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The Enduring Relevance of Avrom Radutski’s Poetry

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Phil Alexander finds contemporary echoes in the poetry of Avrom Radutski.

At the beginning of 2020, recently embarked upon a British Academy fellowship exploring Scottish-Jewish musical encounters, I was looking forward to days spent leisurely mining the Garnethill Synagogue Archives, the National Library of Scotland, the British Library, and so many other physical treasure chests. 

These plans have of course changed, at least for the time being, and a couple of months ago the rich online resources of the Yiddish Book Center brought me to the life and poetry Avrom Radutski. Although I am neither a poet nor a Yiddishist, the absence of English language material about this unusual man persuaded me to take on a couple of his poems.

Avrom Radutski (1873-1928) was born in Rzhyshchiv, Kiev gubernia, to preacher stock. The eldest of ten children, he was apprenticed as a teenager to a locksmith, at the same time firing his own literary dreams with Ponson du Terrail’s heroic adventures of Rocambole. In 1890, the seventeen year-old Radutski emigrated to Glasgow (his younger brother Chaim had made the same move a year earlier) to work in Mitchell’s Cigarette Factory. It was here that his romantic, reflective sensibilities met head-on with the harsh working conditions and social deprivation of late 19th century industry—turning the lyrical, introspective poet into an activist and political organiser. He helped found Scotland’s first cigarette workers union and led a number of strikes before automation forced him and many of his co-workers into unemployment. Like his better-known friend Morris Winchevsky, many of Radutski’s poems addressed—through a mixture of the sardonic and the wistful—the systemic inequalities and daily hardships of urban working-class life. His poems and sketches were published in the radical London paper der arbayter fraynd, Glasgow’s idishe tsaytung, and other UK Yiddish journals such as der vanderer and dos fraye vort, often under the pen-names ish b’glazgo or a glazgover idene. Throughout 1905, he also contributed a semi-regular briv fun shotland to St Petersburg’s daily newspaper der fraynd, in which he documented increased migration to and through Glasgow, as well as the ongoing struggle for workers’ rights.

Radutski emigrated to the US in 1906, his family following a year later, where he found work as a poet, sketch writer and journalist with a large number of Yiddish newspapers. His poems were also published in anthologies by Mani Leyb, Morris Basin and others. After losing his eldest daughter Rebecca to the 1927 influenza epidemic, Radutski became increasingly unwell, his depression compounded by worsening asthma. He died on March 21, 1928.

These two poems come from either end of Radutski’s output. Di gelt-zek was his first published poem, appearing in der arbayter fraynd in the 1890s. The second was one of several written after Rebecca’s death, towards the end of Radutski’s own life. Both poems were reprinted in N.B. Minkoff’s Pionern fun Yidisher poezye in Amerike, vol.2 (Grenich, New York, 1956), which is where I found them, along with the biographical material given here. I have taken several liberties with the first text, opting for a looser and slightly tongue-in-cheek version of Radutski’s original—which remains disappointingly relevant today. The second is more faithful to the Yiddish: its pandemic-framed themes of loss, sadness and solitude need little updating for our Covid-19 times.

The Fat Cats (di gelt-zek) 
As long as workers turn the wheels, 
And farmers sow the fields, 
Unskilled labour works for pennies, 
While we keep on grabbing coal, 
Keep the brickies on our payroll – 
We’re the boss 
 
As long as we can win elections, 
Let reformers bicker corrections, 
In trendy jackets and no hat, 
While others look to those on high, 
Sending prayers up to the sky – 
We’re in charge 
 
Long as the polls dance to our drum, 
And we drop an occasional crumb, 
For the waiting press to snap, 
To show we care, to share our tears, 
From our screens to God’s ears – 
We’re alright 
 
Just as long as no one feels 
That in their will, in their ideals 
Lies the power to be free, 
And silently turn the keys 
That lock the chains of hunger, of disease – 
We’re in the money… 
די געלט–זעק
זאָ לאַנג די אַרבעטער וועלן די רעדער דרייען, 
און די בויערן די פעלדער זייען, 
און משרתים דינען טריי, 
און די מיינער פון דר׳ערד קוילן רויען, 
און די בריקלער פאַר אונדז הייזער בויען, – 
קענען מיר הערשן פריי. 
 
זאָ לאַנג ’שטימקאַסטן’ וועט עקסיסטירן, 
און רעפאָרמער רעפאָרמירן, 
בלויז רעקלעך היטן פריי, 
און דאָס פאָלק אין הימעל בליקן, 
דעם פון אויבן ביטעס שיקן, – 
קענען מיר הערשן פריי. 
 
זאָ לאַנג ’שטימקאַסטן’ וועט עקסיסטירן, 
וועלן מיר צואוואַרפן אַ שטיקעלע ברויט 
און די ’פּרעס’ דערביי 
וועט אונדז שמייכלען, וועט אונדז לויבן, 
אונדזער גוטסקייט ביזן הימעל הויבן, – 
קענען מיר הערשן פריי. 
 
זאָ לאַנג דער אַרבייטער וועט ניט פילן, 
אַז נאָר אין זיין אייגן ווילן 
ליגט די מאַכט צו הערשן פריי, 
און וועט שווייגנד די קייטן טראָגן, 
ליידן הונגער, ליידן פּלאָגן, – 
קענען מיר הערשן פריי... 

Alone with my grief and sadness, 
Alone with my corners four, 
No one knocks at my gate, 
No one comes to my door. 
  
As if I were a leper, 
A hideous, terrible pest, 
People shun with fear, 
My lonely, desolate nest. 
  
Oh misery, vast and all mine, 
Death that is gruesome! 
You’ve robbed my life of light, 
Wrecked my peaceful home.
 
אַליין מיט מיין אומגליק און טרויער, 
אַליין אין די ווינקעלעך פיר, 
עס קלאַפּט ניט קיין מענטש אין מיין טויער, 
ס׳קומט ניט קיין מענטש צו מיין טיר. 
 
ווי געוועזן וואָלט איך אַ מצורע, 
אַ גרויזאַמע שרעקלעכע פּעסט. 
ס׳ווייכן די מענטשן מיט מורא 
מיין איינזאַם פאַרלאָזענעם נעסט. 
 
אָ, אומגליק דו מיינער, דו גרויסער, 
דו גרויזאַמע טויט, וואָס דו ביסט! 
האָסט פאַרלאָשן ס׳ליכט פון מיין לעבן: 
מיין פרידלעכע שטוב מיר פאַרוויסט...
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Phil Alexander is a British Academy postdoctoral fellow at the University of Edinburgh, where he researches historical Scottish-Jewish musical life. His book on Berlin klezmer will be out with OUP very early in 2021.
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