Reyzl Zhikhlinski was a poet who wrote in Yiddish. She was born in Gąbin, Mazovia on the 27th of July, 1919, and died on the 13th of June, 2001, in Concord, USA.
She was the daughter of Mordechai and Dvoyra née Appel. It wasn’t easy for Zhikhlinski's father, an undertaker, to support his large family (Reyzl had a sister named Chana and three brothers), so he moved to the USA. He wanted his family to join him – that’s why he returned home twice, but Dvoyra didn’t agree to leave, fearing that the children would abandon the family religion and be assimilated. Mordechai Zhikhlinski died alone in Chicago in 1928.
Reyzl Zhikhlinski attended a Polish public school and afterwards she was tutored for three years by a private teacher. She wrote her first poems in Polish when she was twelve. She later began to write in Yiddish and kept writing in that language until the end of her life. In 1928 she sent her poems to the then well-known critic Melech Ravitch, who was the editor of the poetry debut column in Folkscajtung, a daily Yiddish publication. Ravitch reacted enthusiastically to Zhikhlinski’s poems and published them.
In 1934 and 1935, she worked as an educator at an orphanage in Włocławek. In an autobiographical note written toward the end of her life, Zhikhlinski stated humorously that she received that position not thanks to her qualifications, but because the director of the orphanage had read her poems and had come to the conclusion that a person of such sensitivity would be great at taking care of children.
Żychlińska's first volume of poetry Poems / Lider was published by the Jewish PEN-Club in 1936. The afterword was written by Itsik Manger, who then was already a renowned poet, and the famous painter Yankel Adler designed the cover. Manger called Zhikhlinski’s poems a “revelation”. In 1937 this volume received an award from the modernist literary magazine In Zich.
Zhikhlinski moved to Warsaw in the same year, where she worked in a bank as a clerk. Just before the outbreak of World War II she published another volume of poetry, titled The Rain Sings / Der regn zingt.
She spent the war in the USSR together with her husband Izaak Kanter, a psychiatrist from Kolomyia. Her son Marek was born in Kazan in 1943.
After the war she came back to Poland, but not for long – she learned that almost all of her family had been killed in Chełmno and Treblinka. The poet visited Gąbin, but her memories and the post-war reality proved to be too painful for her. She lived in Lower Silesia for some time. At a certain point the poet moved to Łódź. In 1947 she published the volume of poetry Toward Brighter Shores / Tzu loytere bregn.
Together with her husband and son, Zhikhlinski left Poland in 1948 – at first they went to Paris, and then to the USA, where the poet graduated in English literature and biology from New York’s City College and literature and philosophy at the New School for Social Research.
She published the following volumes of poetry: in the USA – Silent Doors / Shvaygndike tirn (1963) and Autumn Squares / Harbstike Skvern (1966), in Paris – November Sun / Di nowember zun (1978), in Tel Aviv – New Poems / Naye lider (1993).
Most of the post-war works of Zhikhlinski bear the mark of the Holocaust, but they also include poems that are lyrical, sometimes wayward, but always brief.
In 1975 Zhikhlinski received the prestigious Itzik Manger poetry award.
Two years later, a volume of English translations of her poems appeared. This volume is titled God Hid His Face and includes translations by Barnett Zuroff, Marek Kanter and Aaron Kramer, amongst others.
In German, the volumes Bird Bread / Vogelbrot and God’s Blind Eyes / Gottes blinde Augen (1998) were published. The first one was translated by Hubert Witt, the second one is a bilingual publication which featured translations and comments by Karina Kranhold. Additionally, in 2002 the bilingual volume Poems / Die Gedichte was released. It was translated and published by Hubert Witt. In 2007 the volume Silent Doors / Portes muettes was issued in French. This publication was translated, edited and given a foreword by Rachel Ertel.
Reyzl Zhikhlinski’s poems translated by Barbara Sadowska, Jerzy Górzański and Zbigniew Jerzyna may be found in the Anthology of Jewish Poetry / Antologia poezji żydowskiej (1983), which was edited by Arnold Słucki and Salomon Łastik. Bella Szwarcman-Czarnota’s translations of Żychlińska’s poems appeared in the periodical Midrasz no. 6/16.
Author: Bella Szwarcman-Czarnota, September 2014
Melech Ravitch, Rayzl Zychlinski, in: Majn Leksikon, Montreal 1945, pp. 99 – 100; Karina von Tippelskirch, Also das Alphabet vergessen? Di jiddische Dichterin Rajzel Zychlinski, Marburg 2000.