ELI (ELIE) KAHAN (February 10, 1909-June 21, 1944)
A prose author and the younger brother of Zalmen Kahan, he was born in Minsk into the family of a blacksmith. He attended middle school and later entered the Yiddish Department of Minsk University, but he did not graduate and went on to study to be a cobbler. His talent for writing was discovered in his youth. His first story was dubbed “A harts af vesles” (A heart for rowing), and he sent it to Moscow to the journal Emes (Truth), the literary supplement to the central newspaper Der emes (The truth). The story (published in 1928) was dedicated to the life of a cobblers’ workshop which was a familiar environment for him. Shoemaking did not become Kahan’s profession. He left Minsk, traveled to Kiev, and studied as a research student at the Institute for Jewish Culture (1936-1938), but soon thereafter returned to Minsk and became a journalist. After the appearance of his book of humorous stories, Dertseylungen un minyaturn (Stories and miniatures) (Minsk: Byelorussian State Publishers, 1932), 113 pp., he turned his full attention to literary work. As a result of a creative assignment on the new construction in the Ural city of Magnitogorsk, his book A shtot on kloysters, dertseylungen (A city without churches, stories) (Kiev-Kharkov: Ukrainian State Publishers for National Minorities, 1936), 132 pp., appeared. His work also appeared in: Af naye vegn (Along new roads); Dertseylungen fun yidishe sovetishe shrayber (Stories by Soviet Yiddish writers) (Moscow: Sovetski pisatel, 1969); Far der bine: dertseylungen, pyeses, lider (For the stage: stories, plays, poems), with musical notation (together with Yekhezkl Dobrushin and Elye Gordon) (Moscow: Central People’s Publishers, USSR, 1929); Sovetishe vaysrusland (Soviet Byelorussia) in Minsk; Lider vegn stalinen (Poems about Stalin) (Kiev: Ukrainian State Publishers for National Minorities, 1937); Komyug (Communist youth); Di bafrayte brider (The liberated brothers) (Minsk: Byelorussian State Publishers, 1939). Subsequent years were extremely turbulent for him. In the Soviet Union there began an orgy of purges and repression, and a hunt for “enemies of the people.” Humor became a highly dangerous genre, and no one knew where the border between a smile and satire lay. Kahan apparently crossed the borders of the pardonable, and for this he could not be forgiven. The last years before the start of WWII found Kahan working as an editor for the Minsk journal Shtern (Star). Many of the earlier contributors to the journal had been purged, and eventually the line led to Kahan. He sat in the Minsk prison with two other Jewish writers—the poet Zelik Akselrod and the critic Hirsh Beryozkin. On June 26, 1941, when the heads of the prison hurriedly were evacuating the prisoners, they separated the politicals from the criminals to shoot the former group in the prison courtyard, Beryozkin yanked Kahan to join the column of criminals, and thus the two of them survived. They were drafted into the army, and by the end of 1941 Kahan was already at the front. He served on the editorial board of a front newspaper. He was killed on June 21, 1944, while assembling journalistic materials at the forward line. His comrades at the front buried him in a Red Army cemetery in the village of Zalye, Polesia district. Other books of his include: A lebedik gezindl (A vibrant bunch of people) (Kharkov-Odessa: Children’s Publishers, 1937), 26 pp.; Betinke (Odessa, 1937); and Farsheydene dertseylungen (Variety of stories) (Minsk: Council of People’s Commissars, State Publishers, USSR, 1940), 152 pp. He also translated Aleksandr Herzen, Ver iz shuldik? (Who is guilty?) (Minsk: Council of People’s Commissars, State Publishers, USSR, 1940), 122 pp. “He loved to place his hero on the edge of a knife,” wrote Ber Orshanski, “and play psychologically with him. He led his heroes through a variety of often highly poignant conflicts…. He had a rare talent for depiction…. You encounter images within which you sense the hard reality of Sholem-Aleichem.”
Sources: Chone Shmeruk, comp., Pirsumim yehudiim babrit-hamoatsot, 1917-1961 (Jewish publications in the Soviet Union, 1917-1961) (Jerusalem, 1962), see index; B. Orshanski, Di yidishe literatur in vaysrusland nokh der revolutsye, pruvn fun an oysforshung (Yiddish literature in Byelorussia after the revolution, attempt at an inquiry) (Minsk, 1931), pp. 221024; M. Grosman, In farkisheftn land fun legendarn dzhugashvili, mayne zibn yor lebn in ratnfarband, 1939-1946 (In the enchanted land of the legendary Dzhugashvili (Stalin)], my seven years living in the Soviet Union, 1939-1946), vol. 1 (Paris, 1949), p. 10; H. Vaynraykh, Blut af der zun (Blood on the sun) (New York, 1950).
[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), pp. 308-9.]