Portrait of a “Jewish Poetess”

Written by:
David Mazower
Summer 2019 / 5779
Part of issue number:

The Yiddish poet Roza Gutman stares confidently back at us, a half smile on her lips. It’s Berlin, 1925, and success has come early to the young writer. Originally from Kovno, Lithuania, she had come to Berlin to study and had just published a slim booklet of intimate, epigrammatic verse.

Capturing Gutman as she joins the ranks of Yiddish modernists is the painter Marek Szwarc. An influential figure in Yiddish artistic circles, Szwarc had moved to Berlin after long spells in Paris and his native Poland. A versatile artist, he was also a celebrated sculptor and metalworker.

Gutman and Szwarc were among thousands of European writers, artists, and intellectuals who flocked to Weimar Berlin in the postwar years, transforming it into one of the most exciting cities on earth. Yiddish authors were prominent in this cultural melting pot, including David Bergelson, Moyshe Kulbak, and Leyb Kvitko. Yiddish cultural spaces included the Romanisches Café on the Kurfurstendam and the Sholem Aleichem Club on Kleiststrasse.

The Israeli scholar Anat Aderet describes Gutman as one of the few women able to hold her own among the mostly male literati at the Sholem Aleichem Club. Perhaps that’s where she and Szwarc met. And perhaps, too, that sense of poise and self-confidence is what inspired him to sketch this “portrait of a Jewish poetess.”