Lenski, Ḥayyim

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LENSKI, ḤAYYIM (1905–1942), Hebrew poet. Born in the town of Slonim, district of Grodno, Russia, Lenski spent his childhood and early youth in his grandfather's home in the townlet of Derechin. Late in 1921 he left to study at the Hebrew Teachers' Seminary in Vilna, where he published his first poems in a students' magazine. After two years in Vilna, he joined his father in Baku at the end of 1924, following an adventurous journey. In 1925, however, he left his family and went to Moscow and Leningrad, where he settled down as a worker in the Amal factory founded by *He-Ḥalutz. In Moscow he continued to write poetry, which he sent to literary periodicals in Ereẓ Israel. *Bialik warmly encouraged his writing. Lenski was arrested at the end of 1934 for writing in Hebrew, and, after being detained in Leningrad for a few months, he was sentenced to five years' imprisonment with hard labor in Siberia. His poems, however, continued to reach Ereẓ Israel. While in the labor camp near Mrinsk, he appealed to the Russian writer Maxim Gorki to intercede for him ("I am a poet and my only crime is that my poems were written in Hebrew"), but it is doubtful whether the plea ever reached Gorki. In 1937 Lenski was transferred to the forced labor camp of Gornaya Shoriya, near the Soviet-Mongolian border; from that time on, his poems ceased to reach Ereẓ Israel. In 1939 or 1940, having served his term, he returned to Leningrad. Soon afterward he was again arrested and sent to the prison camp of Malaya Vyshera, near Leningrad. From there he was probably sent back to Siberia, where he died.

Lenski proudly declared in his poem "Leshon Kedumim" ("Ancient Tongue") that he launched the armies of the Queen (i.e., of the Hebrew language) across the rivers Don, Neva, and Neman. At the end of 1958, a number of manuscripts reached Israel which contained a nearly complete collection of his lyrical poems, copied out in the poet's fine handwriting and ready for publication. His poems were subsequently published in Israel under the title of Me-Ever Nehar ha-Lethe ("Beyond the River Lethe," 1960).

Lenski's poetry comprises mainly short lyrical poems, sonnets, and ballads that are marked by a perspicuity of language, a concreteness of imagery, and sonorous and vibrant music. Influenced by both Pushkin and Yesenin, with a dash of Heine's bitterness, Lenski's poetry reflects the reality he knew at first hand: the landscape of townlets, forests, and rivers of his Lithuanian homeland, scenes from the Leningrad factory, and Siberia's boundless spaces. All this is transmuted into an imagistic idiom, vivid and often boldly modernistic, as when he indulges in playful onomatopoeic effects. Close to folk and popular lore, his writing is tinged with sober humor which, in his longer poems, is transfigured into mordant and rebellious satire. In these longer poems, his most important, the fundamentally nonpolitical poet attacks the "world of tomorrow" promised by Communist utopians and demagogues. Two of these, "The Delator" and "Barbers' Gate" (the latter a poem playing on the imagery of Pushkin's "Bronze Horseman"), attest to the remarkable courage of a poet who, himself subjected to "the dungeons of ancient servitude," openly predicts his captors' "imminent downfall."

The "I" in Lenski's poetry is that of the romantic, bohemian poet, proud of his mission but perfectly willing to mock both himself and his trade. He is the uprooted wayfarer, the unhappy lover, and tramp who admits to being "enthralled by the wormwood" thus sharing with many another poet "the fascination of what's difficult."

In Siberia Lenski also translated into Hebrew an adaptation of a Vogul epic, "The Tundra Book," which appeared in the poet's first collection, Shirei Ḥayyim Lenski (1939). Here too, his mastery of a rich, concrete, and colorful language is amply manifested in the short and flowing verses modeled on Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha. Lenski also tried his hand at drama and prose, but these were never published. Biographical data on Lenski and critical evaluations of his work by A. Kariv and others appear in the editions of his work already mentioned (Shirei Ḥayyim Lenski and Me-Ever Nehar ha-Lethe) and in He-Anaf ha-Gadu'a (1945). Yalkut Shirim, with commentary by Azriel Ukhmani and an introduction by Shu lamit Levo, appeared in 1973. A volume of collected poems including a bibliography entitled Me'ever Nehar ha-Lete, was published in 1986.


Holtz, in: Judaism, 14 (1965), 491–6; Goell, Bibliography, 33, no. 1005–14; Kressel, Leksikon, 2 (1967), 292–3. add. bibliography: S. Luria, "Kokhav she-Nitlash, Iyyun be-Shirat Lenski," in: Shevut, 3 (1975), 20–21; S. Levo, "Al ha-Kesher she-bein ha-Roved ha-Semanti le-Roved ha-Ẓelil be-Shir shel Lenski," in: Halkin (1975), 655–660; S. Sadeh, Al ha-Ironyah be-Shirat H. Lenski (1979); R. Frenkel-Medan, Adam ve-Nof: Iyyunim be-Emdat ha-Dover be-Mivḥar Shirei Teva ve-Nof shel Ḥ. Lenski (1976); U. Behar, "Lenski," in: Siman Keriah, 19 (1986), 131–138; O. Baumgarten-Kuris, "'Ma'aseh be-Agur': Ha-Po'emah ha-Ẓiyyonit shel H. Lenski," in: Mehkarei Yerushalayim be-Sifrut Ivrit, 9 (1986), 147–186; D. Miron, in: Haaretz ( April 13, 1987); Y. Ginossar, "H. Lenski, Mi-Gidulei ha-Pere," in: Itton, 77:93 (1988), 20–21; H. Bar-Yosef, "Was Haim Lenski a 'Schlimazl'?" in: Jews and Jewish Topics in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, 15 (1991), 48–54; S. Sarid-Goldfischer, Hebbetim Merkaziyyim be-Shirat Ḥ. Lenski (2003).

[Natan Zach]