Itsik Fefer and Shlomo Mikhoels meet with Albert Einstein. Princeton, 1943. (via YIVO Archives)
Itsik Fefer (1900–1952), Yiddish poet. Born in Shpola, Ukraine, Itsik Fefer was 12 years old when he began to work at a printing shop. In 1917 he joined the Bund and became a trade union activist. A Communist from 1919, he served in the Red Army. He began writing poems in 1918, and in 1922 joined Vidervuks (New Growth) in Kiev, a group of young Yiddish literati whose mentor was Dovid Hofshteyn.
Fefer was known for his literary credo of proste reyd (simple speech), a concept he formulated in 1922. In the early 1920s, poetry, particularly avant-garde poetry, swamped the literary pages of Soviet Yiddish periodicals. This phenomenon worried editors and critics, who were wary of the fact that Yiddish readers usually could not identify with this style of literature. All Yiddish readers, by contrast, could understand Fefer’s proste reyd.
Fefer published his poetic cycle Bliendike mistn (Manure in Bloom) in 1929, which he presented as a travelogue of a trip he took back to Shpola. He believed that the shtetl could be revitalized as a center of Jewish life and culture and could be the grounds for a new Soviet Jewish nation. Yet his poetic eye did not overlook general industrialization projects, and he was happy to see young Jewish men and women among the romantic builders of Communist society. In the 1930s, Fefer also concentrated on the Birobidzhan nation-building project; his book Birobidzhaner lider (Birobidzhan Poems) was published in 1939. At the same time, he wrote many lyrical poems, some of which were set to music.
During World War II, Fefer was an agent of the secret police on the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC). In 1943, he and Solomon Mikhoels, the committee’s chair, visited the United States, Canada, Mexico, and England, successfully mobilizing pro-Soviet support. National pride runs through his poetry of that period. The poem “Ikh bin a Yid” (I Am a Jew) is the best-known sample of such Soviet Jewish patriotism. Fefer includes in his Soviet Jewish genealogy such figures as Bar Kokhba, King Solomon, Baruch Spinoza, Isaak Levitan, Iakov Sverdlov, and Lazar Kaganovich. In his 1948 poem “A vending tsu Peretsn” (An Address to Peretz), Fefer declares a pedigree of Soviet Yiddish literature. He crowns Y. L. Peretz as the genius of Yiddish literature, whereas Sholem Aleichem, the central figure in the Soviet Yiddish literary canon, appears only as part of Peretz’s entourage, which also includes Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, Dovid Bergelson, and Der Nister.
As did many Soviet Jews, Fefer enthusiastically welcomed the establishment of the State of Israel. He argued that the new state was the concern of the entire Jewish people and that the heroism of Soviet people contributed more to its creation than American Zionism. In the late 1940s, however, Stalin’s regime had no use for Communists who cherished Jewish national hopes. Fefer was arrested in 1948, together with other members of the JAC. He was executed on 12 August 1952.
In the 1990s, the publication of archival materials dealt a blow to the posthumous reputation of Fefer: during the persecution of the JAC, his testimony was central to the prosecution’s case.