« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

[Page 185]

Poetry and Prose
in Novogrudok


by Aharon Mirski (written in 1948)

Translated from Hebrew by Aviva Kamil

I came to plead for my people with my poem—this is my instrument, I have no other.
This is what my generation possesses, a generation that learned all sorts of harmonies
But forgot its ancestors' melodies.
Like a player who sold his harp and in exchange bought a whistle.

I know:
The “piyut”[1] of Reb Shimon Beb-Itzchak
Carries seventy violins within its folds.
Desires of his people were not expressed by words; they were drawn out with the melody.
The evenings of discourse[2] and the tunes of Torah
Like cymbals, accompanied his “piyutim”[1].

But my poem –its scale is a gentile scale, my ancestors didn't know its values,
Only rhyme beats in it, like “istar belagin”[3] and imperfect tune—its melodies;
Sighs in its lines; lamentation in its stanzas[4]; and the howling of the “shofar”, his tongue.

Although you have chosen the attributes of “payatim”[5],
At the writing of my pen don't sneer,
Listen to my sighs, expressed in this poem
Like you listen to Reb Itschak Ben-Tsvi,
While his people spill their blood for you.

And if in my song there isn't a golden word like the forgiving word of the prophet,
But only the stuttering pleas, the moaning of the broken; that my delirious body is writing.
Because my people too, their blood was spilt; but they didn't know what for.

And here I'm standing on earth like in a valley fenced in on all sides,
And utter my songs like a consumptive cough, spitting blood.
Like a player in a trench, thus I'll blow my rhymes
And no-one will know that it's he.

“Payatim” narrated the story of creation, and bared their soul in a tale,
The discourse of ancestors; like the voices of cantors echoed in the “siddur” prayers.
A Jew in the synagogue wets with tears the pages of Yom-Kippur chapters.
And “shliach Tsibur”[6] his tune is a moan- a memory of the priest's splendour-
Pleading for the valley and its dwellers; let no creature be exterminated.
You were satisfied with the plea and the remembrance of your deed,
For every closed gate it will open.

If I'll write as “payatim” do, and my turbulent song will be accepted,
I'll imitate them with my story; like a child imitates the grownup, and his act is empty.
Through my song I'll please him, by my tale I'll coax him with a drained and a broken heart.

You created a world, and fragmented its borders to the number of Jewish Diasporas,
You stretched in it oceans and lined it with pathways and many wondering trails.
You divided the days with curtains of nights, black as slavery,
You stamped the nature of beasts into the nature of people; to eliminate the unfortunate and the frightened.
You sifted peoples with the sieve of selection and chose fathers, friends,
And their sons as unique, for you, among nations --that's how children read in the Torah,
like a foundation for a city so is Israel for the Gentiles so it is said in the books by the preachers.
My song lost its way; the end is a story which has no answer in learning:
How the shell still exists; this is an oblivious world; and Israel was lost in the ruins?

Strengthen my song against doubt or fear; I still have some words to rhyme,
I wish my story to pull like a river stream, let it not be stopped like a tale of an idiot.
In Egypt you sent love messengers to my ancestors-that's what the “midrash”[7] said.
And you let, like a singing hero, basking in its powers the fetters to take off their hands.
You ordered with the blood of lambs on their doors to mark redemption.
Now, I don't understand, the story is deep, and I present my question:
Here are the rest of my people, come to their houses; don't skip to the right or to the left.
Every house is splattered with blood, smeared and blushed with all hues of red.
And the angels of love did not come to the rescue.

I'll support my opinion gently, like Abraham who pleaded and again.
Lest you'll stain my story of the ancient account; which was broken in the middle of the song.
In an ancient desert you appeared to your followers, frustrated of Paran and Se'ir,
In the desert with my ancestors you set the bond like with a youth and a maiden.
You gave them the flame of faith but the reward they didn't get, only the decrees of cruel rulers.
Heaven and earth in their place, and terms from the beginning of creation:
If Israel won't accept the Torah, to chaos you'll return them.
I could not sustain to question thrice, am I to continue or to stop the song:
How could heaven and earth be still in place, while the Torah by the enemy was burnt,
Did God annul the terms?

“Payatim” told you historical memories, I can't tell those.
I haven't the eminence of “Payatim”: at peace with religion, innocent and see no crooked ways.
My heart is bitter and bewildered, and at the beginning of the story it stumbles upon flaws, state of denial and shutting of eyes.
On any straight and smooth way it trips. And then I return ashamed like a climber who fell of a cliff.
I don't ask for greatness, I'll go back to my moaning, to moan to the beat of my scale,
I have got no song to ease my burden; I'll go back to my habitual eulogy
About my people who were lost.
As the custom, I'll climb up to my pulpit of dirt and lament my moral;
The moral is: God was bereaved of his people, compare to…there is no comparison.

There is no comparison to the moral; no dirge to the moral.
The mourner has no tears of fire to pour on the Diaspora that went up in flames.
The imagination of ordinary flesh and blood couldn't come close to grieve over their grave of fire.
The ear of a mere human couldn't hear the words that were told through the fire.
Commentary of Jonathan Be'uziel[8] carried by Rabbis, were hushed in the fire.
Silenced were the angels, the executers of prayers, from praying from within the furnace.
God's messengers singing went up with the “Ani Ma'amin”[9] of the inferno.
Seraphim will tremble from nearing Poland's graves, where fire eats fire.
As if on his own to their grave he'll direct them with the approaching of the carriage of fire.
And will revive them with the dew of fire.

It's known, the secret of wailing women, they finish their lamentation with a plea:
Let the dead plead for us in heaven and ask God to protect us here on earth.
I'll ask every wounded soul to plead with me and repeat my supplication:
To claim our right: To build tombstones to cry upon.
On the graves in Gentile Poland to build markers to my people,
Like road signs to comment on the ways of heaven:-
Answer us for the sake of longing Jews who were discarded on the dunghill.
Answer us for the sake of lovely communities that went up in the smoke of a furnace.
Answer us for the sake of pieces of soap which were sold around the nation.
Answer us for the sake of your people whom you judged, and no-one understands the judgment.
Answer my people, every way is right, please answer.

Now, when there are no Jews in Poland only tombstones and priests and icons.
Bring back the divine presence from Europe's Diaspora, what could she find there
In a vacant sky.
Pull out your spirit from its sky and earth, and let their sky fall lifeless.
Here is Jerusalem, her stones in blossom, in her air perfumed spikenards.
The maiden from the Song of Songs awaits her lover, like the vision “Acharit Hayamim[10]
And the remnant of my people who did not benefit from your goodness,
Forgive them when they ask for consolation and plead before your thirteen attributes[11].
God the king sits on the seat of mercy.


  1. “piyut”+ “piyutim”-religious song(s) Return

  2. Discourse in “beit-hamidrash”-place of religious learning Return

  3. “Istar belagin”-making a rattling noise like a (roman) coin in an empty jar.(Aramaic). Return

  4. Stanza – in Hebrew- Ba'it= House Return

  5. Pa'yatim-writers of “Piyutim” Return

  6. ”Shliach-Tsibur”-Sa”Ts-a selected person from the congregation to lead the prayer. Return

  7. Midrash - Homiletical. Return

  8. Jonathan B'uziel- commentator of traditional law. Halacha. Return

  9. “Ani Ma'amin”- “I believe…”-A prayer. Return

  10. ”be'acharit Ha'yamim”- The vision of the prophet Jeremiah. “In the end of days” chapter 49, verse 39. Return

  11. Your thirteen attributes-The thirteen attributes of mercy (of God). Return

  12. At that time there were several Jewish characters like Mojsze Harkavy, the erudite rabbi, who had written about Chassids in German and was introduced to the Austrian king, and also the big contractor Leizer Bruchovich de-Lion one of the three members of the Petersburg committee (footnote by the author). Return

[Page 185]

The Holy Ark Falls

by Chaim Grade

(final chapter of his epic poem “Moralisers” (Musornikes)[1]

Translated by Andrew Firestone

While still a young man, the poet and prose writer Chaim Grade published an epic poem Moralisers. It portrayed the students of the Navaredok Yeshivah – their lives, inner conflicts, philosophy. This last chapter we give here appears to depict the impending destruction, in a vision already experienced by Grade as a youngster.[2]
Quietly the trees bent over their curly crowns,
preparing for the Fall
like a congregation for self-sacrifice, for the glory of the Holy Name.
A small thin tree sighed deeply and began to cry,
as if from a dream the trees turned towards him:
“Be still, you will get used to it,
all of us got used to it.”

Hidden in green leaves, a white glow-worm fevered,
spitting out its great net of trembling light
to enweb the broad trunks.
Chaim Vilner found himself in the midst of it all,
trembling with the rest of the Gardens.

The sky blue of the wind-swept paths ran out,
and like a weary gardener night slunk in,
touching the trees and binding
with shadows the branches, which trembled green and moist.
On far-off streets, the marketplace after the Sabbath
was shining now with firelight,
that found its way into the old Gardens.

Chaim Vilner was stunned to silence,
becoming more stunned, more silent every moment.
A sunny buzz trembled past him,
a golden buzz, as of a summer bee,
and died away like a sick bird in the branches.
The autumn wind started up a Musor[3] melody,
soft and pious, sobbing through the trees;
then the melody rose higher
until it turned into a growl.
Chaim Vilner remained silent
listening to his own silence.

To and fro the trees shook,
throwing their heads around like Musornikes at prayer,
a distant secret scream
was broken up by the thickets into quiet sounds
of suffering, agonies in the dark…
Chaim Vilner began to run,
wanting by running to overtake his own shadow.
The wind covered over the path
with heaps of rotting leaves,
and like a flock of birds there flapped around him
far-off holy songs.

The sounds imprisoned him.
He followed them as if enchanted.
The wind disquieted, perturbed him,
scattering tinkling sounds like autumn leaves on every side.
He ran through it,
what was near obscuring what was far,
the night extinguishing his steps…
he hurried, and the nearer that he came,
the freer and heartier sounded the roar;
Chaim Vilner ran towards the shul,[4] like one singed by fire
running to save his last barn.

The prayer house was in the back streets.
The crowd swayed like a sea cramped by the shore.
No lights were lit, all out after the Sabbath
but in the fast-formed, thick darkness
he could feel the ecstatic faces,
and swiftly touched his own –
cold, with sagging cheeks, a bad twitch around his lips;
and broken, he started towards the Ark to pray.

In the dark House of Study a sea was roaring,
and cries flamed forth like birds on fire,
wings beating fearfully at the walls
and the fire put out, falling right back
onto the outstretched praying hands.
The forest wailed, each tree with distinct voice,
and in that storm sounded the Rosh-Yeshiva's voice:
“Gentlemen, let us pray again now:
vouchsafe us a clean and honest heart, G-d!”
Came the echo, returning a hundred-fold:
“Gentlemen, let us pray again now:
vouchsafe us a clean and honest heart, G-d!”

Outcry. Through his entreaty everyone seeks for healing.
Now clapping: the Rosh Yeshiva hasn't strength to yell.
Everyone strives to quench his own crying out,
then the Rosh Yeshiva's words do away with all the wailing:
to attain the Truth takes but one hour;
to retain it – calls for lifelong struggle!”
Chaim Vilner grasped the far-off meaning,
and gave a sigh like a house about to fall.
if we can't cross over – then we must cross over!”
In the prayer house the tempest broke again.
By the door Chaim Vilner, isolated from all the crowd,
wept bitterly within himself in the darkness.

in those bloody days of chaos in Russia I saw:
a man had pushed his way onto a crowded train,
they threw him out from that cramped space, from the moving train.
Entering is not enough,
you have to clamp on hard, clasp tightly,
sometimes in the midst of it you can be hurled out…”
Heads and fists start hammering on the walls
as the Rosh Yeshiva storms on:
“That greatest libertine, Reb Eliezer ben Dardia
buried his head between his knees, weeping on the ground
like an expelled angel and like a beast,
until Heaven did hear his plea at last.
So let us once more pray:
Our Father our King, tear up the bitter decree!”
and like earth pouring down a mountain to the valley
the calls poured out, of the sons
from Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland and Volynia.

No longer could the Rosh Yeshiva's words be heard,
his tearful voice turned sick and tender,
like a child just starting to sob…
A second voice poured out like hard and shiny steel,
until a red and thirsty voice drank them both up,
then sank itself into the darkness.
Now a cry flickered through,
as lightning marks a cloud with fire.
And like steam rising from the drenched earth,
the prayer rose up. It climbed right up the prayer house
up cliff stairs, cloud stairs, up and up…
and Chaim Vilner's whole body trembled,
like an autumn tree surrendering its last leaves.

Suddenly a deafening crash,
like eyes of cattle before the slaughter, the lights turned on
the night burst open like ice
the light dripped from the hanging lights, like blood from wounds.
Slowly the Holy Ark began to lean;
the old Ark full of Torahs, with its dusty carvings
with outstretched palms of priests above, slowly
it fell upon their heads, choking all cries.
Frightened bodies reached up high,
lifeless eyes stared fixedly at the silver Torah hangings,
the Holy Ark leaned over the spellbound crowd…

All at once a cry of help roared out, a call
that pierced them so they threw themselves into it –
feet stepping on heads, on necks and bodies –
to hold the Holy Ark aloft.
With faces twisted in fear, mouths hot from crying out,
but in their eyes blind trembling faith –
all pushed forwards, crawled and pushed -
the prayer house buzzed, like a besieged town at war:
“Our Father our King, take pity for the sake of them martyred for your Oneness.”

Chaim Vilner lay trembling by the prayer house door,
struggling with himself, wanting to be with the rescuers, to save – and could not leave the threshold,
could not moan – his tongue froze at the root.
Suddenly the whole prayer house tore away from him,
the Holy Ark began to rise higher, higher, held tightly by the hands,
Chaim Vilner clamped his teeth into the floor
the walls swam past him, a deafening thunder moved further and further from him:
“Our Father our King, take not your holy spirit from us!”
and Chaim Vilner remained – in a trench bewildered,
blind in a forest at night, by an extinguished bonfire.

Vilna 1937


  1. (all footnotes by translator): Musornikes was published in Vilna in 1939. Chaim Grade (1910 - 1982) had left Yeshivah life at 22y, to become a leading member of the Yung Vilna poets' group. A list of all his works can be found in http://shakti.trincoll.edu/~mendele/vol08/vol08.136 Return

  2. this paragraph appears in the Yizkor-Bukh; author unknown Return

  3. see entry Musar in Wikipedia Return

  4. in fact his Yiddish is Beys-haMidrash Return

[Page 191]

Adam Mickiewicz and his attitude to Jews

by S. L. Shnayderman

Translated from Yiddish by O. Delatycki

From Wilno to Paris

In the year of 1798, three years after the third and final division of Poland, Adam Mickiewicz was born in Novogrudok [in Zaosie in the district of Novogrudok]. His father Mikołaj was an impoverished land owner and lawyer. When Adam was born his father still owned agricultural land, but his income was derived mainly from his legal work. His important clients were the wealthier Jewish traders of Novogrudok. In the diaries of members of the Mickiewicz family there are notations which indicate that there were good relations between the former land holder and Polish patriot Mikołaj Mickiewicz and the Jews of Novogrudok. The diaries show also that of the five Mickiewicz children, four were delivered by a Jewish midwife Dawidòwka (Dowidiche). Only the youngest, Adam, was delivered by a Polish midwife Molodiecka. Dawidòwka was a frequent visitor to the house of the Mickiewicz's. All children called here 'boba'.

The early years of Mickiewicz's life were spent in an atmosphere of longing for the liberation of Poland and great hopes were placed in Napoleon Bonaparte. A Polish legion under the command of [Jan] Henryk Dambrowski, joined Napoleon's army and fought in all the battles in Europe. The poetic talent of Adam Mickiewicz developed quite early. He wrote songs when he was 10 years old. He was, however, criticized by his teachers, because they thought that his melodies were reflecting the tastes of the 'common people'. Of the early creations of Mickiewicz only one song had survived, which the twelve year old had written having been moved by the big fire of 1810, when almost all timber houses and the Jewish shops in the Novogrudok market place were burned to ashes.

At the age of 14, Mickiewicz witnessed the arrival in Novogrudok of Napoleon's army and the Dabrowski's legion. This memorable event, which remained in Mickiewicz's memory, was later described in Pan Tadeusz [his most famous poem, which described the lives of the Polish landowners in his native region]. There is no mention, however, in Mickiewicz's works of Jews he may have known or came in contact with in his youth. In Poland the poet had no contacts with Jews. It was not until Mickiewicz found himself in Paris, having travelled in Russia and Germany, that he became aware of the Jewish problem, which he acquired through his meetings at the house of the Rothschilds, where he was a frequent visitor at their literary salon, through his acquaintance with the French-Jewish statesman Adolph Kramie and his contacts with Heinrich Heine, though these were not entirely friendly. The poet discovered a lot about the situation of the Jews in Europe and specifically in Poland. It was curious that Mickiewicz's main source of information about Jews was from the chief medical officer of the French army Armond Levy. Levy was born a Christian but reverted later to Judaism. Mickiewicz travelled to Istanbul with Armond Levy to organise the Jewish [Polish] legion. It should be emphasised that the friendship with Armond Levy developed long after Pan Tadeusz was published. This is proof that Mickiewicz had a friendly attitude toward Jews before he developed friendships with Jews in exile. This does not alter the fact that Mickiewicz did not know the condition of Jews in Poland, and the Jew he depicted in his large poetic opus is the idealised portrait of an owner of an inn, who existed in the fantasy of Mickiewicz. Jankiel was a symbolic Jewish figure.

For the Polish Jews, the image of Mickiewicz remained as the friendliest of all the Polish cultural leaders over the hundreds of years of the Polish-Jewish historical interrelationship. Before Mickiewicz and after him there was no political or cultural personality who had shown that degree of sympathy to the Jewish nation as did Adam Mickiewicz. The Jew Jankiel in Pan Tadeusz is the first positive Jewish figure in Polish literature and the most idealized Jewish image which has ever been depicted by any Polish writer, including Eliza Orzeszkowa. Jankel is not, however, a prototype of a real Jewish inn keeper. It is a symbolic figure, which was put forward by Mickiewicz as a spokesman and an asserter of the conscience in the environment of the spoiled Polish landowners, who were drinking to excess, made merry and were always ready to fight to defend any real or imaginary slights to their honour. Whilst most other heroes in Pan Tadeusz are earthy characters, who are described with all their faults, paltry achievements, trifling ambitions and daily strife, the Jewish inn keeper on the other hand is portrayed as an ideal character, with no faults, an extraordinary musician, a masterful cymbals player in whose heart burns the love to his Polish home land. The Jewish inn keeper is put on the same level as the legendary Polish leader general Dambrowski, for whom Jankiel performed at a family wedding in the estate of Soplicowo, in Lithuania. Jankel bestowed on the general his Jewish blessing, he spoke of Lithuania as 'our Lithuania', which was waiting for liberation, as we Jews were waiting for the Messiah. Jankiel spoke in an elevated tone, not as an inn keeper, but as a Polish divine. Reading it, one cannot escape the feeling that through the mouth of Jankel spoke Mickiewicz. Jankiel's performance in Soplicowo was described as a superlative concert, a sort of a non-Jewish Song of Songs. The description of Jankiel's performance is the masterful chapter in Pan Tadeusz.

It is in the last, the twelfth chapter of Pan Tadeusz, which was named 'Lets love each other', an expression which in the independent Poland was used almost as a curse and was an attack on those who were promoting friendship between Poles and Jews. Adam Mickiewicz, however, meant seriously the expression 'Let's love each other' and he began the description of the inn keeper with the following lines:

Było cymbalistòw wielu,
Ale żaden z nich nie śmiał zagrać przy Jankielu
(Jankiel przez calą zimę nie wiedzieć gdzie bawił,
Teras się nagle z głòwnym sztabem wojska zjawił).
Wiedzą wszyscy, że mu na tym instrumencie ,
Nikt nie wyròwna w biegłości, w guście i talencie.
Proszą, ażeby zagrał, podają cymbały,
Żyd wzbrania się, powiada, że ręce zgrubiały,
Odwykł od grania, nie śmie i panòw się wstydzi;
Kłaniając się umyka; gdy to Zosia widzi,
Podbiega in a białej podaje mu dłoni
Drążki, ktòrymi zwykle mistrz we struny dzwoni;
Drugą rączką po siwej brodzie staraca głaska
I dygając: ‘Jankielu’, mòwi, ‘jeśli łaska,
Wszak to me zaręczyny, zagrajże Jankielu,
Wszak nieraz przyrzekałeś grać na mym weselu!’
Jankiel nieźmiernie Zosię lubił, kiwnął brodą
Na znak że nie odmawia; więc go w środek wiodą,
Podają krzesło, usiadł, cymbały przynoszą,
Kładą mu na kolanach, on patrzy z rozkoszą
I z dumą; jak weteran w służbę powołany,
Gdy wnuki ciężki jego miecz ciągną ze ściany,
Dziad śmieje się choć miecza dawno nie miał w dłoni,
Lecz uczuł, ze dłoń jeszcze nie zawiedzie broni.

'Cymbalists there were many,
But none dared to play when Jankiel was present
(Jankiel was absent for the whole winter
Yet now suddenly returned with the headquarters of the army)
All knew that none could equal him in playing this instrument
There was none as good in fluency, taste or talent
They begged him to play and gave him the cymbals
The Jew was declining, said that his hands have coarsened
He bowed and tried to escape; when Zosia saw it,
She rushed in and in her hand were
Sticks, which the master uses to strike the cords
With her other hand she stroked the beard of the master
And said 'Jankiel, if you please, these are my nuptials
Remember, Jankiel, you promised to play at my wedding.'
Jankiel liked Zosia enormously, he gave a sign
To indicate that he concurs; they took him to the centre
Brought a chair, he sat, they brought the cymbals
They put it on his knees, he looked on with delight
And with pride; as a veteran recalled to service,
When his grandsons drag his heavy sword from the wall and
Grandpa smiles, though he long since did not have a sword in his hands,
He felt, that his hands will not let down his weapon.

Jankiel in Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz is neither a subservant Jew nor an ordinary klezmer at a landlord's celebration. The only description of inn keepers given in the Polish literature before and after Mickiewicz was that of money lenders, avid enemies of Poland, often accused also of diluting vodka with water. This was the only type of Jew that was mentioned in the Polish literature in the XVIII and XIX centuries. But Jankiel was the incorporation of the ideal and of the nicest. In this poetic figure Mickiewicz had incorporated all the good characteristics which he had seen in the Jewish people. Jankiel, who was endowed by Mickiewicz with the part of a rabbi's assistant in the neighbouring community (it is called in Polish 'podrabinek') is represented as the greatest connoisseur of Polish national music, as an outstanding performer of patriotic songs, which Jankiel played on his magic instrument, bringing to life happy and sad moments of Polish history.
Razem ze strun wiele
Buchnął dźwięk, jakby cała janczarska kapela
Ozwała się z dzwonkami, z zelami, z bębenki.
Brzmi Polonez Trzeciego Maja! – Skoczne dźwięki
Radością oddychają, radością słuch poją
Dziewki chcą tańczyć, chłopcy w miejscu nie dostoją-
Lecz starcòw myśli z dźwiękiem w przeszłość się uniosły,
W owe lata szczęśliwe, gdy senat i posły
Po dniu Trzeciego Maja w ratuszowej Sali
Zgodzonego z narodem kròla fetowali;
Gdy przy tańcu śpiewano: ‘Wiwat Kròl kochany!
Wiwat Sejm, wiwat Naròd, wiwat wszystkie Stany!’
Mistrz coraz takty nagli i tony natęża,
A wtem puścił akord jak syk węża,
Jak zgrzyt żelaza po szkle – przejął wszystkich dreszczem
I wesołość pomięł przeczuciem złowieszczem.
Zasmuceni, strwożeni słuch zwątpili,
Czy instrument niestrojny? Czy się muzyk myli?
Nie mylił się mistrz taki! On umyślnie trąca
Wciąż tę zdradziecką strunę, melodyję zmąca,
Coraz glośniej targając akord rozdąsany,
Przeciwko zgrodzie tonòw skonfederowany;
Aż Klucznik pojął mistrza, zakrył, ręką lica
I krzyknął: ‘Znam! Znam głos ten! To jest Targowica!’

Together from many strings
A tone, as if from a Turkish infantry band
Has issued with bells and drums
The tone of the Polonaise of the Third of May! Dancing tunes,
They spread joy, they fill your ears with gladness
The lasses long to dance, the lads can hardly wait –
But the memory of the elders turned to the past
To those happy years when the senators and the deputies
After the Third of May, in the town hall
The king, at one with the people, was feted;
And they sang as they danced: 'Long live the King,
The Parliament, the people and long live all estates!
The master started to increase the tempo and tone
And suddenly issued a cord like hissing of a snake
Like dragging a knife over glass – everyone cringed
And the gaiety had changed to a foreboding of evil
Saddened and confused the listeners were wondering:
Was the instrument out of tune? Was the musician erring?
No, the master is not at fault! He is deliberately playing
The wrong tune, he muddles the melody
He plays louder the wrong cord
Against confederated voices who were in agreement
And suddenly the Warden guessed it and covered his face
He shouted: 'I know that voice! It is Targowica!

Bringing forth the Jewish inn keeper as evidence, as the demanding voice which reminded the Polish nobility of the big evil of Targowica, was a rare and daring move. It stirred up certain elements of the Polish emigrants in France, where Pan Tadeusz first appeared in print.

Leading Polish literary critics of that era have accused Mickiewicz of having cheapened the purity of Polish poetry and of having sharply broken away from the classical tradition.

[The author of the above article had translated the two sections from the poem Pan Tadeusz into Yiddish verse. The English translation above is in prose for lack of talent by the translator.]

[Mickiewicz (1798-1855) was born in troubled times for Poland. Poland was occupied by Russia, Prussia and Austria in three stages: 1772, 1793 and 1795. In 1794 a small group of Polish nobility formed the Targowica confederation with the aim of assisting Russia in completing the partition. Targowica was cosidered by most Poles an act of betrayal.]

[Page 188]

Mickiewicz and the Jews of Novogrudok

by Prof B. Marc, Warsaw

Translated from Yiddish by O. Delatycki

The writings of the greatest poet of the Polish people, Adam Mickiewicz, are associated with Novogrudok, with its country surrounds, with its plants, animals, landscapes and with the people of the region.

Not just in the early creations of the poet, in his ballads and romances, can one recognise Novogrudok and its environments with its splendid festive nature and the romantic legends, but also in his largest and best known work 'Pan Tadeusz' are the descriptions of nature, the colourful people, the traditions drawn from the deep impressions of his old Novogrudok home, which remained forever in the memory of the poet.

In Novogrudok and its vicinity, which was his birthplace, lived a population of a mixture of nationalities and religions: Polish Catholics, Orthodox Belorussians, Jews, Tatar Moslems, a few Germans and even a small group of Karaims. The farmers were Belorussian, and by borrowing from the Belorussian folklore Mickiewicz included in his poetic language and in his folk motives many Belorussian words and ideas. The average land owning class (szlachta), to which Mickiewicze's family belonged, stemmed from a mixture of Poles and Belorussians, however their culture was Polish and their religion Catholic. In the first half of the XIX century (Mickiewicz was born in 1798) the Jews of the Novogrudok district and of the whole of the Belorussian part of Poland assumed a significant economic and cultural position. They managed a significant share of the internal and external commerce. They also managed a significant proportion of the large land holdings [Jews were not allowed to own agricultural land in the Tsarist days and under the interwar Polish regime, but they were allowed to manage land holdings]. The trades in town were almost entirely Jewish. The communications and land transport were also in Jewish hands. A significant number of Jews lived in the villages. They were not only lease holders but also tradesmen such as black smiths, carpenters and similar, farmers and gardeners.

Thus a section of the Jews of the area served as middlemen between the small landowners and farmers and the world at large. They conducted business with Lithuania, Poland, Koenigsberg and Danzig and brought back not only various goods but also news, books, tidings of political and cultural events and information of impending changes. Other Jews introduced innovations in trades and agricultural production. The Jews were pioneers of new types of trades and also new cultural ideas. At the same time they were deeply religious and with their heart and soul tied to Judaism. Such Jews were mixtures of old fashioned Judaism with new worldliness. Due to contacts with foreign businessmen, German Jews and non-Jewish firms, and because of their travels to distant lands and due to contacts with enlightened local land owners, such Jews acquired knowledge of foreign languages allowing them to conduct worldly conversations, to be well dressed and have good manners. But, on the other side a Jew had to be true to his Jewishness, to his Jewish faith. And because he had to associate with Christians, his Jewish religious watchfulness had to be more acute. One of these types of Jews was a frequent visitor to the house of the parents of Mickiewicz as well as the houses of Mickiewicz's neighbours and friends. Mickiewicz mentioned him in his letters and in his recollections from his youth. Mickiewicz called him rab Factice, who was a big merchant of cereals from the vicinity of Novogrudok. He bought from the local land owners wheat and corn and travelled widely. Mickiewicz remembered Factice's positive characteristics. This Jew remained in Mickiewicz's memory as the incorporation of life's best characteristics: knowledge, earnestness and honesty. Mickiewicz remembered him in his later years when he lived in Paris. He told one of his friends that in a certain sense the Jewish merchant from Novogrudok had become a prototype of the well known character Jankiel in Pan Tadeusz. The villager Jankiel, who appeared in Mickiewicz's epic as the incorporation of the ideal Polish patriot and folk singer (Jankiel's concert)[12].

Obviously, when a poet uses a live prototype for one of his fictional characters it is not a photo but a composition. The Jewish merchant from Novogrudok, who was a frequent visitor to the Mickiewicz's in Wiereszczaki, has contributed, without knowing it, to the picture of Jankiel. Yet he was only a part of the total. The rest of the description of Jankiel, Mickiewicz based on other Jewish characters that he knew and on his artistic inventions. The characteristic of Jankiel's honesty was 'borrowed' by Mickiewicz from the above mentioned Jewish merchant. The musical talent of Jankiel was drawn by the poet from other Jews of the region such as the numerous Jewish musicians, who were in those days the predominant performers of folkloric music. They played inspiringly not only at Jewish weddings but also at peasant and land owner's celebrations. The cymbals, on which Jankiel played out the tragic story of Poland, was a Jewish instrument. The Jewish klezmers played not only Jewish, but also Polish and Belarus melodies. The music was not only folk tunes but also music for dancing and among them tunes such as the famed Polonez, which were played on big occasions for the szlachta. The young Mickiewicz knew Jewish musicians and heard their soul music. He was impressed by the musicians who were uneducated but had a G-d given talent. Their musical ability was often handed down from father to son. In the first decade of the XIX century there were many Jewish musicians in the Novogrudok district. There was also another Jewish group in Novogrudok which Mickiewicz was familiar with in his youth – they were the Jewish coachmen. We mentioned previously that in the Poland of old, the communication and land transport was in Jewish hands. And if in Wielkopolska and Malopolska [literally Great Poland and Little Poland, the names of two ancient Polish regions] there were both Jewish and gentile coachmen, in the eastern regions, particularly Belarus, the land transport was almost exclusively in Jewish hands. The only means of land travel was by horse and cart. Transport between Novogrudok and the surrounding settlements was in the hands of Jewish coachmen. Few people, except for the large land owners, had their own means of transport. The average land owners, such as Adam's father, Mikołaj Mickiewicz used hired Jewish coachmen for longer trips. The coachmen conveyed passengers, goods, letters and news. They travelled long distances to Wilno and beyond. When the young student Mickiewicz travelled back home for the summer vacations from Wilno or Kowno, as well as from Zaosie to Novogrudok, he travelled in the coach of a Jewish coachman. The impression of those journeys remained for long in the poet's memory. He recollected years later in his letters, travels in shaking carriages and the long stories the Jewish coachmen told to pass the time. Some stories were legends of the region, others were stories about highway men and romantic tales about land lords and maidens that sometimes finished with murder caused by jealousy. The Jewish coachmen knew well the folks tales, both local and of the surrounding region. They told their stories in the language of the local country people. The young poet absorbed these stories as well as the fairy tales of his Belarus nurse and the stories of great adventures told by the local Tatars. All these stories found their way into Mickiewicz's ballads, which were very well received because of their genuine national flavour. They heralded the beginning of the romantic period in the Polish literature.

Mockiewicz was very impressed by the story told by a Jewish coachman about a band of robbers which attacked a merchant on the highway, but when the merchant told them that his children were waiting for him at home they became sentimental, broke down, thought of their own children and set the merchant free. It is obvious that the coachman spoke of a Jewish merchant, because Jews were moving most merchandise in the area. Mickiewicz combined a progressive world view with his deep religious feelings. He used a folk tale to compose the ballad 'Father's return', in which the Christian belief is emphasized. The ballad had arisen from the strong impression on the poet of a Jewish coachman's tale of the sudden metamorphosis to the good of the soul of hardened bandits.

There is no doubt that Mickiewicz was influenced strongly by Jews and the Jewish mystique. He believed in 'the historic mission of our older brother Israel'. He was looking in the Paris synagogues for allies in the battle to liberate the world, he had a dream of a Jewish legion, the image of Jankiel in Pan Tadeusz, all this is evidence of the seeds that were planted in the poet's soul during his youth in Novogrudok. The seeds grew in his long wanderings into big and beautiful flowers. It is true that the feeling and thoughts of Mickiewicz were very complex and often not clear and sometimes he wove plans of spreading among Jews the Christian mission. But on the whole he kept in his heart and mind the memories of his times in Novogrudok, in which the Jews occupied a touching and substantial place.

The Polish literary researchers of the period between the wars did everything to cover up and erase the Jewish element in Mickiewicz's creations and to belittle the influence of the Jews and the Jewish folklore on the author of the ballads, romances and Pan Tadeusz. In the official biographies of Mickiewicz there appeared every one except Jews. Mickiewicz was accused of introducing the Jew Jankiel, who, according to the interwar literati, was an unreal invented romantic figure. In the official biographies of the Novogrudok period appeared all except Jews. The only one who emphasized the influence of Jews [on the creations of Mickiewicz] was the essayist Boy-Żeleński. But Żeleński did not write about the Novogrudok period, only about Paris, where Mickiewicz was involved in a romantic interlude with a Jewish woman, who may have been a convert. She may have introduced the mature author to mysticism.

At present, information is being introduced of the influence of the Jewish element of the Novogrudok period on Mickiewicz's life and creations, which is the truth. It is impossible to imagine the influence of the Novogrudok environment on Adam Mickiewicz without Jews and Jewish folk culture. On the other hand, Mickiewicz's contemporary Zygmunt Krasinski, a count who was remote from the people, was a convinced anti-Semite and a reactionary. Compared to him, Mickiewicz was closer to the people. As he searched for new ideas and new motives, he dug deep into the folklore, where the culture of the Jews of Novogrudok was strongly represented. Thus, if we view Mickiewicz, the greatest poet of the Polish nation, then one of the stimulants of his poetry was the Jewish element embodied in the Jews of Novogrudok at the beginning of the XIX century.

« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

This material is made available by JewishGen, Inc. and the Yizkor Book Project for the purpose of
fulfilling our mission of disseminating information about the Holocaust and destroyed Jewish communities.
This material may not be copied, sold or bartered without JewishGen, Inc.'s permission. Rights may be reserved by the copyright holder.

JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material for verification.
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.

  Novogrudok, Belarus     Yizkor Book Project     JewishGen Home Page

Yizkor Book Director, Lance Ackerfeld
This web page created by Max Heffler

Copyright © 1999-2024 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 10 Sep 2007 by LA