Jewish children in Warsaw 1897, Photo by B.W. Kilburn
Poet, teacher, survivor
by Diana Matut
Kadya Molodowsky's life spanned many languages, countries, works and people and began - relatively ordinary. Born in the shtetl of Byaroza (now Belarus), like many girls of her time, she was taught by her grandmother to read Yiddish and say the prayers. Her father, however, also introduced her to religious Hebrew scriptures and hired private tutors to give Kadya a Russian secular education. This broad educational horizon opened up the world to her and laid the groundwork for her to train as a teacher herself.
In 1920, she moved with her husband Simcha Lev from Kiev to Warsaw, where she built a new life for herself, worked as a teacher and became part of a young literary elite that wrote confidently in Yiddish and was in conflict with tradition and religion. Here Molodowsky made a name for herself as a poet who wrote for both children and adults.
War and violence repeatedly broke into Kadya Molodowsky's life. She survived the pogroms in Kiev, but the children in her school classes were also often marked by experiences of violence - be it the expulsions of the First World War, the pogroms in Eastern Europe or the living conditions on the edge of subsistence in cities like Warsaw.
Emigration to the USA in 1935 saved Kadya Molodowsky's life, but the consequences of the Shoah also left their mark on her life and work. Some of her best-known poems today are reactions to these traumatic experiences of loss.
After the war, she spent several years in Israel (1949-1952), but returned to the USA, where she died in 1975.
For a long time she was known mainly for the Hebrew translations of her children's poems, and many people in Israel were unaware that they had originally been written in Yiddish.
It is only in recent decades that Kadya Molodowsky's work has again attracted greater attention. New text editions and translations have appeared and she is now considered one of the greatest poets of Yiddish modernism, an important voice of female Jewish emancipation, an advocate for the non-privileged and a witness to the Jewish experiences of the twentieth century.
“In the streets of Warsaw, one often met children selling shoelaces, buttons, pencils, bagels, bottles of kvass, and other poor merchandise. These children were helping their parents supplement their meagre livelihoods. “