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Yiddish in Interwar Berlin  

Marc Caplan

Berlin in the interwar era of the Weimar Republic (1918–1933) was not a center for Yiddish culture so much as a periphery dependent upon more dominant locations of Jewish life such as the United States, Poland, and the Soviet Union. In this respect, the status of Yiddish reflects a greater sense of marginality and dislocation then characterizing German culture, which, at the time, felt unmoored from its imperial coordinates of the 19th century and under the sway of more innovative international cities such as Leningrad, Paris, New York, and especially Hollywood. The draw of Berlin for Yiddish-language writers or community activists was therefore not the allure of Weimar culture or the hopes of attracting large audiences among German Jews. Instead, the economic disorder of the Weimar Republic, paradoxically, offered financial windfalls and business opportunities for migrants with foreign currency—particularly for writers with contacts to the American Yiddish press. Moreover, Germany, unlike Poland, maintained diplomatic and economic relations with the Soviet Union, which allowed writers and activists sympathetic to the Bolshevik Revolution a safe haven while the home front remained riven by military conflicts, scarcity of basic necessities, and an uncertain political future. The heyday of Yiddish activism in Berlin was relatively short-lived, only dating from about 1921 until about 1926. After that date, the Soviet Union had achieved political stability and began to invest, at least for the next decade, in a wide series of Yiddish-language cultural institutions including publishing houses, newspapers, centers of higher education, and popular entertainment. Although it would be an exaggeration to claim that Yiddish culture made a deep or lasting impact on the German culture of the Weimar Republic, for Yiddish readers, the literature produced in Germany ranks among the most important and innovative achievements in Yiddish culture of the 1920s. The most significant writers to have resided in Berlin during this era include Dovid Bergelson, Der Nister (Pinkhes Kahanovitsh), and Moyshe Kulbak.


Postwar Soviet Yiddish Literature  

Gennady Estraikh

By 1945, Soviet Yiddish literary circles grouped around the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAFC) and the Yiddish sections at the Writers Union. In the 1940s, the poets, prose writers, and literary critics had several publishing outlets, most notably the Moscow newspaper Eynikayt (Unity, 1942–1948), two literary periodicals—Heymland (Homeland, 1947–1948) in Moscow and Shtern (Star, 1947–1948) in Kyiv—and the Moscow publishing house Der Emes (Truth, 1928–1948). Four Yiddish state theatres and other professional and amateur troupes performed works by Soviet and other authors. These all came to an end in 1948–1950, when the Soviet authorities liquidated the entire infrastructure of Yiddish cultural, including literary, life. Scores of Yiddish literati were incarcerated on spurious sedition charges as part of repressions in the last years of Joseph Stalin’s rule. On August 12, 1952, five leading writers—David Bergelson, Itsik Fefer, David Hofshteyn, Leyb Kvitko, and Peretz Markish—were among the executed figures of the JAFC. Following Stalin’s death in 1953, the surviving writers could return to “normality,” but Yiddish publishing was renewed as late as 1959. The Moscow journal Sovetish Heymland (Soviet Homeland), launched in 1961, became the center for Yiddish literary activity during the last three decades of the Soviet era. In the heyday of the Cold War, the journal, a forum for a broad variety of publications, was nevertheless better known as an instrument of Soviet propaganda than as a Yiddish literary periodical. Its editor, Aron Vergelis, whose anti-Zionist writings had eclipsed his poetry, acted as a globe-trotting champion of Soviet policies. Meanwhile, the journal, staffed by writers and editors of the older generation, trained a group of authors born after the Nazi Holocaust.


Cuban Revolutionary Literature  

Lanie Millar

Fidel Castro’s arrival in Havana on January 1, 1959, marked the triumph of Cuban revolutionaries over dictator Fulgencio Batista, initiating a new era in Cuban culture. While critics generally agree that Cuban revolutionary literature began after this watershed event, their opinions on when the revolutionary period ends range from the mid-1970s to the end of the 1980s. Among the revolutionary government’s earliest priorities were to bolster Cuban cultural production and the infrastructure to print and circulate it, as well as to develop a literate public who would read new Cuban works. The state invested in new institutions and established new publishing venues that disseminated both Cuban and international literature. Meanwhile, independent publishing outlets briefly played an important role in the early revolutionary years. Accompanying these new opportunities, however, were debates and polemics over what kind of literature was suited to the revolutionary moment and who got to decide on its parameters. While Cuban literature boomed and publishing opportunities increased, by the 1970s, top-down authorities exerted increasing control over the cultural realm. Especially during the 1970s and 1980s, other kinds of diverse Cuban literature flourished, as Afro-Cuban and women writers gained prominence and pushed literature in new directions. Questions of race, gender, and sexuality came to the fore in works depicting both past and contemporary times. Much of the earliest literature of the revolution sought to respond to the social and political changes underway, either by describing the recent past or by writing with new styles considered to be suited to the new revolutionary landscape. Trends such as literatura de violencia (literature of violence) portrayed repression in the prerevolutionary years and the fight against Batista’s dictatorship, while the new genre of the novela testimonio (testimonial novel) sought to highlight marginalized voices and experiences, particularly those of enslavement or oppression. These developments accompanied Cuba’s new view of itself as a leader to the decolonizing world. After 1959, narrative and poetic experimentation abounded. However, by the 1970s, cultural authorities eventually converged on literary movements like socialist realism and conversational poetry as the preferred literary styles for the revolutionary society. Certain themes such as homosexuality, social criticism, and portrayals of racism in Cuba’s postrevolutionary society, as well as literary styles that deviated from the realist social engagement in vogue with Cuba’s institutions, resulted in tensions between state cultural authorities and writers. Sometimes, writers would face censorship and persecution. As the worst strictures of centralized cultural control lessened in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, Afro-Cuban and women writers pioneered trends in social commentary, humor, and irony. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 initiated profound political and economic crises in Cuba, remaking society and changing the direction of Cuban literature again. The revolutionary period had come to a close.