Ukraine and the Promised Land: Ivan Franko, Theodor Herzl and the Figure of Moses
by Alastair Lockhart
The Ukrainian poet and scholar Ivan Franko (1856-1916) is one of his country’s most prominent contributors to world literature, and one of the great moving spirits in the formation of Ukrainian national identity in modern times. His work is of particular relevance in the study of millenarianism and the political reception of the Bible because of a deep association it identifies between the Jewish quest for a homeland and Ukrainian national consciousness.
Franko was born near Drohobych, in western Ukraine, which was at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the most important oil-producing territory in Europe (the “Ukrainian California”(Bezushko 1953)). He was awarded a doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1894 for a thesis on ‘”Barlaam and Josaphat”, the Old Christian Religious Novel and Its Literary History’. However, as a known Socialist, his career was persistently disrupted by the government, including periods of imprisonment, and he lived his life as a poor writer, journalist and public intellectual. (Wilcher 1977, 9; Manning 1973, 11.)
Yaroslav Hrytsak’s (2019) study of Franko’s life and work – republished as part of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter project which seeks to ‘strengthen mutual comprehension and solidarity between Ukrainians and Jews’ - explores the complexity of Franko’s relationship with Jewish people and Judaism (Hrytsak 2019; see also, Hrytsak 2013). Franko has been identified as the most prolific Ukrainian author on Jewish subjects, and at the same time he has an ambiguous reputation ‘which ranges from sincere Judeophilism to radical Judeophobia’ (Hrytsak 2019). Nonetheless, for Franko, the vision of Ukraine as a unified nation was deeply linked to the idea of Israel encountered in the Bible and in political movements of his day. Indeed, Franko’s self-understanding as a prophet of the Ukrainian national movement was connected to his concept of the biblical Moses. The culmination of this association emerged in literary form in Franko’s (1905) poetic masterpiece Moses. The poem has been regarded as ‘Franko’s highest expression of the Ukrainian national idea, of his own national sentiment, and of his idealistic world-outlook, postulating the pre-eminence of the spirit above matter’ (Wilcher 1977, ix). Indeed, Hrytsak suggests that the implicit Judeophilism of the poem, and others by Franko, contributed to understandings of the writer as antisemitic because pro-Jewish literature of this type was routinely suppressed in Ukraine under Soviet rule. Hrytsak refers, for example, to a secret memorandum from the main censorship committee sent to the secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine in 1953 with the title ‘On the Harmful Practices of the Institute of Ukrainian Literature of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR’:
This note, among other things, proposed to stop the publication of an edition of Franko’s works in which his poem Moses was slated to appear, because “the poem praises the ‘promised land’ of the Jewish people of Palestine, the Jews’ sadness for Palestine, which to them is their native home, etc.” (Hrytsak 2019.)
One of the leading English-language scholars of the influence of the Bible on Ivan Franko’s thought has been Asher Wilcher (1915-2012). Amongst his works on the topic are his (1977) doctoral thesis on ‘Ivan Franko and the Bible’, written at the University of Ottawa, and his (1982) presentation in translation of two accounts of Franko’s interactions with the founder of political Zionism Theodor Herzl (1860-1904). The latter includes an eye-witness account of a meeting between the two men in Vienna in 1893 by Vasyl’ Ščurat (it was originally published in 1937 in the Lviv Jewish Polish-language newspaper Chwila (Szczurat 1937)), and a review by Franko of Herzl’s proposal for the establishment of a Jewish state, Der Judenstaat, both published in 1896 (the 1982 translation of the review provided by Wilcher is by Paulina Lewin).
Wilcher’s doctoral thesis analyses the way in which the Bible pervades Franko’s writings from his personal spirituality to his wider worldview, and his sense of the Ukrainian nation. The thesis’s abstract concludes: ‘Spiritual values, summoned from all the corners of the Bible, find a high poetical expression in great works reflecting his true spiritual image, his crystallized world-outlook, and, above all – his national sentiment and his national ideology’ (Wilcher 1977, 221). In his study of Franko and Herzl, Wilcher describes how the ideas arising in Franko’s interactions with Herzl undergird the poem Moses and Franko’s Ukrainian vision: ‘[A]n analogy between the aspirations of the Jewish and Ukrainian nations to freedom, statehood, and independence constitutes the basic concept’ of the poem (Wilcher 1982, 234).
In his first-hand report of Franko’s meeting with Herzl (albeit written more than 40 years later), Ščurat comments that the topic of their conversation was the ideas that would ultimately become Herzl’s Der Judenstaat. Franko remarked to Herzl that the idea of the restoration of the Jewish state ‘appealed to me strongly because it is [like] a sister to our Ukrainian idea of the restoration of the Ukrainian state’. When Franko doubted whether or not the idea could become a reality for Ukraine, Herzl encouraged him that ‘[e]ven the loftiest idea born in a wise or rational human mind can become reality if it inspires the great masses with fervor and raises from amongst their own midst defenders ready for martyrdom if need be’. Herzl went on to comment on the need for a Moses-figure to emerge: ‘Moseses aren’t born every day; they are formed under pressure from outside. … And in our case, outside pressure is tenfold stronger than in yours. Should your people feel it one day as we feel it now, then they, too will begin to look about for their own Moses and they will certainly find him, though today they would probably still stone him to death’. Ščurat goes on to comment that Franko began to compose Moses as early as the year of that meeting (and perhaps earlier) though it would not appear until 1905 – its final coming together perhaps directly in response to news of Herzl’s death in 1904. Ščurat suggests that Franko’s struggle with the poem was due to his attempt ‘to depict the Jewish Moses in such a way that the Ukrainian reader would recognize in him the fate of a Ukrainian leader’ and that ultimately the poem was ‘historical only superficially, because it was full of contemporary import about the fate of the Ukrainian nation’.
Franko’s review of Der Judenstaat shows sympathy for the scheme of forming a Jewish state amid caution about its practicality. However, it concludes with a prophetic expectation that the Jewish people will find a generation able to bring it about. It is this insight, Wilcher suggests, that animates the conclusion of the Franko’s poem Moses. As Moses dies in sight of the Promised Land: ‘Franko pictures the Israelite children and their behavior as evidence of Moses’ influence on their souls, and particularly the poem’s last canto, in which the Hebrew youth is first to respond to Joshua’s call to the march towards the Promised Land and lead the others to follow’. The final canto includes the following verses:
The soul's hunger, fear of old abysses
And desolation. …
But Joshua gives a bold cry:
"To arms! Forward the nation!"
The shout soars like an eagle above
The dumb crowd, roars and rattles
Echoing into the mountains:
"Forward! To battle!"
Yet a moment — then all will awake,
From their dull langour,
And no one knows what in this moment
In him starts to clamour!
Yet a moment — the warcry will come,
In that moment, dull nomads will turn
To a nation of heroes!
(Franko Moses, 28.)
Wilcher suggests that the ‘figure and the spiritual image’ of the biblical Moses ‘haunted [Franko] and pervaded his literary production throughout his life’, for Franko:
Moses was the embodiment of a pioneer of the spirit, and, at the same time, a tragic figure, in that his spiritual leadership was not recognized by his carnally-minded nomadic people, and he died in solitude at the threshold of the fulfilment of his life ideal to bring his people into the promised land. (Wilcher 1977, 50.)
Franko died in 1916. Within three years his vision would briefly become political reality when a unified Ukrainian state emerged from the collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires at the end of the First World War. Caught between the Soviets and Poland, the new republic would soon be overwhelmed and dismembered – consolidating once more under the Soviets after 1945, and emerging again in 1991 with the end of the USSR. Franko had left his people, as Moses had, to continue onwards to the Promised Land without him.
Bezushko, Vladimir. 1953. ‘Ivan Franko’. Bulletin of the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages 10(4): 78.
Franko, Ivan. 1896. ‘Pañstwo zydows’. Dodatek literacki Kuriera Lwowskiego. 9 March 1896. pp. 73-74.
Franko, Ivan. n/d. Moses. Vera Rich (trans.). Electronic Library of Ukrainian Literature. Accessed 8 March 2022. http://sites.utoronto.ca/elul/English/Franko/Franko-Moses.pdf.
Herzl, Theodor. 1896. Der Judenstaat: Versuch einer modernen Lösung der Judenfrage. Leipzig und Wien: Verlags-Buchhandlung.
Hrytsak, Yaroslav. 2013. ‘A Strange Case of Antisemitism: Ivan Franko and the Jewish Issue’. In Omer Bartov and Eric D. Weitz (eds) Shatterzone of Empires: Coexistence and Violence in the German, Habsburg, Russian, and Ottoman Borderlands. Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press.
Hrytsak, Yaroslav. 2019. ‘Ivan Franko and his Jews: Childhood, Student Years, Politics’. Marta D. Olynyk (trans). Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. Published 28 October 2019. Accessed 8 March 2022. https://ukrainianjewishencounter.org/en/ivan-franko-and-his-jews-childhood-student-years-politics/. [First published in Ukrainian in Istorychna Pravda, 29 May 2018. https://www.istpravda.com.ua/articles/2018/05/29/152515/.]
Manning, Clarence A. 1973. ‘Preface’. In Ivan Franko. Moses and Other Poems. Vera Rich (trans. ‘Moses’) and Percival Cundy (trans. other poems). New York NY: The Shevchenko Scientific Society, New York. pp. 11-16.
Szczurat, Wasyl. 1937. ‘Wówczas było to jeszcze mrzonka’. Chwila poranna. 5 August 1937. p. 5.
Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. n/d. ‘About Us’. Accessed 8 March 2022. https://ukrainianjewishencounter.org/en/about-us/.
Wilcher, Asher. 1977. ‘Ivan Franko and the Bible: A study of his pre-Moisei poems’. Doctoral dissertation, University of Ottawa. Accessed 8 March 2022. https://diasporiana.org.ua/wp-content/uploads/books/19675/file.pdf.
Wilcher, Asher. 1982. ‘Ivan Franko and Theodor Herzl: To the Genesis of Franko’s Mojsej’. Harvard Ukrainian Studies 6(2): 233-243.
Alastair Lockhart is CenSAMM Academic Co-Director and a Fellow of Hughes Hall in the University of Cambridge. His recent book Personal Religion and Spiritual Healing: The Panacea Society in the Twentieth Century (SUNY Press) uses the archives of the Panacea Charitable Trust to examine the religious ideas of spiritual seekers around the world from the 1920s to the 1970s.