ARN-YITSKHOK GRODZENSKI (October 19, 1891-1941)
He was a poet, journalist, and translator, born in Vekshne (Viekšniai), Kovno region, Lithuania. He was descended from an elite rabbinical pedigree: his grandfather was rabbi in Ivye (Iwie, Iwye), and his father’s brother was the famed gaon R. Chaim-Ozer Grodzenski of Vilna. His father also was an ordained rabbi, but devoted himself to business. A misfortune befell the young Arn-Yitskhok at his birth: he choked from screaming and fainted, and the town doctor continuously shook him so that he would return to life, and he thereby so seriously injured the baby’s vocal chords that he was left with a deformity in his speech his entire life. When he was three years of age, his parents moved with him to Vilna, and he then began to study in religious primary school; later at age thirteen he entered a Russian secondary school at which he remained for four or five years. His inexhaustible energy and diligence in study began to be clear in his school forms. He read voluminously and early on began to write. In 1906 he published his first poem in the Vilna daily newspaper Di yudishe tsaytung (The Jewish newspaper), edited by Lipman Levin. In 1910 he left for Antwerp, Belgium, where he mastered the art of polishing diamonds. He was a cofounder of the local society “Kultur” (Culture), and he later contributed to Yiddish periodicals that cropped up in the smaller countries of Western Europe, such as: Dos vokhnblat (The weekly newspaper) in Copenhagen (1911), published by Yoysef Letitshenski; Der yudisher student (The Jewish student), a monthly, in Ghent, Belgium (1912); Der mayrev (The West), the first Yiddish newspaper in Antwerp (starting in January 1913); Der shtern (The star), a weekly, in Antwerp (from March 1913). In 1913 he returned to Vilna. He contributed to the local daily newspapers Der tog (The day) and Der shtern, as well as to Der fraynd (The friend) in Warsaw. He brought out a Passover news sheet, Friling-kveyten (Spring flowers) and published his first collection of poetry, entitled Eynzame klangen (Lonely sounds) (Vilna: B. A. Kletskin, 1914), 40 pp. During WWI, when the Russians evacuated Vilna, he left with a tide of homeless people toward Russia, and together with his parents settled in Ekaterinoslav, Ukraine, where in 1916 he met with a new and far worse misfortune: he fell under a tramway and lost both feet. For the remainder of his life he would have to use crutches to move about. This tragic occurrence overcame him, and it would require even more energy and perseverance to return to writing. He did continue his creative work, contributing to a variety of Yiddish publications after the February-March Revolution in 1917, such as: Folkstsaytung (People’s newspaper) and Naye tsayt (Our time) in Kiev; Undzer lebn (Our life) and Dos naye lebn (The new life) in Odessa; and the anthology Tsukunft (Future) in Kharkov; among others. For the Moscow anthology Fremds (Abroad), he contributed a series of translations in verse of Goethe, Heine, Hamsun, Pushkin, Lermontov, Balmont, and Tyutchev, among others. His two longer Pushkin translations appeared at the time in book form: the poem Poltave (Poltava) (Kharkov: Yidish, 1919), 71 pp., second improved edition (Vilna, 1923), with a short biography of Pushkin; and the novel Yevgeni onyegin (Evgenii Onegin) (Ekaterinoslav: Visnshaft, 1919), a second improved edition (Vilna, 1923), 235 pp., with a preface by Grodzenski on the character of the work. In accordance with this translation, for the first time this work was staged in Yiddish in Vilna as an opera.
In 1921 he returned to Vilna and published stories and articles in the local Yiddish newspapers Vilner tog (Vilna day) and Di tsayt (The times), and from to time in Haynt (Today) and Literarishe bleter (Literary leaves) in Warsaw. That same year Perets Markish compiled a collection of Grodzenski’s poetry into an anthology entitled Trep (Stairs) (Ekaterinoslav: Kultur-lige), 68 pp. In 1923 he published his novel Lebn (Life) (Vilna: Farlag fun literatn- un zhurnalistn-farayn), 122 pp., with a critical preface by Moyshe Shalit—this would be his most popular and significant work. It was a subtle, philosophical, meditative, eerily calm, psychological study, in which the writer in an artistic manner sublimated his own sufferings and transformed them into a source of creative strength. In 1924 he began to publish the afternoon newspaper Der ovnt-kuryer (The evening courier), and he edited it until WWII broke out. A lively and none too serious publication, it quickly reached a printing of 4,500-5,000 copies, an extremely high number for Vilna where the ordinary printing in a Yiddish daily until then would never exceed 1,000-1,200.
In those years, he published the following translations in book form: Jack London’s novel Martin iden (Martin Eden) (Warsaw, 1924), 285 pp.; Maxim Gorky’s novel Foma gordeyev (Foma Gordeev), with a reprinted, critical appreciation by Pyotr Kogan (Vilna: B. Kletskin, 1931), 479 pp.; Władysław Kochanowski’s Geshikhte fun a gasn-froy (Story of a street gal) (Vilna, 1933). In 1933, his Muterlekhe gefiln, lebnsshpil in fir bilder (Motherly feelings, a play from life in four scenes) (Vilna: Nayer farlag), 48 pp., appeared in print. In 1934 a collection of his stories appeared, entitled In a yidishn dorf (In a Jewish village) (Vilna: Farlag fun literatn- un zhurnalistn-farayn), 80 pp., depictions of life in a Jewish rural colony in southern Russia in the first years of the revolution. In 1939 he edited and published Vilner almanakh (Vilna almanac), 366 and 48 pp.
This would be his last literary work. In January-February 1939, he served two weeks in the famous Lukishker Prison in Vilna for an article concerning the anti-Jewish student unrest in Poland in November 1936. When the Germans entered Vilna, he and his wife and children were placed in the Vilna ghetto. According to the description of Shmerke Katsherginski in Khurbn vilne (The Holocaust in Vilna), Grodzenski’s end came quickly: “In the bloody chaos, 1941, he attempted to hide until the murderers actually seized him. He resisted and cried out: ‘You won’t take me alive!’ They beat him, dragged him out of his home, and threw him in a vehicle which drove to the Ponary the old and sick who could not make it by foot. Shortly afterward his wife, a dentist, was killed with two children.”
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1; Shmuel Niger, in Tsukunft (New York) (February 1924; January 1927); Sh. Katsherginski, Khurbn vilne (New York, 1947), p. 186; Katsherginski, Tsvishn hamer un serp (Between hammer and sickle) (Paris, 1949), p. 23; Katsherginski, in Forverts (New York) (August 14, 1949); H. Abramovitsh, in Unzer shtime (Paris) (July 13-16, 1951); D. Charney (Tsharni), Vilne (Vilna) (Buenos Aires, 1951), pp. 244-45; Charney, Litvak in poyln (A Lithuanian in Poland) (New York, 1955), pp. 14, 19, 20.
[Additional information from: 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), p. 87.]