Today’s par­ents are accus­tomed to rely­ing on children’s books to instill moral val­ues; lessons such as the impor­tance of car­ing for the vul­ner­a­ble strike us as unob­jec­tion­able and uni­ver­sal. The idea of a children’s book with a polit­i­cal mes­sage, how­ev­er, would reg­is­ter as unseem­ly with many con­tem­po­rary read­ers. But this wasn’t always the case. In the 1920s and 30s, children’s lit­er­a­ture offered an espe­cial­ly hos­pitable are­na for polit­i­cal­ly ten­den­tious writ­ing. Where­as an overt­ly ide­o­log­i­cal plot­line or nar­ra­tive voice might have been off-putting to adult read­ers — espe­cial­ly as this was dur­ing the height of lit­er­ary mod­ernism— sim­ple, direct mes­sages were con­sid­ered ben­e­fi­cial to juve­nile readers.

At this time, Yid­dish cul­tur­al lead­ers empha­sized edu­ca­tion as a path­way to form­ing a new kind of Jew — sec­u­lar, phys­i­cal­ly fit, round­ly edu­cat­ed, and lit­er­ate in Jew­ish cul­ture — a Jew lib­er­at­ed from what they con­sid­ered to be the super­sti­tions and reli­gious pieties of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. Com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions in Europe and New York allo­cat­ed hefty resources to estab­lish­ing an infra­struc­ture of schools (in Poland and Rus­sia), after schools (in the Amer­i­c­as), sum­mer camps, and orphan­ages. These insti­tu­tions were in turn fur­nished with books and peri­od­i­cals pub­lished by press­es ded­i­cat­ed to pro­mot­ing par­tic­u­lar ide­olo­gies. As Nao­mi Praw­er Kadar explains in Rais­ing Sec­u­lar Jews: Yid­dish Schools and their Peri­od­i­cals for Amer­i­can Chil­dren, 1917 – 1950, social­ists, com­mu­nists, and Zion­ists each had pub­li­ca­tions for youth through which they sought to stake a claim on the Jew­ish future. Nowhere were polit­i­cal ten­den­cies more promi­nent than in com­mu­nist fic­tion for chil­dren, where the tra­di­tion­al cen­tral­i­ty of the fam­i­ly was reassessed or sub­vert­ed altogether.

Two pop­u­lar authors of this peri­od, Leyb Kvitko and Ger­shon Ein­binder (whose pen name was Khaver Paver), can be seen as avatars of Sovi­et and Amer­i­can Yid­dish com­mu­nism, respec­tive­ly. Kvitko worked in the Sovi­et Union; Khaver Paver emi­grat­ed to Los Ange­les, where he became known for his sto­ries about the pre­co­cious canine Labzik and the affa­ble social­ist fam­i­ly that adopts him. Both authors tend­ed toward real­ism, in con­trast to the roman­ti­ciz­ing, folk­loric predilec­tions of much Yid­dish children’s lit­er­a­ture of the peri­od. Both also frankly addressed polit­i­cal themes.

But in one key respect Kvitko and Khaver Paver neat­ly invert each oth­er. The human and canine mem­bers of Khaver Paver’s exem­plary and con­ven­tion­al father-moth­er­boy-girl-dog fam­i­ly expe­ri­ence the world and absorb its lessons through the medi­um of fam­i­ly, with its hier­ar­chi­cal but coop­er­a­tive gen­der and gen­er­a­tional pow­er dynam­ics. His sto­ries cast the fam­i­ly as a micro­cosm of a cheer­ful­ly func­tion­ing, demo­c­ra­t­ic coun­try. (While the char­ac­ters’ val­ues and aims are com­mu­nist, their meth­ods are demo­c­ra­t­ic; many com­mu­nist coun­tries also aspire or aspired to be ful­ly real­ized democ­ra­cies.) Kvitko, on the oth­er hand — like many of his com­pa­tri­ots — sketch­es por­traits of chil­dren with absent or incom­pe­tent par­ents. They must over­come this defi­cien­cy by falling back on their own inter­nal resources as well as those of the Sovi­et state, the ulti­mate dis­penser of care and guidance.

Leyb Kvitko was among the most pop­u­lar Yid­dish children’s authors in the Sovi­et Union. Born around 1890 near Odessa and orphaned in child­hood, he was raised by his grand­moth­er, as his­to­ri­an Gen­nady Estraikh recounts in the YIVO Ency­clo­pe­dia. Despite — or per­haps because of — a work­ing-class child­hood, he har­bored lit­er­ary aspi­ra­tions. In 1917, Kvitko arrived in Kiev wear­ing home­spun garb, and was embraced as a folk tal­ent. He pub­lished four col­lec­tions of children’s poet­ry between 1917 and 1920, as well as mod­ernist and folk poetry.

In the ear­ly 1920s, Kvitko spent time liv­ing in Ger­many, where he joined the com­mu­nist par­ty. In 1925, fear­ing that the Ger­man police would arrest him for his polit­i­cal activ­i­ties, he fled back to Sovi­et Rus­sia, where he was offered the edi­tor­ship of a jour­nal in Kharkov. His tenure there was rocky, thanks to internecine squab­bling among Sovi­et Jew­ish literati; in 1929, he was removed from the mast­head after pub­lish­ing a satir­i­cal poem about a pow­er­ful Moscow editor.

Illus­tra­tion by Y. Rib­ak from Me shlist oys der­far by Leyb Kvitko

As Estraikh chron­i­cles in The Kharkiv Yid­dish Lit­er­ary World, 1920s – Mid-1930s, Kvitko was sent to work in a trac­tor fac­to­ry for a cou­ple of years. As the Rus­si­fied Lev Kvitko, he was read­mit­ted into offi­cial favor only after being cham­pi­oned by the lead­ing Russ­ian children’s writer, Kornei Chukovsky, whose sup­port helped to ensure that his works in Russ­ian and Ukrain­ian trans­la­tion would enjoy print runs in the mil­lions. Despite his even­tu­al acclaim, Kvitko, along with oth­er mem­bers of the Jew­ish Anti-Fas­cist Com­mit­tee, was killed at Stalin’s behest on August 12, 1952 — the Night of the Mur­dered Poets.

The Stal­in who ordered the death of Jew­ish poets, nov­el­ists, and activists would have been unrec­og­niz­able to the omni­scient nar­ra­tor of Kvitko’s 1940 pic­ture book Vemes iz es mey­dele? (Whose Lit­tle Girl Is This?). In the hub­bub of a busy train sta­tion, a moth­er mis­takes anoth­er lit­tle girl for her own and leaves her daugh­ter behind. At first, the aban­doned girl is so par­a­lyzed with fear that she can nei­ther move nor speak, despite the best efforts of the passers­by to iden­ti­fy and care for her. She grows increas­ing­ly upset, until, verg­ing on tears, she spots a famil­iar face: Ot iz do an eygen­er! / Ir alter guter-fraynt! / er hot azoy gor umgerikht / far ir ot do der­shaynt!” (“Here was one of her own / A friend of many years / So very unex­pect­ed­ly / Before her he appears!”). The onlook­ers fol­low her joy­ful gaze — to the por­trait of Stal­in hang­ing between two win­dows in the sta­tion, toward which the girl now makes her way. She has locat­ed a pater­nal pres­ence to sub­sti­tute for the miss­ing mater­nal one. Reas­sured, she is ready to address the crowd, which she does with con­fi­dence and pre­coc­i­ty, stat­ing her name (Maya Voloko­va), age (three), and street address. The onlook­ers are charmed, and rush to aid and engage her in var­i­ous ways. Un dos mey­dele-se lakht, un dos mey­dele — se shaynt / lebn groysn kinder-fraynt.” (“The girl lit up with laugh­ter, had nary a care / By the Great Friend of Chil­dren every­where!”) Just at this hap­py cli­max, Maya’s moth­er comes back to claim her. Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, the pre­dom­i­nant emo­tions in the sto­ry are fear and relief. Per­haps, through his san­guine por­tray­al, Kvitko sought to cur­ry favor, or to assuage his read­ers’ latent fears of Papa” Stalin’s wrath­ful real-life authoritarianism.

Some­times Sovi­et Jew­ish par­ents in Kvitko’s books were most con­spic­u­ous through their com­plete absence; the vacat­ed space is tak­en over by agents of the state. Buts un di san­i­tarn (Boots and the Bath Squad) details the appetite of a glut­to­nous boy who refus­es to bathe. Boots’s Jew­ish iden­ti­ty is marked only by the fact that he lives in the shtetl. We hear about his unre­strained love of his favorite sweets, and then, onto the scene burst a detach­ment of three san­i­tarn, gov­ern­ment san­i­ta­tion agents who are tasked with forcibly bathing the recal­ci­trant youth. Their man­date stems from a com­bi­na­tion of germ the­o­ry and a mut­ed but unmis­tak­able dirt libel against the Jews:

The Bath­man
Sang out shrill as trumpet’s metal:
A cold is going round the shtetl
What a punk!
What a craw!
Such filthy funk!
His dirty maw!
Grab that Boots, that grub­by schlub!
Drag him over to the tub!
Turn on the taps!
No time to cosset,
Hur­ry, get him to that faucet!”

The shtetl locale encodes per­ceived Jew­ish pro­cliv­i­ties for glut­tony and filth, each believed to be unhealthy and unen­light­ened in its own counter-Sovi­et way. As Estraikh explains in his con­tri­bu­tion to the essay col­lec­tion Chil­dren and Yid­dish Lit­er­a­ture: From Ear­ly Moder­ni­ty to Post-Moder­ni­ty, the Sovi­et rev­o­lu­tion abol­ished the offi­cial des­ig­na­tion of the shtetl, or promi­nent­ly Jew­ish town. Nev­er­the­less, the locale endured in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion as a site of all that was pre­mod­ern and not real­ly Sovi­et.” Kvitko walks a fine line between adopt­ing Sovi­et ide­ol­o­gy, even where it called on him to repu­di­ate Jew­ish cul­tur­al touch­stones, and mak­ing those Sovi­et require­ments seem pre­pos­ter­ous by dint of his exu­ber­ant verse.

The three san­i­tarn from Buts un di san­i­tarn by Leyb Kvitko, illus­trat­ed by Boris Fridkin

In the illus­tra­tions by Boris Frid­kin, the hench­men of the bath squad are intim­i­dat­ing, preter­nat­u­ral­ly elon­gat­ed fig­ures. Boots’s forcible bathing is by turns trau­mat­ic and com­i­cal — his socks are so caked onto to his feet that they can­not be removed before the bath but must instead be left to float to the sur­face — but when it is fin­ished, the boy comes to appre­ci­ate his new state of cleanliness.

When they took him from the bath,

He beamed with pride, began to laugh;

He didn’t rec­og­nize himself

Sit­ting on a chair so grand.

He reached to shake the Bathman’s hand.

With no parental inter­fer­ence, the state effects a trans­for­ma­tion of the dirty shtetl-dweller so thor­ough as to ren­der him unrec­og­niz­able to himself.

Now we pass from Sovi­et clean­li­ness to the more famil­iar squalor of the New York sub­way sys­tem in order to exam­ine some of the Labzik sto­ries by Khaver Paver. A native of Ber­shad, Bessara­bia, the author emi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States in 1924, at the age of twen­ty-three. He worked as a teacher in the Yid­dish schools and con­tributed reg­u­lar­ly to the news­pa­per Di fray­hayt. He lived in the bustling New York imprint­ed on his sto­ries, and then moved to Los Ange­les, where he wrote a few scripts for Hol­ly­wood while con­tin­u­ing to write for adults and chil­dren in Yid­dish. Labzik, pub­lished in 1935, was dis­trib­uted through the Yid­dish shules of the Inter­na­tion­al Work­ers Order, the most com­mu­nist-aligned of the four sec­u­lar Yid­dish school sys­tems func­tion­ing in New York — and the book’s pro­le­tar­i­an sym­pa­thies are vivid­ly clear.

When we meet Labzik, he is cow­er­ing on the plat­form of an ele­vat­ed train sta­tion in the Bronx, where he has been aban­doned by his well-mean­ing but impov­er­ished own­er. The creature’s whim­per­ing attracts the atten­tion of kind­ly Berl the (sewing machine) Oper­a­tor, who decides to take a chance and delight his son Mulik and daugh­ter Rifke with the gift of a dog.

The fam­i­ly inhab­its a milieu thick with social­ist and com­mu­nist youth cul­ture. The chil­dren attend pub­lic school each morn­ing and then a sec­u­lar Yid­dish shule in the after­noon, where The Inter­na­tionale” is sung and var­i­ous polit­i­cal caus­es are high­light­ed. They also main­tain a Lenin-vin­kl, a Lenin cor­ner” in their room, com­plete with a poster of their sec­u­lar icon. One after­noon, broth­er and sis­ter head to the inter­sec­tion near the train sta­tion to col­lect funds for the ben­e­fit of Ernst Thäl­mann, the Weimar-era leader of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty of Ger­many, who was held in soli­tary con­fine­ment for eleven years before his exe­cu­tion at Buchen­wald. A police­man tries to arrest Mulik, Rifke, and Labzik, but as he holds the kick­ing, strug­gling kids and dog by their col­lars, a sym­pa­thet­ic crowd of work­ers shouts their rebuke to the paskud­ner kahp,” the lousy cop.

When Mulik orga­nizes a children’s strike to demand meals for all the chil­dren, Labzik deliv­ers con­tra­band pam­phlets. He is threat­ened with arrest until the chil­dren ring the ani­mal con­trol wag­on and stage a sit-in, allow­ing the dog to escape. The children’s action is but a pale imi­ta­tion of the adult polit­i­cal activ­i­ty recount­ed in what is per­haps the book’s dark­est chap­ter. Berl’s boss extends the work­day to nine in the evening, prompt­ing the work­ers to strike. But there are eight hold­outs in the shop on 34th Street. Berl climbs up to the shop on the eigh­teenth floor, hop­ing to per­suade the hold­outs to join the strike. The boss­es have him jumped by goons (iden­ti­fied in the text as geng­sters), tied up, and thrown behind a locked door on the roof of the build­ing. Labzik, who has snuck along for the adven­ture against the wish­es of the fam­i­ly, sniffs out Berl and sum­mons help. The strike prevails.

In addi­tion to its pure charm val­ue, hav­ing a canine pro­tag­o­nist allows Khaver Paver to cap­i­tal­ize on Labzik’s uncan­ni­ly intu­itive, near-human intel­li­gence, and, at the same time, on his ulti­mate­ly being just a dog” — unen­light­ened, and some­times lit­er­al­ly inhu­man. When Labzik bites Mulik’s black friend Noyekh on the leg, anoth­er friend accus­es the dog of being a vayser shovin­ist (“white chau­vin­ist,” a term for racist” at the time). Mulik not only gives his pet ten lash­es, but also con­venes a tri­al before all the oth­er kids from the block. They deter­mine that Labzik must be ostra­cized for a full week for his crime. This pun­ish­ment is so hard on the social ani­mal that after a few days, as Khaver Paver informs the read­er, he wish­es he could drown in a riv­er instead. When the week is up, Labzik has learned his les­son — he wouldn’t bite a black child who’d done noth­ing to him, even for a whole house full of lem­b­chops—and the Yid­dish-speak­ing chil­dren from the block have learned their les­son, too. Through Labzik, Khaver Paver could cri­tique the dark­er, more ani­mal­is­tic side of human nature and encour­age chil­dren to over­come it. Polit­i­cal­ly pro­gres­sive, racial­ly enlight­ened — these are the qual­i­ties that Khaver Paver fore­grounds as both Jew­ish and Amer­i­can, seam­less­ly joined. And the place where those val­ues are mod­eled and dis­cussed is the home of the Jew­ish worker.

In his books, Kvitko need­ed par­ents out of the way so that the state could be shown to nur­ture its youngest cit­i­zens direct­ly. In sto­ry after sto­ry, the nuclear fam­i­ly is tem­porar­i­ly com­pro­mised or per­ma­nent­ly dis­man­tled to cre­ate space for a nation­al­ized parental pres­ence; Papa” Stal­in fig­ures as the only father who can give effec­tive care, and thus the only par­ent who ulti­mate­ly mat­ters. The loss or viti­a­tion of par­ents goes unre­marked or is even cel­e­brat­ed rather than mourned. In con­trast­ing Amer­i­can fash­ion, Berl and Molly’s func­tion­al, involved fam­i­ly pro­vides the fer­tile soil where their children’s polit­i­cal iden­ti­ty is cul­ti­vat­ed: broth­er and sis­ter learn by imi­tat­ing their par­ents’ pol­i­tics. The family’s sym­pa­thies and habits are bound up in their Jew­ish­ness, their yid­dishkeyt, but not con­strained by it. Com­mu­nism is just as much their reli­gion as Judaism — and, like a tra­di­tion­al reli­gion, the gen­tler Amer­i­can ver­sion of this polit­i­cal faith guides them to seek jus­tice and pur­sue ways of kind­ness. The fam­i­ly over­comes any inter­nal dis­sen­sion to present a unit­ed front to the world — unam­biva­lent in their stance against racism and pover­ty, res­olute in their dis­dain for the bour­geoisie. While the Labzik sto­ries focus tight­ly on the por­trait of a sin­gle fam­i­ly, it is meant to be a broad­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive one — with all mem­bers act­ing, as a nation might, on high-mind­ed com­mit­ments and robust demo­c­ra­t­ic norms for the bet­ter­ment of humanity.

Images from the library of the YIVO Insti­tute for Jew­ish Research, New York

Miri­am Udel is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of Yid­dish lan­guage, lit­er­a­ture, and cul­ture at Emory Uni­ver­si­ty, where her research cur­rent­ly focus­es on Yid­dish chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture. Her col­lec­tion Hon­ey on the Page: An Anno­tat­ed Anthol­o­gy of Yid­dish Chil­dren’s Lit­er­a­ture will appear with NYU Press in Novem­ber 2019.