Shmuel Plavnik, also known as "Zmitrok Biadula," a Belorussian
Zmitrok Biadula (Name at birth; Shmuel Plavnik), was born in 1886 in
the small town of Pasadziec (was in the Vilna Province, now Minsk
Province), of Jewish parents. His father worked as a forester and
tenant farmer but was literate and taught his son to read before
sending him to study in Talmudic schools--from which he was later
expelled for writing poetry.
He was a poet and prose writer, cultural worker, and political
activist of the movement for the independence of Belarus.
During his years in Jewish heder and yeshiva schools (he never
completed the course), he began writing poems in Hebrew at the age of
13 that were verse prayers based on models of the 16th and 17th
centuries. Later he was introduced by his cousin, Mera Gordon, to the
possibilities of Belarusan as a literary language.
He began writing in Belarusan in 1910, mostly for Nasha Niva, where he
worked first as a secretary, and later joined its editorial staff in
1912. He was one of the founders of the Uzvyshsha (Excelsior) literary
movement of the twenties.
His poems are to be found in two collections: Under Our Native Sky
(1922) and Poems (1927). In his later years, he turned almost entirely
to prose; in this field he published a number of novels and stories
and also an autobiography.
McMillin states, "Biadula was one of the most gifted and original of
those writers who made their name in Nasha Niva but continued to play
an active part in the development of literature after the Revolution.
. . . Biadula's lyrics are romantic with a strong introspective,
philosophical strain and little social content, apart from some
horrifyingly powerful war poems. Although tending to be rather
abstract, his verse helped to deepen the general emotional and
psychological level of Byelorussian poetry at that time." (pp.
In his fiction, Biadula depicted the everyday life of small town
people and their struggle for social justice, extolled revolutionary
activity, appealed to Jews to help in the Belarusan Rebirth Movement,
authored a brochure Zhydy na Bielarusi (Jews in Belarus; 1919), and
wrote about the relationship between life and art. (Note: For a
Web-based, Cyrillic Belarusian copy of this brochure, see the link
below to Zhydy na Bielarusi.)
Concerning Biadula's fiction, McMillin states, "Biadula's stories as a
whole are notable for characterization rather than any external or
physical drama. With a few exceptions they are entirely lacking in
plot or other narrative elements, and contain only the most summary
external descriptions, whilst much use is made of interior monologue
and sensitive authorial analysis. . . . In style, however, his
achievement, like that of Kolas, undoubtedly owed much to his
experience as a poet. Particularly notable is the unflagging lyricism,
attention to phrase and sentence structure, and wealth of synonyms and
metaphors introduced by Biadula without destroying the tautness and
expressive power which are such salient features of all his prose
writing. In the sphere of language and style his contribution to the
formation of modern Byelorussian literature is indeed hardly less
remarkable than that of Kolas." (p. 294)
He died in 1941, in the general evacuation eastwards from Belarus,
during the Nazi invasion.
The preceding summary is compiled from the following sources:
From the "Notes on Authors" section in Like Water, Like Fire (Vera
Rich, translator and editor; 1971; pp. 334).
From his entry in the Historical Dictionary of Belarus (Zaprudnik,
1998; p. 66). (Text in bold in the preceding refers to other entries
in the Historical Dictionary of Belarus. The Historical Dictionary of
Belarus is a very important summary of the history of Belarus.)
A History of Byelorussian Literature (Die Literatur der Weissrussen):
From its Origins to the Present Day, by Arnold B. McMillin; Giessen,
W. Germany, 1977; pages 127-8; 290-303.
See the following examples of his poetry:
Poem: (untitled; 1910) "In the Night Fields They Sing. . . ."
Both Belarusian & English Versions
(English translation published in Manifold, no. 32, Midsummer, 1999,
pp. 28-29; and both Belarusian and English versions in The Images
Swarm Free (1982), pp. 110-11.)
Poem: (untitled; 1909) "On the Soul's Anvil. . . ."
English Version. (English translation published in Like Water, Like
Fire, p. 85.)
Poem: "A Winter Tale" (1910)
Both Belarusian & English Versions.
(English translation published in Like Water, Like Fire, p. 85; and
both Belarusian and English versions in The Images Swarm Free (1982),
See the following for examples of his other publications:
Also see the essay by Vera Rich that includes a summary and commentary
of this seminal work by Biadula on the history and role of the Jews in
Belarus. The essay is on the Jews in Belarus Web site (by Zmicier
Chaim Levit) and is about the reprint in 1992 of Biadula's Zhydy na
Bielarusi (The Jews in Belarus); originally published in 1918:
Essay about Biadula's Zhydy na Bielarusi (1992)
Belarusian language version of Biadula's Zhydy na Bielarusi
Part of the Collection:
The Images Swarm Free: Poems of Ales Harun, Maksim Bahdanovic, and
Zmitrok Biadula. Parallel text -- Belarusian and translations. The
Anglo-Belarusian Society, London (1982).
Poetry by other Belarusians on the Web:
Also see Dz'micier Zinowjew's Belarusian Poetry Web site for
additional poems by and information about other Belarusian poets.
Go to the Belarusian Writers Web page Go to the Famous Belarusians
Web page Go to the A Belarus Miscellany Topic List
Original content and overall form (c)1996-2006 by Peter Kasaty
Zmitrok Biadula, Zydy na Bielarusi (The Jewes in Byelarus), Minsk:
1918, reprinted in facsimile 1992 by Miznarodnaja Asacyjacyja
Belarusistau and Bielaruskaje Tavarystva Archivistau.
Zmitrok Biadula, a leading figure in Byelorussian literature in the
first half of the twentieth century, was, as is well known, a Jew. A
former yeshiva (Jewish religious seminary) student, who decided to
make his literary career in the Byelorussian rather then Yiddish
language, he was in a unique position to produce this essay.
Indeed, the essay, which first appeared in the daily Bielaruski Slach,
was, when it first appeared, in 1918, unique. 'Not a single line has
so far appeared in the Byelorussian press about Jewes in Byelarus',
Biadula observed in his preface. Seventy-four years later, this
statement is still largely true. Apart from the occasional of Jewish
characters in plays or novels, for decades virtually the only
literature about Jews available to the general reader consisted of
anti-Zionist and anti-religious polemics. Only in the last two years,
following the declaration of Byelorussian sovereignity in July 1990,
did a few tentative articles occure, and a trilingual
(Byelorussian/Russian/Yiddish) 'magazin' was launched in Bobruisk -
though to date only one issue has appeared.
The reappearance of Biadula's essay, as part of series of reprints of
seminal pamphlets from the past, is therefore of considerable
significance. Independence, and the revival of Byelorussian language
as the medium of pablic life, has evoked among Byelorussians not only
widespread interest in their own history and traditions but also in
the history and traditions of the Jews, who for many centuries have
been cohabitants of this part of Eastern Europe. Fore Jewish readers,
this pamphlet pinpoints as it were a picture of the Jewish community
of Byelarus during that brief 'window' between the collapse of the
Tsarist empire and the establishment of Soviet rule in Byelarus.
The essay is divided into four parts. The first part gives a brief
historical outline of the coming of the Jews to Byelarus and their
conditions of life there before and after the Russian acquisitions of
these lands. The second part deals with contacts between the two
cultural traditions. The third part deals with Jewish cultural and
community life in the major cityes. The final part discasses Jewish
interest and involvment in the movement of national awakening which
focused on the newspaper Nasa Niva and the bid for independence in
1918. Throughout, Biadula stresses the close contact between and
interdependance of the two communities. 'Here in Byelarus', he writes,
more then in neighbouring counries of the Jewish 'ghetto', their
economic and cultural-national existence was created over long years.
Of course, this creativity could not fail to have an effect on the
character of the country, just as it had to take on certain of the
country's peculiarityes, and in this way a natural exchange of
cultural values between Jews and Byelorussians was created.
The fact that these two nations lived as neghbours created conditions
of life and economic relations in wich one nation could not have
existed without the other.
Trade and crafts in our country were developed by the Jews. And it
mast be said that in this respect they stimulated life in our country
considerably and constantly introduced a great many useful things to
The towns and small towns, in which the population was predominantly
Jewish, gave the Byelorussian peasants the chance of normal trade
exchanges. The merchants and craftsmen were also necessary in this
benighted (when under Russia) country, where there had never been any
The symbiosis of the two communities, however, went far deeper than
economic contacts. "There are", says Biadula,
common Jewish Byelorussian folk melodies and proverbs in which Yiddish
and Byelorussian words are intermingled. In Byelorussian there are
words like 'chaurus', 'bachur', and 'adchaic'* and many others which
are purely Hebrew words. In the Yiddish language there are even more
In his time, in 1911-1912, a Jewish journalist and editor of various
Jewish journals, Mr. Hurvic in Vilnia, turned his attention to this
subject. He put together a collection of Jewish-Byelorussian proverbs,
added explanatory notes, and sent it for publication to a foreign
(It would be interesting to find out whether Hurvic's work was,
indeed, ever published, and if so where.)
Biadula goes on to cite some fascinating examples of
Jewish-Byelorussian folk-lore. These include a 'beggar's rigmarole'
which, he says, 'the Jews sing on All-Souls' Day' (Dziady). This is an
acrostic on the Hebrew, not the Byelorussian, alphabet, whether
Cyrillic or Latin:
Ach, braccia, halubcy, davajcie halodnamu vasamu zebraku chleba
trochu. Ja-kaleka, lamaka. Mucelnyk. Ni-mahu sluzyc u pana. Cym kolvek
ratujcie slapoha tatuniu.
(The apparent mismatch between halubcy and gimel is, of course, due to
a lack of the letter 'g' in Byelorussian.) Also associated with
All-Souls'Day, Biadula says, and also an acrostic on the Hebrew
alphabet is the song 'Anton kancavy', which has the Hebrew refrain
'Ba-lajlo' (In the night).
Biadula also cites a 'very beautiful' Belorussian song, which the
Hebrew refrain 'Lej-arcejnu' (To our land), sung to a 'hassidic
melody', a song about the 'three Jewish patriarchs', Abraham, Isaac
and Jacob, and a Byelorussian 'Jak pajechau u karcomku' which, he
remarks somewhat mysteriously, 'the Jews sing to the motif "Kol
Nidre"… unfortunately I do not remember the words'. He notes, too,
number of instances of Jews adopting customs from Byelorussian
'superstition and mythology', such as strewing the byre with nettles
and bracken on midsummer eve to stop witches from stealing the cows'
Biadula is, however, not interested only in listing such cultural
borrowings. He tries to analyse why they take place at all, granted
the relative strength of the two cultures. 'At first glance', he says,
it might be expected that in transfers from culture of one nation to
the other, the Jews, as the nation with the greater culture, should
have had the advantage over the Byelorussians and should have had the
greater influence, but in reality it is the other way around.
One reason, Biadula considers, is no linguistic or ethnic kinship
between the two peoples (unlike the case with Poles and Russians, both
of whom used these similarities to try to assimilate the
Byelorussians). The second factor, Biadula says (turning to emotive,
rather then scientific arguments), is the 'Byelorussian land'. Just as
writers from Byelarus who write in Russian or Polish cannot 'eradicate
in themselves the spirit of the Byelorussian land', he says, so
the Jews who live here, in their new homeland, have taken over more
from the Byelorussians then the Byelorussians have taken from them.
The mighty force of the Byelorussian land has given a special
spiritual and physical appearance to the Byelorussian Jews. Now they
differ from all other Jews, and throughout the whole world they are
Chapter 3, a mere three-and-a-half pages, gives an outline of the most
notable developments of Jewish life in Byelarus (which, for Biadula,
encompassed not only the territory of the current Republic of
Byelarus, but also part of what is now Lithuania, including Vilna):
the development of the kahal, and the conflict between the hassidim
and mitnagdim. The importance of the Valozyn yeshiva (to which 'Jews
came to study from the Caucasus, from Germany, from America etc.') is
duly noted, as are the 'famous Tsaddiks' of Lubavicy, Kojdanava and
Pinsk. Furthermore, Biadula says, 'Jewish mysticism (Kabbala)
developed here in Byelarus'.
It is true that in dark years, when Byelorussian national
consciousness almost died out, many Jews, like many Byelorussians,
'although they knew the Byelorussian language well, looked upon it as
a "peasant" language and, being Russified themselves, unconsciously
served the Russifying idea of Great Russia'. But these, he maintains
'were only the rich class, who had received their education in Russian
schools'. The simple inhabitants of the shtetl, he says, knew, apart
from their own language, only Byelorussian. And so, 'from the very
beginning of the Byelorussian renaissance, Jews from the villages,
albeit in small numbers, joined the pioneers of the Byelorussian
movement' although the 'broader masses of the Jewish intelligentsia'
remained mentally locked into a commitment to Russification.
The final chapter enlarges on Jewish interest and involvement in the
Byelorussian movement. In 1912, Biadula notes, there were allegations
in the 'Black Hundred press' that Nasa Niva, the flagship journal of
the Byelorussian movement, was receiving support from 'Jewish money'.
This attracted the attention of Jewish journalists to Nasa Niva.
During the next few years, several articles on the Byelorussian
movement appeared in the local Jewish press - Dy Judishe Velt, Unzer
Gegend and the Jewish 'collection' (a kind of almanach), Litva,
published in 1914, which included translations from Byelorussian and
Lithuanian literature and articles on the Byelorussian movement. The
appearance of this collection stimulated further interest in
Byelorussian matters in all the Jewish papers of the 'North-West
Region', and even in the Jewish communities of the United States. A
second number of Litva, including translations of poems by Janka
Kupala and a short story by Maksim Harecki, was ready for press when,
in the early weeks of World War I, the Russian government banned
publishing in Yiddish.
Finally, Biadula brings the story up to date with the Revolution. When
the Byelorussians in Minsk 'began to come out under their own flag',
Biadula says, this was warmly greeted by 'nationalist Jews'.
Byelorussians and Jews stood as a coalition with a joint list of
candidates in the elections to the local Duma. When the
All-Byelorussian Congress (which was working to create a state
apparatus for Byelarus) was forcibly broken up by the Bolsheviks, the
Jewish National Party published a protest against the violence.
Naturally, not all Jews supported the Byelorussian movement. Its chief
opponents among the Jews, Biadula says, were young Communists and
internationalists who dreamed of a world without nationalities. Other,
non-Communist Jews had what Biadula called 'more original' and 'naive'
objection: the Jews are already dispersed throughout the world and
have to learn the languages of the lands where they live - hence the
splitting up of 'Russian Jewry into Byelorussian, Ukrainian, Russian,
etc. would disperse them even further.
Nevertheless, Biadula notes, 'one cannot stand against the current of
life' and, at the time of writing, 'Jewish pupils in Byelorussian
schools are studying in Byelorussian and do so willingly'. And in
March 1918 when the Bolsheviks withdrew from Minsk, the Byelorussian
Secretariat (government) included two Jews - Gutman (Secretary without
Portfolio) and Belkind (Secretary for Finance).
'What the future relationship between Byelorussians and Jews will be
we cannot predict', Biadula sums up, 'but in any case the life of
these two nations is so closely interconnected that each of them must
take an interest in the other, if only from the point of view of
These words, today, are fraught with irony. Biadula, writing casually
of Jewish children studying in Byelorussian schools, could not foresee
the decades ahead, when Moscow's selection of Byelarus as a test-bed
for its policy of sliyaniye would mean that, by the mid-1980s, not a
single school in the capital, Minsk, would use Byelorussian as the
medium of instruction. Nor could he foresee the Holocaust, which swept
away the centuries-old Jewish communities of Byelarus. But it
precisely this lack of knowledge of what was to come which makes this
document so uniquely valuable. Present-day scholars, looking back on
the brief, ill-starred, Byelorussian bid for independence in 1918
inevitably read into the events their awareness of what followed.
Biadula's account of the Jews in Byelarus is a kind of snapshot in
time, taken of a period when the future of Byelorussian people seemed
more hopeful then at any time in the following seventy-four years.
This essay was first published, as we have noted above, in the
newspaper Bielaruski Slach. Its first appearance in pamphlet form was
financed, to judge from the note 'Kostam Z.B.' on the flyleaf, by
Biadula himself. During the Soviet era, its existence was, not
surprisingly, forgotten - except by the custodians of the spetskhrany.
The initiative to reprint it now, when once again Byelarus is
constructing its independent statehood, came from a married couple,
the Zynkins - the husband an archivist in the Byelorussian National
(ex-Lenin) Library, the wife an information officer at the Francisak
Skaryna National Centre for Science and Education. Its appearance (at
a time of acute paper shortage) under the joint imprint of the
International Association of Byelorussicists and Byelorussian Society
of Archivists indicates how highly those eminent bodies rate its
importance for the Byelorussians. It is to be hoped that in due course
a translation will appear in a language more accessible to the Jewish
community of the world.
*Chaurus - friendship from the Hebrew haver - friend, haverut
(havejrus in the Ashkenazic pronunciation) - friendship; bachur -
young man from the Hebrew bahur; adchaic, adchajac - revive, vivify -
the Hebrew root is hay - live, with a Slavonic prefix and suffix