A Curious Story of Two Banned Soviet Jewish Poems

Benjamin Waife, better-known under his pen name B.Z. (Ben Zion) Goldberg, was an American Yiddish journalist, writer, historian, and son-in-law of Sholom Aleichem, who made a significant contribution to recording and interpreting the history of Soviet Jews. In one of his notes about his visit to the Soviet Union, Goldberg writes about his frequent encounter to two poems: one posing “the Jewish question” and the other giving the answer to it. Soviet Jews recited these banned poems from memory and secretly passed them on from one person to another. He heard them from a physician in Leningrad, a teacher in Odessa, and a writer in Tashkent. Goldberg concludes that these poems “became folk literature expressing the assimilated new generation of Soviet Jews” (B.Z. Goldberg papers, [in process Box 70, Folder 2]). Goldberg wrote them down in Russian and then typed up the translations in English.

The first part of the poem that numerous Soviet Jews were reciting–Goldberg wrote it all down in Russian (B.Z. Goldberg’s papers, [in process Box 70, Folder 2]).
 Excerpts from B.Z. Goldberg’s translation of Margarita Aliger’s “Your Victory” and Michael Rashkovan’s “Answer to Margarita.” Goldberg did not know who wrote the poems–all he knew was that Soviet Jews secretly recited these poems, and so he recorded them and increased awareness about them in the West (B.Z. Goldberg’s papers, [in process Box 70, Folder 2]). 

Turns out, those poems had been published; but were later banned and their reciting forbidden. The original poem or the question was created by Margarita Aliger, a well-known Soviet Jewish poet and the author of “Your Victory.” The aforementioned poem’s part called “We are Jews” was published in the magazine Znamya (Flame) in 1946. The following year, Michael Rashkovan, veteran of the Second World War, was inspired by it and wrote an answer to Aliger. After the banning, however, B.Z. Goldberg documented the Soviet Jews’ resistance across the Soviet Union, and kept these poems about being Jewish in the USSR alive. Throughout his career, Goldberg was dedicated to using his access to freedom of speech and expression to help his Soviet Jewish counterparts.

Letter from Lazis Fanya Lvovna, Kiev region, in which she writes about having heard of Goldberg helping Jews in need. She asks Goldberg to pass along her address to her brother in Brooklyn, 1962 (B.Z. Goldberg papers, [in process Box 75, Folder 1]) .


Learning the Alphabet Starting with L, E, N, I, N

In the early Soviet Union, education played a particularly important role in ensuring that the ideology reached every citizen, most effectively, from a very early age. The Soviet student schoolwork collection contains a rare set of remarkable drawings and notes. There are dozens such drawings which give us a unique glimpse into the minds and imaginations of six-year-old children in the Soviet Ukraine, 1929. They drew Lenin just as they drew shapes and animals and practiced writing those words next to them (“horse,” “house,” etc.)

The child practices writing “horse” and “Lenin” in Ukrainian. Folder #2 Ukrainian Kindergartener’s (5-8 yo) drawings, Series I. Kindergarten and School Children’s Drawings and Copybooks.

As they learned how to read and write, they already knew about the Revolution, as Misha’s drawing below shows.

Misha, “Revolution,” Folder #2 Ukrainian Kindergartener’s (5-8 yo) drawings, Series I. Kindergarten and School Children’s Drawings and Copybooks.

Besides children’s notebooks, we also get to see a few remarkable instances of how the Soviet Union redefined motherhood, by insisting that a good mother was an educated mother, and mandating that women attend school. A lot of the stories in these notebooks, likely dictated by the teacher, use shame to encourage learning. One of the stories describes a disappointed little boy who asked his mother a question, which due to her illiteracy she could not answer. This generation of Soviet women had it hardest as they needed to take care of home, work, and study.

Lesson, March 4, 1930. I was a dark illiterate person. Under the Soviet state, I am now learning grammar. I learned how to read, write, and count a little bit. Now I need to work and study.” A Mother, Folder #9 “Three Notebooks on Women’s Education, Collectivization, Red Army, 1930,” Series I. Kindergarten and School Children’s Drawings and Copybooks.

A lot of historical evidence on the Soviet Union tends to be government-issued bureaucratic and censored material, which is why this collection of primary source material is so valuable. Moreover, there are typically fewer available sources created by children, in general. Thomas Woody, Penn Professor of Education, likely was the one who collected this material during his visit to the USSR in the 1920s and brought it with him to Philadelphia. His efforts created a wonderful time capsule that allows us to learn about the primary and middle-school education in the early Soviet Union from the students directly.

Can You Guess What This Soviet Poster Is Trying To Tell You?

«Вредители льна.» Внизу: «Плодитесь, размножайтесь и наполняйте землю.»
Dmitrii Moor, “The Flax Pests.” On the bottom: “Be fruitful, multiply and replenish the earth.” P-05, Print Collection 18: Early Soviet Posters.

Early Soviet posters aimed to end the Old Regime in every way, and that included religion. The poster above is a part of the collection of 48 Soviet propaganda posters from the 1920s and 1930s. This fascinating collection includes anti-religious and anti-capitalist messages, as well as instructional posters on the new ways of Soviet childcare and parenting. Many of them explicitly criticized the clergy, blaming them for clouding the minds of the masses with distracting messages.

«Паси овца моя.» Dmitrii Moor, “Herd my sheep.” P-07, Print Collection 18: Early Soviet Posters.

The previous version of the finding aid for this collection included a note for Poster #5 (P-05), the first image in this post, describing it as “Image of God creating pests.” However, it is unlikely that this man was meant to be God. It was not common for Soviet posters to do so, since according to Soviet communism, there was no God. So any form of religion and faith was depicted as the clergy or figures that that religion itself used, like Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and angels. Sometimes propaganda portrayed it as Jesus riding on a tank, see the image below.

«Мирные намерения Господа Нашего Иисуса Христа. » На перьях написано: «Мир!!»
Внизу на газетах написано: «Форвертс, Тайм, руль, Письмо Зиновьева..» Dmitrii Moor, “Peaceful Intentions of Our Lord Christ.” On the feathers, it says, “Peace!!” On the bottom, the newspapers say, “Time, Forwards, Rule, The Zinoviev letter…” P-03, Print Collection 18: Early Soviet Posters.

So considering that the majority of the posters in this collection condemned Orthodox Christianity specifically, could the man from Poster 5 be a priest? Do the insects represent enemies of the people or God’s punishment? Or does the poster literally refer to bad harvests? Most of the time these posters portray religious authorities as conniving, as opposed to this whimsical-looking man. Or could it be God in general? Bezbozhnik newspaper sometimes portrayed a somewhat similar-looking man as God. Could this be a scene from some religious text or does this deal with collectivization? Share your thoughts with us!

Some Things About Joseph Eyer

In 1974, a doctoral student at the Penn Biology Department named Joseph (Joe) Eyer was in the process of crossing disciplinary borders in his scholarly work on social causes and health effects of stress. His research reflected an eclectic fusion of natural and social sciences. However, it is his unpublished personal essay (Jeremy Brecher collection of Joseph Eyer papers, Box 2, Folder 8, “Some Things About Myself,” undated) during his time in graduate school that leaves one in awe of the uniquely reflective nature of this individual. Below you may see a graph of Eyer’s life, in which the vertical axes represent “up” or as he identifies it with enthusiasm, attraction, fulfillment versus “down” or frustration, anger, depression. This graph is a perfect illustration of how he used his natural sciences background to reflect on the personal.

His essay gives a glimpse into his childhood, his struggles with mourning and mental health. In this writing, Eyer provides the reader with a multi-faceted perspective on his parents, in particular, how their genders and political beliefs affected their lives. He certainly also tried to provide a complex picture of his life, particularly, as he navigated his depressive and manic episodes. He mentions a learning curve of how he dealt with his bipolar disorder, how he used to resort to anger and passive-aggressive behavior when interacting with others. He writes that it required courage to strive to be alive and open. This desire to persevere seems to have inspired a series of his fascinating academic works, which tackled how socio-economic conditions affected one’s health, as well as his creative writing and poetry.  The Jeremy Brecher collection of Joseph Eyer papers includes published and unpublished works on a wide range of topics, from infant mortality to the effects of capitalism on one’s health, as well dozens of letters between him and his colleagues and friends.