“The Brown Dragon Has Flown” and “Once Upon a Time There Was a King”

Leyzer Wolf, translated by Sarah Ponichtera, published on October 18, 2019.

Leyzer Wolf (1910–1943), like Der Nister and Dovid Bergelson, was a thoroughly modern writer whose deep knowledge of world literature was matched by his feeling for the rhythms and nuances of everyday Yiddish spoken by the common man. He drew on the rich folk culture of his native Shnipishok (a working class neighborhood in Vilna) in satire and parody that reflected his voracious reading. A fiery presence on the political scene, Wolf weaponized his literary talent, taking aim at the growing Fascist threat from Germany. He celebrated Soviet troops' arrival in his hometown, seeing it as the culmination of his lifelong affinity for Communism. When the Soviet forces withdrew, Wolf fled with them, eventually ending up in Moscow, where he would recite his poems at literary gatherings during the war years.  The introduction to his book of poems, De broyne bestye, published posthumously in 1943, describe how he would inspire local Yiddish poets with fiery denunciations of the Nazi regime (alluded to in the title of the book) garbed in the language of folktale and folksong.  

The second poem translated here, “Once Upon a Time There Was a King,” is a reinterpretation of the melancholy Yiddish lullaby “A mol iz geven a mayse,” revised to denounce local collaborators with the Fascist regime.  

Read more about Leyzer Wolf.

—Sarah Ponichtera

***

The Brown Dragon Has Flown

The brown dragon has flown
Over every land;
Sowed every field
With venomous hate.

Its ferocity is not as awful
As its overpowering stench;
Now take up your sword,
And grit your teeth.
Destroy it, comrade!

The brown beast has crept
With huge strides;
The brown dragon has flown
On iron feathers.

Its iron feathers are not as terrible
As its consuming rust;
With a set mouth
And powerful blows,
Destroy it, comrade!

The brown beast has journeyed
With its hinged cross,
Laying its claw
Over all free peoples.

Its claw is not as heavy
As its remorseless cruelty;
Brave young people, 
Get your sharpest knives. 
Declaw the terrible monster!

The brown dragon has come
To the summer lands.
Here it received
The first bludgeons to the head.

The beast’s hide is not as dark
As its character is cruel;
Strong heroes,
Take up your finest swords.
Break through its armored hide!

 

Once Upon a Time There Was a King

Once upon a time,
In a faraway land,
There lived a king
With blood on his hands.

Lyu lyu lyu my darling,
Lyu lyu lyu my friend;
Such a king is destined
For a terrible end.

Once there was a king.
The king found a puppet here.
The puppet had a taste for depravity.
Lyu lyu lyu my dear.

Lyu lyu lyu my darling,
Lyu lyu lyu my friend;
Such a king is destined
For a terrible end.

The king swallowed countries and towns;
The king swallowed them all;
The king tormented the people;
He is cursed to a terrible fall.

Lyu lyu lyu my darling,
Lyu lyu lyu my friend;
Such a king is destined
For a terrible end.

The king defeated every foe.
The king conquered every land.
He will meet a violent death.
He is cursed to a terrible end.

Lyu lyu lyu my darling,
Lyu lyu lyu my friend;
He will meet a violet death
He is cursed to a terrible end.

Our riches affronted the king
As he saw his accounts overspend.
His armies gathered around us.
He is cursed to a terrible end.

Lyu lyu lyu my darling,
Lyu lyu lyu my friend;
Such a king is destined
For a terrible end.

The king made a fatal mistake today,
When his conquering army marched here.
We gave him our middle finger.
Lyu lyu lyu my dear.

Lyu lyu lyu my darling,
Lyu lyu lyu my friend;
Such a king is destined
For a terrible end.

And the king looked down at his generals.
And the generals looked down their heels.
And they took to their heels and fled
Far from us, my dear.

Lyu lyu lyu my darling,
Lyu lyu lyu my friend;
Such a king is destined
For a terrible end.


Sarah Ponichtera is the Assistant Dean for Special Collections & the Gallery at Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ. There she administers a combined unit in the University Libraries which includes the Archives & Special Collections and the Walsh Gallery, which share vault storage and collections processing space, and both maintain an active schedule of physical and digital exhibits. Her current translation project involves a newly discovered work of Yiddish science fiction by Leyzer Wolf.

Read the original Yiddish poems in the Yiddish Book Center's Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library.