A poetry matinée and a winter war. A glimpse into the history of the yiddish avant-garde in Warsaw

Written by: dr Karolina Szymaniak
On the 28th of January 1922 the Central Theater by Leszno Street no. 1 (a building which still stands today) held a matinée dedicated to modern Jewish poetry (Yiddish poetry) known in the history of Yiddish culture as the “Ringen” Matinée (spelled “Ryngen” at the time) since that was the name of the literary magazine which organized the whole event. The program included Perec Markisz’s lecture “The aesthetics of conflict in modern* Jewish poetry” and poetry readings of their own works by Uri Cwi Grinberg (Grynberg), Melech Rawicz and Mosze Broderzon — the founder of the first Yiddish avant-garde group in Poland the Jung Yiddish in Łódź. Furthermore the works of poets from Soviet Russia were read by well-known actors — Awrom Morewski and Zygmunt Turkow. A ticket to the event cost from 200 to 500 marks.
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Uriel Acosta / Henryk Berlewi


We find all this information on the blue, serenely designed poster (the organizers actually wanted a flaming red poster), which does not indicate the revolutionary character and crucial significance of this event. And you could consider it to be the beginning of the Yiddish group “Chaliastre” (Rabble). It had a short but intense life span, bringing together some of the most important young authors of new Jewish literature, authors who would later become some of its canonical writers.

If you look closely at the poster, however, even the serene blue will reveal revolutionary content. First of all — it was a matinée and not, as one might expect, an evening. The avant-garde viewed poetry evenings as a thing of the past, so the matinée was redefining the old rules of literary life. Second of all — it took place on a Saturday on Sabbath “when old, religious Jews pray to God in all the synagogues” as Melech Rawicz reminisced. Thus the avant-garde had plans to redefine Jewish spiritual and religious life. A theater in place of the synagogue, literature in place of the Torah, modernist poets in place of religious hymns. These iconoclastic tendencies and subversive plays on tradition can be later found in the artistic practice of the avant-garde.

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Illustrations to Dowid Hofsztejn Trojer's series of poems. The drawing includes fragments of the poems.
Marc Chagall

This historic matinée lasted for a couple of hours and in a room packed with people, despite the fact that, intentionally, no invitations had been sent out. Altogether a few hundred people participated in the event. A few days later, on the 3rd of February 1922, one of the two main Jewish newspapers “Der Moment” started to publish a series of articles, written by Hillel Cejtlin, harshly criticizing the new phenomenon (Cejtlin wrote of graphomania, “a dearth of talent”, “poster aesthetics”). And so, as January turned to February, a true literary war broke out in Warsaw.

At the same time the group of artists who prepared the matinée, worked on the final issue of “Ringen”. The previous issues had been edited by theater director and critic Michał Weichert in cooperation with writer Alter Kacyzne. In their understanding the magazine was to serve as platform for presenting different aesthetics and the worldviews they represented. However the previous year’s December issue (no. 7–9) began to be viewed primarily as a tool of the avant-garde. The final, tenth, issue which came out in June of 1922 was edited by a council of young artists and represented a much more radical viewpoint. The first significant manifest of the group were published in this issue, including the lecture given during the January matinée “The aesthetics of conflict in modern Jewish poetry”. This is what historian and critic Jakub Szacki wrote of this issue: “The final issue of “Ringen” is a significant event in Jewish artistic life. Its choice content and appearance allows the magazine to hold its head high among its European siblings”.

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Henryk Berlewi

It was not, however, “Ringen” (Links) whose title emphasizes the continuity of tradition, but “Chaliastre” that became the symbol and name of the group. The avant-garde liked to describe themselves as: a band of vagabonds, vagrants, tramps etc., names which emphasized their distance from and opposition to the fixed social structures, their lack of roots and their constant motion- in accordance with the crazy rhythm of modernity. “I am no one’s, my own Master/ No beginning and no end” wrote Perec Markisz in one of his poems.

The word “chaliastre” (and others related to it) started to be also used by the critics of the new trends who used it in a rather pejorative way in their texts. This made it even more attractive to the young artists who wanted to distance themselves from the fixed order of things and official discussions. Thus it became the name of the magazine and the group.

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Illustrations to Dowid Hofsztejn Trojer's series of poems. The drawing includes fragments of the poems.
Marc Chagall

This is why the fragment of Mosze Broderzon’s “Cu di sztern” [To the stars] which reads “ We the young, we the joyous, singing rabble!” opened the “Chaliastre” almanac. The fragment was illustrated by Jicchock (Wincenty) Brauner’s drawing showing figures marching with a determined stride, raising their hands in a triumphant gesture. These figures form the letter aleph, the first letter of the Jewish alphabet and also the first letter of the word “awangard” (avant-garde). It was an excellent opening to a new chapter in the history of culture. 

Perec Markisz (1895-1952) who came to Poland from revolutionary Russia was the spiritus movens of the group. Other than him, the core members were Uri Cwi Grinberg (1984–1981) and Melech Rawicz (1983–1976), mentioned above. Griberg came to Warsaw from Galicia with the experiences gathered serving in the Austro-Hungarian army on the Serbian front. Melech Rawicz came from Vienna where he worked in a bank and wrote poetry inspired by the philosophy of Spinoza and the works of Walt Whitman. The Yiddish community in Vienna was small and the artist felt alienated. Warsaw was at the time the place, which tempted with the possibility of developing Yiddish culture and, maybe even especially, the ability to reach a large audience. This is what Rawicz wrote of his decision in his memoirs “ Warsze- Warsze- Warsze. The word possessed me like a dybbuk. I sung it day and night- a dark, powerful word.” (M. Rawicz, Dos majse buch fun majn lebn).

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Illustration from the "Chaliastre" almanac 
Wincenty (Jicchok) Brauner

Each of these three tenors published their own magazine. Markisz, in cooperation with J.J. Singer (the older brother of Jicchok Baszewis) edited the previously mentioned almanac “Chaliastre”, Rawicz published “Di Wog” and Grinberg “The Albatross”. Aesthetically the group was very heterogenic, connected by the rebellion against the literary and artistic establishment, the need to radically modernize Jewish literary and visual standards and the idea of close cooperation between representatives of different arts. Many artists worked with the group: Brauner, Wiktor (Zew) Weintraub, Marc Chagall, Henryk Berlewi or El Lissitzky, whose art we can find on the covers and pages of the group’s publications. It is worth remembering that it was on the ages of the group’s publications that the issue of abstract film or El Lisstzky’s proun theory were discussed for the first time in Poland. 

1924 can be determined as the end of the group’s activity. This short period was full of interesting artistic events and important publications. There were even scandals. Due to accusations of blasphemy and offending religious sensibilities the censors stopped the publication of “The Albatross” and its editor Uri Cwi Grinberg moved the magazine to Berlin. 

In fact Grinberg’s ideology later tuned away from that of his colleagues in the group. Disappointed with Europe the “kingdom of the cross”, as he described it in his poem, he left for Palestine in late 1923 and dedicated himself to Hebrew literature, viewing Yiddish writers critically. 

Perec Markisz started traveling extensively as early as the end of 1922, circling between Paris, Berlin, Warsaw, London and Palestine. In Paris in 1924, together with writer Ozer Warszawski, he published the second (and last) almanac “Chaliastre”. Also in 1924 he co-founded “Literarisze Bleter” in Warsaw, a magazine inspired by the “Literary News”. Late in 1926 he returned to Russia where he was murdered in 1952, together with many other writers, intellectuals and collaborators of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. This event is sometimes described as apogrom of Yiddish culture in the USSR. 

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The front cover of the first "Chaliastre" almanac
Władysław (Zew) Weintraub

Melech Rawicz remained in Poland where he served, from 1924 for an entire decade, as the secretary of the Association of Jewish Writers and Journalists with its headquarters in the famous Tlomackie 13.  The young avant-garde were heatedly opposed to the association, as part of the establishment, just a few years earlier.  

And so, to borrow Stanisław Grochowiak’s expression, the avant-garde rebellion settled down quickly and, other than their undoubted literary and artistic achievements, the “Chaliastre’s” most lasting and ironic impact on Warsaw seems to be the institution-like magazine “Literarisze Bleter” which continued to be published until the Second World War broke out in 1939. The first editorial team consisted of Mrkisz, J.J. Singer (co-editor of the first “Chaliastre” almanac), Melech Rawicz and critic Nachmen Majzil. Markisz and Singer left the magazine after the 28th issue but Rawicz continued to work there until issue no. 121. For a while, though starting only with issue no. 76(http://cbj.jhi.pl/documents/20278/), Brauner’s drawing from the “Chaliastre” almanac, appeared under the magazine’s header. The history of the most important Yiddish cultural and literary magazine is a whole separate tale.




Warszawska awangarda jidysz, ed. K. Szymaniak, M. Polit, Gdańsk 2005.

Polak, Żyd, artysta: tożsamość a awangarda, ed. J. Suchan, cooperation K. Szymaniak, Łódź 2010.

G. Rozier, Mojżesz Broderson: Od Jung Idysz do Araratu, transl. J. Ritt, Łódź [2008].

A. Geller, „Literarisze Bleter” (1924–1939), in: Studia z dziejów trójjęzycznej prasy żydowskiej na ziemiach polskich (XIX–XX w.), ed. J. Nalewajko-Kulikov, cooperation G. Bąbiak, A. Cieślikowska, Warsaw 2012.

dr Karolina Szymaniak