Previously : 23) The Harper Road Woman (c.60 AD) may have been a witness to the destruction of Roman London by Boudicca, whose name, according to 24) Judy Grahn (b.1940), was the origin of the term “bull-dyke”, a derivation also investigated by 25) SDiane Bogus (b.1946), whose poetry was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award in the same category as 26) Irena Klepfisz (b.1941).
26) Irena Klepfisz’s “A Few Words in the Mother Tongue: Poems Selected and New
(1971-1990)” was one of five nominations in the Lesbian Poetry category of the
3rd Lambda Literary Awards in 1991. His collection of poems gives just a
glimpse of Irena’s development as a poet. In particular it is a
semi-autobiographical examination of the role of language in its power to unite
and divide. Through her poetry, and “A Few Words in the Mother Tongue”, Irena
presents past and present atrocities as a connected sequence of events. The
politics and regimes may be different, the mechanics of persecution may be
different, but divisions based on culture, race, belief and language remain.
Perhaps there has never
been a period where language could mean life or death than during the Nazi
Holocaust of the 20th century. Irena Klepfisz knew this herself as a Polish Jew
in Warsaw. Irena’s father was an active member of the Jewish Labour Bund, an
organisation which campaigned for the rights of Jewish workers and their
families and the opposition of anti-semitism. He helped to get many Jews out of
the Warsaw ghetto as World War II began to grow in momentum. The bund party
went largely underground following the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 and some
of its leaders were executed. Jews were forced into ghettos and the Warsaw
ghetto was the largest with over 300,000 people. The Nazis then began to
transport them to the Treblinka extermination camp in 1942. Almost the entire
300,000 Jews were killed at Treblinka before anyone in the ghetto discovered
the truth – they were not being sent to labour camps, but to their death.
The remaining Jews in the
ghetto began an armed revolt in January 1943 and Irena Klepfisz’s father was
killed on the second day. Before the uprising Irena’s father had smuggled her
and her mother out of Warsaw, and afterwards they fled into the countryside. In
order to escape capture they posed as Christians. Because of this Irena was not
exposed to the Yiddish language that her family spoke.
After the war Irena and
her mother migrated to the USA. As a teenager Irena felt that she had “no
language in which I was completely rooted”. Her native language was Polish, and
she began to learn Swedish after fleeing Poland to Sweden, and a little Yiddish
as a child after the war, and now she had to learn a fourth language, English. Together
with the turmoil of her cultural heritage having been attacked by the Nazis
Irena realised that language could be divisive as well as a unifier. English is
the language which helped her to express her Yiddish heritage most personally
in her poetry. By the 1970s Irena Klepfisz was a well-known Yiddishist and
The immediate post-war
years were ones of establishing stability and unity in countries around the
world in the aftermath of the war. Being “different” to the rest of society was
not encouraged. I would suggest that once nations had begun to re-stabilise and
a new generation was growing up minority groups felt overlooked and often
victimised. Feminist groups, civil rights groups, and gay rights groups grew
during the mid 1950s onwards. So too did other cultural and ethnic groups.
Yiddish was among the many
diverse cultures which began to emerge from the shadows. A new generation of
Jews who had hardly heard any Yiddish, except from elderly relatives, began to
use the language widely. Irena Klepfisz was just one of many who began to teach
Yiddish and produce Yiddish literature.
It was in more recent
decades that there has been a growth in the lgbt Yiddish community, Queer
Yiddishkeit. In the 2000s it seemed that a large proportion of lgbt Jews in
America were embracing their Yiddish heritage.
One of the leading figures
in Queer Yiddishkeit has been 27) Eve
Sicular (b.1961). She is mainly associated with a style of traditional
Yiddish music called klezmer, a style mostly associated with celebrations. Like
Yiddish itself, klezmer regained popularity in the 1970s and was adopted by
many members of the Jewish lgbt community. Eve Sicular has formed several
klezmer bands since 1994. Her most successful band, Isle of Klezbos, won a
Grammy award in 2007.
As well as traditional Yiddish
music Eve Sicular has made her name as an expert on Yiddish film history.
Inspired by “The Celluloid Closet”, the popular ground-breaking book by Vito
Russo which chronicled the many lgbt references, influences and allusions in
film, Eve produced a study called “The Celluloid Closet of Yiddish Film”. This
was first published in “The Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Review” in 1994 and
quickly developed into a video lecture. In 1986 Eve actually went to one of
Vito Russo’s lectures, long before the documentary film of the same name was
produced (1995), and later in 1989 she invited him to give the lecture in
Eve used her knowledge and
experience as a curator of the Film and Television Archives at the YIVO
Institute for Jewish Research in the 1990s to create a project which is as
ground-breaking as Russo’s original. It has grown and developed and remains
popular. Eve is still presenting her video lecture 25 years later.
The original “The
Celluloid Closet” by Vito Russo was published in 1981 and been reprinted and
revised several times. Gay characters have appeared in film since the silent black
and white days and were portrayed often as the “sissy” and “nancy boy” that
Hollywood later preferred.
Next year is the centenary
of an early silent film featuring a gay lead character. “Different From the
Others” (“Anders als die Andern” in its original German) is a black and white
silent film released in June 1919. It has been described as the world’s first
pro-gay film. The plot is similar to that of the much later British 1961 film “Victim”
in that the lead character is blackmailed because of his sexuality.
The film has a deliberate
social message. At several points in the film one of the supporting characters,
a doctor, gives speeches which are aimed more at the viewer (and the
authorities) than the characters in the film. He describes homosexuality as
normal and not to be suppressed. The film ends with the words “Paragraph 175”
being crossed out in a book. Paragraph 175 was the anti-gay laws introduced
into Germany in 1871 and which was the catalyst for the Nazi persecution that
The doctor in the film was
not an actor but a real doctor. No ordinary doctor, but one who was uniquely
qualified to speak on homosexuality. He was the pioneering German sexologist
and gay right campaigner 28) Dr.
Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935).
Next time :
We learn why most people weren’t able to see the film in full, and how the
legacy of Magnus Hirschfeld takes us to Africa, Tonga and the Galaxy.