A. LITVAK (LITWAK) (1874-September 20, 1932)
The pseudonym of Khayim-Yankl Helfand, he was born in Vilna. About his origins and childhood, Litvak wrote in an autobiographic note: “My paternal grandfather was a peddler. He and my grandmother traveled until they were very old with horse and buggy over the swamps and forests of Polesia. My maternal grandfather was a fisherman, and with his boats he plied the rivers of Lithuania. As far as I can remember, I have lived in a world of stories of horse and buggy, fishing nets and boats. In his youth my father was a wagon driver; later, he worked with a wheelbarrow and spade along the train line between Vilna and Pinsk.” At age four Litvak encountered a misfortune. He was running to take a peek at a wedding, fell down a flight of stairs, and broke his hipbone. He lay sick in bed for four years and was left limping for the rest of his life. Until age twelve he studied in religious elementary school, later attended Rameyle’s yeshiva in Vilna, as well as the yeshivas of Eyshishok (Eišiškės), Volozhin, Slonim, and Slutsk. At the same time he read voluminously and studied Russian. For a time he was a teacher in rural communities and a preacher in the small synagogues of craftsmen. In 1893 when he came to Vilna, he became acquainted with several former fellow yeshiva students who were now connected with “illegal” sorts. Before Passover that year, he and a friend, a laborer, went to work in a matzo-producing plant. Witnessing the overwhelming need of the women workers in the matzo bakery, Litvak described their hardship in a leaflet, and he and two friends pasted these leaflets in synagogue study halls. This leaflet introduced him to pioneer Jewish socialist circles, from which later emerged the Bund. At that time, he and his closest friends (Bobrov, Levinski, and B. Kletskin—the later publisher) established in Vilna an illegal Jewish library for workers. At the same time Litvak penned his first literary work in Yiddish. He dubbed it “Tolerants” (Tolerance), but Mortkhe Spektor, to whom Litvak sent this piece to publish in one of Spektor’s literary volumes, entitled it “Hert un veyst” (Hear and know) and brought it out in Der lamtern (The lantern) in Warsaw (1894). This first published piece—an adaptation of a midrashic legend—was signed with the pseudonym “Khaye Zeldes,” whose initials were that of his own name, Khayim-Yankl Helfand, and that of his mother Zelde. In the spring of 1894, Litvak was very close to the leader of the socialist circles Gozhanski and translated for him from Russian a series of articles used as explanatory material in these circles. In the winter of 1894-1895, he was back teaching and he then translated from Russian Sh. An-ski’s “The Story of a Family” which appeared in early 1895 under the title in Yiddish: “Di milkhome farn lebn” (The war for life), with the translator’s name not given. That year in Vilna, with help from Dovid Pinski and the Vilna group of Jewish social democrats, there was established the “Zhargonisher komitet” (Yiddish committee), whose goal was to publish and disseminate popular scientific and fictional literature in Yiddish and to found Yiddish libraries in the provinces. Over the course of the three years of its existence, this committee published (with the publishing house of A. Kotik and A. Bresler) eight pamphlets, two of them by Litvak entitled Vinter abenden (Winter evenings), written under the pseudonym Khaye Zeldes again. He wrote the first part in the winter of 1895-1896, when he was working again as a teacher, and he completed the second part in political prison in Vilna, where he sat from June 1896 until the end of May 1897. He was then extremely active in the nascent socialist movement, had traveled through a number of towns in which he organized Jewish workers (his arrest in 1896 took place while he was on an assignment organizing the tanners in Oshmene [Oszmiana] or Smorgon [Smarhon]). After spending a year behind bars, Litvak was exiled administratively to Ekaterinoslav. From there he sent articles for the illegal Bundist Arbayter-shtime (Voice of labor), which just then began to appear in print. He was arrested once again in 1900 and in February 1902 deported to Siberia, and from there he returned in December 1904—and he soon returned to party work. He wrote for Arbayter-shtime, whose last issues he composed virtually entirely by himself. In the very last number (40) of the newspaper, he used his pseudonym A. Litvak for the first time in an article entitled “Unzere shtrayt-fragn” (Issues in our conflict), about the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. From that point on, Litvak was ever more tied to the Bund in all his activities. In January 1905 he traveled to Warsaw where he edited the Bundist organ, Der varshever arbayter (The Warsaw worker), published legally, and in July 1906 he edited in Warsaw the Bundist serial Der glok (The bell), this time illegally. Litvak wrote a great deal at the time for the legal organs of the Bund which were published in Vilna: Der veker (The alarm) (1905-1906) and Folkstsaytung (People’s newspaper) (1906-1907). He occupied a special place in both newspapers, as he was at the time the most accomplished man of letters in the Bund. In November 1907 when they attempted to publish Di hofnung (The hope) in Vilna (in place of the now closed down Folkstsaytung), the police arrested all of the members of the editorial board, among them Litvak, who then spent eight months in the Lukishker Prison in Vilna. In 1908 he edited the literary-community weekly Der tog af shabes (Today, on the Sabbath) and a collection Fayerlekh (Little fires) to honor Hanukkah (published by “Di velt” [The world] in Vilna). Over the years 1908-1911, he contributed to various anthologies that the Bund was then publishing: Di yudishe velt (The Jewish world) (Vilna, 1908); Tsayt-fragn (Issues of the day) (Vilna, 1910); Di naye tsayt (The new times) (Vilna, 1910); Di yudishe folksshtime (The voice of the Jewish people) (Warsaw, 1911); and Fragen fun leben (Questions of life) (St. Petersburg, 1911). Litvak was also on the editorial board of the weekly Lebens-fragen (Life issues) (Warsaw, 1912, closed by the authorities after its first issue). He was also a frequent contributor to Fraynd (Friend) in St. Petersburg, and when the editor of that newspaper, Sh. Rozenfeld, left in 1908 for the United States, Litvak served as editor for three months. In 1909 he was a delegate from the Bund to the conference of Jewish representatives in Kovno. When in 1912 the Bund began to publish in St. Petersburg the weekly Di tsayt (The times) and a great number of the members of the editorial board were located in Vienna, Litvak was among the Vienna group on the board. From Vienna, he moved to Switzerland, where he participated in the activities of the foreign committee of the Bund. With the outbreak of WWI in August 1914, he decided to move to the United States.
In early April 1915 Litvak arrived in New York and soon became active in the Jewish socialist movement in America. He was regular contributor to the organ of the Jewish Socialist Federation, Di naye velt (The new world), and later one of its editors. He appeared at numerous conferences, gave lectures throughout the country, and served as a member of the editorial board of the journal Di tsayt (published by the Socialist Federation) as well as the anthologies Dos idishe yorbukh (The Jewish yearbook) (New York, 1917) and Dos revolutsyonere rusland (Revolutionary Russia) (New York, 1917). After the 1917 Revolution, Litvak returned to Russia, arriving in St. Petersburg at the time when the Bolsheviks were leading their fight against the Kerensky government. He was then writing for the revived organ of the Bund in St. Petersburg, Di arbayter-shtime, and soon (September 1917) he moved to Minsk where he became a co-editor of the central organ of the Bund, Der veker. He wrote a great deal for the newspaper (under a variety of pen names) and at the same time traveled through various cities of Byelorussia and everywhere had the audience spellbound both with his propaganda speeches and with his lectures on Jewish and general literature. When the Germans occupied Minsk in 1918, he left for Kiev where he became one of the leaders of the anti-Bolshevik wing of the Bund. There, he was also active in “Kultur-lige” (Culture league) and co-edited the monthly Baginen (Dawn) in 1919 and the collection Der royter pinkes (The red records), vol. 1 (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1920). At this time Litvak’s work Yitskhok-yoyel linyetski, kultur-historishe shtrikhn fun der haskole-epokhe (Yitskhok-Yoyel Linetski, cultural historical features of the era of the Jewish Enlightenment) (Kiev, 1919), 55 pp. appeared in print. He also edited the Bundist social-democratic publications: Di hofenung (The hope) in Kiev (March 1920); Frayhayt (Freedom), an anthology, in Kiev (1920); and others. When the social-democratic Bundists in April 1920 in Moscow abandoned the twelfth conference of the Bund and established a special organization entitled “Algemeyner yidisher arbeter bund, sotsyal-demokrat” (General Jewish labor Bund, social-democrat), Litvak was selected onto the central committee of it. After the Bolsheviks closed down Kultur-lige in Kiev, Litvak traveled through Russia, was arrested in Moscow and then in Minsk, and made his way eventually to Vilna. The Bundist movement had by then split apart, and Litvak remained with the social-democratic Bund. The organization began then to bring out a weekly entitled Unzer tsayt (Our time)—the first issue appeared on January 14, 1922—and he served on its editorial board together with Y. Okun, Y. Kharlash, Rivke Epshteyn, and Dr. P. Anman-Rozental. When the Polish authorities closed down the newspaper with its twenty-fourth issue and the social-democratic Bund brought out in its stead the weekly Unzer gedank (Our idea), Litvak was chief editor. In those years, he would travel between Vilna and Warsaw. He was among the active leaders in the Warsaw Kultur-lige, taking a prominent position in Tsisho (Central Jewish School Organization), and contributing to the Warsaw collections Der royter pinkes, the annual Bundist Arbeter-luekh (Workers’ calendar), and other serials. He was also editor of the journal Kultur (Culture), published by the Kultur-lige, and a contributor to Bikher-velt (Book world), also a product of the Kultur-lige; he wrote for the daily Bundist Folkstsaytung, mainly on literary and community cultural matters, as well as for Literarishe bleter (Literary leaves) in Warsaw. In 1925 he again traveled to the United States, initially on a lecture tour, but he remained there until his final days. He wrote for: Veker (Alarm) and was editor of it for a time, Tsukunft (Future), Fraynd, and Forverts (Forward), among others, in New York. He contributed to an array of anthologies and attempted to publish his own periodical: Bleter far problemen fun sotsyalizm un kunst (Pages for problems of socialism and art), only two issues. On September 20, 1932, Litvak died in New York after a long illness.
Litvak’s journalistic literary activities were not limited solely to articles on timely issues; some of his writings were highly important contributions to the history of the Jewish labor movement and to the cultural history of the Jews in the nineteenth century. These would include, first and foremost: “Di zhargonishe komitetn” (The Yiddish committees); “Arn zundelevitsh” (Arn Zundelevich); “Lobuzes, ganovim un kombinatorn” (Malicious types, thieves, and schemers), published in the volumes of Royte pinkes; “Afn feld fun kultur” (In the field of culture); “Di yidishe literatur in 1924” (Yiddish literature in 1924); and “Der bund in varshe, 1905” (The Bund in Warsaw, 1905), in Arbeter-luekh (Warsaw, 1922, 1925, and 1926). In addition to those mentioned above, other works by him in book form include: Vinter-abenden (Warsaw, 1897, 1912), reprinted six times (1905 edition, 112 pp.); Der kleynbirgerlekher sotsyalizm (Petit bourgeois socialism) (Warsaw: Di velt, 1906), 32 pp., written under the pen name “Levi”; Bay di bregn fun temze (By the banks of the Thames), a report from the London conference of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party (Vilna: Di velt, 1907), 231 pp., written as “Levi” together with D. Zaslavski-Bogrov; Shvartse kuntsn oder di poylish-yidishe farshtendikung (The black arts or the Polish-Jewish arrangement) (Warsaw: Di velt, 1923); Vos geven, etyudn un zikhroynes (What happened, studies and memoirs) (Vilna-Warsaw: B. Kletskin, 1925), 287 pp.; Vert sotsyalistn, andere megen dos zayn, arbeter muzn dos zayn (Become socialists, other may be, workers must be [socialists]) (New York: Yidishe sotsyalistishe farband, 1930), 32 pp.; Literatur un kamf, literarishe eseyen (Literature and struggle, literary essays) (New York: Yidishe sotsyalistishe farband, 1933), 272 pp., published posthumously; Ma shehaya (What happened), Hebrew translation by Sh. Ben-Avraham of Vos geven, with an array of items that were not included in the Yiddish work, with prefatory words from L. Levita (Tel Aviv: Histadrut, 1945), 256 pp.; Geklibene shriftn (Selected writings), published with the assistance of Branch 90 of the Workmen’s Circle, Trenton, New Jersey, on the fortieth anniversary of the branch (1945), 496 pp.—the last work here was prepared for publication by Kh. Sh. Kazdan who also wrote Litvak’s biography and including as well a bibliography of Litvak’s work. He also wrote under such pen names as: Levi, A. Muk, A. Gurski, Ben Yokhed, Borekh, B. Riger, and Y. Grin. “I have known him for a long time,” wrote A. Liessin, “and am aware of his frailties…. He was already seriously ill at the time…. And I saw him in extreme heat, as he lay absent-mindedly with his heavy body on a one chair, with his sickly foot on a second chair, with great globs of sweat on his forehead, with a thick year’s worth of Tsukunft right before his nearsighted eyes, and I thought to myself how nature can tinker with us—such harmony in disharmony, such subtlety in crudity, so many people, ‘ordinary folk,’ chosen and conspicuous.” “Litvak’s socialism,” noted Leybish Lehrer, “preceded everyone else’s and was more ethical and substantive than all others. Scientific prophesying about a society that ought to come inspired him less than prophetic prophesying about a society that had to come…. When he stood at the podium and spoke, he used no facial gestures…. His language flowed smoothly, purely, like a clear river. The sharpness of his gaze shot through his eyeglasses and stuck right into the mood of the audience…. His impact on followers was truly phenomenal.” “He was the best Jewish socialist publicist,” wrote A. Mukdoni, “[and] his articles were clear and to the point, not a superfluous word, no detours getting to the theme. He always had the most direct and therefore the shortest route to handle a question.” “Despite the fact that nature disabled his foot and made it physically difficult for him,” observed Dovid Eynhorn, “he was….a veritable whirlwind, a quicksilver who never rested in any one spot, never sought any calm, never had a home, always wandering. A wishing ring that would suddenly disappear and then emerge where you least expected it.”
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 2; P. Anman-Rozental, in the anthology 25 yor (Twenty-five years) (Warsaw, 1922), pp. 67ff; Anman-Rozental, in Royte pinkes (Warsaw) 2 (1924), pp. 7ff; N. Mayzil, Noente un vayte (Near and far), vol. 2 (Warsaw: Kletskin, 1926), pp. 154-59; N. A. Bukhbinder, Di geshikhte fun der yidisher arbeter-bavegung in rusland, loyt nit-gedrukte arkhiṿ-materyaln (The history of the Jewish labor movement in Russia, according to unpublished archival materials) (Vilna, 1931), see index; N. Khanin, in Forverts (New York) (September 21, 1932); Khanin, in Der veker (New York) (October 1, 1949); Dr. A. Khoralnik, in Tog (New York) (September 23, 1932); Sh. Rabinovitsh, P. Gelibter, Y. Vaynberg, and Kh. Kantorovitsh, all in Der veker (October 1, 1932); R. Abramovitsh, in Forverts (October 8, 1932); Shmuel Niger, in Tog (October 8, 1932); Niger, Habikoret uveayoteha (Inquiry and its problems) (Jerusalem, 1957), p. 351; D. Eynhorn, in Der veker (October 29, 1932); Eynhorn, in Forverts (October 2, 1948); Leybush Lehrer, in Idish (New York) 17 (1932); Kh. L. Poznanski, Memuarn fun a Bundist (Memoirs of a Bundist) (Warsaw, 1938), pp. 127, 238; Kh. Sh. Kazdan, “Der lebns-veg fun a. litvak” (The life path of A. Litvak), in A. Litvak, Geklibene shriftn (Selected writings) (Trenton, 1945), pp. 9-159; Kazdan and Shifre Kazdan, “A. litvak-biblyografye” (A. Litvak bibliography), in Litvak, Geklibene shriftn, pp. 483-95; Kh. Sh. Kazdan, in Unzer tsayt (New York) (September 6, 1952); Kazdan, Fun kheyder un shkoles biz tsisho (From religious and secular primary schools to Tsisho) (Mexico City, 1956), see index; Z. Segalovitsh, Tlomatske 13, fun farbrentn nekhtn (13 Tłomackie St., of scorched yesterdays) (Buenos Aires, 1946); Moyshe Shtarkman, in Hadoar (New York) (Sivan 4 [= May 23], 1947); V. Shulman, in Tsukunft (New York) (May 1947); D. Naymark, in Forverts (October 11, 1952); A. Liessin, Zikhroynes un bilder (Memoirs and images) (New York, 1954), pp. 272ff; P. Kurski, Gezamlte shriftn (Collected writings) (New York, 1952), see index; Y. Sh. Herts, Di yidishe sotsyalistishe bavegung in amerike, 70 yor sotsyalistishe tetikeyt, 30 yor yidishe sotsyalistishe farband (The Jewish socialist movement in America, seventy years of socialist activity, thirty years of the Jewish Socialist Union) (New York, 1954), see index; Dr. A. Mukdoni, In varshe un in lodzh (In Warsaw and in Lodz) (Buenos Aires, 1955), see index; Abram der Tate, Bleter fun mayn yugnt, zikhroynes fun a Bundist (Pages from my youth, memoirs of a Bundist) (New York, 1959), pp. 221, 259; Di geshikhte fun “bund” (The history of the Bund), vol. 1 (New York, 1960), see index; Arbeter-ring boyer un tuer (Workmen’s Circle builders and leaders) (New York, 1962), pp. 210-11.