On the 35th yahrzeit of Leib Feinberg, the pages of the Forverts devoted to Pearls of Yiddish Poetry featured the adventuresome life and the passionate penitent poetry of this unusual genius. A graduate of Moscow University (1919) he became an officer of the Red Guard. For most of his early life, he was a dedicated Communist, singing the praises of the Stalinist regime. He became a staff writer for the Communist Freiheit. Following the Hitler-Stalin pact, however, he broke from the Communist Party and devoted much of his poetry to the theme of penitence.
What follows is one such poem, transliterated from the Yiddish by Goldie Gold and then followed by an English version by Gus Tyler.
Fargib mir, Got: a dikhter — a bal-tshuve,
Ikh lig far dir a zindiker in shtoyb;
Es hot mayn lid demroshe un menuvl
Gereykhert vayrokh un gezungen loyb.
Mir hobn di proste montiks
In yontef farvandlen gevolt
Nor mir hobn aleyn zikh farplontert
Vi malpes, in rod fun derfolg.
Mir hobn vi troymen mayove
Gekholemt a naye velt
Nor gearbet hobn mir sam-hamoves
Un umkum un til-un-tel.
Mir habn gekemft far frayhayt
Far dem vos iz orem un shvakh
Nor der reter gevorn iz khaye
Koym er hot nor bekumen di makht
Mir hobn gehoybn dos hitl
Far a gets vos gefelsht hot in tsil…
Forgive me, God, I am a penitent
My life in many sinful ways I spent
My poetry in shameful words did praise
A villain vile who darkened all our days.
We turned the weekdays into holidays
To praise a monster and his wicked ways
We dreamt our deeds would bring a better world
The flag of human freedom we unfurled.
Instead we helped to strengthen slavery
By men whose life was sheerest knavery
For once in power they reversed their goal
Forgive me, God, and help me purge my soul!
In his last will and testament, he wrote: Nisht trog tsu mayn keyver undzer rote fon, nor dem tales — Do not carry a red flag to my grave, but a prayer shawl.
What follows is the text of the will and testament as relates to his ultimate beliefs:
Iz viklt mikh ayn in mayn zeydns tales
In dem zelbern kleyd fun mayn likhtikn shtam
Un lernen mayn tate zol a peyrek mishne
Un tsadoke tseteyln mit a breyter hant.
Un zogn a kadesh bay mayn shtiler levaye,
Vayl mayn zun ligt a kodesh in Birobidzhan
Un ven ikh vel lign a toyter in keyver
Mit farvorfenem kop tsu dem mizrakh gevendt,
Kritst oys oyf mayn posheter, groyer matseyve
Mayn tatens tsvey heylik tseduknte hent,
Un unten — mayn nomen un dem nomen fun tatn
In tsvey poshete shures — un mer nisht keyn vort
Poy — nitmen — a kemfer, vemes fon hot farratn
Iy im, iy zayn gantsn farmishpetn dor.
Cover me in my granny’s prayer shawl
For that’s the garment of my people all
From mishne let my father something learn
To charity his money he should turn.
And at my grave, a Kaddish he will say:
“In Birobidjan, my son a martyr lay.”
And when I’m dead and quiet in my grave
My head turned east as on a giant wave.
Then on the tombstone let someone engrave
My father’s hands in prayer my soul to save
And underneath my father’s name and mine
Two simple lines that will our lives define.
“Here lies a fighter whose flag did him betray
“Both him and all who shared his ill-starred day!”