New York (Nov. 1)
Joseph Kerler, the 53-year-old Soviet Yiddish poet who was finally allowed to emigrate to Israel seven months ago declared that world Jewry has demonstrated through its “united mass effort” on behalf of Soviet Jewry, that it is “one nation with a common experience.” But while Kerler expressed his gratitude to Jews in America and throughout the Western world for helping Soviet Jews who want to emigrate to Israel, he warned that “if we do not increase our vigilance now over what is happening to Soviet Jews,” the anti-Jewish pogroms of the Stalin era “can be repeated now on a larger scale.” He said that Jews must unite with people all over the world in a common struggle, noting that what is happening to the Jews of Russia “is a danger to mankind.”
Kerler, accompanied by his wife, arrived in this country to address the Jewish Labor Committee’s 1971 biennial convention this weekend and will afterwards make a speaking tour of 20 cities in the US and Canada. The graying bushy-haired poet spoke in Yiddish to a group of newsmen here and said that “thousands” of young Jews “are in prison because they filed applications for exit visas.” He added that only the continuous expression of world public opinion on behalf of Soviet Jews can insure a future for them in the Soviet Union. Only if Soviet Jews “win the right to maintain contacts with the rest of world Jewry” will there be a future for them in Russia.
Kerler declined to discuss individual groups of Western Jews fighting the struggle for Soviet Jewry, but he emphasized the need to keep demonstrations peaceful. Kerler said he started to write poetry while on the front lines fighting for the Red Army against the Germans in World War II. He was arrested in 1948 shortly before his second book of poems was scheduled to appear, and he spent more than five years in a Soviet slave labor camp near the North Pole, where he worked as a coal miner. Though it was difficult to write while in prison, he continued to do so and subsequently smuggled out of the country a whole book of poems about a slave labor camp. Some of these poems appear in his recently published book, “Songs Through Gritted Teeth.”
Seated stiffly on the front edge of a chair and sometimes gesticulating with his hands, Kerler said that while officially there are over 100 Yiddish authors in Russia “I believe that there are only a few dozen real Yiddish writers.” Whereas before 1948 one publishing house put out 120 Yiddish works, he said, today, only about four or five Yiddish books are published each year. He acknowledged that “to transplant roots to a new country is a difficult problem” for “idealistic” Soviet Jews, but he said that “by and large,” the Soviet emigres to Israel know they will overcome the difficulties of “a rocky soil because the rocks are their own.” He said his 13-year-old son “felt happy to leave Russia and happier still to arrive in Israel.”