Icchak Katzenelson (1886-1944), poet, teacher, author of plays writing in both Yiddish and Hebrew, author of the famous poem "Song of the Murdered Jewish People", perished in Auschwitz in May 1944.
He was born in Korelicze near Minsk (today in Belarus). He was the son of Hinda, nee Davidson and Beniamin Katzenelson, who was a teacher and writer. Shortly after Icchak was born the whole family moved to Łódź.
Icchak was considered a child prodigy – as a twelve year old he wrote the play Dreyfuss and Esterhazy in Hebrew and since 1899 he published his poems in Hebrew periodicals. He put out his first, two-volume collection of Hebrew poetry Dimdumim (Dusks) in 1910. His poems were like a shot of vitality, optimism and humour. In 1912 he founded the theatre "Habima Haivrit" ("The Hebrew Scene"), with which he performed and traveled. He also started a Yiddish drama group, which staged his own plays as well as works by Sholem Aleichem, Yitskhok Leibush Peretz, Peretz Hirshbein. He also took up translating literature into Hebrew – above all he worked on poems by his favorite poet Heinrich Heine.
At the same time Katzenelson also wrote in Yiddish. In 1909 he published a book of poems entitled Di zun fargeyt in flamen (The Sun Goes Down in Flames). In this work the poet shows his fascination with light, with the play of shadows and with Jewish folklore. Katzenelson displayed similar interests in his texts written for the press.
After a short military service and a failed attempt to find employment in the textile industry Katzenelson took up teaching, which he became very fond of. Together with members of his family he founded a whole school complex: a Hebrew kindergarten, a common school and a secondary school. He was utterly devoted to his students. He published Hebrew textbooks for his pupils, which he prepared in different versions for various age groups. He also issued collections of literary texts – in total he put out approximately 34 books meant for academic use.
Calling him a political activist would be an overstatement, but he firmly approved of Zionism, which postulated the rebirth of Jewish life in Palestine and the renewal of the Hebrew language. He was a member of the youth organization HeChaluc (Pionier) and he visited Israel twice. However he didn’t settle down there. Yiddish was as close to him as Hebrew, which distinguished him from the Zionists.
In 1938 he published his Hebrew poetry in 3 volumes. These poems were much different to the earlier ones. An atmosphere of sadness and irrevocable doom appeared. The distribution of the three-volume book was halted because of the outbreak of the II World War. For this reason, relatively few people were given the opportunity to read the publication. Those copies that survived ended up in Palestine and it was long before Katzenelson was rediscovered as a writer, who portrayed his people in the eve of the great catastrophe.
On the 9th of September 1939 Łódź was captured by the German forces. Katzenelson's schools were closed down – their building became the Gestapo headquarters. After three months of hiding the poet fled to Warsaw. His wife and their three sons followed.
In the Warsaw ghetto Katzenelson was hired by Itzhak "Antek" Cukierman – one of the future leaders and heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. After months of feeling down and empty the poet found something that made him an active man again. He began to write for the underground Zionist newspaper "Dror" ("Freedom") and he also decided to act as a tutor once more. In the ghetto Katzenelson educated secondary school students – he lectured on Hebrew literature and on the Bible. He started a drama group, which presented chiefly Biblical stories. It performed amongst others in Janusz Korczak's orphanage. In the headquarters of "Dror" in 24 Dzielna street readings of the Tora were held every week. Those who gathered commented on the recited fragments. "Dror" even acted as a publishing house and issued Katzenelson's play Hiob, which was written in Yiddish. This was the only proper book to be published in the Warsaw ghetto.
During his ghetto years Katzenelson chiefly created in Yiddish, so his works could be understood by as many people as possible. Two poems from this period are exceptionally dramatic: Dos lid vegn Shloyme Żelichowski (Song about Shloyme Żelichowski) and Dos lid vegn Radziner (Song of the Radzyner). Both of these versified compositions tell about martyrdom, death, heroism and faithfulness to the Jewish people.
In July 1942 the poet's wife Chana and his two younger sons were taken to Treblinka, where they were all murdered. Katzenelson was shattered by this turn of events but he still had one son left, which gave him the strength to remain active. He participated in the early stages of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising until he and his son were relocated to a bunker outside the ghetto. They managed to obtain documents stating that they were foreigners and they were eventually sent to a detainee camp in Vittel in France. There the author created Pinkas Vittel (The Vittel Book) and his best known poem Dos lid fun oysgehargeten yiddishen folk (Song of the Murdered Jewish People).
On the 18th of January 1944 he finished the last verses, after which he began to correct what he wrote. When all was ready he made a few copies of the text. Two months later the detainees in Vittel were pronounced stateless persons and they were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. On the 1st of May they arrived at their destination and all of them were killed right away including Itzhak Katzenelson and his son Tsvi.
From the six copies of the poem that Katzenelson hid in various places of the camp or gave to people whom he trusted, two were found and taken to Palestine. The poet’s works from the Warsaw ghetto made it to Palestine in a similar manner. Shortly before the deportation operation commenced Mordekhay Tennenbaum, one of the leaders of "DrorHeChaluc" and an insurgent in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, hid some of Katzenelson's writings together with "Dror’s" archives. After the war, all that was recovered from this deposit was taken abroad. Katzenelson’s works may now be found in the Lohamei HaGeta’ot (Hereos of the Ghetto) kibbutz, where the Icchak Katzenelson and Jewish Resistance Heritage Museum also known as the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum was created in 1949.
Author: Bella Szwarcman-Czarnota, April 2013
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