YISROEL SHTERN (Shavuot [= June] 1894-1942)
He was born in Ostrolenke (Ostrołęka), Poland, the son of a poor schoolteacher. He attended religious elementary school and the yeshivas of Lomzhe and Slobodka, later entering the Musar collective in Warsaw. He was an enthusiastic follower of the Musar movement. In 1914 he was in Vienna where as a Russian citizen he was interned in a prison camp. He returned to Warsaw in 1917 and in 1942 died in the Warsaw Ghetto.
He debuted in print in 1919 with poems in the weekly newspaper Dos folk (The people). He later contributed to various Yiddish publications in Warsaw: Di ilustrirte velt (The illustrated world), the collection Fun poyln (From Poland) (1920), Der khoydesh (The month) (1921), Ringen (Links) (1921), Ilustrirte vokh (Illustrated week), Unzer hofinung (Our hope) (1926), Dos naye vort (The new word) (1935-November 1937), and Foroys (Arise); in Lomzhe, the collection S’feld (The field); and in New York, Tsukunft (Future); among others. He made a strong impression with his poem “Friling in shpitol” (Spring in the hospital), in Varshever almanakh (Warsaw almanac) (1924). He also penned numerous essays and literary critical articles in: Haynt (Today), Moment (Moment), Folkstsaytung (People’s newspaper), Bafrayung (Liberation) using the pen name Flora Yudenkarsh, Epokhe (Epoch), and Bikher-velt (Book world)—among other topics, on Byron in Literarishe bleter (Literary leaves) 3 (1924), Sholem-Aleichem, Arn Leyeles, Moyshe Nadir, Benyomen Resler, Hersh-Dovid Nomberg in Literarishe bleter (1927), and others. One well-known essay by him was: “Kroynen tsum kop fun der yidisher kritik” (Crowns on the head of the Yiddish critic), in Varshever shriftn (Warsaw writings) (1926/1927). His work appeared as well in: Binem Heler, Dos lid iz geblibn, lider fun yidishe dikhter in poyln, umgekumene beys der hitlerisher okupatsye, antologye (The poem remains, poems by Jewish poets in Poland, murdered during the Hitler occupation, anthology) (Warsaw, 1951); Yitskhok Paner and Leyzer Frenkel, Naye yidishe dikhtung (Modern Yiddish poetry) (Iași: Jewish cultural circle in Romania, 1947); Moyshe Prager, Di antologye fun religyeze lider un dertseylungen (The anthology of religious poetry and stories) (New York, 1955), ten poems; Moshe Basok, Mivḥar shirat yidish (Selection of Yiddish poetry) (Tel Aviv, 1963); Charles Dobzynski, Anthologie de la poésie Yiddish, le miroir d’un people (Anthology of Yiddish poetry, the mirror of a people) (Paris: Gallimard, 1971); Hubert Witt, Der Fiedler vom Getto: Jiddische Dichtung aus Polen (The fiddler of the ghetto, Yiddish poetry from Poland) (Leipzig, 1966); Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry (New York, 1969).
H. Leivick wrote a poem entitled “Mayn bruder yisroel shtern” (My brother, Yisroel Shtern), in Tsukunft (8 (1943). Eyewitnesses recount that Shtern wrote a great deal in the Warsaw Ghetto, though he published nothing at the time. Two previously unknown poems of his were published in Di goldene keyt (The golden chain) (Tel Aviv) 33 (1959). With the assistance of Mark Rakovski, because his English was not very good, he translated Shakespeare’s Shaylok (Shylock [= The Merchant of Venice]) which was staged in 1929 by Mikhl Vaykhert.
Shtern was one of the most delicate of Yiddish poets, but also one of the most innovative in daily life. “He grieved without a why,” noted Meylekh Ravitsh, “and lived on a thin crust of bread, and prayed half the day, and the other half day he studied in synagogue study halls. He was lost in literature…and was even more in the Hassidic environment—in our world he was too much the Musarnik, and among the Musarniks he was too literary…. He never engaged in regular work, and although he had no family, he still had to eat something. He was truly hungry, and he was angry about being hungry, and he was angry for being angry.”
In total one book from Shtern is what is left, thirteen years after his death: Lider un eseyen (Poems and essays), comp. H. Leivick (New York: L. M. Shteyn, 1955), 288 pp. “With one book,” wrote Yankev Botoshanski, he “entered eternity…. Yisroel Shtern was the ascetic among the Yiddish poets. He was the recluse, and he sought out solitude. He wanted and asked for little special, and in his seclusion he wanted to be both a mystery among mysteries and to ascertain the mystery of mysteries…. A believer in life and God, a doubter of men.”
“He was full of contradictions,” noted Yitskhok Paner, “…but his greatness does not lie in this contradictory quality. He was a phenomenon of poetic profundity, reaching to the roots. What he discloss remained a disclosure, for it comes from the source of revelation. His twenty-five poems [in his book] remain the spiritual property of chosen poetry.”
“In the realm of Yiddish lyricism,” stated Arn Tsaytlin, “Yisroel Shtern is among the great commentators…. His word is an abbreviated inkling.”
In the words of Shoyme Bikl, “Shtern’s poetry breathes with a painful vision of danger…. There stirs within them an unappeased protest against the divine and the human order…. In Shtern’s poetry blaze…the desire for union with God and the pain of social injustice.”
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 4; Zalmen Zilbertsvayg, Leksikon fun yidishn teater (Handbook of the Yiddish theater), vol. 5 (Mexico City, 1966); Meylekh Ravitsh, Mayn leksikon (My lexicon), vol. 1 (Montreal, 1945); Arn Tsaytlin, in Tog (New York) (July 5, 1941); Moyshe Grosman, in Tsukunft (New York) 6 (1946); Ber Mark, Umgekumene shrayber fun di getos un lagern (Murdered writers from the ghettos and camps) (Warsaw, 1954), see chapter entitled “Goyrl fun di shraybers” (Fate of the writers); Moyshe Prager, Di antologye fun religyeze lider un dertseylungen (The anthology of religious poetry and stories) (New York, 1955), pp. 85-104; Yankev Botoshanski, in Di prese (Buenos Aires) (November 30, 1956); Shloyme Bikl, Shrayber fun mayn dor (Writers of my generation), vol. 1 (New York: Matones, 1958), pp. 52-56; Shmuel Niger, Bleter geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur (Pages of history from Yiddish literature) (New York: World Jewish Culture Congress, 1959), p. 368; Yisroel-Khayim Biletski, Masot bishvile sifrut yidish (Essays on Yiddish literature), vol. 1 (Tel Aviv: Gazit, 1960), pp. 308-10; Shiye Rapoport, Fayerlekh in nepl (Solemn in the fog) (Melbourne: Bukh-komitet, 1961), pp. 395-407; Yekhiel Hofer, Mit yenem un mit zikh, literarishe eseyen (With another and with oneself, literary essays), vol. 2 (Tel Aviv: Peretz Publ., 1964), pp. pp. 111-20; Yisroel Emyot, in Forverts (New York) (April 9, 1967); Gershon Pomerants, Geshtaltn fun mayn dor (Figures from my generation) (Tel Aviv: Perets Publ., 1971); Yitskhok Kahan, Afn tsesheydveg, literatur-kritik, eseyen, impresyes (At the crossroads, literary criticism, essays, impressions) (Tel Aviv: Hamenorah, 1971), pp. 231-45; Yitskhik Goldkorn, Heymishe un fremde literarishe etyudn (Familiar and foreign literary studies) (Buenos Aires: Svive, 1973); Yonas Turkov, in Di goldene keyt (Tel Aviv) 79-80 (1973).