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From Misnk to Pinsk for Belarus’ Oldest Yiddish Writer, Painful Past a Part of His Present World

March 19, 2004
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Grigory Reles has a lot to cry about.

Belarus’ greatest living Yiddish writer and last literary link to shtetl life here breaks into tears twice during a recent two-hour conversation. The first comes when the nonagenarian fondly recalls his mother, Reyzl. His voice is soon choked with emotion, and Reles refuses to discuss her further.

It’s the second tearful episode that is more surprising. It comes while he recounts the 1930s and the fate of colleagues in the Jewish section of the vaunted Belarussian Writers Union. The Minsk branch was decimated during Stalin’s Great Terror of 1935-38 — blood-drenched purges that claimed countless writers and poets of all ethnic groups among the thousands who died across the Soviet Union.

In Minsk, writers like Moshe Kulbak and Izzy Kharik fell victim.

Reles’ memory is sometimes a bit hazy, and he often cups his right ear to hear better, but his voice is robust and animated. Especially when describing his former comrades.

“There were many great writers among them,” he says. “They wrote many classics that are now in the libraries of the world. They must not be forgotten.”

Chastened by the demise of his literary friends, Reles says he learned “to keep my nose out of politics. I never gave any reason to be disliked, never acted against the law. Nevertheless, there was awful persecution.”

Reles grew up in Chashniki, a northern shtetl of 10,000 souls and humble wooden homes that was almost purely Jewish. Even the few Russian families in town spoke Yiddish, he says.

His father, Leyb, was well-educated and a writer himself, literate in both Yiddish and Hebrew. He stopped writing when he married so he could concentrate on supporting his family.

Grigory began writing poetry when he was 12, and his father encouraged him to do it in his mother tongue, Yiddish, “because it was the language of our people.”

In prose, though, he turned to Russian. It felt more conducive, just as Yiddish did to poetry. “I could write poetry in Russian,” he says, “but it comes out like kid’s writing.”

His poetry was first published at 16. At 19, he took a job in nearby Vitebsk, then Belarus’ largest city, as a reporter at Junger Arbeiter, or Young Worker.

Reles would go on to gain renown as a writer and teacher, focusing his poetry and prose more on the natural world around him and “the philosophical, the psychological.”

He has written six books of prose in Russian, in addition to his Yiddish poetry. His self-imposed detachment would be interrupted only by the Holocaust.

Called to military service, Reles left behind wife, Anya, and 4-year-old daughter, Roza.

A Russian family protected them for a bit, he says, but someone informed on them to the occupying Nazis. Mother and daughter were taken and shot on Jan. 29, 1942.

Today, Reles lives alone in a drab three-story, yellow-brick apartment block in a neighborhood of nearly identical housing blocks. Inside, the building has cracked stairs and graffiti in the hallways.

He and his second wife, Pearlina, lived in a two-room apartment here for 30 years before she died a few years back. Books fill multiple bookshelves and are also stacked on chairs and couches. A wood-paneled, glass-enclosed cabinet typical of Soviet homes is stuffed with typical fare: ceramic ornaments and cut glass. A small portrait of Jerusalem’s Western Wall hangs on a wall.

Reles earns a relatively handsome monthly pension of 160,000 rubles, about $76 per month, plus a modest 15,000 rubles from the local Hesed, the Jewish welfare agency, for being a writer. He says he doesn’t need the Hesed food packages that most Jewish retirees here do, but accepts an extra few pounds of fish each month.

“My demands aren’t great, so it’s good enough for me to get by,” he says.

He spends most of his time reading — he had memorized but is now rereading Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” for a 20th time.

Among the guests who drop in on Reles is Elissa Bemporad, a doctoral candidate from California’s Stanford University who has lived in Minsk for several months to research the history of Minsk Jews during the 1920s and 1930s.

Bemporad said she spends each Shabbat with Reles, enjoying the Yiddish conversation and Reles’ reminiscences.

“He is the only Jew I have so far met in Minsk who can speak Yiddish fluently. It truly is his mother tongue,” Bemporad says. “The rest of the older generation has basically no knowledge of the language or has forgotten it almost completely.”

Viewed as Belarus’ most famous Jew, Reles nowadays writes only occasionally.

“I’m not able to write like I used to,” he says, “and I don’t want to write bad verses.”

Three Belarussian Jewish writers who endured the Great Terror survive today, but Reles is the only one still living in Belarus. Hayim Gurevitch lives outside Jerusalem and Pinye Plotkin lives in Los Angeles. Both are a few years younger than Relis.

As a relic of a bygone era, Reles is picked up and driven each summer to Vilnius, Lithuania, to lecture and teach at an annual international conference on Yiddish literature.

“If I’m alive, I’ll go this summer. It’s important for them and important for me,” he says. “If anyone had told me Yiddish would be disappearing and Hebrew would be a national language, I would never have believed them. No one can predict the future, but one thing’s for sure: all great Jewish literature has been written in Yiddish, and literature will never disappear.”

On a recent December day, Reles greets visitors wearing a checkered flannel pajama-like shirt buttoned to the top, sweatpants and a pair of tattered slippers.

He sits at a nondescript table, in a folding chair, with a small manual typewriter pushed to the right-hand corner. He’s proofreading the text of his latest book. The subject? The Union of Writers. In Russian, Reles is writing and compiling profiles of each and every member of the Jewish section.

“If I weren’t writing this,” says Reles, sadness now replaced by indignation, “nobody would remember them.”

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