MOYSHE KULBAK (March 20, 1896-October 29, 1937)
An author of poetry, stories, novels, and plays, he was born in Smorgon (Smarhon’), Byelorussia. His father Shloyme was a timber middleman and his mother Sime the descendant of a family of farmers in the Jewish colony “Karka” (Soil) near Smorgon. He studied in a “cheder metukan” (improved religious elementary school) and at the same time in a Russian Jewish public school, later in the yeshivas of Sventsyan (Švenčionys), Volozhin, and Mir. During WWI he moved to Kovno and worked as a teacher of Hebrew in the local Jewish school for orphans. In Kovno he began writing poetry in Hebrew and—liberating himself from the influence of Aḥad-Haam—in Yiddish. It was there that he composed his poems: “Vinter” (Winter), “Zilber shney un tekheyles” (Silver snow and blue), “Hordos” (Herod), “Di tseshterung fun bovl” (The destruction of Babylonia), and “Shtarb” (Die)—published in Di goldene keyt (The golden chain) (Tel Aviv) 27 (1957). In the autumn of 1916, he debuted in print in Literarishe zamlheftn (Literary anthologies) (Vilna) 1, with the poem “Shterndl” (Asterisk), which soon became a popular song. In 1918 he settled in Minsk with his parents, and there he was a lecturer in Jewish teachers’ training courses. He was publishing at this time articles and poetry in the Bundist newspaper Der veker (The alarm) (Vilna) and Kultur un bildung (Culture and education) (Moscow). In early 1919 he moved to Vilna and worked as a teacher in Jewish schools. In the monthly Di naye velt (The new world) (Vilna) 1 and 2 (1919), he published fragments of the poem “Di shtot” (The city)—published in full in Vayter-bukh (Volume for A. Vayter) (Vilna, 1920). Kulbak’s first collection of poetry, entitled Shirim (Poems), appeared in 1920 (Vilna, 86 pp.). That fall he moved to Berlin, where at the time a center of Yiddish literature was springing into existence, and he became acquainted with Bal-Makhshoves, Dovid Bergelson, and H. D. Nomberg. He had intended to study in university there, but he was unable to do so because of insufficient knowledge of German. He worked as a prompter for the Vilna troupe, which was performing there then. In Kulbak’s poems and a novel from this time, one can feel the expressionism that was dominating literature in Berlin. In the collection Der onheyb (The beginning) (Berlin, 1922), he published a series of poems: “Di heyl” (The cave), “A levone-nakht” (The moonlit night), and “Asara dibraya” (Ten is the Commandments). He also wrote the drama Yankev frank (Jacob Frank) at this time, which was published in Tsukunft (Future) in New York (April 1923). In a notice from editor Avrom Lyesin, among other things, he wrote: “Jacob Frank, Frankism, one of the wildest monsters in Jewish history, was perhaps a bit justly idealized by the poet, while the tragedy of the rabbis, those saintly men who devotedly fought against Frank, emerge vaguely. Is this a tribute to the time when this painful malice for Judaism in certain circles was all in fashion? So, such a genuine poet as Kulbak had to assign it to the poet oriented toward the Jewish Section in Moscow…. [But] the drama is an artistic work, in many places intuitively breaking the fast.” In Berlin, Kulbak also wrote his first novel, Meshiekh ben froym (The Messiah son of Ephraim) (1924), 132 pp.—it was written in the spirit of modernism, in which realistic events are depicted in an expressionist-fantasy and grotesque manner. The novel is permeated with Kabbala and Jewish mystical elements, and the heroes are both real people and heroes of Jewish folklore. In Berlin he also published Lider (Poetry) in 1922 (56 pp.), mostly drawn from the Vilna collection Shirim. That same year there appeared in Warsaw his Naye lider (New poems), 63 pp., including the great poems: “Raysn” (Byelorussia), “Lamed-vov” (Thrity-six), and “A lid tsu rusland” (A poem to Russia) in which he painted images of surrealistic horror. In Berlin he also turned to self-education, but his economic situation was in bad shape. He lamented this in letters to Shmuel Niger (dated December 17, 1920; October 13, 1922). In 1923 he returned to Vilna, where he became a teacher in the upper classes of a Jewish high school and in the Jewish teachers’ seminary. He often spoke and read from his own work before Vilna youth who showed enthusiasm for him. With his pupils he directed and staged Perets’s Di goldene keyt, Homer’s Iliad, Aaron Wolfssohn’s Laykhtzin un fremelay (Frivolity and piety), the third act of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and the Purim plays Dovid un golyes (David and Goliath) and Mekhires-yoysef (The selling of Joseph). In 1927 he was appointed chairman of the Yiddish PEN Club in Vilna. During his five years in Vilna (1923-1928), he composed: the work Vilne (Vilna) (Tsukunft, 1926); the poem Bunye un bere afn shlyakh (Bunye and Bere on the road) (Tsukunft, 1927) which, as Shmuel Niger noted, resounds echoing Aleksandr Blok’s Dvenadtsat (The twelve); and the novel Montog (Monday) (1926). In September 1928 he published the story “Munye der foygl-hendler” (Munye, the bird dealer) in Yidishe velt (Jewish world) (Warsaw). He also published articles in Vilner tog (Vilna day). In October 1928 he left Vilna and settled back in Minsk. At a musical evening in the Warsaw Jewish literary association, he declared that he was going to Russia, because he no longer enjoyed the literary atmosphere in Poland. Avrom Golomb wrote that the reason was Kulbak’s desire to join his family in Russia. In Minsk Kulbak wrote poetry, the lengthy poem Disner tsayld harald (Childe Harold from Disna), the novel Zelmenyaner (The Zelmenyans), and the plays Boytre (Boytre) and Benyomen magidov (Benyomen Magidov). Boytre was performed over 1936-1937, published in Shtern (Star) (Minsk) 7, 9, and 11 (1936), from a manuscript in Di goldene keyt (Tel Aviv) in 1957, and in Sovetish heymland (Soviet homeland) 3 (1966). It was staged in every state Yiddish theater throughout the Soviet Union. Benyomen magidov was not staged, because Kulbal was arrested at that time. The manuscript has not as yet been uncovered. The director and actor Moyshe Goldblat, who was preparing to direct the play, recounts that in the drama there is a young Jew at the head of a partisan group who were fighting the Polish Legions in Byelorussia. Kulbak translated poetry by Byelorussian poets and wrote an essay about the Byelorussian poet Yakub Kolas. For the Yiddish theater in Minsk, he translated Nikolai Gogol’s Revizor (The inspector [The Inspector General] [original: Revizor]), “literarily adapted” the Yiddish translation of Nikolai Ostrovsky’s Vi shtol hot zikh farhartevet (How the steel is tempered [original: Kak zakalyalas' stal']) (Minsk, 1937), and together with Z. Vitenzon he translated and compiled Revolutsyanere noveln (Revolutionary novels) (Minsk, 1931), 170 pp. Kulbak was arrested in September 1937 and executed the next month. Moyshe Belenki [erroneously] wrote that “on July 17, 1940 Kulbak was no more.” All manner of rumor and legend spread concerning his death, with false information continually being given to his family by the juridical authorities. He was rehabilitated in 1956, but the whole story was only openly laid out in 1990; where his body was buried remains unknown. His works include: Shirim (Vilna, 1920), 86 pp.; Der vint vos is gevorn in kaas (The wind that became angry) (Vilna, 1921), 15 pp.; Lider (Berlin, 1922), 56 pp.; Naye lider (Warsaw, 1922), 63 pp.; Meshiekh ben froym (Berlin, 1924), 132 pp.; Gezamlte verk (Collected works), 3 vols. (Vilna: Kletskin, 1926-1927); Montog (Warsaw, 1929), 116 pp.; Ale verk fun moyshe kulbak (Collected works of Moyshe Kulbak)—4 volumes: 1. Meshiekh ben froym and Montog, 251 pp.; 2. Poemen un lider (Poetry), 231 pp.; 3. Yankev frank, 89 pp.; 4. Zelmenyaner, 169 pp.—(Vilna: B. Kletskin, 1929); Lider un poemen, 1917-1928 (Poetry, 1917-1928) (Minsk, 1929), 99 pp.; Zelmenyaner (Minsk, 1931-1935), 2 vols., later edition, vol. 1 (Minsk, 1937), 200 pp., vol. 2 (Moscow, 1971), 278 pp., with an essay by Moyshe Belenki; Disner tsayld harald (Minsk, 1933), 98 pp.; Geklibene lider (Selected poetry) (Minsk, 1934), 103 pp.; Meshiekh ben froym, Montog (Buenos Aires, 1950), 248 pp.; Geklibene verk (Selected work) (New York, 1953), 311 pp.; Oysgeklibene shriftn (Selected works) (Buenos Aires, 1976), 316 pp., including republished articles about him; Gut iz der mentsh (Man is good), selected poems (Moscow: Sovetski pisatel, 1979), 221 pp.
As Shmuel Niger wrote: “Moyshe Kulbak is one of the most authentic and original, perhaps the most authentic and original, Yiddish poet of the postwar years…. Future music often plays on ancient instruments; revolutionary myth kneaded into mythological tradition—this was one of Moyshe Kulbak’s main properties, and its first consequence was the uniting of the romantic with the realistic…and its second result was the explosion of innovative use of humor in romantic realism.” Moyshe Kulbak was frequently criticized in Soviet Russia. Kh. Dunets wrote that Kulbak came “here” loaded with “a heritage that was not ours,” that he created his intellectual culture “from Kabbalistic Jewish philosophy, Jewish mysticism, and scholasticism. Even in those of his works in which there is no messianism (Raysn), he was not free of bourgeois romanticism, and in Bunye un bere he articulates an anarchist-pessimistic attitude toward the revolution…. His Zelmenyaner sets out a crisis and a competition to free himself from the bourgeois mystical heritage—but he succeeds not at all.” Yashe Bronshteyn writes that, although from Montog until Zelmenyaner “is quite a distance, Kulbak nonetheless offers a “splendid beginning of a new style.” Kulbak was laden with the old Jewish cultural heritage. Mysticism and folklore were important elements in his writings. He was influenced by Russian symbolism and Western European expressionism. Permeated by all these elements, Kulbak created authentic works with his own original talent. In his Soviet period (1928-1937), he had to conform to local conditions, but he also created works of artistry.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 3; “A bintl briv fun bal-makhshoves” (A batch of letters from Bal-Makhshoves), Tsukunft (New York) 8 (1928); Kh. Dunets, in Farmest (Kiev-Kharkov) 1 (1933), pp. 148-61; Yashe Bronshteyn, Farfestikte pozitsyes (Published positions) (Moscow, 1934), pp. 158-85; Y. Y. Trunk and A. Tsaytlin, Antologye fun der yidisher proze in poyln tsvishn beyde velt milkhomes (1914-1939) (Anthology of Yiddish prose in Poland between the two world wars, 1914-1939) (New York, 1946), pp. 589-609; A. Golomb, in Zamlbikher (New York) 8 (1952); Y. Rapoport, Oysgerisene bleter (Torn up pages) (Melbourne, 1957), pp. 138-56; Avrom Sutzkever and F. Meltser, in Di goldene keyt (Tel Aviv) 27 (1957); A. Leyeles, Velt un vort, literarishe un andere eseyen (World and word, literary and other essays) (New York, 1958), pp. 86-100; Shmuel Niger, Yidishe shrayber in sovet-rusland (Yiddish writers in Soviet Russia) (New York, 1958), pp. 69-125; A. Pomerants, Di sovetishe haruge malkhes (The [Jewish writers] murdered by the Soviet government) (Buenos Aires, 1961), pp. 209-14, 491; A. Vogler and Y. Gilgitsh, in Di goldene keyt 43 (1962); Y. Sheyn, Arum moskver yidishn teater (Around the Moscow Yiddish theater) (Paris, 1964), pp. 141-55; A shpigl af a shteyn, antologye, poezye un proze fun tsvelf farshnitene yidishe shraybers in ratn-farband (A mirror on a star, anthology, poetry and prose from twelve murdered Jewish writers in the Soviet Union) (Tel Aviv, 1964), pp. 335-41; A. Planter, in Sovetish heymland (Moscow) 3 (1966); H. Remenik, in Sovetish heymland 6 (1968); A. Vergelis, in Sovetish heymland 3 (1971); Elye (Elias) Shulman, Di sovetish-yidishe literatur (Soviet Yiddish literature) (New York, 1971), see index; Meylekh Ravitsh, Dos mayse-bukh fun mayn lebn (The storybook of my life) (Tel Aviv, 1975), pp. 189-201; Kh. Bez, Af di vegn fun der yidisher literatur (On the pathways of Yiddish literature) (Tel Aviv, 1980), pp. 367-416.
Elye (Elias) Shulman
[Additional information from: Berl Kagan, comp., Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers) (New York, 1986), col. 481; 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. 330-32.]
 Translator’s note. Our text reproduces this date as that of his execution. More recent research has shown that he was murdered much earlier and shortly following his initial arrest. (JAF)
 Translator’s note: This novel has been translated into Hebrew, English, Russian, French, German, and Spanish. (JAF)