1899 – 1989
Marie Syrkin is best known as a polemicist for the State of Israel, whose keen arguments appeared in a wide range of publications for a period of almost seventy years. It is not a very well-known fact, however, that she recorded both the public and private aspects of her life and career in poetry written over the course of her lifetime. In her eightieth year, she published a volume of poetry called Gleanings: A Diary in Verse (1979), which brings together the public aspects of her career—her commitment to Israel, her social commentary, and her devotion to literature—with profoundly moving expressions of intimate emotions, private struggles, and personal sorrows. For Marie Syrkin, the personal and the Jewish people were ineluctably intertwined. The close of her most intensely personal poem, “Memorial for a Child,” an excruciating reflection upon the death of her son in his second year, brings together personal life and experience through the people:
I have never gone back to Ithaca,
Afraid of the small headstone, the weed-choked plot.
Now there is a plaque with your name
In a kindergarten in Jerusalem.
In a house for children
With eyes dark as yours,
Prattling in Hebrew
I took heart to face your name:
Marie Syrkin was born in Switzerland on March 23, 1899. She was the only daughter of Nachman Syrkin, the theoretician of Socialist-Zionism, and Bassya Osnos Syrkin, a feminist revolutionary activist. By the time Syrkin was ten she had lived in five countries, finally moving to the United States in 1908 because, as she herself quipped, “Papa was always getting exiled—so we travelled a lot.” The Syrkins treated their unusually beautiful and exceptionally intelligent child, who at age ten was fluent in five languages—Russian, French, German, Yiddish, and English—as a prodigy. Hebrew, however, was not among the languages she learned, and, blaming it on her father’s inept and sporadic pedagogic attempts, she later claimed this lack as a major reason for her failure to immigrate to Israel.
Educated in the American public school system, Marie Syrkin showed sensitivity to the nuances of language in poetry that she began to write at a very early age. When she was fifteen, her mother, who suffered from chronic tuberculosis, died at age thirty-six. When Marie was eighteen she eloped with the writer and future Zionist activist Maurice Samuel, who, then twenty-two, had enlisted in the army and was about to leave for France. Nachman Syrkin, however, to his daughter’s everlasting resentment, had the marriage annulled, claiming that his daughter was underage.
In 1918, Marie Syrkin went off to Cornell University to pursue her literary studies. There, in 1919, she met and married Aaron Bodansky, a biochemist. They had two sons, the older of whom tragically died in 1924, only two months before the death of Nachman Syrkin and three months before the birth of their second son, David, who was to become a physicist. By this time, Marie Syrkin’s insistence upon pursuing her own career led to a divorce from Aaron Bodansky. She left Cornell with an M.A. degree and returned to New York City with her infant son. In order to support herself and her child, she took a position as an English teacher at Textile High School in Manhattan, a job she disliked intensely but held for over twenty years. During these years, she also earned extra money by translating Yiddish poetry into English. She was among the first to do so.
The mid-1920s marked the low point of her life, both personally and professionally. But in 1927, she met the objectivist poet Charles Reznikoff, whom she married in 1930, and she lived with him on and off until his death in 1976.
Meanwhile, she began to become increasingly involved in Zionist activities. Just after her first trip to Palestine, in 1934, she joined the staff of the Jewish Frontier, the new English-language Labor-Zionist publication. This was the beginning of a sustained and remarkable career: a lifelong contribution to Zionism, American and Jewish cultural life, as a responsible journalist who would be published in a wide range of publications from the New York Times to the Jerusalem Post.
In the pages of the Jewish Frontier, she exposed the truth about the Moscow Trials of 1937, the first exposé to appear in English. From 1937 through 1942, Syrkin reported on critical events regarding the Nazi persecutions in Europe, although she later admitted that at this point she and her colleagues did not yet understand their full implications. In August of 1942, however, Marie Syrkin learned of a cable that had been sent from Gerhard Rieger, the Geneva representative of the World Jewish Congress, to be forwarded to Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress. The message contained information about the ongoing Nazi murder of European Jewry. In the first editorial in the American press to report that the systematic extermination of the Jews was already in progress, Syrkin wrote in the Jewish Frontier: “It is a policy of systematic murder of innocent civilians which in its ferocity, its dimensions and its organization is unique in the history of mankind …” (November 1942).
During these disastrous war years, Syrkin continued her multifaceted activities on behalf of the Jewish community in a flow of editorials, articles, and poems pressing for the opening of the immigration gates of Palestine, demanding liberalization of immigration quotas in America and elsewhere, trying to find havens for refugees, and writing speeches for such famous figures as Chaim Weizmann and Golda Meir. During this time, she also found time to write a widely acclaimed book on the American public school system, Your School, Your Children (1944). Based upon Syrkin’s experience in the system, the book was to play a substantial role in the coming focus on American educational reform.
When the war was over, Marie Syrkin went once more to Palestine to collect material for her book on Jewish resistance—the first of its kind—Blessed Is the Match (1947). In 1947, she was sent to the displaced persons camps in the American Zone of Germany to help find suitable candidates for Hillel Scholarships to American universities. She returned to the new State of Israel in July 1948, just after the siege of Jerusalem. Her task was to draw up an official report on the continuing Arab exodus and on the accusation that the new government of Israel had destroyed mosques and other holy places. Her study was the basis for the official Israeli government report to the United Nations. The trip also resulted in several closely argued essays on the subject of Arab refugees and the nature of Arab-Palestinian nationalism.
In 1950, at age fifty-one, Marie Syrkin began a new career. She became the first female professor of an academic subject at the newly established Brandeis University, where she was appointed to the English faculty. Here, she developed the first university course in the literature of the Holocaust and in American Jewish fiction. During her sixteen years at Brandeis, Syrkin wrote a memoir of her father and a biography of her close friend Golda Meir, edited an anthology of the writings of Hayim Greenberg, edited the Jewish Frontier, served on the editorial board of Midstream, and was editor of the Herzl Press. She continued to write polemical pieces on political and cultural issues in the pages of many publications. Perhaps one of her most controversial public appearances was her bitter attack on Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem. This occurred at a debate on the book sponsored by Dissent. In this period she also served as an elected member of the World Zionist Executive.
Marie Syrkin retired as professor emerita from Brandeis University in 1966. She then returned to New York, where she held a position at the Jewish Agency. After the death of Charles Reznikoff in 1976, she moved to Santa Monica, California, to be near her sister, the daughter of Nachman Syrkin and his second wife, and closer to her son and his family. There she continued to write, lecture, comment publicly on the current scene, be an active member of the board of Midstream, and confound her critics on the Left by signing the first Peace Now statement, but resigning for ideological reasons from the board of Tikkun magazine after the first issue.
The recipient of numerous awards and prizes, including Israel’s prestigious Bublick Prize and of honorary degrees from both American and Israeli institutions, Marie Syrkin died on February 2, 1989, one month short of ninety years. Her life touched almost every significant aspect of Jewish life in America and Europe in the twentieth century with the exception of the religious. She is among the most important American Jewish women of the twentieth century, a peer of Golda Meir and Henrietta Szold.
Blessed Is the Match: The Story of Jewish Resistance (1947); Gleanings: A Diary in Verse (1979); Golda Meir: Israel’s Leader (1970); Golda Meir Speaks Out: The Speeches of Golda Meir, editor (1973); Hayim Greenberg Anthology (1968); Nachman Syrkin: Socialist Zionist (1960); The State of the Jews (1980); Your School, Your Children (1944).
EJ; Kessner, Carole S. “In Memoriam: Marie Syrkin, An Exemplary Life.” Midstream (May 1989):3–10, and “Marie Syrkin: An Exemplary Life.” In The “Other” New York Jewish Intellectuals (1994), and “On Behalf of the Jewish People; Marie Syrkin at Ninety.” Jewish Book Annual, 1988–89 42 (1988): 206–220, and “The Poems of Marie Syrkin.” Reconstructionist 45 (July 1979): 25–27; “Marie Syrkin; A Tribute by her Friends, Colleagues, and Students.” Jewish Frontier, special issue (January/February 1983); “Marie Syrkin and Trude Weiss-Rosmarin: A Moment Interview,” Moment 8, no. 8 (September 1983): 37–44; Syrkin, Marie. Papers. AJA, Cincinnati, Ohio.