Controversial yet brilliant Yiddish writer, poet and dramatist, Abraham Pinchas Cykiert was born into a Chasidic family in Lodz in 1926. Son of a textile worker and one of eight siblings, his early religious education was in Cheder, the Lubavitch Yeshivah Tomchai Tmimim, and with private teachers, the most notable being his paternal grandfather, the blind Reb Nachman, for whom he read Torah.
By the time he was forced into the Lodz ghetto at the age of fourteen he was already writing praiseworthy lyrical poetry having made his literary debut with a short poem in the daily Naye Folksblat. He attributes his survival in the ghetto to Lodz poet Miriam Ulinover who initially took him into the underground writing circle of the ghetto. He wrote satirical songs and verses for the ghetto administration and received food in return.
When the ghetto was liquidated in August 1944, Abraham was on the last transport to Auschwitz where he remained for fourteen weeks. Here he again used his wits and writing skills to survive, composing bawdy ditties for the Kapos, a task for which he carried an enduring sense of guilt and shame. At this time he also composed a long poem of hope that was later translated into English and published in South Africa in 1947.
Abraham was deported to Buchenwald where he was liberated by the Americans in April 1945. His reports of Buchenwald appeared in the Manchester Guardian on the 14 May 1945, and were translated by Marion Gide.
Between 1945 and 1948 he and his one surviving sister, Tova, lived with a group of orphans sent by the Jewish Agency to a Swiss Sanatorium in Lugano in Switzerland. During this time Abraham continued to write and had his short stories, poems and memoirs of the ghetto published in London Yiddish journals such as Loshn un Lebn (Language and Life), Teater-shpigl (Theatre Plays) and di tsayt (The Times). His stories also appeared in Undzer Vort (Our Word) in Paris and Tsukunft (The Future) in New York and Keneder Odler (The Canadian Eagle) in Montreal.
On 21 October 1948 he arrived in Australia aboard the Napoli together with a group that became known as the “Buchenwald Boys”. At this time he began working for the Yiddishe Post. He later moved to Yiddish radio where he remained for many years.
Abraham was a staunch Zionist and in 1976 went to live and work in Jerusalem for that year. In 1994 he was guest lecturer at the Hebrew University. He was also a guest lecturer at the theology department of Krakow University.
By 1993 Abraham ceased writing in Yiddish and began writing in English. He had two plays performed in Melbourne, The Mighty and the Condemned ( performed by Saltpillar) and the one man play Emperor of the Ghetto, about Chaim Rumkowski’s putative moral dilemmas. His views about Rumkowski were mixed. Rather than condemn him outright for his actions, Cykiert endeavoured to understand the moral dilemmas that Rumkowski confronted. This play had two seasons in Melbourne and was subsequently broadcast by the ABC in 1994.
Although Cykiert was a man whose ideas and public statements often went against the mainstream and therefore prompted controversy, according to the writer and critic, Gedalia Shaiak, even his harshest critics respected him as a great Yiddish poet. However no published volume of his poems has ever appeared.
Abraham Cykiert died in Melbourne in 2009 and is survived by his sister Tova and her children.
Sources: Andrew Firestone; Abraham Cykiert’s sister Tova Tauber; article by Gedaliah Shaiak, Melbourne Chronicle, March 1976.