“On April 19, 1943, the Warsaw ghetto uprising began after German troops and police entered the ghetto to deport its surviving inhabitants. Jewish insurgents inside the ghetto resisted these efforts. This was the largest uprising by Jews during World War II and the first significant urban revolt against German occupation in Europe. By May 16, 1943, the Germans had crushed the uprising and deported surviving ghetto residents to concentration camps and killing centers.”from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (www.ushmm.org)
On April 20, 1943, thirty-year-old Michael Klepfisz was shot and killed by a German soldier. He was an active resistance fighter with the Jewish underground. He was also the father of Irena Klepfisz, whose book Her Birth and Later Years: New and Selected Poems, 1971–2021 was published by Wesleyan in December of 2022. Her Birth and Later Years is currently a finalist for the Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry, from the Publishing Triangle.
Irena Klepfisz has a number of poems that deal with her childhood, including the loss of her father and her experiences as a holocaust survivor, refugee, and immigrant. In honor of Michael Klepfisz, we are sharing two poems from Her Birth and Later Years.
Klepfisz’s poems also touch on themes of love and life as an artist. She has been celebrated as a champion of Yiddish and lesbian publishing. In addition to her work as a poet, she is an activist, a teacher, a Yiddish translator, and also as a life–long Bundist (ie secular Yiddishist socialist). Much of her research has been focused on rediscovering the lives and intellectual and artistic work of women in Yiddish culture and in Eastern European history. Her activism is focused on feminism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and racism, and the conflict between Palestinians and Jews. These concerns are all reflected in Klepfisz’s poems and essays.
Klepfisz co-edited The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Woman’s Anthology (1986) and A Jewish Women’s Call for Peace: A Handbook for Jewish Women on the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict (1990). Her poetry is collected in Periods of Stress (1977), Keeper of Accounts (1982), and A Few Words in the Mother Tongue: Poems Selected and New (1990), introduced by Adrienne Rich. Her essays are collected in Dreams of an Insomniac: Jewish Feminist Essays, Speeches, and Diatribes (1990) introduced by Evelyn Beck. A Polish-English (bilingual) edition of her poetry and selected prose is forthcoming in Poland.
Klepfisz co-founded and co-edited the feminist magazine Conditions (1975), an influential literary and political journal. In 1988, she became a co-founder of the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation. From 1990–1992, she served as the last executive Director of New Jewish Agenda. In 2002 she helped organize the New York City chapter of the newly formed Brit T’zedek. Klepfisz has taught women’s studies, lesbian writing, feminist literature, and creative writing as a guest lecturer all over the United States. She taught Jewish Women’s Studies at Barnard College for 22 years, retiring in 2018. At the same time, for 10 years, she also taught literature and writing in the college program at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a women’s maximum security prison.
Photo of Michael Klepfisz (1913–1943, Warsaw, Poland), courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Rose Klepfisz.