Rachela Korn

author: Anna Kaszuba-Dębska, 2012

translated by Scotia Gilroy

Rachela Korn was born on January 15th, 1898, in the town of Podliszki, near Przemyśl in Eastern Galicia, in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. She was raised on a farm called "The Dry Mountain." It was run mainly by her widowed mother who, after the death of her husband, was left entirely alone to raise twelve-year-old Rachela and her two younger brothers. In the Herring family home (Herring was Rachela's maiden name), as well as in the surrounding neighbourhood, Polish was the native language. The children were raised at home amongst the books of the huge library that had belonged to their father, who had occupied himself primarily with writing religious commentary. Rachela was a great admirer of the classics of Polish literature. While growing up, she remained under the influence of poetry written by Bolesław Leśmian and Rainer Maria Rilke.

In 1914 the First World War broke out, during which the Herring family moved to Vienna, where the children continued their educations and improved their German. After her return, Rachela passed her high school final exams in Poland, and made her literary debut in the Socialist-Zionist press in 1918 by publishing several short stories written in Polish in Nowy Dziennik [The New Daily] and Głos Przemyski [The Voice of Przemyśl].

A year later she turned towards Yiddish language and culture at the instigation of her husband, Hersz Korn from Przemyśl, who was deeply rooted in Jewish culture. The young writer extolled the beauty of the nature of Eastern Galicia in her poetry, and in her prose she realistically described Jewish life during the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph. She was fascinated by the work of Stefan Żeromski. As a Yiddish writer, she was primarily under the influence of the writing of Itzik Manger, Melech Rawicz and Baruch Sheffner.

In 1919 her writing in Yiddish was published in Lembergery Togblat, and she was recognized critically as a new poetic voice. In her creative work she expressed a personal protest at the post-war destruction, and the shock that she experienced after she returned from Vienna to her hometown and her mother once again took charge of the farm, which she continued to run until 1941. Her early work contains themes drawn from a small Galician shtetl – nature, the earth, and the cultural mix that she grew up in due to being raised in a Jewish family that had interaction with non-Jewish families, which allowed her to develop an open mind. She formed her own unique view and estimation of the world by writing pieces that were focused on the theme of the village, with its motifs and symbolism. Her political and social views leaned towards socialism. Surrounded by nature, farmers and villagers working on her mother's farm ever since she was a child, she introduced universal themes into her work, not only Jewish ones, unlike most Jewish authors who wrote in Yiddish and were immersed in a Jewish environment. She was primarily interested in the essence of humanity. She wrote about women as being at the bottom of the social ladder, deprived of rights. She did not intend to write solely for women, but the question of human rights led her attention towards this subject. Her poetry was feminist and humanist, which introduced a freshness of perception and distinguished her among other young writers from the Yiddish literary circle.

In 1928 she published the poetry collection Dorf [Village], and in 1936 Erd [Earth]. With liberal and leftist views, she became involved in political activities. She took part in marches and protests. During one of these she was arrested and held in prison for two days, which was reported even in the Argentinian press. In her creative and social activities she received huge support from her husband. Brave, with an independent mind, full of emotion and faith in a better world, she became involved in revolutionary activities, which became a force driving her towards writing poetry. She became acquainted with many writers from the Yiddish literary world, but her closest friends were the philosopher and writer Debora Vogel and the translator Rachela Auerbach. The three of them collaborated on Cusztajer, a new Yiddish-language magazine of arts and literature.

Rachela Korn lived in Przemyśl with her husband and daughter Irena. Bruno Schulz often stopped to visit them in their home during his trips to the West.

After the outbreak of World War II and the German invasion of Poland in 1939, she escaped to Romania with her husband and Irena, but after the invasion of the Red Army she returned to Eastern Galicia. She was selected by the Soviet authorities in Lwów and became active in cultural life. She left behind her husband and her family home in Przemyśl and moved to Lwów, where Irena was studying medicine. Her writing was published in Polish and Yiddish in Soviet journals in Lwów, Kijów and Mińsk. She took part in Yiddish literary evenings, giving lectures and doing readings. Along with other communist writers such as Alter Kacyzne, Ber Sznaper, and Hersz Weber, she joined a group that was invited to Moscow to attend a meeting of Yiddish writers and readers. They were greeted respectfully at the Writers' House, and met with editors of Yiddish literary journals. After the German occupation of Galicia in 1941 and the invasion of Lwów by Nazi troops, Rachela, led by intuition, escaped with Irena in only what they had on them at the time, asking a Soviet truck driver for help. He took them to the train station and they got onto a train heading into the depths of Russia. First they got off in Kijów, but then, frightened by the swiftly advancing front, they decided to travel further. They arrived in Ufa in the Ural Mountains where Irena began to work as a nurse. However, worried about the approaching winter, they attempted to find a way to travel south to Słobodnik, where they hoped to find a way to cross the border. For a few weeks they wandered, emaciated, through the Kara-Korum Desert. Finally, from Tashkent they managed to reach Fergana in Uzbekistan. Rachela, weakened by wandering and hunger, became ill and was admitted to a hospital.

In 1942 she was asked to write for a communist newspaper, but she refused. In Tashkent, Irena met her future husband, Edmund, and they entered the University of Moscow together. In 1943 she was joined by Rachela, who had recovered. In Moscow she was invited to take part in a meeting of communist writers. She was supported by a salary paid by the government of the USSR, but she gradually realized that she would rather leave Russia permanently. At the age of 45 she decided to escape to the West. It turned out to be a fortuitous decision, for it enabled her to avoid the Stalinist purges which claimed the lives of some of her writer friends. Her wandering and war experiences inspired her to write poems about the enemy of the earth.

Rachela and her daughter were the only members of her family to survive the Holocaust. Her husband, mother and brothers were all murdered.

Rachela Korn's communist views were strengthened during her time in Moscow. In 1945 she returned to Poland with the hope of beginning her life anew, but eventually in 1948 she emigrated to Canada, via Stockholm. She lived in Montreal until the end of her life.