Irena Klepfisz was born on April 17th, 1941, in the Warsaw Ghetto. Her father, Michał Klepfisz, died on April 20th, 1943, on the second day of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Marek Edelman, among others, once told the story of her father’s commitment. Michał Klepfisz covered a rifle barrel with his body so that his companions from the Jewish Combat Orgnization (ŻOB) could flee from a building surrounded by the Nazis. Irena was two years old at that time. She stayed in a convent on the Aryan side. Irena and her mother survived the Holocaust. Her awareness of being a survivor, one who escaped the tragic fate of three million Polish Jews and the trauma of the war, left its marks on her, both as a woman and a poet.
Her birth in the ghetto, the tragic death of her father, the Shoah, and, last but not least, her survival – all these elements made Irena Klepfisz perceive and describe the world with a unique eye.
Her poetry, being very expressive and concise, is also very touching, leaving you thoughtful and pensive. Irena Klepfisz’s poems are rooted in Holocaust-related themes. Klepfisz, being a Holocuast survivor and a representative of the second Holocaust generation, often refers to tragic wartime events, to fear which did not leave her for all the years of her early childhood, and to the facts she was told by her family of stories mentioned in the accounts of other Holocaust survivors. However, the most important part of her poems are words; words, which illustrate her identity.
After the end of World War II, Irena, together with her mother, left for Łódź, where they lived until 1946. Afterwards, they managed to emigrate to Sweden, and later to the USA. Polish was Irena’s native language, which she learned during her stay in a convent and through talking in this language with her mother, with whom, after 1943, she was in hiding in the contryside until the liberation. However, after they left for Sweden, Polish was replaced by, first, Swedish, and then by Yiddish. Yididsh was the language of the environemnt in which little Irena was reared. Her mother continued to speak to her in Polish but Irena herself was no longer able to talk in this language. Although Irena grew up in the circles of the Bundists and her contact with the Yiddish culture was nothing extraordinary for her, she wrote her first poems in English. The reason for this change was her studies and the environment in which she became active as a young student.
Each of the languages she knew meant a lot for her. Her ability to speak Polish salvaged her from the Shoah. She associated her stay in Sweden, together with the Swedish language, with a safe haven. Yiddish, on the other hand, was the language of her family, the language in which she was brought up and the language of the culture she assumed. In the end, English made its appearance as the languge of her studies, political and feminist activities and the tongue of the environemnt of American lesbians. The two languages, Yiddish and English, played the biggest role in Klepfisz’s works. On the one hand, Yiddish was a language of her childhood, working in it prevented her Jewish world from falling into oblivion. On the other hand, there was English, in which she could communicate without any problem. It was the languge which she studied and which she used while writing.
Biculturalism in poems
After her visit in Poland, where she came to participate in the ceremonies of the 40th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, she decided to return to Yiddish culture in order to prevent it from its complete disapperance. The Poland, which she saw then, was a place where Yiddish culture and language were merely shadows of the prewar Jewish life. This visit and the dwindling environment in which she was brought up, made her feel an urgent need to come back to the language of her childhood.
When Irena realized that the Yiddish culture was fading, she resolved to counteract. However, her knowledge of the so-called mame loshn was only partial. She was not able to express her emotions freely, or to talk about her life stories and experiences. This was why she came up with the idea to literally back it with English, of which she had a perfect command. These are the origins of unique poetry, where each word plays a central role. Irena Klepfisz’s poems bridge two worlds.
By connecting both closely related cultures, she could express her biculturalism in her poetry, creating ‘the new, dual poetry language, which married Yiddish with English’ . In her poems, Yiddish words and English phrases intertwine. The poet, by writing in two languages at a time, blends two
When making references to Ashkenazi Jews, she does not leave American culture. Klepfisz, by combining two languages, joins, in fact, brings both cultures together. She introduced Yiddish to the English language. Thereby, the former mirrors the American-Jewish identity of the poet.
Irena Klepfisz’s poetry alludes to the past but also to her present life. Many works show her uncertainty which accompanies the poet when using Yiddish (Di cung/ Język; Wider a mol/ Raz jeszcze). The awareness of being in a foreign country, since she herself admits that the USA is not her home, and is not her birthplace, results in poems in which she talks about the feeling of alienation (Zi szemt zich/ Ona się wstydzi; Di rajze ahejm/ Podróż do domu; In der fremd/ Na obczyźnie). In her works, Klepfisz also deals with the question of her homosexuality, breaking the existing taboo. In her poem entitled Etleche werter in mame loszn, the word ‘lezbianke’ appears for the first time, making its entrance in the Yiddish language.
Both languages in Klepfisz’s poems are not only to rescue the Yiddish culture from oblivion but they also express two cultures in which the poet was reared. Their aim is to change the image of the Yiddish culture, which continues to be associated with a shtetl and Jewish folklore, which is, by the way, considered to be a closed past, thought of with nostalgia and poignancy. Irena Klepfisz wants to change it.
Written by Anna Augustowska
 B. Szwarcman-Czarnota, Dylematy świeckiej tożsamości żydowskiej w dwujęzycznej poezji Ireny Klepfisz, [in:] Nieme dusze? Kobiety w kulturze jidysz, ed. Joanna Lisek, Wrocław 2010, p. 248, loosely translated for the purpose of this article by Wanda Józwikowska
Irena Klepfisz, Yiddishkei In America, the text available on the Web site http://www.secularjewishculture.org/yiddishkeit_in_america.html (accessed on September 14th, 2011)
Bella Szwarcman-Czarnota, Dylematy świeckiej tożsamości żydowskiej w dwujęzycznej poezji Ireny Klepfisz, [in:] Nieme dusze? Kobiety w kulturze jidysz, ed. Joanny Lisek, Wrocław 2010, pp. 242-256;
Bella Szwarcman-Czarnota, Mocą przepasały swe biodra. Portrety kobiet żydowskich, Warszawa 2006, pp. 65-77;
Zohar Weiman-Kelman, Onrirn di cajt – Dotykając czasu. O erotyzmie jidysz, ‘Cwiszn’ 2010, nr 3, pp. 18-23.
Ursula McTaggart, Artistry and Activism: The Poetry of Irena Klepfisz, the text available on the Web site http://www.solidarity-us.org/current/node/527 (accessed on September 9th, 2011)
English translation by Wanda Józwikowska