Uri Greenberg (1898–1981) was the founder of Jewish literary Expressionism and the leader of a group of Yiddish and Hebrew expressionist poets. Greenberg's Expressionism, according to Contemporary Authors Online, was the view that "Jewish poetry in particular, and literature in general, must be infused with reality, with what people are experiencing at that moment." Because of his radical political views, his poetry fell into disfavor during his lifetime, but his genius was generally acknowledged by the end of the 20th century.
Greenberg was a leading Hebrew poet, politician, journalist, and political activist. His writing comprised a dozen or so volumes of Hebrew poetry as well as works in Yiddish that were collected in two volumes. He also wrote about ideology and Hebrew literature. He chose to leave a good deal of his writing unpublished. Greenberg's poetry was religious and full of mystical references. It included personal poetry, love poetry, and political verse and had a sense of history and national purpose, as well as expressing a need for self-preservation for the Jewish people.
Childhood in Various Cities
Greenberg was born in the late 1890s (the actual date is disputed between September 22, 1896 and October 17, 1898) in Bilikamin, Eastern Galicia, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Bialykiamien, Ukraine) into a line of distinguished Hasidic Rabbis. He was raised in Lemberg (now Lvov, Ukraine), where he received a traditional education and religious upbringing. By 1912 Greenberg had already published his first Yiddish and Hebrew poetry in periodicals in Lemberg, Warsaw, and Berlin, all cities where he had lived.
War Inspired His Writing
In 1915 Greenberg published his first book of poetry, Ergits oyf Felder (Somewhere in the Fields), which told of the horrors of war that he had experienced after being drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army. In 1917 he deserted after observing battle in Serbia. His war experiences had a lasting effect on his future works and life.
Greenberg also witnessed the Polish pogroms of 1918 in Lemberg, watching the destruction of an entire neighborhood. This also was to have a lasting effect on him and it spurred him to become a spokesman for Israel's Zionist Revisionist movement.
Greenberg began partnering with other poets between 1920 and 1923, when he founded the Yiddish literary journal Kalastrie (The Gang) with poets Moishe Broderson, Melech Ravich and Peretz Markish. In 1921 he moved to Warsaw, where he wrote Mefista (Mephisto), which also echoed his World War I experiences. Between 1922 and 1923, Greenberg edited the Albatross, another periodical. In 1923, he relocated again to Berlin, where he continued to write in both Yiddish and Hebrew.
Settled in Palestine
Only a year after his arrival in Berlin, Greenberg settled in Palestine as a part of the third aliya (immigration wave) of European Zionist Jews and adopted Hebrew as his almost exclusive poetic language. In that same year, he published his first volume of Hebrew poetry, Emah G-dolah ve-Yareach, which presented his ideas of the "Hebrew man" and his relationship to his homeland. From 1925 to 1929, he contributed regularly to Davar and Kunteres, the official mouthpieces of the Labor movement.
In 1929, Greenberg responded to the British mandate with anger, beginning his movement toward Zionist Revisionism and advocating immediate statehood. He later became one of the most extremist members of the Revisionist Party and represented the Revisionists in Poland and at several Zionist congresses. He also supported the underground in their fight against the British by joining Irgun, a right-wing militant group that fought the British.
In 1930 he published another volume of poetry, Ezor Magen u-Neum Ben ha-Dam, and in 1931 Greenberg returned to Warsaw. Immediately, he became an editor for the Revisionist party's weekly Di Velt, and remained in that post until 1934. The Revisionist stance became a major theme in his poetry.
Prophesied the Holocaust
In 1934 Greenberg escaped another world war by returning to Palestine, penning prose attacks on moderate socialists and dark poems that warned of the coming destruction in Europe. In 1937 he published Sefer ha-Kitrug veha-Emunah, which prophesied the Holocaust. Sefer ha-Kitrug veha-Emunah remains one of his most notable collections. Despite Greenberg's prophetic vision and his escaping Europe, the rest of his family perished in the Holocaust.
Joined Extremist Groups
Jerusalem was published in 1939. In the 1940s Greenberg continued to fight as a member of various guerrilla groups that sought to establish an independent Israeli nation in Palestine. From 1949 to 1951, after the formation of the Israeli state, he became a member of the Knesset (Parliament) as a representative of the right-wing Herut party and served for one term. In that year, he published Rechovot ha-Nachar, another one of his most notable collections. It won the Bialik Prize in the 1950s and the Israel Prize in 1957, which was also awarded for his general contribution to Hebrew literature.
Following the Six Day War between Israel and Egypt, Greenberg joined the Greater Land of Israel camp and became an extremist spokesman for Jewish settlement and political boundaries that included all of "Greater Israel" (on either side of the Jordan River). In 1976 a special session of the Knesset was called in honor of his eightieth birthday. In 1978 Greenberg won the Manger Prize, and on May 8, 1981, he died in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Throughout Greenberg's life, he was deeply involved with the Jewish Zionist movement, which he believed was the answer to "Jewish blindness." His belief in "Jewish blindness" is what led him to predict the Holocaust. He reprimanded the world for letting the Holocaust happen but also blamed the Jews, who in his view were denying their inherent differences from Gentiles. The Jewish Virtual Library sums up Greenberg's beliefs that "the Holocaust was a tragic but almost inevitable outcome of Jewish indifference to their destiny … The notion of Jewishness and the essential, inviolable difference between Jews and Gentiles is what underlies his thought."
Greenberg always remained at the fringes even of his own party. And he was not just on the fringe in politics but viewed himself as out of step with the Hebrew literature of the time, which he saw, according to the Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, as "a trivial marketplace, not truly representing the historical movement." He called himself the Hebrew Walt Whitman and used his poetry to promote Jewish nationalism, believing Zionism was the way for Jews to realize their promised redemption and that the role of Hebrew poetry was to express a Messianic vision.
Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2002.
Klein, Leonard S., ed., Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2, Frederick Ungaro Publishing Co., 1985.
Murphy, Bruce, ed., Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia, HarperCollins Publishers, 1996.
"Uri Zvi Greenberg," The Jewish Virtual Library,www.us-israel.org (January 10, 2004).