Trinity College discovers the musings of a young Jewish American poet written as the Holocaust loomed
By Edward Moran
On the second of May 1941, just 75 years ago, a 29-year-old Jewish American student at Yale began writing a letter to his mentor at Trinity College in Hartford. It took him six months to complete the 72-page epistle in which he described his personal and literary pilgrimage since graduating from Trinity in 1932: a meandering trajectory that took him from rural Connecticut to his native Brooklyn and back. The letter was completed on December 11, 1941, just four days after the attack on Pearl Harbor propelled the United States into World War II.
The composer of this remarkable letter was Hyam Plutzik, a son of immigrants from Belarus who grew up on a Connecticut farm and went on to publish three major collections of poetry, all of which were finalists for a Pulitzer Prize. The mentor to whom he wrote was Odell Shepard, the Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar of American transcendentalism who had just been elected Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut. Three years beforehand, a front-page article in the Connecticut Jewish Ledger (December 2, 1938) had credited Shepard with being one of the Christian leaders who helped organize a mass rally in Hartford that attracted 3,000 people to protest the “Nazi brutality” of Kristallnacht.
The young Hyam spoke only Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian at home till he began his education at a one-room schoolhouse near Southbury. The family later moved to Bristol, where his father Samuel headed a Jewish community center and synagogue.
Plutzik’s 1941 letter and Shepard’s never-sent reply were discovered recently in the archives of Trinity College. Both have just been published in a handsome edition by the Watkinston Library at Trinity, with a foreword by Daniel Halpern, the author of nine poetry collections.
Letter from a Young Poet describes Plutzik’s Thoreauvian sojourn in the 1930s on a farm in northwestern Connecticut where he came to terms with his vocation as a poet. While there, he wrote several long poems, including “Death at The Purple Rim” in which he contemplated the ethical dilemmas faced by many young people of his generation who were struggling with the spectres of totalitarianism, armed conflict, and economic privation.
In the final passage of the letter Plutzik declares his moral stance as a Jew and as an American in confronting the Nazi menace.
“It is no wonder that the Jews have always been Hitler’s main enemy,” he writes. “We are the people of the book; we are a symbol of the continuity he would break.”
Though neither of them at the time could foresee the outcome of the Second World War, Plutzik tells Shepard that “the barbarian arises in every age” and that he and his generation are prepared to rise to the occasion.
“Sometimes [the barbarian] can be destroyed by laughter, sometimes by ridicule, sometimes by indifference, sometimes by legislation,” he writes. “Those are lucky generations when such measures can be used. And sometimes he can be destroyed only by cold steel.”
Plutzik eventually served in the U.S. Army Air Corps at Shipdham Airfield in England, first as an ordnance officer during the D-Day invasion and later as information officer. In the midst of turmoil and conflict, Plutzik the student concludes his long letter to Shepard the mentor with the traditional blessing of the high priest of Jerusalem, which ends with the phrase “veyiten l’kha Shalom” (“give thee Peace”).
For more information about Letter from a Young Poet, visit the Hyam Plutzik website at www.hyamplutzikpoetry.com.
Edward Moran was literary adviser to the documentary film Hyam Plutzik: American Poet, directed by Oscar nominee Christine Choy and Ku-Ling Siegel. He edited and wrote the Afterword to Letter from a Young Poet.
The Pageantry of the Falling Leaves:
A poem by Hyam Plutzik
Though written several years after the war, Plutzik’s pastoral poem Connecticut Autumn suggests that the eternal recurrence of the seasons is somehow akin to a mentoring relationship where the elder yields to the younger, each drawing life and energy from one other. Was Plutzik thinking of his mentor Odell Shepard when he penned the line “The young winds — playing with the old men — ”?
I have seen the pageantry of the leaves falling—
Their sere, brown frames descending brokenly,
Like old men lying down to rest.
I have heard the whisperings of the
The young winds—playing with the old men—
Playing with them, as the sun flows west.
And I have seen the pomp of this earth naked—
The brown fields standing cold and resolute,
Like strong men waiting for the end.
Then have come the sudden gusts
of winds awaked:
The broken pageantry, the leaves upflailed,
Tremor-stricken, the giant branches rent.
And a shiver runs over the remnants of the brown grass—
And there is cessation….
The processional recurs.
I have seen the pageantry.
I have seen the haggard leaves falling.
One by one falling.
© 2016 by the Estate of Hyam Plutzik. All rights reserved.
CAP: Hyam Plutzik