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Itzhak Katzenelson

(1886 - 1944)

Yitzhak Katzenelson was a poet and dramatist in Hebrew and in Yiddish. Born on July 1, 1886, in Korelichi, near Novogrudok, in Russia, he received his early education from his father, the Hebrew writer Jacob Benjamin Katzenelson. He later lived in Lodz, where he opened a Hebrew secular school of which he was principal until the outbreak of World War II. During this period he visited Palestine a number of times but did not realize his dream of settling there. During the early years of the war he was in the Warsaw ghetto where he witnessed the methodic annihilation of the Jewish community of Warsaw, including his wife and two of his sons, and where he joined the Jewish partisan organization Deror. In possession of a Honduran passport, he was transferred to the Vittel concentration camp in France, in May 1943. In April 1944, however, he was deported to Auschwitz, where he and his surviving son perished on May 3, 1944.

Katzenelson began his literary career in 1904, writing in Yiddish for Mordecai Spector's Yidishe Folkstsaytung and Peretz's Yidishe Bibliotek, and in Hebrew for Frischmann 's Ha-Dor. During the Holocaust he wrote prolifically in both Hebrew and Yiddish, and kept a Hebrew diary which is a moving eyewitness account of the period. His poem, Dos Lid fun Oysgehargetn Yidishn Folk ("Poem of the Murdered Jewish People," 1945) which he began in October 1943 and completed at Vittel in 1944, is one of the greatest literary expressions of the tragedy of the Holocaust. Written after he witnessed the extermination of the Jews, this poem gives a shattering account of what he saw and expresses his horror and grief, his protest and helplessness. While Katzenelson's songs and poems for children and his light verse gained him a reputation as a poet who wrote about youth and the joy of life, he also wrote sad, ironic, and sentimental songs about tragic aspects of life. He was greatly influenced by Heine, whose poems he translated into Hebrew. His poems, with their original style and rhythm, combine lightness with a deep elegiac tone.

Many of Katzenelson's poems were set to music and became favorite children's songs and Israeli folk songs. These include: Mah Yafim ha-Leylot bi-Khena'an; Raḥel Amdah al ha-Ayin; Ḥad Gadya; Heidad, Heidad; Ginnah Ketannah; Gillu ha-Gelilim; Ḥamesh Shanim al Mikha'el; and the Ḥanukkah play song Antiochus. In his Hebrew prose poem "Bi-Gevulot Lita" ("In Lithuania's Borders," 1909), he writes with depth and emotion about both the spiritual and the earthly. The major problem and purpose of existence is treated by Katzenelson in his dramatic poem "Ha-Navi" ("The Prophet," 1922), which he considered his greatest work. A number of Katzenelson's plays have been produced. His Hebrew works appeared in three volumes (1938); Ketavim Aḥaronim ("Final Works," 1947) was published posthumously. In 1950, an institute for research of the Holocaust, which bears his name, was established at Kibbutz Loḥamei ha-Getta'ot in Israel. Katzenelson's biblical play Al Neharot Bavel was published in 1995. An English translation of his Vittel Diary (May 1943–September 1943) was published in 1964. A translation of Dos Lid fun Oysgehargetn Yidishn Folk appeared as The Song of the Murdered Jewish People in 1980. Katzenelson's Ketavim appeared in 1982, followed by Yeḥiel Szeintuch's edition of Ketavim she-Niẓlu mi-Geto Varshah (1990).

Some of his works were hidden in Vittel and were transferred, after the war, to the archives of the Ghetto Fighters' House Museum that is named after him, in Kibbutz Lochamei Ha'Geta'ot.

[Elias Schulman]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica; A. Ben-Or, Toledot ha-Sifrut ha-Ivrit ha-Ḥadashah, 3 (1950), 120–9; Ẓ. Katzenelson-Nachumov, Yitẓḥak Katzenelson (Yid., 1948); J.J. Trunk, Poyln (1951), 145–66; Rejzen, Leksikon, 3 (1929), 539–46; Kressel, Leksikon, 2 (1967), 791–2; S. Even-Shoshan (ed.), Yesh li Shir le-Yaldei Yisrael (1954), 122, 125–34, 137–49. Additional Bibliography: S. Even-Shoshan, Y. Katzenelson Mekonen ha-Sho'ah (1964); N.H. Rosenbloom, "The Threnodist of the Holocaust," in: Judaism, 26 (1977), 232–47; Y. Szeintuch, "The Work of Y. Katzenelson in the Warsaw Ghetto," in: Jerusalem Quareterly, 26 (1983), 46–61; Y. Szeintuch, "Y. Katzenelson and His 'Vittel Diary,'" in: Jewish Book Annual, 42 (1984), 199–207; E. Shmueli, " Al Shirat Y. Katzenelson," in: Mi-Bifenim, 46:3 (1984), 339–50; E. Lahad, Y. Szeintuch, and Z. Shaner (eds.), Ha-Yeẓirah ha-Sifrutit be-Yiddish u-ve-Ivrit ba-Geto (1984).