DOVID EDELSHTADT (May 9, 1866-October 17, 1892)
He was born in Kaluga, Great Russia, an old Russian city with very few Jews. His father, Moisei Ivanovich Edelshtadt, was a veteran Nikolai soldier who for a time worked as a policeman and later in a saw mill. In his childhood and early youth, Dovid knew little of Judaism. At home his family spoke Russian, and there was no religious elementary school in his city to attend. For only a short period of time did he study with a visiting Lithuanian teacher. Over the years 1873-1876, he studied with a Russian teacher, and he mastered the Russian language and literature in toto. He began writing poetry at age nine, and at thirteen his poems were being published in the local Russian newspaper, Gubernskie vedomosti (Provincial gazette). In his first poems, Edelshtadt meditated on Kaluga’s broad river (the Oka River) and the song of the Kaluga nightingale. He also wrote occasional songs, sung by the Russian singer Zorina who was invited to perform in Kaluga, and he wrote an elegy on the premature death of the “good-hearted” Dr. Yarovski (a political deportee in Kaluga who made an impression on Edelshtadt and had befriended him). When still quite young, he was influenced by the progressive Russian writers, especially the poets Ivan Nikitin and Nikolai Nekrasov, and absorbed from them compassion for the poor and the will to fight for social liberation. In 1880 he moved to Kiev where his three brothers lived: Grisha and Arosha Muchnikov, sons of his mother’s first husband, and Abrasha Edelshtadt; the fourth brother Nakhmen Muchnikov became a lawyer in St. Petersburg. His mother Etl (Katerina Fyodorovna) gave birth to three sons with his first husband (Muchnikov) and three sons and a daughter (Sonia) with her second husband. In Kiev, he grew close to a group of young people who belonged to populist circles, and there he heard stories of heroic struggles against Tsarism. In his brother Abrasha’s cobbler workshop, he heard more revolutionary poems and tales of the “Ispolnitelniy Komitet” (Executive committee) of the “Narodnaya volya” (People’s will); about Sofia Perovskaia, Andrei Zhelyabov, and Gesia Helfman who carried out the attempted assassination of the Tsar, his ministers, and governors, and were doomed as they went heroically to the gallows. There thus emerged before him the image of revolution and martyrdom. At the same time he was becoming all the more deeply absorbed in Russian social poetry and wrote such poetry himself. Meanwhile the Kiev pogrom against Jews exploded (May 8, 1881). The images of the pogrom exerted such an impression on the fifteen-year-old that he physically collapsed, and he was taken to a temporary hospital for Jewish pogrom victims in Pechersk [a neighborhood in Kiev]. Students from Kiev University who were doing sanitary work in the hospital became interested in Edelshtadt. Through them he became a frequent visitor at the home of Dr. Mandelshtam (the famed pioneer of territorialism), who befriended him, placed him on a committee to aid pogrom victims, and assisted his entry into university. Under the impact of the pogrom, though, Edelshtadt and his older brother joined the Kiev group of “Am-olam” (Eternal people) which was going to the United States with the goal of establishing there colonies along communist principles. On May 30, 1882 he arrived with his fellow Am-olam group in Philadelphia, and he left that same day for New York, though he did not remain there long. The association that aided immigrants refused to settle the Am-olam group in colonies, and Edelshtadt departed for Cincinnati, Ohio, where his two older brothers, Hersh and Arn Muchnikov, had relocated from earlier on. There he became a laborer making button holes. The first two years he still lived as in Russia, receiving new poems that Shimen Frug penned in Russian and meanwhile becoming acquainted with his new surroundings, learning English, and getting to know about American anarchism. Until 1885 he was strongly influenced by the American anarchist movement and its leaders and fighters (Albert Parsons, August Spies, and Johann Most). He became active in the radical labor union “Truth-Seekers” in Cincinnati. When the bloody anarchist events transpired in Chicago in 1886 (the Haymarket Tragedy), and when the four anarchists (Parsons, Spies, Engel, and Fischer) were led to the gallows in 1887, Edelshtadt again experienced a shattering moment in his life. His friends feared that he would lose his mind from this nerve-wracking upset. The opposite, however, took place: Edelshtadt’s poetic talent received another stimulus to creation. On January 5, 1889, he published in the Russian social-democratic newspaper Znamya (Banner) his first Russian-language poem in America: “Proletari” (Proletarians). His second poem “Novyi” (New) appeared in the same serial the next month. Several weeks later, he traveled to New York to take a direct part in the anarchist movement, which was beginning to spread considerably among the Jewish laboring masses. He was unable to find work in New York and moved to Orange, New Jersey. He worked there just four days at the Edison Phonograph Factory (the factory closed down), and he returned to New York, where a surprise was awaiting him: his first poem in Yiddish. This was the poem “Tsu der varhayt” (To the truth), published in the first issue of the anarchist newspaper Di varhayt (The truth) on February 15, 1889. Two weeks later, on March 1, 1889, the same serial published his poem “In kamf” (In struggle) and right afterward his poem “Mayn tsvavoe” (My will)—two of his immortal poems which helped launch the Jewish labor on both sides of the ocean. He also published his work (under the pen name Paskarel) in London’s Arbayter fraynd (Friend of labor) and in the unaligned socialist newspaper Morgen-shtern (Morning star). In 1890, at the age of twenty-four, he was appointed editor of the anarchist weekly Fraye arbeter-shtime (Free voice of labor) with a salary of ten dollars each week, which was usually not paid because there was no money in the treasury. He edited the newspaper until several months before his death. Aside from several dozen poems—among them: “Natur un mentsh” (Nature and man), “In dem land fun piramidn” (In the land of pyramids), “Blumen un shtern” (Flowers and stars), “Vakht oyf” (Wake up), and many others—he published there journalistic articles as well as bitter satirical features on contemporary topics. Of roughly fifty articles, only four were deemed worthy of appearing in books, in the first full publication of his Shriften (Writings), with a preface by Moyshe Kats (London: Arbayter fraynd, 1909), 405 pp. In 1891 he started suffering terribly from tuberculosis, and he moved to Denver, in the mountains of Colorado, to recuperate. The cure consisted of renting an apartment, lying in bed by an open window, and drinking fresh milk from a nearby farm. However, he did not have the money for such a cure. Help that Jewish workers collected for him from their last pennies was far from sufficient. His sister Sonia had in her apartment two other similar patients and was the nurse for them all; and the pay that came from them, together with the collected help from workers and friends, was barely enough. Irrespective of his incessant coughing, in Denver he wrote numerous poems and prose items, among them a poem “Der ovnt-glok” (The evening bell), a feature piece entitled “Der togbukh fun a nar” (The diary of an idiot), “Di kreytser sonate” (The Kreutzer Sonata), a critique in several variants of Leo Tolstoy’s book of the same name, and the biographical story “Vera” (Vera), among others. Three days prior to his death, he wrote his poem “Tsum kenig-toyt” (On the death of a king), but he had grown so weak that he was unable to hold the pen in his hand. On October 17, 1892 he passed away. His sister Sonia was at his side. His grave is located in the Workmen’s Circle Cemetery in Denver. In 1915 a monument was placed on his grave, and visitors frequently come from cities far and near to stand for a while by the grave of this extraordinary and genteel singer of the workingman who left this world so young.
Edelshtadt’s works in book form include: Folks-gedikhte (Poetry for the people) (New York: Fraye arbeter-shtime, 1892), 124 pp.; Folks-gedikhte (New York, 1894), 124 pp.; Shriften fun d. edelshtadt (Writings of D. Edelshtadt) (London: B. Ruderman, 1899), 86 pp.; Shriften (Warsaw: Progres, 1900), prose, 39 pp.; Folks-gedikhte (New York: Hebrew Publishing Co., 1904), 124 pp., second edition (1907), third printing (1907-1908), 213 pp.; Shriften (London: Arbayter fraynd, 1909), 406 pp., second edition (1910)—among them: 127 poems, 13 “stories and images,” including the highly popular story in its day “Di bomerke” (The vagrant), and articles, with a “foreword on the life and works of the poet” by M. Kats; Shriftn (Writings), prose and poetry (New York: Hebrew Publishing Co., 1911), 334 pp., second edition (1923); Dovid edelshtadts shriften (Dovid Edelshtadt’s writings) (London: B. Ruderman and Y. Malimson, 1911), 90 pp.; Shriften (New York, 1925), 405 pp., from the 1900 London edition; Lider fun kamf un noyt (Poetry of struggle and need), compiled and with a foreword by Sh. Agurski (Moscow: Emes, 1930), 178 pp.; Geklibene verk in dray bender (Selected work in three volumes), only two volumes appeared (Moscow: Emes, 1935). Books about Edelshtadt include: Kalmen Marmor, Dovid edelshtadt (Dovid Edelshtadt), biography, letters, obituaries, assessments, selected writings, and bibliography (New York: IKUF, 1950), 410 pp.; Dovid edelshtadt gedenk-bukh (Dovid Edelshtadt remembrance volume), edited by B. Y. Byalostotski, on the sixtieth anniversary of his death (biography, memoirs, criticism, selected writings, poetic anthology about Edelshtadt, and bibliography) (New York: Dovid Edelshtadt Committee in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, 1953), 624 pp. His work appeared as well in: Af barikadn, revolyutsyonere shlakhtn in der opshpiglung fun der kinstlerisher literatur (At the barricades, revolutionary battles in the lens of artistic literature) (Kharkov, 1930); Der arbeter in der yidisher literatur, fargesene lider (The worker in Yiddish literature, forgotten poems) (Moscow, 1939); and Mut (Courage) (Moscow, 1920).
“Edelshtadt’s creations,” wrote Moyshe Kats, “belong to revolutionary romanticism, if one might express it thus—to that youthful period when the revolution was imagined as the goddess of liberation, in which the youthful heart loved to its total fervor and passion, and seeing in its love there remained its devotion in every minute of life, with every shape of the soul, with every breath of air… Edelshtadt did not decorate his poems, he did not flaunt them, did not flirt with polished verses and gleaming rhythms, but a current of warm love runs divinely out from the unpolished—the assured, faithful, devoted ascetic nature may be considered an excess luxury, for to derive too much enjoyment from polishing and lustrousness in a world in which so many tears are flowing, in which so many lives are withering away, in which this struggle of blood and tears continues. And this naïveté, this entirety and profound feelings, makes the strongest impression—that impression, without which art is not art at all.”
“I believe,” noted H. Leivick, “that when one acknowledges the name Edelshtadt, there arises for us not just the name of a poet, but a figure for whom we bear a special tenderness both because of his charm and beautiful tragedy (such a tragedy it was) of his personal life and because of the unique, revolutionary impact of his poetry. This is not, of course, to detach the poet’s personal life itself from his poems. And, true poetic quality cannot itself be broken from without. In this one can do no dividing with Edelshtadt. And I certainly shan’t. Edelshtadt and Edelshtadt’s poetry constitute one harmonious whole. I only wish to say that the motif of his poetry and the atmosphere of that wonderful generation which took upon itself that motif as a divine commandment and which literally resounds like a divine formwork—all of this dominated and overpowered the artistic capacities of his verse. In those wonderful days, it was enough that a poet with a pure and refined heart would with even a single word, with a single line touch the pure and refined heart of his surroundings—in those days: the heart of the awakened Jewish worker—that from that touch should give rise to a pure fire. A fire of faith in freedom, in liberation, in a new, clean order in the world, a world without slaves, without those exploited, without rulers, without chains, without prisons, without powerholders, without dictators, without party gods…. His poetry was a hymn to humanism. No wordplay there, only a profound truth, an organic match of his genteel and suffering soul. Sorrow accompanied him repeatedly along the road of his short life. Suffering internal and spiritual which quickly was transformed into a fatal physical suffering—into galloping tuberculosis which quickly laid him low. It is impossible that such a pure man and poet as Edelshtadt should trifle with humanistic words. His worldview was close to the worldview of such poets as [Semion] Nadson, who like him sang profoundly and bloodily the fiery hymn-poem “Tsum fraynd, tsum bruder, tsum ayngematertn, laydndikn bruder” (To the friend, to the brother, to the tormented, suffering brother), who he ought not be and where he ought not be. For Edelshtadt as for Nadson, the suffering, enslaved brother was a segment of the entire suffering humanity. He kept on repeatedly reiterating the words: popular equality, brotherhood, love, freedom, and freedom once again.”
“For the poets who glimpsed Edelshtadt in the frame of his epoch,” observed Yankev Glatshteyn, “and detected his shimmering and validated word, Edelshtadt was an incomparable poet. One can still today read his poems and even his articles and perceive that, although he did not economize on words, paraphrasing a poem of his about two painters, he did not spill an entire bucket ‘there, where one ought one drop of blood from the heart.’ Edelshtadt was a great orator and chastiser, but in his chastising there is more than a drop of the chastiser’s ‘blood from the heart.’… Edelshtadt should be seen together with the temperament of his mighty and pious truth, which sprang from his word. Other poets in his time wrote more robust, revolutionary poetry, better Yiddish, and in a more measured meter, but their poems were poetic proclamations for them. Edelshtadt lived his poems. They were ethical-biographical instructions themselves…. He spoke and predicted…. One sees in his prose works that the naïve and impractical dreamer was clever and blunt. In his polemics he was often a little too cutting, but he was always fighting for his truth…. One may say of Edelshtadt: If you wish, he is thoroughly a legend. And it is good to spin the legend of an epoch with his figure. The legend of Edelshtadt was already in his day a consolation for thousands who sang his poetry.”
“If I am not wrong,” noted Meylekh Ravitsh, “there are only two poets in modern Yiddish literature since the era of Mendele who have been so intensively and extensively researched, and they are Yitskhok-Leybush Perets and Dovid Edelshtadt. The gap between the two of them—Perets and Edelshtadt—is colossal in every way imaginable. Not just a gap between them, but they are in sharp contrast to one another, virtual antipodes. One was active, all in all, for forty years—twenty-five of them intensively—the other active literarily for a mere four years. Ten times fewer. One was a national poet—the other solely a social poet. In one instance—as concerns form—he followed the line of the most difficult resistance and some of his works were written and rewritten dozens of times—as many as seventy times—while the other wrote according to a pattern, once taking it over from another and once writing them oneself, remaining as such and then repeated…. One always went through a linguistic rainbow—the other with a gray language vocabulary virtually without colors…. One thing which they both possessed in comparable amounts: they both believed in tomorrow. Perets in a national-ethnic tomorrow and Edelshtadt in a social tomorrow. And this was the source of their magic. It was thus no accident and also no secret, why both of them happened to be the most studied and the most elucidated of all Yiddish poets of modern times…. Not even Leivick’s magnificent blessings on Edelshtadt could elevate him higher and not Zishe Landau’s pushing him to the said could force him into limbo. He is here and will be forever.”
“Edelshtadt the tribune justified his glance,” wrote Nokhum-Borekh Minkov, “at the poet’s mission and at his ‘human obligation as concerns labor. However, those poems of his which were far from Edelshtadt’s pure lyrical source did not improve due to their mission to agitate. From these very poems people ceased citing, as did Zishe Landau, to demonstrate the ‘talentlessness’ of Edelshtadt’s poetry…. Because of Edelshtadt’s clichéd ‘obligatory’-poems, people tended to overlook Edelshtadt the young lyricist. Furthermore, people overlooked the original and important poet who could heat up his revolutionary motifs with a lyrical fire. In this Edelshtadt was in his element. And here he created poetic value. They were and remain a very important contribution to Yiddish poetry. Edelshtadt’s poetic worth can even be felt in his mournful, uncannily natural rhythms. It is enough to note his poems of hardship, such as: ‘An alte geshikhte’ (An old story)—‘He noticed her next to a gas lamp, She was seventeen years of age’; ‘Der koylngreber’ (The coalminer)—‘When you warm yourselves, brothers, by the cheerful fire’; and ‘Der kinder-merder’ (The murderer of children). One senses his importance even more in his beautiful, elegiac poems, such as: ‘In memoriam’ (In memoriam), to the memory of K. Galop; ‘Fun albert parsons lider’ (From Alberts Parsons’ poems); ‘Blumen un shtern’; ‘Tsu a fraynd’ (To a friend); and ‘Mayn troym’ (My dream)…. In such poems, for example, as ‘Der ovnt-glok,” he rises to an extraordinary poetic height. One can regard such a poem as one of the most beautiful poems in all of Yiddish lyricial poetry…. The poem stands much higher than Nadson’s ‘Net, muz, ne zovi!’ (No, muse, do not call!)…. The higher tone of mystery, the remarkable symbols, are transformed into an unforgettable poem. Every time that Edelshtadt’s lyrical elements are fused with a revolutionary motif, his poem unfolds into a high romantic pathos. This pathos did not exist in Yiddish poetry before him. This pathos also did not appear later with such power and such light…. The influence of Nadson and Nekrasov was not organic for him. Nekrasov was too realistic, lacking in pathos, the so-called ‘socialist pathos.’ He did not possess that lyricism that shook up his frame of mind. Nadson, furthermore, had in his poetry a kind of defeatism, a lyrical decadence…. Edelshtadt, however, aside from lyricism, possessed that ravenous willingness for the fight, that devotion that gushed forth from a tragic and exalted fighter.”
“To the hero of that era,” wrote Yitskhok Kharlash, “the male and female Jewish workers, who had only just awakened from sleep at the time—it all came directly to them, as they all awoke instinctively. The emotions filled out their lives completely. And, their feelings were refined, purified by harsh suffering and profound humanity. These people needed no ostentation and no artificiality; on the contrary, all the simpler, all the more profound, one finds in their open hearts and pure souls. The hollow abstractions of the intellect and the glib forms of art would have no purchase with them. Poetry for them was no more than a fitted instrument of expression—namely, glowing, flowing over the bridges, raging within and having to find form in words. It mattered not if one understood the meaning of the words correctly or not—they had already invested in the words what their own blood demanded. However, the words had to be authentic, complete, intact, without any internal imperfection. Such language could come only from one of them. From a poet who organically sensed the sufferings of his brethren and with the blood of his heart drew the pathway to the future. Such a poet was Dovid Edelshtadt.”
Sources: Kalmen Marmor, “Biblyografye, 1892-1948” (Bibliography, 1892-1948), in his Dovid edelshtadt (Dovid Edelshtadt) (New York: IKUF, 1950), pp. 297-396; Y. Yeshurin, “Dovid edelshtadt biblyografye, 1892-1953” (Dovid Edelshtadt bibliography, 1892-1953), in Dovid edelshtadt gedenk-bukh (Dovid Edelshtadt remembrance volume), edited by B. Y. Byalostotski (New York: Dovid Edelshtadt committee in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, 1952), pp. 590-607, additional material to Marmor, “Biblyografye”—including information that Marmor accidentally missed and notes on material about Edelshtadt written after the publication of Marmor’s book; Kh. Sh. Kazdan, in Tsukunft (New York) (April 1954); B. Y. Byalostotski, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (New York) (May 2, 1954); Byalostotski, Kholem un var (Dream and reality) (New York, 1956), pp. 459-69; Y. Mestel, in Yidishe kultur (New York) (July 1954); A. Liessin, Zikhroynes un bilder (Memoirs and images) (New York, 1954), pp. 153-58; Shmuel Niger, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (June 12, 1955); N. B. Minkov, in Kultur un dertsiung (New York) (November 1955); Minkov, Pyonern fun der yidisher poezye in amerike, dos sotsyale lid (Pioneers of Yiddish poetry in America, the social poem) (New York, 1956), pp. 89-128; L. Kobrin, Mayne fuftsik yor in amerike (My fifty years in America) (Buenos Aires, 1955), pp. 315-16, 343; Y. Rodak, Kunst un kinstler (Art and artists) (New York, 1955), p. 59; H. Royzenblat, in Idisher kemfer (New York) (March 23, 1956); Yankev Glatshteyn, In tokh genumen (In essence) (New York, 1956), pp. 35-41; B. Grin, in Morgn-frayhayt (New York) (September 28, 1962); Grin, Yidishe shrayber in amerike (Yiddish writers in America) (New York, 1963), pp. 52-65; A. Pomerants, Di sovetishe haruge malkhes (The [Jewish writers] murdered by the Soviet government) (Buenos Aires, 1962), pp. 302-30; A. Zak, In onheyb friling (In the beginning of spring) (Buenos Aires, 1962), p. 35; M. Gefen, in Al hamishmar (Tel Aviv) (March 22, 1963); H. Leivick, Eseyen un redes (Essays and speeches) (New York, 1963), pp. 195-207.
[Additional information from: Berl Kagan, comp., Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers) (New York, 1986), col. 413.]