Moshe Ajzenbud

Moshe Ajzenbud (1920+)

Moshe Ajzenbud, has remained a profilic writer in Yiddish, and also broadcast for many years on Yiddish radio, as well as editing a Yiddish magazine. Most of his work is in Yiddish, though one finds the occasional article in English. Again, his first novel Gelebt Hinter Kratn. (Lived Behind Bars), has been translated. His contribution to the literary life of Australian Jewry has been significent. However, like many others, writing did not give him a sustainable living, obliging him to practise a trade.

You will find anthologies of Australian Jewish writers that feature Pinchas Goldberg and Herz Bergner, two well known Australian Yiddish writers, but to date, I have discovered none that features Moshe Ajzenbud. One reason is surely that he writes only in Yiddish, and that only his first book Gelebt Hinter Kratn, Lived Behind Bars. Buenos Aires (Yidbuch) 1956 has translated into English. This was translated by Leah, Moishe's wife, and is entitled The Commissar Took Care, and published in 1986. The chapters follow the order of the original and small changes are visible mainly in the beginning of the book. However, his short stories continue to feature in the Melbourne Jewish Chronicle, and a few are translated into English.

Moshe Ajzenbud came from Niesviez, a town in the Western part of the Belarus, by the river Usza, which today has a population of fifteen thousand people. The town was the former ducal capital, once being known as the "Minute Paris", in the thirteenth century. At the end of sixteenth century, the town became the seat of the Radziwill family - the most powerful family of the Lithuanian magnates. Things changed and after the outbreak of World War II, the town was occupied by Soviet and German troops, and then became part of the Soviet Union. After USSR's dissolution, Niesviez became part of the Republic of Belarus.

Niesviez, a town located a few kilometres from the Russian-Polish border, and 59.9 miles SW of Minsk, in East Poland before World War II was a shtetl with its characteristic Jewish way of life.

It was here in Niesviez, that Moshe Ajzenbud was born in 1920. He was educated in a Yiddish secular school, a Polish Government school and later at a Technical College. After the Soviets took over the town in September 1939, he continued his education, despite the difficulties. He began to write in a displaced persons' camp in Germany where he spent four years following the end of World War II. For a time, he worked as a correspondent for a Paris Yiddish daily newspaper. He migrated to Australia in 1950, where he worked in the metal trades and as a storeperson, while following his interests as a novelist, short story writer, critic and editor. Naturally he gravitated to "Kadimah", a centre with a strong Yiddish culture with which he could identify and eventually took over editing its newspaper. The National Library "Kadimah" was founded in 1911 and has served the cultural and intellectual needs of the vibrant, Jewish migrant community of Melbourne. For over five decades it has been located close to that community in the inner suburb of Carlton.

In 1975 Moshe Ajzenbud became the editor of the Yiddish section of the Melbourne Jewish Chronicle and continues in that role as editor of the Yiddish section. Issues continue to appear irregularly, number 69 celebrating the ninetieth anniversary of Kadimah. Many of the local writers and poets have published their work in the "Kadimah's literary journal "Di Melbourner Bleter/The Melbourne Chronicle".

Di Melbourner Bleter. Elsternwick, Vic. (Kadimah National Library and Cultural Centre)

no 1 (1975+)

28 cm. : 18 to 28 pages approx

Editor : Moshe Ajzenbud (Yiddish), Alex Dafner (English).

Gelebt Hinter Kratn. Lived Behind Bars. (in Yiddish) translated as The Commissar Took Care

Gelebt Hinter Kratn . Lived Behind Bars. (Yidbuch) 1956 is in three parts, has 218 pages and is woven around the events of 1941 with the coming of the Russians to Niesviez. The novel deals with how Michael, a nineteen year old and some other Nesvizhers survived World War II by escaping to the Urals. It describes hard manual labour, being inducted into the army, getting ill and hospital experience, and finally release. It begins (in the Yiddish version) : "With trembling fingers Shumski leafed through files". This sets the scene as the town clerk accesses the town records in the wake of the imminent Soviet invasion. or (The Commissar Took Care. Translated by Leah Ajzenbud. Melbourne (Globe Press), 1986).

Like most of Ajzenbud's writings, it is based on his own war time experiences. A reliving of those difficult days could be seen as striving to heal the memories of these harsh times. He is depicting a vanished world and way of living of a dispersed and lost Jewish community.

One characateristic is that usually people in the town are identified only by their first names. Niesviez, a quiet town on the Russian border, had a mixed Christian population of Greek Orthodox and Catholic Christians and some Jewish shopkeepers. The latter were in no hurry to reopen their shops after the Russian invasion, remembering back to the bad times twenty years before, with the looting a destruction.

The first chapter captures some of the imagery of a small Polish town.

'The old palace clock sounded twelve, and then one. Its metallic tones shattered the stillness of the town sleeping, and shrouded in darkness. The only light to be seen was in a window of the council building where upon the roof the black, steel emblem of the town revolved, squeaking, on its axis. Shumski, the town clerk, sat in his office, still working. With shaking hands, he was leafing through his files, his tired fingers turning page after page, and each page showed him the faces of living people who in the safety of their homes slept soundly, unaware that tomorrow they must leave these heroes, and perhaps would never return. The Commissar Took Care , page 1.) '

The Bolsheviks arrived and occupied the town. Life was changed forever, Russian money replaced Polish coins and things were different.

'Sarah-Zelda, the wife of Sender who owned a big fabric shop, shook her head unbelievingly when she saw customers buying without bargaining.' (p.9)

Though life under the Soviet regime began to stabilise, the German-Russian war broke out in 1941, throwing all into chaos and some citizens fled. Michael and his father ran from the advancing German army, wandering deeper into the Soviet Union. They became separated. Michael worked in the Wolfram mines of the Pamir mountains, and then was mobilised into the army. He was sent to Siberia to work in a stone quarry, under harsh conditions, and then was sentenced to five years in forced labour camps for asking for warm clothes and new boots. At one stage he meets Ada, also a prisoner, but the book does not tell what happened to that relationship. At the end of World War II he was released and rejoined his father and brother.


His heart rejoiced; he felt only one thing.

He, Michael, the nameless prisoner, with not even a number of his own--only the collective number of the gang--had become a son again. He had a father. He was an individual person.

Tears of happiness fell from his eyes, and in falling were absorbed into the grey and dusty road.' (p.183)

The book is permeated with atmospheric descriptions that describe the bitter cold, and rain, and punctuated by chilly, seasonal descriptions of bleak landscapes. Michael's release was in early May, with its cool, crisp mornings.

Ajzenbud's several books of short stories, all of which, apart from the first, which was published in Buenos Aires, were published in Melbourne. In his writings he returns time and time again to Niesvitz. Niesvi her Yidn; Dertsaylungen (Niesvizh's Jews. Short stories), describes the townspeople, such as an unknown singer, with settings of a summer's day, Spring, a solitary night, the disrupted Sabbath, the Jewish school, the house of prayer by the river, and ending with a tale of resistance and a revolt, where life had not become usless, despite the difficulties of occupation and war.

His books include:

  • Alein in Gezeml (Lonely in a Crowd). Melbourne, 1970.
  • Gelebt Hinter Kratn (Lived Behind Bars). Buenos Aires (Yidbuch) 1956.
  • Niesvi her Yidn; Dertsaylungen (Niesvizh's Jews. Short stories) Melbourne, Australia: publisher, 1965.
  • Nusach Y. Rapoport. (Y. Rapoport's Style). Melbourne, 1967.
  • Yugneleche Blondzenishn (Dilemmas of Youth). Melbourne, 1973.
  • Youth at the Crossroads (a novel)for whichAjzenbud received a fellowship award.

    His latest book is:

  • Pnina, un andereh dertzeilungen (Pnina, and other stories) and was published 2006.

    Ajzenbud's writings have not been confined to novels. He also wrote the history of fifty years of the Jewish Folk Centre in Melbourne in 1986, and co authored the history of the Jewish Folk Centre in Sydney with Nate Zusman in 1993. The latter wrote the English section. In 1996, Ajzenbud wrote on the sixty year history of the Bund in Melbourne.

    A more creative work was Wanderers and Dreamers: Tales of the David Herman Theatre which he published with Arnold Zable in 1998. Moshe Ajzenbud lives in Melbourne and continues to frequent "Kadimah" and to write.