||After military actions on the eastern front in World War I divided the historical region of Lithuanian Jews into two isolated parts in 1915, Yiddish literary life ground to a standstill in Lithuanian and Belarusian territory under German occupation. Mass evacuation and the deportation of Lithuanian Jews to Russia had destroyed Yiddish cultural activity in Vilna even before the German army entered the city in September 1915. Most prominent writers, artists, literary critics, and cultural leaders fled; Yiddish newspapers and journals, such as Di yidishe velt (The Jewish World), shut down; and major publishers of Yiddish literature closed. Those who did not evacuate were impoverished by requisitions and robberies, carried out by both the defending and the attacking armies, and faced famine, while the tiny cultural elite that remained was almost cut off from the rest of the world. Such were the circumstances under which the first collection of poetry by Leib Naidus (Leyb Naydus), Lirik: ershtes bukh (Lyrics: The First Book), was published. It was one of the last Yiddish publications to appear in Vilna in 1915, and for this reason it was neither noticed by critics nor circulated outside of a small local circle. During a life that ended when he was only twenty-eight, Naidus did not achieve wide recognition as a poet; his celebrity was confined to a narrow wartime audience in the cities of Vilna and Grodno, Belarus. His most productive period coincided with the chaos of war, when he was obliged to live in seclusion in his parents' house in a village near Grodno. Although isolated from cultural life, during the four years of World War I he bestowed a new quality on modern Yiddish poetry and is now frequently identified as the first virtuoso of Yiddish versification. He introduced into Yiddish literature high-style aesthetic sophistication, the cult of "pure art," the refined imagery of symbolism and decadence, and the perception of a splendid and detached artistic aristocracy. Moreover, Naidus originated landscape description and developed the modern Yiddish pastoral to express the regional identity of Lithuanian Jewry. The young poet left behind an impressive literary legacy, the major part of which was published in the 1920s and earned him posthumous recognition.
Born on 6 October 1890 in Grodno to Yitshok Naidus, a wealthy landowner and manufacturer, and Reykhl Naidus, Naidus was raised on his family's estate, Kustin (in Polish, Kuscin), near the town of Kuznica. The Naidus family followed the cultural outlook of the maskilim (nineteenth-century liberal Jewish enlighteners and emancipators) and had a particular interest in secular Hebrew literature, to which Naidus's father had contributed verse in his youth. Jewish religious tradition played a large role in the family's life; it was passed down to the Naidus children by their grandmother, a devout woman who meditated over the sixteenth-century Yiddish biblical commentary Tsene-rene (O Come Forth and See), immersed herself in silent prayer, blessed every guest who came to the house, and venerated the beauty of the natural world. On the other hand, the family followed the pattern of household organization established by the Polish and Lithuanian nobility in which traditional management of agricultural estates and a conservative lifestyle were combined with such liberal ideals as the education of the peasantry, economic reform, and social and religious tolerance. Thus, the route to emancipation followed by Naidus's father led not toward the urban Russian business establishment and intelligentsia but toward the Polish and Lithuanian nobility.
Naidus commenced his education with private tutors, who prepared him for the Russian state school in Grodno and instructed him in the Hebrew language and Bible. After a year at the state school, the eleven-year-old Naidus was sent to a new commercial school in Radom in central Poland to receive a more modern education. After two years, he moved to a similar school in Bialystok, closer to his parents' home. In 1905, however, the tsarist government took steps to suppress the revolutionary movement, and Naidus was expelled for participating in riotous meetings. His lifelong connection with the left-wing Zionist Socialist Labor Party, better known by as the SSRP, dates to this period. The SSRP was founded in 1905 as an offshoot of the Po'alei Zion (Workers of Zion) party; it rejected the Bundists' desire for national-cultural autonomy, the Sjemists' aspirations to political autonomy, and the Zionists' hope of building a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Instead, while it supported the ideals of Yiddishism, many of its members went over to the Bolsheviks after 1917. Naidus tried to continue his education at a state school in Kovno , Lithuania, but an official report of his role in the Bialystok student demonstrations reached the authorities in Kovno, and he was expelled.
Naidus's first published Yiddish poem appeared in 1907 in a collection of work by aspiring Jewish literati titled Di yunge harfe (The Young Harp), a special issue of the Warsaw journal Roman-tsaytung (The Newspaper of Novels). Yiddish was not the only language available to Naidus for his poetry: he was completely bilingual in Yiddish and Hebrew, and his secular education had also left him capable of expressing himself in Russian. Along with Yiddish juvenilia, he had been writing Hebrew verse since the age of ten. During his school years he had started composing poetry in Russian, some of which had been published in the local Russian press, and he had prepared for publication a collection of Russian verse titled "Polevye panno" (The Field Panels). He was encouraged to continue working in Yiddish, however, by the 1908 appearance in Vilna of the programmatic journal Di literarishe monatshriftn (The Literary Monthly), which proclaimed the autonomy of high art and the modern renaissance of Yiddish culture. Another essential impulse, according to Zak, came from the poet's lifelong beloved, a Jewish girl identified only by her initials, H.G.; under her influence he abandoned writing in Russian.
In 1908 Naidus was accepted into the Pavlovski gymnazium (high school) in Vilna. The poetry he wrote during his gymnazium years reveals the influence of fin-de-siècle neo-Romanticism. His themes, such as loneliness and alienation in city streets, hypnotic dreaming in nocturnal parks, and decadent melancholy overlaid with idealized longings, and his chief tropes--floating natural shapes, eroticized nymph-like women, yearnings of the soul, and antique temples of idealized beauty--are stock poetic conventions of the period. Some attempts to present this commonplace repertoire from a distinctively modernistic perspective can be noticed, however. For example, throughout "Kimat a balade" (Almost a Ballad), written in 1911, an idyllic natural landscape is compared to the fictionalized scenery depicted in a classical ballad the speaker is reading aloud in a meadow. Although the speaker finds these two vistas almost identical, he concludes that only literary images can perfectly entrance him. The world of classical poetry is praised for perfection precisely because of its fictitiousness and nonreferentiality. In this way Naidus demonstrates his grasp of the central modernist notion of the autonomy of the artistic image: unearthly and superhuman beauty replaces human aims and personal happiness. A long poem, "Tsum glik: a maysele" (Toward Happiness: A Fairy Tale), published in the Vilna cultural journal Lebn un visnshaft (Life and Science) in 1910, suggests that an individual who follows the "mystical yearnings" and "painful nostalgia" of his own heart drifts between real life and the perfect world of autonomous beauty. When such a wanderer finally reaches the divine palace of eternal bliss, he dies on the marble steps before the entrance, because the highest happiness is cold, fictive, and inhuman: it is a work of art.