Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Yiddish Poets & Writers: Melech Ravitch

Montreal Yiddish Poets

Melech Ravitch addressing members at the 35th Annual Meeting of the Jewish Public Library of Montreal, on November 27, 1949. This would be the library building at the corner of Esplanade Avenue and Mont-Royal Avenue.
Photo Credit: Jewish Public Library Archives

The Yiddish writer Melech Ravitch [1893–1976] is the pseudonym used by Zekharye-Khone Bergner, born in Radymno, eastern Galicia (which today is in Poland), the son of Efrayim and Hinde Bergner (nee Rosenblatt), the latter of whom holds an important place in the annals of Yiddish literature for her portrait of shtetl life, which was published by her two sons after her death; Hinde Bergner is believed to have died “in the German extermination camp of Belzec in 1942,” the Jewish Women’s Archive writes.

Zekharye started to write in Yiddish in 1910, emboldened by the Czernowitz Language Conference (1908), the first international conference in support of the Yiddish language. During the first decade of the 20th century, he worked as a bank clerk, served as a soldier in the First World War and lived in Lemberg and Vienna. He changed his name to Melech Ravitch when he moved to Warsaw in 1921, when he began to be influenced by modernism, and where he belonged to a literary group called Di Khalyastre (“The Gang”); its other prominent members were Uri Tsevi Grinberg and Peretz Markish. Its purpose, it seems, was to rail against realism and to advocate for modernist Yiddish poetry.

As for this period, the Museum of Jewish Montreal writes:
In 1921, Ravitch moved to Warsaw and published Nakete lider (Naked Poems), in which he attempted to integrate the modernist themes of secularism and spiritual alienation with the Yiddish language and strongly East European context. A leading figure in Warsaw intellectual life (he translated Kafka into Yiddish in 1924, the year of the latter’s death), Ravitch served as executive secretary of the Association of Jewish Writers and Journalists in Warsaw, the epicentre of the Yiddish literary world, from 1924 to 1934. As the situation for Jews in Europe deteriorated, Ravitch decided to leave Poland, living briefly in Australia, Mexico, New York, and Argentina, before settling in Montreal in 1941.
Yet, another Jew who wandered around trying to find a place outside Europe to call home. After witnessing the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism, he saw no future in Europe and he left Poland for Australia in 1933 (warning others that they should leave, too). At that time, Ravitch saw Australia as a possible place where Jews could permanently settle, possibly in a part of Australia (the Northern Territory) that “nobody wanted.” He was armed with a letter from Albert Einstein and Jewish hopes of utopia; it was called the Kimberly Plan, which neither the Jews in Poland nor the Australian government supported.

While there, he helped establish the first Yiddish school—an I.L. Peretz school in 1937 in Australia, in the city of Melbourne. He served as its first headmaster and stayed in Australia until 1938, then moving on again, for a time in  Argentina, in Mexico and in New York City before coming to Montreal.

Ruinengroz (Ruin Grass), by Melech Ravitch. (Brno: Jüdischer Buch-und Kunstverlag M. Hickel, 1916 or 1917).
Photo Credit: YIVO

It was in Montreal, where he lived for more than three decades, apart from the two years (1954–56) that he lived in Israel, that he spent the most time after the war. When he first landed in Montreal, he more than likely lived in the old Jewish neighborhood of Mile End, near Park Avenue and Mont-Royal, in close proximity to the mountain and the Jewish Public Library, where Ravitch briefly took on the role as director shortly after his arrival in the city.

The Encyclopaedia Judaica writes: “During his active association there with the Yidishe-folksbyblotek (Jewish Public Library), he revived the Yidishe-folksuniversitet (Jewish People's Popular University) to offer adult education programming in Jewish and non-Jewish topics from 1941 to 1954.” He was very active in Montreal, the same article says; “In 1946 he and his brother H. Bergner published the memoirs of their family as recorded by their mother Hinde Bergner (1870–1942) on the eve of World War ii.”

I did find out that between 1965 until his death in 1976, he lived at 5413 Trans Island Avenue, near Lacombe Avenue, which is the same Snowdon area that many Jews resided in around this period. It was close, within walking distance, to the Jewish library after it relocated westward. He wrote prolifically, often of the life he left behind in Europe; he was, after all, almost 50 when he came to Montreal.

His most known works include  a comprehensive anthology Di lider fun mayne lider (“The Poems of My Poems;” 1954) and his two-volume series Mayn leksikon (“My Lexicon;” 1945–1947), which offer intimate portraits of Yiddish writers in Poland. His memoirs, Dos mayse-bukh fun mayn lebn (“The Storybook of My Life;” 3 vols., 1962–1975), describe his life in Galicia, Vienna, and Warsaw.

He viewed himself as “the first modernist of Yiddish literature,” recounts Irving Massey, son of Yiddish writer and organizer Ida Maze, who was a neighbour of Ravitch. He was married to Fania, a singer from Lodz; they had a son, Yosl Bergner, who became a famous painter who settled in Israel; and a daughter, Ruth Bergner, a dancer who settled in Australia. His brother, the Yiddish writer Herz Bergner, settled in Melbourne in 1938.

No doubt, Ravitch is one of the leading Yiddish literary figures with published works after the Holocaust. The poet and his poetry were acknowledged during his long career; he was awarded numerous literary prizes including the prestigious L. Lamed, Yud Yud Segal, and Itzik Manger Prizes.

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