book reviews, plays, and a number of original and translated novels. A very important work of his was the publication, in every pre-holiday number, of one of his translations of our old tfiles [prayers], like Akdomes [hymn recited by Ashkenazic Jews on the first day of Shevuos] and Tfile Zakeh [prayer recited on the eve of Yom Kippur]. He also translated Khad Gadye [An Only Kid––in the Passover Hagaddah] and Shir-Ashirm [Song of Songs] into very fine poetry.

He also wrote the majority of the lesson books for the Beys Yakob schools [for girls] in Poland. Of great significance were his revisions of the zikhroynes [memoirs] of the Lodz rov [town rabbi], Reb Elihu Chaim Meisel. Both parts of the memoirs were published by Grubsztajn's publishing house. He edited them with his friend Izrael Rozenberg.

J. B. Gips also translated several books from European literature, which were published by the publishing house of the Goldfarb Brothers, such as: Blasco Ibanez' The Victim of Fanaticism, as well as books of Russian writers––Gorky, Fadayev, and others. He wrote under many pseudonyms, such as: B. Zajdow, Jack Beer, Brzezinski, and others.

For a time, while the Nazis occupied Lodz, he went into hiding. The German Nazis, who had a list of all the Jewish writers, and especially of those who had carried out a fight against them (among them Jakob-Ber Gips, who, in Togeblat had very boldly urged the boycott of German goods and had written critical articles about the expulsion of Polish Jews from Germany), searched for him. He dressed like a peasant with long hair and a Polish coat and barely reached Siemiatycze alive. From there, a few days later, he traveled to Bialystok.[2]

He could not get work from the Bolsheviks or the right to live closer than one hundred miles from the border. He also had to give up the idea of being a Yiddish teacher. The Yiddish schools were closed, and in their place, Belarussian ones were opened. The new areas that the Soviets had taken over, in general, did not have many schools. The politics was to Russify even more, and Jakob, the faithful Yiddishist, was in great despair. There was less and less news from the other side of the border all the time, and the hope that those closest to him would be able to reach him, grew fainter. He was a desperate man until he accepted an offer to be a Belarussian teacher in a faraway, secluded village.

During the first days of July, 1941, when the Germans occupied Belarus, he was captured by the Nazis and martyred.

 

brz150.jpg -   The black day when the Hitler assassins herded the Jewish population
A group of Zionists gathered together to say goodbye to friends
Emanuel Gotlib and Adela Rozenblum upon their departure
abroad. The third from the left, standing, is Jakob-Ber Gips

 

[Page 153]

Poems of Jakob-Ber Gips

Bones Speak[3]

The old world trembles, temples crash,
Blue heavens, golden princesses.

Quiet princesses, recite final prayers
During the Shabes afternoon hour,
Tranquil rest. ––

Bones speak!
Winds blow in the hearts, mortal man
Who now stands naked, strives.
Iron voices of trumpets wheeze,
Strings of the old-woman-fiddle scrape, relaxed.

Bones speak!
One immense skeleton sings out, bone-like
The last song of the last generation . . .

Woe to the Days

Woe to the days with the dead hours,
That lie shrouded in mist ––
Consumed streets and yellowed people
Who drag,
On stairs
Of precipitous ways, the burden of years
Wrapped in rags, in shirts.
Among them, I go around, a stranger
With a breast open wide
And play, a last liturgical poem
About small coins and groszen,
About everything living
Everything dead . . .

Oh, woe to the days with hardened heavens,
And leaden stars
And clouds suspended
Before your eyes ––
And catch up with winds
That wheeze with death
Snagged in their teeth . . .

The Last One

With mouth singing out loud and drunken head
The last generation of Europe sings
On banks and lanes the last song. . .

The voices wander into the graves of the dead,
The voices wander into the channels of
The not-yet born,
The voices wander around,
Like roaming souls, searching for redress
And merge together
In one great outcry of woe!

A voice thunders: Go, go.
Search for everything, since of generations
You are the last!

–– He goes
And wherever he goes, stones sing out
And wherever he goes, flames blaze out
And everything sings, everything burns –
And walls fall
Before the last song-sound,
And generation to generation, stretches out a hand.

But, hey, what's the matter? A wall ––
And bones, bones, bones ––
Shards! –– –– ––

Melech Fogel

Melech Fogel had a completely different character. Under the influence of Gips, he began to write poetry and aspired to be regarded as a writer in the minds of Jews.

He was a very interesting type, both in his attitude toward people and also especially in his ambition to become well-known, to extricate himself from small town life and go out into the wider world.

Born in 1898 into a working family of bakers, he barely finished kheyder [elementary school] but taught himself to write not only Yiddish but also Polish and a little Russian and German. And the little that he learned, he had to acquire after his working hours in a tailoring workshop.

After he had finally become a “perfect” pants sewer and was making a good living, he did not think about getting all dressed up and going out to the dance halls as most of his kind did; in his free evening hours, he devoted himself to community work in the arbet-heym [workers home], which brought him closer to the leftist Poale Zion. However, he did not become a party member, and, as a sympathizer, he helped with the work––more on account of his love of people than of the party. In those days, when Gips began to play a role in the new Yiddish poetry, Melech Fogel was also fascinated by the desire to write poetry.

He made many plans to establish his own platform, his own publication in Brzezin. However, nothing came of it. The poems that reflected his populous nature––his virtuous being, his in-love-with-someone soul––were too old-fashioned in style and form to be printed in the publications of the young writers' group in Lodz. He was only published in humorous sections of newspapers, such as “Lamtern” [Lantern] in the Lodzer Togeblat [Lodz Daily Paper] and “Shrapnel” in the Folksblat [People's Paper], but this did not satisfy him. An idea occured to him. He would pay for the publication S'Feld [Domain] that we published in those days, on the condition that his poems would be printed in it.

That is how Melech Fogel's poems got published in two numbers of S'Feld. But again, he was not satisfied, and he decided to publish his own small books of poems. In the years between 1926 and 1939, he published eight books of poems, almost all of which were devoted to local Brzeziner matters––for example, The Terrible Murder in Brzezin, which was published in 1926, and others. This separated him even further from the literary group, which saw Melech Fogel as deviating completely from the usual taste of people and as looking only for his own popularity instead of, as in the beginning, being concerned with Yiddish literature. This, however, did not deter Melech Fogel. And his books more and more had even less to do with poetry.

However, until the Second World War, he always maintained contact with the Lodz writers. He attended every literary event and continued to pay for each issue (knowing that his works would not be printed). In the last weeks before September 1939, he had prepared a large book with old Brzeziner stories and poems for publication and had made an arrangement with a printer (Liebeskind) to distribute it. This was supposed to be his swan song, his contribution to literature and to the hometown that he loved so much, to which he paid tribute in the manner of plain people and dreamt about with tears (he would sing his poems with appropriate melodies and shed tears while singing). But it was not to be that he or his landslayt [fellow townsmen] would enjoy his work of many years.

In the first days of September 1939, after the Germans had already bombed Poland, he came to me with inquiring glances and silent looks, and that is how we ran from one cellar to the other, hiding from German bullets.

During the night of the sixth of September 1939, I decided to leave Lodz and go to Warsaw on foot. On the morning of the seventh of September, I told him that he should come with me to Warsaw. I went to another house to rest myself from the journey and the unmercifully tormenting heat. A half hour later, German planes flew over and bombed almost every house. By some miracle, I narrowly escaped. But when I later went over to Fogel's house, the house was in flames, and Melech Fogel had perished in the flames.

May my words be a memorial candle to their dear souls, for the young lives that so beautifully shone upon the familiar and beloved, poor but sincere, Jewish Brzeziner way of life. They put their holy lives at the service of Jewish people, and Jews will remember them with love.

The Tailor-Song[4] (from before the destruction)

        1

Oh, this is a good time,
The tailors come to life,
They beat the cotton jackets
They cry: an end, an end.

        2

Sew, sew little tailors,
As long as you have strength.
If you'll have enough for Shabes,
Only the one God knows.

        3

They do not look at what they earn,
Just to sew as much as they can,
From early to very late at night,
Let the wheel turn.

        4

A good tailor is only one
Who makes the jackets trim;
One who does not save
On a piece of soap.

        5

The tailor lives very well.
During the week he has bread to eat,
Except the child who does not work––
That child must suffer need.

        6

The machines make a lot of noise,
Nearby stands the little wife
And wraps the merchandise,
Like the motorcycles.

        7

A boy who is eight years old
Is already a grown-up ––
A jacket up to his elbow
That he himself made.

        8

A boy who is four years old
And cannot yet sew,
They find for him a little work anyway
Winding spools.

        9

Young children here
Mature very early––
In one little hand––a doll,
With the other he smears soap.

        10

Small children are
Not spared from work––
One child irons the seams,
The second sews buttons.

        11

No matter how small children are,
Sometimes they can be put to work,
One threads a needle,
Another turns a spool.

        12

A child who barely stands on his feet,
He still shuffles along near the wall,
They put him on a little bench,
With a pressing iron in his hand.

        13

A child who still lies in the cradle
They don't even let him rest––
They give the child a job,
To pull threads.

        14

He who has no children,
Him they mock––
That tailor must then starve,
He can't make any jackets.

        15

Sew, sew, little tailor,
As long as you have strength;
How long you can hold out,
Surely only the one God knows.


  1. T.K.O.––Possibly Towarzystwo Kultury i Oswiata (Society for Culture and Education). Return
  2. Bialystok, in the northeastern corner of Poland, was occupied by Russia from 1939–1941 and invaded by Germany only in 1941. Return
  3. Many years earlier, in his poem “Bones Speak,” J. B. Gips had a premonition of the coming khurbn [destruction]. [Author's footnote] Return
  4. This poem was written in the style of simple plain folk, as if the author in reality had no artistic pretensions. [Author's footnote] Return

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