YEKHIEL LERER (1910-early 1943)
He was born in Mrozy, near Kaluszyn, Warsaw district, Poland. On his mother’s side, he descended from the Vurker Rebbe. In his early childhood, he moved with his parents to Zhelekhov (Żelichów), and there he studied in a religious elementary school, at the small Hassidic synagogue of the Aleksanderer Rebbe, and with private tutors. He acquired a reputation as a child prodigy. At age sixteen his father already wanted to marry him off and arranged a match with a bride in Chełm. Lerer, however, abandoned the match, returned to Żelichów, because he no longer live in the same home as his parents, and off he went to learn a trade. He was a clockmaker and a furrier, but he could not support himself from these trades, and left for a kibbutz where he was a woodcutter, a construction worker, and lived as a pioneer. In those years, dressed in a long, Hassidic frock coat and a Hassidic cloth hat, he came to Warsaw and brought Y. M. Vaysenberg his first Yiddish poems: “Di tilim-gezangen” (The Psalms songs), for which Vaysenberg called him a “new Tagore,” befriended him, and brought him onto the staff of Inzer hofening (Our hope) in Warsaw (1928). From that point in time, Lerer remained in Warsaw and turned his attention entirely to writing. According to information from M. Grosman, Lerer was practically starving at the time, meandering about as an outsider through the streets of Warsaw and supporting himself by helping to run the account books for businesses or—during the summer—as a representative on Yiddish editorial boards for reading proofs. In spite of this, with a quiet nostalgia he wrote his devout songs which were published in Warsaw’s Yiddish newspapers and periodicals: Haynt (Today), Moment (Moment), Bafrayung (Liberation), Yugnt (Youth), Arbeter-tsaytung (Workers’ newspaper), Naye folkstsaytung (New people’s newspaper), Literarishe bleter (Literary leaves), Vokhnshrift far literatur (Weekly writing for literature), Foroys (Onward), Dos vort (The word), Shriftn (Writings), and Yedies hakholets (Pioneer news) in which he published in 1935 the poem “Holtshekers” [Woodcutters]). He also placed work in New York’s Tsukunft (Future) and elsewhere. In 1931 his first book was published in Warsaw: Shoyel un dovid (Saul and David), comprised of twenty-eight sections and 104 pp.; it brought him only a chilly reception from Shmuel Niger. However, his subsequent books—Shtilkeyt un shturm, gezangen (Quiet and stormy, songs), poetry (Warsaw, 1932), 150 pp.; Brunems in feld (Wells in the field) (Vilna, 1933), 118 pp. which included the poems, “Dir” (To you), “Vald” (Woods), and the “Tilim gezangen”; and Mayn heym, durkh nakht tsum bagin (My home, through the night until dawn) (Warsaw, 1937), 137 pp., second edition published with the assistance of the Yiddish PEN Club in 1938, winner of the B. Eytingon Prize for the best volume of poetry that year—brought him recognition as a poet of considerable rank. As Y. Rapoport noted, in his poem Mayn heym, Lerer stood “in contrast to Yiddish poetry in Poland, which in the 1930s was primarily a social phenomenon; in Lerer work, there was an intimate, individual quality, and the more one reads of it, the more beauty one finds therein…. This is the best work of Yiddish literature in the ten years prior to the destruction of Poland.” “The poem is a gift of God’s grace,” wrote Sholem Asch in Haynt (December 12, 1937, and republished in Der shpigl [The mirror] in Buenos Aires, January 12, 1938), “and belongs to the most beautiful of books that have been published by Jews.” In 1938 Lerer sent to Tog (Day) in New York a manuscript entitled “Azoy lebn yibn” (That’s how Jews live)—it can now be found in the YIVO archives in New York. He continued his writing in the ghetto. In Yitskhok Katsenelson’s rescued Pinkes vitel (Records of Vitel), the author dedicates warm words to Yekhiel Lerer’s poem “Oysgebenkter friling” (Longed-for spring), which was written in the Warsaw Ghetto (the poem was discovered in the archives of E. Ringelblum’s “Oyneg shabes” and, although it was signed with the initials “M. Kh.,” however, Lerer’s handwriting and his writing style were detected). After the Germans marched into Warsaw, Lerer worked for a time in the “Evidence Department” and later as a furrier in a shop on Nowolipie St. and, in spite of the numerous propositions for him to escape to the Aryan side of the city, he did not wish to abandon the ghetto (see Khaye Elboym-Zarombs, Af der arisher zayt [On the Aryan side] (Tel Aviv, 1957), pp. 40-49). He published in the underground press of the Warsaw Ghetto (using various pen names) poems and notes on ghetto life, some of which may be found in the unearthed Ringelblum archive now at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. He was active in YIKOR (Jewish Cultural Organization). In the winter of 1943, at the time of the second liquidation, he was taken to Umschlagplatz (the collection point in Warsaw for deportation), transported to Treblinka, and murdered there. After WWII his poems were republished in: Yidishe shriftn (Yiddish writings) and Dos naye lebn (The new life) in Lodz-Warsaw; Tsukunft, Yidishe kultur (Jewish culture), and Eynikeyt (Unity) in New York; and Parizer shriftn (Parisian writings) and Kiem (Existence) in Paris; among others. Also, a new edition of Mayn heym was published (Buenos Aires, 1948), 168 pp., with drawings in the text by Arye Merzer and with a biographical note and an afterword which did not appear in the 1937 and 1938 editions of the work; this was a portion of a new poem about his childhood that Lerer composed in the last years before the Holocaust and in the Warsaw Ghetto. Also published was his Lider un poemen (Poetry) (New York, 1948), 482 pp., which included a selection drawn from Lerer’s four books and a biographical characterization and appreciation of his poetry by Shloyme Brianski. Mayn heym was also published in Hebrew translation by Shimshon Meltser as Bet aba (Father’s home) (Tel Aviv, 1946), 204 pp. His poems also appeared in: Meltser’s Hebrew anthology, Al naharot (To the rivers) (Jerusalem, 1957); Binem Heler’s anthology, Dos lid iz geblibn (The poem remained) (Warsaw, 1951); Joseph Leftwich's English-language collection of Yiddish poetry, The Golden Peacock (London-New York, 1960); and Mortkhe Yofe’s anthology, Erets-yisroel in der yidisher literatur (The land of Israel in Yiddish literature) (Tel Aviv, 1961).
Sources: Shmuel Niger, in Tog (New York) (July 31, 1932); A. Ts. (Tsaytlin), in Globus (Warsaw) 2 (1932); Kh. Sh. Kazdan, in Vokhshrift far literatur (Warsaw) (December 2, 1932); Sh. Zaromb, in Literarishe bleter (Warsaw) (February 25, 1938); Avrom Reyzen, in Di feder (New York) (1939, 1949); Y. Bashevis, in Tsukunft (New York) (August 1943); N. Y. Gotlib, in Keneder odler (Montreal) (November 8, 1943); Meylekh Ravitrsh, Mayn leksikon (My lexicon), vol. 1 (Montreal, 1945), pp. 119-21; Z. Segalovitsh, Tlomatske 13, fun farbrentn nekhtn (13 Tłomackie St., of scorched yesterdays) (Buenos Aires, 1946), p. 31; B. Y. Rozen, in Tsukunft (February 1947); Rozen, in Portretn (Portraits) (Buenos Aires, 1956), pp. 105, 114; L. Finkelshteyn, in Der veker (New York) (May 15, 1947); Yanos Turkov, Azoy iz es geven (That’s how it was) (Buenos Aires, 1948), pp. 246, 254; Moyshe Grosman, Heymishe geshtaltn (Familiar figures) (Tel Aviv, 1953), pp. 158-64; Y. Kisin, Lid un esey (Poem and essay) (New York, 1953), pp. 271-79; B. Mark, Umgekumene shrayber fun di getos un lagern (Murdered writers from the ghettos and camps) (Warsaw, 1954), pp. 54, 58, 68, 109, 122-25; Rokhl Oyerbakh, Shloyme Brianski, A. V. Yasni, M. Boym, Y. Papyernikov, and Y. Feldhendler, in Yizker-bukh fun zhelekhov (Memory book of Żelichów) (Chicago, 1954), pp. 181-94; Yankev Glatshteyn, in Idisher kemfer (New York) (July 16, 1954); Y. Rapoport, in in Oysgerisene bleter (Torn up pages) (Melbourne, 1957), pp. 156-57; Rapoport, Zoymen in vint (Seeds in the wind) (Melbourne, 1961), pp. 223-35; Emanuel Ringelblum, in Folksshtime (Warsaw) (April 10, 1959); Biblyografye fun yidishe bikher vegn khurbn un gvure (Bibliography of Yiddish books concerning the Holocaust and heroism) (New York: YIVO and Yad Vashem, 1962), see index.
Khayim Leyb Fuks