(1890–1973), Yiddish poet, critic, and theatrical director. Born in Lipkan, Bessarabia, Yankev Shternberg attended heder and completed five classes in the Russian secondary school in Kamenets Podolski. From 1913 on, he lived in Bucharest, moving to Kishinev when Bessarabia became a Soviet territory in 1940. He was in Tashkent during part of World War II and in Moscow beginning in 1943. In 1949, he was sentenced, together with other Yiddish writers of Bessarabia, to 10 years in Stalinist camps “for Trotskyite and Zionist activity.” After his release in 1954, Shternberg lived in Moscow until his death.
Untitled poem by Yankev Shternberg, n.d., with instructions on how it is to be formatted when printed. "One of the thousands, my friend. . . ." Yiddish. RG 107, Letters Collection. (YIVO)
Shternberg’s first poem, “In a shlitn”(In a Sleigh), appeared in the Vilna newspaper Folks-shtime in 1907. Until 1940 he published in the Yiddish press in Poland and Romania, also editing a number of Bucharest and Cernăuți periodicals that had modernist and leftist orientations. During his Soviet period, Shternberg contributed poetry and essays to periodicals in Moscow, Warsaw, and Paris. He was the only Soviet poet to publish simultaneously in Sovetish heymland (Soviet Homeland) and the Tel Aviv periodical Di goldene keyt (The Golden Chain; 1965, 1970). During and after perestroika, four large selections of his previously unpublished verse appeared in Sovetish heymland (1989) and in Di yidishe gas (The Jewish Street; 1996, 1997).
Shternberg’s poetic collections include Shtot in profil: Lid un grotesk (Town in Profile: Poem and Grotesque; 1935), Lid un balade oyf di karpatn (Poem and Ballad on the Carpathian Mountains; 1968), both illustrated by the artist Artur Kolnik. Shternberg’s major poetic collection In krayz fun yorn: Geklibene lider, 1915–1970 (In the Circle of the Years: Collected Poems, 1915–1970) appeared in Bucharest in 1970. His only Soviet book-length publication was in a Russian translation, Izbrannoe (Selected Works; 1956); his poetry was also translated into Hebrew and Romanian. In 1987, a volume of his essays on literature and theater was published in Tel Aviv. Nevertheless a great amount of his war poems and five dramatic poems were lost following his arrest.
Recalling the impression Shternberg’s poetry made on him in his youth, the poet Avrom Sutzkever called him “a poet, a visionary, a Baudelairean symbolist.” Frequently described as an apocalyptic poet who aspired toward a synthesis of “mystery and rationalism, symbolism, and realism,” Shternberg was an intellectual who expected his readers instantly to grasp his paradoxical associations. He was an urban poet with a deeply personal relation to the city, an Isaiah of Bucharest but also a Prometheus stealing fire for the people; the “Yiddish-king” residing in the capital of his country, which, he was convinced, would one day erect a monument to him. Although Shternberg’s poetic achievement was widely acknowledged by colleagues and friends in interwar Romania and Poland, including Itsik Manger and Moyshe Broderzon, his diverse artistic legacy still awaits a proper assessment.
In 1917 Shternberg organized the avant-garde Theater-Revue playhouse in Bucharest, the first of its kind in Yiddish, for which he wrote scripts with Yankev Botoshanski and Moyshe Altman. Shternberg proclaimed a return to the Goldfadn tradition of Yiddish theater, only recast for new audiences and reflecting contemporary artistic trends. His productions enjoyed great success with the Bucharest public. As the artistic director of the Vilner Trupe, which was located in Romania between 1924 and 1926, he produced a number of plays by Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Dymov, Gogol, and Tolstoy, which became important events in the cultural life of Bucharest.
In 1930, Shternberg organized the Bucharest Yiddish Theater Studio, continuing to produce revues and plays to great acclaim. Critics noted the intellectual and poetic character of his productions and their strict rhythmical organization. Although Shternberg’s work in the theater has been recognized as part of the Romanian national theatrical tradition, this fame had little currency in Moscow, where Solomon Mikhoels would not let him approach the stage of the State Yiddish Theater. Despite the fact that Shternberg lived in the Soviet Union for the last 33 years of his life, his work never reflected or followed the ideological norms of the regime. In 1971, he was awarded the Ya‘akov Fichmann Prize in Israel. Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack in 1973 on the very day he received permission to immigrate to Israel. He was initially buried in Moscow, but after a short time his remains and those of his wife were reinterred in a cemetery in Tel Aviv.
Yisroel Berkovitsh, Hundert yor yidish-teater in Rumenye, 1876–1976 (Bucharest, 1976); Shlomo Bickel (Shloyme Bikl), Rumenye (Buenos Aires, 1961); Jacob (Yankev) Botoshansky, Portretn fun yidishe shrayber (Warsaw, 1933); Volf Tambur, Yidishe prese in Rumenye (Bucharest, 1977).
Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson