MIKHL LEVITAN (1882-1938)
He was born in the Jewish colony of Nadezhnaya, Ukraine, into a family of farmers. He received a traditional Jewish education, and later (in Berdyansk, southern Russia) he passed the examination to become a teacher. In his early youth he joined the revolutionary movement and was a leader of the Labor Zionists (known by the name “Comrade Dovid”). He was one of theoretician-justifiers of “Vozrozhdenie” (Renaissance), and he participated in the Ekaterinoslav conference of this group (September 1905), which later founded the Jewish Socialist Labor Party (known as “Seymovtses” or “Sejmists” [implying those supporting a Jewish national assembly]). In 1908, after the Vitebsk conference of the Seymovtses, he was arrested together with a number of other participants. After the Czernowitz Language Conference in 1908, he became one of the most important fighters for Yiddish schools. Together with Leyb Brovarnik, Borekh Shvartsman, and Shimoni Dobin, in 1911 he founded the first Jewish school, with Yiddish as the language of instruction, in Demyevka (a suburb of Kiev), and he served as one of the teachers there. With Leyb Brovarnik, he compiled the first arithmetic textbook for the Yiddish school: Arifmetishe oygabn, farn ershtn lern-yor (Arithmetic problems, for the first school year), part one for students, part two for teachers (Vilna: B. Kletskin, 1914), with a number of subsequent reissues. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, he was a prominent leader of the “Fareynikte” (United socialist party), of the Jewish democratic teachers’ union, as well as in the Jewish Ministry of Ukraine. In 1917 he contributed to Naye tsayt (New times) in Kiev. He also compiled Arifmetishe oygabn, farn tsveytn un dritn lern-yor (Arithmetic problems, for the second and third school years) (Kiev, 1918), 92 pp. Together with Z. Kalmanovitsh, he edited Y. Blaykher’s translation of Y. Shalit’s Onshoyungs-geometrye (Conceptual geometry [?]). At the time of the split in the “Fareynikte,” he underwent a transition from the leftist group within the Fareynikte to the Communists, and together with Moyshe Kats, Yoysef Leshtshinski, and Y. Novakovski, he was coopted by the head committee of the “United Jewish Communist Labor Party” into the editorial board of Naye tsayt in Kiev, later (1919) onto Di komunistishe fon (The Communist banner). When the Whites’ army attacked Kiev, he left with the Red Army and worked in editing a front newspaper. After demobilization he moved to Moscow, and he began playing a major role in the Jewish section of the Communist Party, and in 1920 he signed on to a circular (dated December 28, 1920) of the central Jewish educational division of the People’s Commissariat of Education concerning liquidation of the religious elementary schools and yeshivas in Russia. He also organized Jewish schools and took part in the artistic council of the Moscow Yiddish State Theater. From 1921 he was a member of the central bureau of the Jewish sections [of organizations, under the Communist Party]. He was the administrator (1920-1925) of the central Jewish division of the “People’s Committee for Popular Education” in Moscow. Over the years 1925-1928, he was the representative of the Education Commissariat for National Minorities in Ukraine, mainly in Kharkov and Kiev, where he was one of the principal leaders of the Jewish section of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture. Under his leadership, the number of students in Yiddish schools in Ukraine in the school year 1925-1926 approached 75,000. In that slice of time, in conjunction with his work in the educational and cultural realms, he wrote many articles for Emes (Truth) in Moscow and Shtern (Star) in Kharkov. He was appointed editor of the fifth volume—entitled “Fun 1914 biz 1917. Di milkhome, di tsefalung fun 2tn internatsyonal un di ershte trit tsum komintern” (From 1914 to 1917. The war, the disintegration of the Second International, and the first steps toward the Comintern)—of the eight-volume edition of Lenin’s works. He also edited the pedagogical monthly Af di vegn tsu der naye shul (En route to the new school), in which in 1924 he published a series of five articles entitled “6 yor sovetishe kultur-arbet in der yidisher svive” (Six years of cultural work in the Yiddish realm). He was (1925-1929) editor-in-chief of the monthly magazine Di royte velt (The red world). Together with N. Oyslender, D. Volkenshteyn, N. Lurye, and Ezra Finenberg, he compiled the textbook: Idishe literatur, khrestomatye fun literatur un kritik (Yiddish literature, a reader of literature and criticism), “part one, under the editorship of M. Levitan” (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1928), 374 pp. Over the years 1928-1932, he was editor of Shtern (Kharkov-Kiev). In 1929 he contributor to Prolit (Proletarian literature)—“literary-artistic, critical-bibliographic monthly of the Ukrainian Association of Proletarian Writers”—in Kharkov. He published a great deal, 1931-1933, in Emes in Moscow. He edited a number of books by Yiddish writers, and for many of them he penned the preface. Together with Sh. Ogurski, Kalmen Marmor, and Max Erik, he edited the series “Di eltere revolutsyonere literatur—di geklibene verk in zeks bend fun moris vintshevski, dovid edelshtat un y. bovshover” (The older revolutionary literature, selected writings in six volumes by Morris Winchevsky, Dovid Edelshtat, and Y. Bovshover); and together with Marmor and Erik, he prepared for publication Edelshtat’s works in three volumes, of which only two appeared in print (Moscow: Emes, 1935). He also wrote for the quarterly Visnshaft un revolutsye (Science and revolution); and served as editor (1934-1935) of the monthly periodical Ratnbildung (Soviet education) (Kharkov-Kiev). In 1935 he—together with Litvakov, Altshuler, and others—was appointed editor of the work that the Jewish section of the Nationalities Institute of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture in Kiev prepared for publication: “Tsvantsik yor proletarishe diktatur un yidishe masn” (Twenty years of the proletarian dictatorship and the Jewish masses). It was supposed to have been published in 1937 but never appeared in print. From the early 1930s, Levitan’s star began to decline. He was openly accused of “deviationism,” “nationalism,” and “forced Judaizing,” and for these sins he had to yield his editorial-in-chief position for Di royte velt which Shakhne Epshteyn took over. And, although he remained a member of the editorial board, accusatory articles against him exposed fissures in the journal. In early 1936, he, Max Erik, and other writers from the Institute were arrested, and the Institute was closed down. After his arrest in 1936, he died in a camp.
Levitan, back row, first on left
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 2; E. Korman, in Bikher-velt (Kiev) 2 (1919), cols. 36-38; Biblyografishe yorbikher fun yivo (Bibliographic yearbooks from YIVO) (Warsaw, 1928), vol. 1; Sh. Epshteyn, in Di royte velt (Kharkov-Kiev) (December 1929); Kh. Dunyets, In kamf af tsvey frontn (In a struggle on two fronts) (Minsk: Byelorussian Academy of Sciences, 1932), pp. 11, 12; N. Rubinshteyn, in Oktyabr (Minsk) 263 (1934); M. Kruglyak, in Shtern (Kharkov) 292 (1934); Y. Altman, in Oktyabr 137 (1935); K. Marmor, in Dovid edelshtat ondenk-bukh (Memorial volume for Dovid Edelshtat) (New York, 1953), pp. 172, 347, 368; A. Pomerants, in Dovid edelshtat ondenk-bukh; Pomerants, in Dray shprakhiker yorbukh (Trilingual annual) (New York) 15 (1957-1958), p. 22; A. Beyner, in Vitebsk amol (Vitebsk in the past) (New York, 1956), pp. 335, 336, 337, 340, 341, 345, 346, 349; Kh. Sh. Kazdan, Fun kheyder un shkoles biz tsisho (From religious and secular primary schools to Tsisho) (Mexico City, 1956), pp. 161, 188, 189; N. Mayzil, Dos yidishe shafn un der yidisher arbeter in sovetn-farband (Jewish creation and the Jewish worker in the Soviet Union) (New York, 1959), see index; Chone Shmeruk, “Sifrut yidish hasovetit, tsemiḥata veḥurbana” (Soviet Yiddish literature, its growth and destruction), Molad (Tel Aviv) 127 (January-February 1959), p. 30; Shmeruk, comp., Pirsumim yehudiim babrit-hamoatsot, 1917-1961 (Jewish publications in the Soviet Union, 1917-1961) (Jerusalem, 1961), see index; Z. Ratner and Y. Kvitni, Dos yidishe bukh in f.s.s.r. in di yorn 1917-1921 (The Yiddish book in the USSR for the years 1917-1921) (Kiev, 1930); Rubinshteyn, Dos yidishe bukh in sovetnfarband 1932, 1933 un 1934 (The Yiddish book in the Soviet Union, 1932, 1933, and 1934); documents from the rescued Vilna YIVO archives: 2374-2379, 94927-94968, where among other items may be found Levitan’s autobiography in Russian, a series of personal letters and materials, as well as a listing of hundreds of his articles with the appropriate titles and dates (YIVO archives, New York).
[Additional information from: Berl Kagan, comp., Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers) (New York, 1986), col. 344; Chaim Beider, Leksikon fun yidishe shrayber in ratn-farband (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers in the Soviet Union), ed. Boris Sandler and Gennady Estraikh (New York: Congress for Jewish Culture, Inc., 2011), pp. 212-13.]