Leivik, H.

views updated


LEIVIK, H. (pseudonym of Leyvik Halper (n ); 1888–1962), Yiddish poet and playwright. Born in Igumen (now Ihumen, Belarus), in 1905 he joined the *Bund and participated in revolutionary activities. The following year he was arrested and while awaiting trial wrote Di Keytn fun Meshiekh ("The Chains of the Messiah," 1939) with motifs adumbrating later works. In court in 1908 Leivik openly avowed his desire to overthrow the government. Sentenced to four years' hard labor and Siberian exile for life, in 1912 he marched for four months in a column of chained convicts to the vicinity of Irkutsk. There he expressed his longing for freedom in the play Dort, Vu di Frayhayt ("Where Freedom Dwells," 1952). In spring 1913 he made a dramatic escape across the icy Siberian wastes and traveled via Hamburg to New York, which experience was reflected in the collections of verse entitled Oyf di Vegn Sibirer ("On Siberian Tracks," 1915) and In Shney ("In the Snow," 1915). In New York he worked for several years as a paper-hanger. His literary debut came in 1914 with the poem, "Es Hulyen Vintn, Veyen, Shaln" ("The Gusting Winds Rage and Howl"). During his first few years in the U.S. he was associated with Joseph *Opatoshu, *Mani-Leyb, Moyshe-Leyb *Halpern, and other poets of the literary group known as Di *Yunge, though he did not share their rejection of social themes. He reversed his name to create the pseudonym H(alper) Leivik to avoid being confused with the slightly older and already established Moyshe-Leyb Halpern. In 1918 Leivik published Hintern Shlos ("Behind Bars"), a first collection of visionary poems describing his years of imprisonment. This was followed in 1919 by Lider fun H. Leyvik ("Poems by H. Leivik") including the well-known poems "Geyt Men Zikh Lang" ("Trudging into the Distance") and "Ergets Vayt" ("Somewhere Far Away") which represented an amalgam of Romantic longing, sublimated pain, and political protest that came to characterize Leivik's œuvre. By then his writing was moving closer to the more aesthetic style of the Inzikhistn ("Introspectivists"). However, their repudiation of national and political themes did not suit his temperament either. The cataclysms of World War i, the Russian Revolution, and the ensuing Civil War led him to more universal themes and he then wrote his four apocalyptic epic poems "Er" ("He"), "Dos Kranke Tsimer" ("The Sick Room"), "Di Shtal" ("The Stable"), and "Der Volf " ("The Wolf "), all in 1920. The latter in particular reflected the postwar pogroms in Ukraine.

In 1921 his play, Der Goylem (1921; The Golem, 1966) made an immediate impression and is the work for which he is most remembered. He takes up the midrashic motif of the powerless Messiah grieving at his inability to come to the aid of the Jewish people and transforms the legend of Rabbi *Judah Loew of Prague and his "Golem" into a parable concerning violence perpetrated in the service of corrupted ideals. The relevance to the contemporary situation in Russia was clear. The Golem is a quasi-human robot fashioned by the rabbi to defend the Jews of Prague which, once created, becomes subject to all too human lusts and frustrations and soon escapes the control of the saintly, but impotent rabbi. Leivik's plays of the 1920s, Shmates ("Rags," 1928; first staged 1921), Di Oreme Melukhe ("The Poor Kingdom," 1927), Bankrot ("Bankrupt," 1927), and Shap (1928; Shop, 1999) all evince a commitment to social justice. These years represented the apogee of Yiddish theater in the U.S., and Leivik was one of a number of dramatists seeking to give greater artistic value to the Yiddish stage. "In Keynems Land" ("In No Man's Land") appeared in the first volume of Khalyastre (1922) edited by Perets *Markish and Y.-Y. *Singer. Contributing to this prestigious avant-garde journal added further to Leivik's already considerable reputation. In 1925 Leivik returned to Europe. In Moscow the Soviet critics took exception to the "nationalist" motifs of Der Goylem, but above all to Leivik's rejection of bloodshed as a means of perfecting society. Little did they imagine, he recalled 30 years later, that soon it would be they themselves against whom the Golem would raise his ax. Leivik's growing disillusionment with Bolshevism was reflected in the play Hirsh Lekert (1926).

In 1932 the tuberculosis which he had contracted earlier became more severe and he spent four years in sanatoria. It was in these years of physical illness that he achieved a degree of harmony reflected in writings such as Lider fun Gan-Eydn ("Poems from Paradise," 1937) and especially "Di Balade fun Denver Sanatoryum" ("The Ballad of the Denver Sanatorium"). In 1936, together with Opatoshu, Leivik began editing a series of anthologies or Zamlbikher (8 vols., 1936–52), the first volume of which contained his verse drama "Abelar un Heluiz" ("Abelard and Heloise"), which many consider one of his most aesthetically successful works, once more on the theme of redemption through suffering. The following year Leivik made his first visit to Palestine and in Tel Aviv gave a speech "Oykh ikh Bin a Toyshev bay Aykh …" ("I Too Live Among You," collected in Eseyen un Redes ("Essays and Speeches"), 1963) in which he was cautiously enthusiastic in his assessment of Zionism, but warned against biased disparagement of the Diaspora.

His major place in Yiddish literature was confirmed in 1940 by the publication of the "Jubilee Edition" of his complete works. During the war years Leivik wrote frequent, authoritative articles for Der Tog in which he celebrated and evaluated significant predecessors and contemporaries, as for example in 1942 when he honored Ḥayyim-Naḥman *Bialik on the eighth anniversary of his death, arguing that his "Shkhite-Shtot" ("Town of Slaughter," 1904) was now more relevant than ever before. In 1945 Leivik's articulation of desolate grief at the fate of his murdered people, In Treblinke Bin Ikh Nit Geven ("I Was Not in Treblinka"), was awarded the Louis Lamed Prize. In this collection of poems Leivik contends with the central paradox of all Holocaust literature, namely the inadequacy of words to express the ineffable horror juxtaposed with the irresponsibility of remaining silent. Mit der Sheyres-Hapleyte ("With the Survivors," 1947) is the diary of a visit to Dachau in 1946, also reflected in Di Khasene in Fernvald ("Wedding in Fernwald," 1949), a strangely romantic account of joy in the midst of despair when Leivik had been present at the first dp wedding in the Fernwald camp and saw in the ceremony a symbol of Jewish resurgence. As Leivik watched, he imagined that he saw Elijah the Prophet and the Messiah together with the murdered former spouses standing beside the bride and groom.

In September 1958 he suffered a stroke, lost his power of speech, and was confined to his bed until his death four years later. There were to be two further major publications during his lifetime. His Oyf Tsarisher Katorge ("In a Czarist Penal Settlement," 1959) resembled Hintern Shlos (published some four decades earlier) in content (and included memories of imprisonment in Minsk and Moscow and earlier childhood experiences) and brought Leivik's œuvre full circle. In his last collection of verse, Lider tsum Eybikn ("Poems to the Eternal," 1959), Leivik seems to have achieved an almost Nietzschean, sublime, aestheticized serenity and reconciliation with all being. He died December 23, 1962, a few days after his 74th birthday. The following year a memorial volume of Eseyen un Redes appeared. Leivik was an outstanding figure in the history of modern Yiddish literature, remarkable for the broad sweep of his poetry, spanning the Siberia of political exile, the teeming tenements of the Lower East Side, the oppressiveness of the sanatorium, the kabbalists of Safed, and the Holocaust, to which his reaction was one of vicarious pain, guilt, and deeply felt anguish. His work is imbued with a quasi-mystical, neo-Romantic humanism that finds a redemptive purpose in suffering and is constantly concerned with the cosmic struggle between good and evil. His lasting significance lies in his moral sensitivity and the distinctive lyric voice that absorbed much from Di Yunge and the Inzikhistn but became uniquely his own and enabled him to have a profound spiritual impact on his generation and to personify the conscience of his people.


Z. Zilbercwaig, Leksikon fun Yidishn Teater (1934), 1059–75; Waxman, Literature, 4 (19602), 1028–37; C. Madison, Yiddish Literature (19712), 348–81. add. bibliography: Z. Rejzen, Leksikon, 2 (1930), 196–202; Y. Yeshurin, in: H. Leivik, Oysgeklibene Shriftn (1963), 336–48 (bibl.); lnyl, 5 (1963), 107–28; S. Liptzin, A History of Yiddish Literature (1972), 299–311; Sh. Niger, Yidishe Shrayber fun Tsvantsikstn Yorhundert, 1 (1972), 167–214; E.S. Goldsmith, in: Jewish Book Annual, 45 (1987), 79–98; S. Goodhart, in: Philosophy and Literature, 16:1 (1992), 88–105.

[Hugh Denman (2nd ed.)]