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The grand scale of the small Kazakevich

The life story of a person who was “capable of reflection”

The life and fate of Emmanuil Kazakevich are quite unusual. People said of him that he survived where it was difficult or almost impossible to survive, and died when life seemed to promise at least two more decades of creative work and relative prosperity.

If we were to characterize Kazakevich and his work with short quotations, they would be: “he is capable of reflection” (his father Genrikh Lvovich Kazakevich), “a free and clever talent” (V.A. Kaverin), “clever warm-heartedness” (A.V. Efros), “a scintillating person” (K.G. Paustovsky), “he knew the secret of light conservation” (Kaverin again) “he was a born intelligence agent” (F.F. Volotsky), a “bold and independent mind” (E.V. Kardin), “A literary biography of particular difficulty “ (A.T. Tvardovsky about the Yiddish period of Kazakevich’s work), “drawn towards Columbus, drawn towards Mozart” (Kazakevich about himself during the war), “he was profoundly and organically musical” (Margarita Aliger), “there’s something in it” (Kazakevich on the experience of dying, quoted by A.S. Efron). On his own admission, he felt close to the Mozartian “strange mixture of laziness and incredible hard work, love of revelry and passion for creation, modesty and monstrous self-conceit.”

Emmanuil Kazakevich was born on 24 February 1913 in Kremenchug into the family of the Jewish journalist and literary critic Genekh (later Genrikh) Kazakevich. In 1916, on the insistence of his mother Yevgenia Borisovna, the family moved to Yekaterinoslav (now Dnepropetrovsk), a big city with wide opportunities for teaching and study. The sister of the writer, Galina, recalls this period: “We lived happily. I remember mother and father singing in a duet, I remember the songs they sang. Ema and I also sang along. Father had a very fine voice, he sang wonderfully, and played the concertina well. We all liked music very much, and singing, but most of all in our family we liked books.” After the October revolution of 1917, a difficult period began in the Kazakevich family: the father, a born revolutionary and orator, went to work in Gomel, the mother fell seriously ill for a lengthy period, and the children, Galya and Ema, were sent to an orphanage, where they were “hungry, we didn’t get any sugar at all, and we had mugs of boiling water with salt and breadcrumbs.” Ema suffered from dysentery for a long time, and later caught typhoid and survived by a miracle. His mother took him and his sister to Kiev, where their father had been sent, and the family was finally reunited.

In Kiev, Kazakevich senior worked a great deal, not only on editing a newspaper, and daily journalism, but literary criticism as well. He knew Russian literature well, the classics and Jewish literature – Sholom Aleichem, Mendel Mocher Sforim, Isaac Peretz, Opatoshu and many others. He liked to read Peretz and Sholom Aleichem aloud. He studied German and French by himself. He read to Galya and Ema, one child on each knee, reading Perrault’s fairytales in French and translating them. The Kazakevich house was always full of renowned and novice writers and poets. Such writers as Kvitko, Markish, Fefer, Fininber, Hofstein and many others would visit and stay for a long time, coming from other cities. Once Peretz Markish said to Ema’s mother: “Zhenya, soon your couch will speak in verse!” Poets would sleep on this couch, including him.

Famous artists, directors and composers were frequent guests at this house and were fond of Genrikh Lvovich. He was a handsome man, kind, sociable, quick-tempered and cheerful. And very artistic. He sang well, and was excellent at reading aloud. Once he even brought a book by Sholom Aleichem to a wedding and started reading. And everyone listened to him with great pleasure.

During the Great Patriotic War, in October 1942, Galina Kazakevich received a letter from her brother sent from Vladimir, in which he wrote about their father:

“You and I are the children of our father, a man of powerful moral health, an optimist, a cultured man like Brunion. I don’t know about you, but this helps me. In the worst times I have always heard father’s heart beating in me, and I have seen his smile…”

A little earlier, in 1940 in Moscow, Emmanuil wrote “Letters to my father in the other world”:

“I often think how much wise advice I could have got from you, if I had had the sense to ask you for advise when you were alive! But sense comes too late… You always had great faith in my works, and perhaps you weren’t critical enough. Thank you for that, father… With your profound understanding, you helped me to preserve faith in myself. And besides this “pedagogical” sense, perhaps you were actually right in your good opinion of me? But I don’t know that myself – this will be clear later.”

In 1972, the “Soviet writer” publishing house published a book of recollections about Emmanuil Kazakevich. The editor of the book, Lev Shubin, wrote in an internal review that in Ancient Greece there were no biographies like the ones nowadays – born, studied, worked somewhere, had or did not have children etc., and then died at a certain date. Biographies were only earned by people who did deeds in their lives. Shubin wrote that Kazekvich did three deeds in his life, and the first of them was his activity in the Jewish autonomous Oblast. The 18-year-old Jewish boy, a bespectacled poet, went to an unknown, unexplored land. He went to the Jewish autonomous Oblast to create a place where Jews would live, even if it was inside the Soviet Union. He was possessed by this desire.

He was tall, with blond, thick, slightly bushy hair, with thick glasses in a wire frame on his nose. His smile didn’t leave his face, even when he was serious – this is how the young Kazakevich was recalled by his friends in Birobidzhan in those years. He was an indefatigable walker. Once he walked from Leninsk to Yekaterino-Nikolsk, visiting the villages of Bidzhan, Ventselevo, Blagoslovennoe and Amurzet. Wherever he went, he felt at home everywhere. Everywhere he had friends and acquaintances: hunters, collective farmers, tractor driver and geologists. They liked him for his wit, heartiness and for his songs and poems that he read and sang superbly.

In Birobidzhan he gathered a group of novice poets and prose writers and at one meeting announced a competition for the best name for a literary group. No one else could come up with anything decent, and then Emmanuil stunned everyone:

“Bird’s milk,” he said.

“Why ‘Bird’s milk’?” the others said in surprise.

“When people want to say that they have everything they need, they usually say: ‘all we lack is bird’s milk’. And we young people will make this bird’s milk. We’ll make the finest and most wonderful things that we can!”

Kazakevich was the organizer and first director of the Birobidzhan theater. His “directorship” was not the ordinary kind, and he was not a director in usual sense of this word… The actor I. Kolin, who after he graduated from the theater academy went to join Kazakevich in Birobidzhan, writes: “Moscow. Krasnaya Presnya. The Lenin club – the base of the Birobidzhan theater. From the director’s office you can hear laughter, ecstatic shouts and applause. On the desk, on the couch, on the chairs and on the floor the young artists of the theater are sitting. In the middle of the office is a tall, thin young man in horned-rimmed spectacles, with his eyes burning in his emaciated face, with fine wavy hair, and stuttering a little, he is reciting lyric poetry. And it is not just lyrical, it is also sly… It is talented, wonderful poetry. And he even has one long ironic poem, and puns and epigrams. This was our director Emmanuil Kazakevich… Only the enthusiasm, romanticism, outstanding mind and eternal humor of Emmanuil were capable of taking experienced artists from Kiev, Odessa, Minsk and Moscow and luring them to Birobidzhan.”

“When Emmanuil was no longer the director, he went to see his successor on some matter, and the secretary stopped him: “Who do you want to see?” Kazakevich replied in surprise: “The director.” “Who are you, how should I announce you?” the well-trained secretary asked. “Alexander the Great,” Emmanuil replied. And this is how she announced him to the general laughter of those present.”

During his years in Birobidzhan Kazakevich wrote and translated a great deal. He translated Mayakovsky’s poems and his long poem “At the Top of My Voice” into Yiddish, along with poems by Pushkin, Lermontov and Heine, he translated “Uriel Akosta” by K. Gutskov and “Professor Polezheava” by L. Rakhmanov for the theater, wrote a verse play in Yiddish called “Milk and Honey”, which was performed for a long time on the theater stage. Kazakevich has an interesting idea in this play. He quite openly includes a Biblical reference in the name of the play, “And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8), and portrayed Birobidzhan, with a considerable dose of irony, as a new Israel – a land flowing with milk and honey.

In 1939, Kazakevich published a book of poems in Yiddish, “Di groise velt” (“The Big World”). The life and routine of settlers in Birobidzhan is portrayed with humor in his next book, the novel in verse “Sholom and Khave”. Ber Kotlerman later wrote about Kazakevich’s literary work in Yiddish: “There is a special blend of Jewish and Soviet elements, often presented in a very daring way. You need to read it armed with an understanding of Jewish culture. Kazakevich is very authentic, he is practically immune to pressure, he is not biased, like almost all of his contemporaries. Kazakevich is a whole era, with a special view of the world, which many people have difficulty in understanding today. Some of his poems are completely unknown in Russian. For example, the huge poem “Sholom and Khava”, which was published in Moscow shortly before the war. There’s a special Birobidzhan mythology in it – the creation of a new Jewish generation, no more and no less. Here’s an excerpt in my translation, where I tried to preserve the rhythm, the meter, and even the sound, where I could:

And let us see it: Israel
Has pitched its tents out there,
Where the boundless spring is shining
And where your tent was pitched.
Spring will be filled with beauty,
The glass will be filled with wine,
Khava will be filled with new life,
And the drizzle will be a summer’s day
And the crimson leaves will fall,
And snow will cover everything. I
t will be so: as the snow melts,
Then, from her and you
A new generation will rise.
And a golden peacock will come
To your door; the deer
Will wave its horns: rule us then,
The offspring of Sholem and Khava!”

The novel was submitted for printing on 5 May 1941 and was not published until its author was at the frontline. When he returned from the war after several injuries, the assistant to the head of the espionage department of the army Kazakevich continued to write. The story “The Star”, which Louis Aragon called the “best war story of our time” was written by Kazakevich in Russian – in the language in which he spoke for four years with soldiers, fought and lay in hospital.

It is widely believed that if a writer attempts to switch from their native language to another language, to move from their own national literature to another, this will not be a success, and they will not leave a noticeable mark in this new literature. Emmanuil Kazakevich is an exception. He made his mark in both Jewish and Russian literature. Genrikh Lvovich determined the nature of his talent back at the time when his son had just started to write:

“Ema likes to pose problems,” he said. “He works on a grand scale.”

After “The Star”, the writer published the story “Two in the Steppe”. He often said that this story was his favorite. Holding the journal, he smiled:

“I’m reading ‘Two in the Steppe’, and imagine, I can’t find any faults in it. There’s only a mistake in one place. I said that there were beehives set up next to a hut. That’s incorrect. Beehives aren’t set up next to huts.” He added: “I’m sure that this story will have a long life…”

Kazakevich died in 1962, before he reached the age of 50. He did not manage to achieve what he planned. “The whole world is full of subjects,” he wrote. Once he had a surprising thought: he had to write an encyclopedia of Soviet life over 25 years, a total of 5,000 pages. This is what he decided. And his own audacity and the grandiosity of the task stunned him. He calculated that he would need 12 years to carry out his plan. Then he prayed that fate would give him two more years, and then at least one more…

“The time of skinning hides has come,” he wrote in his diary in 1951. And he added: “Do I have enough passion for martyrdom?”

All his plans were stopped by death. For all of his achievements, Emmanuil Kazakevich in many ways remained a person of promise. He was filled with “playful forces”, as he wrote in his notebooks about his hero.

There are wonderful memoirs by Ariadna Efron, the daughter of Marina Tsvetaeva. Feeling gratitude for the help she was given in different periods of life by Pasternak and Kazakevich, she writes: “Pasternak was incredibly kind and responsive, but his kindness was just the highest form of egocentrism: as a kind person, he found it easier to live, work and sleep… Kazakevich, with the help he gave, rearranged and set right a world that was not his own, but the world of another person, and thus rearranged and improved the world in general.”

Once on a walk, looking at an old tree, he said to his friend T. Gen: “You see how unjust it all us. Perhaps we will soon be gone, but this tree, dried up and old, will keep standing…”

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