“What a thunderous voice!”
Remembering Pesach Kaplan
Heidi M. Szpek, Ph.D.
“In the year 1915, in the midst of the German Occupation, I just finished translating all of Krylov’s fables. … At that time, although Bialystok was the most open-minded city in the entire world, there were no functioning publishers. Yet in Bialystok a cultural revolution was still underway, which allowed my translation of Krylov’s fables to be published.” So wrote Pesach Kaplan in the Preface to his Yiddish translation of the fables of Ivan Krylov, entitled Krylov’s Moshelim.
Pesach Kaplan was a prominent figure in the history of Jewish Bialystok. Born in 1870 in the shtetl of Stavisk, west of Bialystok, Kaplan’s father served as a cantor and ritual slaughterer. From age 13 until 19, Kaplan moved with his father from town to town, studying in yeshivas until his family finally arrived in Warsaw. In Warsaw, Kaplan was introduced to the Haskalah, engendering his love of Hebrew language, literature and the Jewish enlightenment. Coupled with his Talmudic training, these interests found an outlet in writing and his initial advocacy of Zionism. In 1888, Kaplan moved to Bialystok where writing became a daily endeavor. In Pinkos Bialystok (Chronicle of Bialystok), author Abraham Samuel Herszberg emphasized Kaplan’s literary and community contributions to Bialystok. Kaplan was a teacher, a journalist, a writer and much more. He served on the Relief Committee of the Teachers’ Union after the 1906 Pogrom, as a member of Bialystok’s kehillah from 1918-1928, and in 1919, Kaplan founded the daily Yiddish newspaper Dos Naje Lebn (later renamed Unzer Lebn), serving as its editor-in-chief until 1939. For his extensive literary contributions perhaps Kaplan is best known. Indeed, Herszberg expresses his indebtedness to Kaplan’s extensive publications as a source for his own writing of Pinkos Bialystok.
Yet there is another role for which Kaplan is also remembered. During World War II and the Holocaust, when the Bialystok Ghetto was created, Kaplan became a member of the Judenrat. As a teacher he became the head of the Bialystok Ghetto’s Education Department. Within the forced confines of the ghetto, Kaplan believed education and cultural activities were essential, serving both as a sign of resistance amidst oppression and preserving the future of Jewish tradition. In response to the Aktion of July 1941 in Bialystok, Kaplan is also well-known for his moving poem Rivkele the Sabbath Widow, which allowed him to express both the pain and hope of the wives and children whose husbands and fathers had been taken away, never to return. In March 1943, Pesach Kaplan died in the Bialystok Ghetto, having witnessed the beginning of Ghetto’s liquidation in February. During his years in the Bialystok Ghetto, Kaplan continued his writing in the form of two diaries, today preserved in the archives of Yad Vashem.
A chance discovery on Ebay of a book by Pesach Kaplan revealed to me yet another side of Pesach Kaplan. His name had captured my attention before the title of the book. Only several weeks later, when the book arrived, did I – with initial disappointment, learn that this volume was a translation project by Kaplan and not poetry of his own writing. Disappointment gave way to intrigue when I realized the import of this work – Krylov’s Moshelim “The Fables of Krylov”. Ivan Andreyevich Krylov rose to be become a prominent Russian writer and intellectual of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. His fables, following in the tradition of Aesop and La Fontaine, brought him to literary prominence. The animals in his fables provided legendary insight into caricatures of Russian society; the stories and their morals served as satire to disguise Krylov’s disdain for Russian repression.
Yet why did Pesach Kaplan devote such energy to this translation project, especially amidst the turmoil of World War I? Bialystok was then part of Russia; Russian language, culture and politics clearly impacted this city’s inhabitants regardless of their inclinations. In the Preface to Krylov’s Moshelim, Kaplan offers his explanation: “In the year 1914, the idea was borne, to create for Jewish children, likewise for the general adult reader, a new translation of Krylov’s Fables.” Apparently, an older Yiddish translation by Zvi Hirsh Reichson, containing only a small portion of the hundreds of Krylov’s fables was insufficient. Kaplan, advocate of the Haskalah, found value in the secular literature of Russia for Jewish youth and community alike. Encouraged by his friend in the Bialystok Literary Circle – perhaps the same friend, Aharon Albek, who wrote the Forward to this volume, Kaplan undertook this project at what would seem a most unpropitious moment – amidst the First World War. At a time “when there were no active publishers”, Kaplan found a publishing house – A. Albek’s, and a printing shop – Pruzszanski’s on Lipowa Street in Bialystok. Kaplan initially planned to publish a five volume set of all of Krylov’s fables translated by himself into Yiddish, “except” – as Kaplan wrote, “for a few fables, which were not translatable in his opinion.” Kaplan’s five volume project was revised (as he noted) into a three volume set. The book I had procured was the first volume, containing 67 fables. There are familiar fables in this volume, found likewise in many translations to this day – The Crow and the Fox, The Wolf and the Little Sheep, Two Doves, The Rooster and the Pearl, The Stone and the Snake, and The Elephant and the Mouse. This type of fable predominates in my collection. Such fables offer classic caricatures of Russian individuals of Krylov’s day through the guise of animals. There are other fables in this collection, such as The Musicians, The Voyage, The Imperialist, The Three Lady Killers, The Heretics, The Funeral, The Householder and the Speculative Thinker, which also offer insight into Russian society and life without engaging characters from the animal kingdom!
When Kaplan translated these fables from Russian into Yiddish he set in place two particular rules: 1.) that the naiveté, folksy and concise style of Krylov be maintained; and 2.) that individual phrases and larger “pictorials”, as well as general features of the fable, must not appear strange to the Yiddish reader. Kaplan was undertaking an energetic translation project, desiring to maintain the integrity of the Russian literary style yet demanding that the Yiddish translation would appropriately “feel Yiddish”! To this end, Kaplan wrote in his Preface, he would permit himself to “work-over” a fable to maintain its substance as well as its moral. In the end, Kaplan believed he offered “a pure translation, which reverberates with the classical veracity of the [original] poet.”
My eye was not drawn to the popular animal fables in this volume, nor to those without animal characters, nor even to three tempting poems, entitled “Abraham’s Soup”, “Elijah the Prophet and the Beggar” and “Samson”. I was immediately draw to the fable entitled “Der Magid” – The Preacher:
There stands a magid on the bimah
And he delivers a spirited sermon (droshe),
He equates the artistry of men with dust-rubble (rimah),
And he chastises and flays the wicked (roshe).
Sparks spritz forth from his mouth (moyl)
Every word a more zealous bullet (koyl).
Because of his speech a shiver goes through each body (lajber),
So that not only cry out the God-fearing women (wajber).
Indeed, for a long time the magid does not struggle (kemfn)
in resolving the disputes for deeper meaning (kremfn).
Then a lament suddenly breaks out (oijs)
in the synagogue, the magid’s sermon is so grand (grojs).
But after the sermon everyone stands still (shtajn)
Astonished because of the magid’s Godly-gifts (Elokim).
What a thunderous voice (shtim)!
Each example like a little pearl or a beam of light (shajn)!
Even a stone is able to feel! (vern)
Like magic, tears burst forth (trern).
Only one person stands in the corner (winkl)
But – no spark is in his eye (finkl).
A neighbor says to him: What’s wrong with you? (mayr)
I see not even one eye has yet a single tear! (trayr)
Was the interpretation too difficult for your mind? (shvayr)
The sermon – answers he – I understood, yes, indeed! (apyilu)
But why do I not cry as you all do? I’m just not from the kehillah!
In this rough translation (that bears no claim to the brilliance of Kaplan’s translation from the Russian and acknowledges the difficulties of several older Yiddish variants in spelling!), I was first struck by specific words. Magid, bimah, droshe, Elokim, and kehillah clearly were directed at Kaplan’s early 20th century Yiddish audience. The pattern of rhyme is equally intriguing: bimah, droshe // rimah, roshe; moyl//koyl; layber//wayber … ababccddeeff. The pattern is repeated until all but the last five lines: a’b’a’b’c’c’d’d’e’e’f’f’f’g’ – a. The rhyme of mayr/trayr/shvayr slows the reader as the questioning of the tearless man begins. The tearless man begins to offer his response, slowed again by the unrhymed Yiddish line (apyilu), to be followed by the punch line: “I’m just not from the kehillah!” With this final line, ending in kehillah, rhyme is restored back to the opening words bimah and rimah. Krylov was known for his rhyme; Kaplan clearly captured the rhyme for his Yiddish audience, preserving the classical integrity of Krylov as he had promised.
I’ve chanced upon an English translation of this fable by C. Coxwell (1920). Intriguing, however, is its title – “The Parishioner”. The focus, as the title suggests, is on the ‘parishioner’; though the eloquence of the pastor is noted as in the Yiddish translation:
Once, in a church, a pastor,
Who looked on Plato as of eloquence a master.
Discoursed, before his flock, concerning worthy
A speech mellifluous, of perfect form, proceeds
To treat of purest truths with art appearing artless.
As by a golden chain.
To heaven are lifted thoughts of hearers even heartless,
And all perceive the world is full of projects vain.
The orator has finished preaching.
And yet his listeners stay, being to glorious skies
Borne by the magic power of wondrous, lofty
While pearly drops, escaping, flood their eyes.
And now the congregation leaves the temple holy,
"How I his gifts admire!"
Says one man to the next, in modest tone and lowly,
"What sweetness, touched with fire!
Such richness every heart to virtue has deflected;
But, neighbour, you by it but little seem
Your cheek displays, methinks, no single
Have you not understood ?" "Yes, entertain no
But, with this parish, and folk here,
I, Sir, in no way am connected."
In yet another English translation by I. Henry Harrison (1883), this fable once again entitled “The Parishioner”, affirms the Russian title. Harrison also offers a chronology and classification of Krylov’s fables. “The Parishioner”, written in 1825, is situated among the later years of Krylov’s composition of fables (1806-1836). It is classified as a personal fable intended to depict the cliques among writers and, in particular, how Krylov felt excluded from such groups. Harrison translates an opening stanza to this fable, rendered by neither Kaplan nor Coxwell, which depicts Krylov’s feeling of exclusion:
“Many there are, be only once their friend,
And thou the first of writers art, a genius without end;
But let another come,
However sweetly he may sing, they’re dumb;
Not only can he not the slightest praise expect,
They fear to feel the beauties they detect,
And, though I may annoy them by the act,
I here shall tell no fable, but a fact.”
Krylov, it would seem, was the first of writers, the genius – represented in the fable’s eloquent “pastor”, to whom presumably a writer from another clique (“the neighbor”) would offer no praise nor shed a tear. This opening stanza offers much insight into the intended meaning of this fable – so why would Kaplan (and Coxwell) exclude it from translation?
No translation is a perfect transference of an original composition. Kaplan wrote in his Preface that he would permit himself to “work-over” a fable to maintain its substance as well as its moral without detriment to the classical integrity of the author or the relevance of the fable’s new Yiddish audience. Kaplan’s translation does preserve the general substance of Krylov’s poem and indeed matches Krylov’s attention to rhyme. However, Kaplan also “worked-over” this fable to bring more emphasis to the magid, the depth of the magid’s droshe (sermon), with which the magid engaged the text and audience – perhaps a reminder of Kaplan’s years in the yeshivas throughout northeastern Poland, and the impact of this teaching on the congregation – again perhaps a reminder of the impact Kaplan’s teachers had upon him. Omitting the opening stanza was thus essential to redirect this fable to a Jewish audience (and apparently also for Coxwell’s audience). Neither Kaplan nor Coxwell wished to ponder a writer’s exclusion from literary guilds, rather they saw in this fable another meaning – perhaps that the eloquence of a magid or pastor is dependent on his connection to a particular community. Perhaps the master-student relationship is essential for truly appreciating the droshe (sermon). For this reason omission of the opening stanza was essential.
The first time I read Kaplan’s translation, however, my thoughts were immediately drawn to a detail by which, at least for me, Kaplan transformed this fable for the Yiddish world – by delivery of the punch line! Krylov’s neighbor delivers his line with a haughty air as suggested by Coxwell’s translation (“But, with this parish, and folk here, I, Sir, in no way am connected.") and even in Harrison’s earlier translation (“But then, what cause for me to cry? I am not of this parish, I!”). I imagine Krylov’s ‘tearless man’ in these translations abruptly walking away. Such a punch line accords well with the master fabulist Krylov’s personal intention for this fable. But for Kaplan’s ‘tearless man’, I envision him offering a whimsical shrug, tilting his head with a nod as he responds – “I’m just not from the kehillah!” … and off he goes. Kaplan is indeed renowned for his literary and community contributions and the sad fate that stole his life in the ghetto. Yet discovery of this volume, with attention to just one poem, suggests that there is even more to be learned about the voice of this extraordinary man. Beneath Kaplan’s silvery coiffure and stern countenance, there lurks a man who could also deliver a good dose of Yiddish humor!
Pesach Kaplan was born in Stawiski in 1870, where his father Reb Binyamin Nachum was a cantor and shochet. Reb Binyamin Nachum was a great-grandson of Reb Kasriel, the Torah reader at the synagogue of the Vilna Gaon. Like the diligent students of that era, he studied in the cheders of Stawiski for twelve years. In the 13 th year, his father left the town of Stawiski and traveled around as a cantor and a preacher, until he settled in Gorodishche in the Kiev Gubernia. Between the age of thirteen and seventeen, Pesach studied in the Yeshivas of Korycin, Ruszczany, and Zelwa. Pesach arrived in Warsaw in 5647 (1887), where his father took on the position of cantor at Reichman's synagogue.
During those years, he was overtaken by the Haskalah  winds. He read Hebrew literature, and studied German, Russian, and a little English on his own. When he was nineteen years old, he wrote his first article in Hamelitz. From Warsaw, he went to Bialystok, where he was a Hebrew teacher for several years. While living in Bialystok, he wrote many articles in the Warsaw “Hatzefirah” newspaper. He was a fighter for the Hebrew language, and an active member of the “Lovers of the Hebrew Language” organization.
In 1904, he published his first Yiddish poem, “Di Velgerke” (“The Vagabond”) in the Petersberger Teg. After that, he often wrote in the Yiddish newspapers “Teg” and “Friend”, and later in “Heint” and “Moment”. In the year 1914, he edited “Das Bialystoker Vort”, which was at first a weekly and later a daily newspaper. After the First World War, he founded the “Das Neie Leben” (“The New Life”) newspaper in Bialystok. This was one of the best provincial newspapers in Poland. Almost every day, he wrote columns, reviews, commentaries, and works of fiction. Among everything else, he wrote memoirs of his birthplace of Stawiski. These articles were published under the name “Chranik Family”, and a few are published in this book.
Kaplan was also a lover of music, and translated a “Song Book” into Yiddish – which was a collection of classical songs with music of Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Schumann. He also published such books in Hebrew, “Sefer Hazemirot” and “Shirei Zimrah”. He composed songs for Jewish children's homes, and composed his first Hebrew songs called “Nevel Asor”. He also translated from German, Russian, and Hebrew. Pesach Kaplan edited the Bialystok Jewish newspaper “Unzer Leben” until his death during the Second World War.