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Yosl Mlotek Biography

Joseph "Yosl" Mlotek, z"l zikhroynu livrokhe
Born in Prozevice, Poland on July 25, 1918.  Died in New York on July 2, 2000.
Many words have been used to describe Yosl's life and career.  "Der address far Yiddish" -- The address for Yiddish, "Vegvayzer" -- Spiritual Leader, "Lerer" -- Teacher, "poet", "Khaver" – Friend.  All of these descriptions are accurate, but no one word can truly describe the man or the pain and suffering, and  trials and tribulations he endured or his own passion and energy to overcome those obstacles leading to the tremendous achievements.

A Life of Struggle and Hardship

Life in pre-war Poland was difficult.  A child of a poor, blind melamed (teacher), the family had to move at an early age to Warsaw because there was no work to be had in Prozevice.  In Warsaw, the family of 8 children (brothers Moishe, Nosen, Chone, Avram, Mendel, and sisters Sore and Esther), together with their parents, Zalmen and Feygl, lived in a one room apartment.  Pre-war Warsaw was rife with anti-semitism and disease. 
Yosl was blessed to be among the few selected to go once and sometimes twice a year to the famous Medem Sanitorium, a health and cultural facility located about an hour outside of Warsaw, designed to treat children with tuberculosis.   Yosl became a leader of the children there, the chairman of their children's republic and from a young age, organized the daily activities, including radio programs, theater programs and newspapers.  His journalistic career continued when as a young teenager he published poems and articles in the Warsaw weekly children's newspaper called Di Kleyne Folkstsaytung -- the young people's newspaper.  One of his early poems at age 15 was addressed to his mother who out of love and fear made him stay home and not attend a mass rally.
Ven S'Hilkhn di Rufn

Vi ken men, vi ken men in shtub haynt farblaybn
Ven s'rufn un tsien dikh lider ful freyd,
Vi ken men, vi ken men aleyn mit zikh blaybn,
Ven s'hilkhn di lider, vi rufn fun vayt...

Ven tif-bloye himlen
Vi loytere fener
Zikh vign in luft!
Un shmeykhlen mit zun Un s'hilkhn di rufn
Fun brondz-harte mener
Un s'entfert in khor zey say alt un say ying!

Vi ken ikh, o mame, vi ken ikh do blaybn
Ven s'rayst zikh mayn harts, vi fun boygn a fayl,
Ven s'vilt zikh farbindn mit masn vos laydn
Un filn, az kh'bin fun der mase - a teyl.
O, kh'her shoyn, ikh her shoyn di trit fun milyonen,
Vi s'flekhtn zikh lider mit ritmishn trot,
Kh'her fonen-geflater un lider, vos monen,
Ikh her shoyn dem broyzndn gang fun der shtot.

Ken ikh nisht, ken ikh in shtub haynt nisht blaybn,
Ven s'rufn mikh, s'tsien mikh lider fun freyd,
Ken ikh nisht, mame, aleyn mit zikh blaybn,
Ven s'shaln di lider un rufn mikh vayt
How can I? How can I stay home today?
When the joyful songs call to me, pull at me
How can I stay here alone by myself
When the songs resound like commands from afar
When the deep blue skies, like fluttering banners
Move on the winds and smile with the sun
And the voices of golden youth reach out
And are answered in one voice - by old and by young.

How can I?
Oh Mama, how can I stay on here?
When my heart flies from me, like an arrow from the bow
When I yearn to join up with the masses that suffer
And feel that I'm one of them - one of them all.

I hear, oh I hear the footfall of millions
Who weave those songs in the rhythm of their steps
I hear the flags' flutter and the songs that command
I hear the glorious voice of my town.

I can't!
Oh I can't stay at home any longer
They call to me, pull me - those songs full of joy
O Mama, I can't stay at home any longer
When the songs take hold of me, calling me out.

Translation:  Adrienne Cooper

While at the Medem Sanitorium, Yosl wrote a letter to one of the then icons of the Yiddish cultural movement in the United States, Nakhum Chanin, urging him to help raise funds to help the sickly children of Warsaw.  Later, when Yosl came to the United States, and visited a Workmen's Circle school, he happened to come across his letter in one of the school's records.  Chanin distributed that letter to the schools so the schools could adopt the Medem Sanitorium as one of their important causes.
Notwithstanding his mother's urging, Yosl became a leader of SKIF, the Jewish socialist children's network, and was often seen leading rallies and marches against injustices. 
When Yosl was 21, the second world war broke out and on September 6, 1939, six days after the invasion of Poland, the newspaper where he was employed, the “Folkstsaytung” decided to evacuate the newspaper to an eastern city, Lublin and he left with the editors and writers.

On the way they heard that Lublin was bombarded and the paths were blocked, so he went to Vilna, where he remained a year, working on eyewitness testimonies of the refugees for an eminent scholar Noakh Prylucki and as a research fellow of the Yivo.
One day it was announced that the editor of the newspaper and other leading writers were arrested by the Soviet government and Yosl went underground into hiding.   While in Vilna, Yosl heard from a friend that one of his brothers also escaped Warsaw and was in town and this friend arranged a meeting.  Yosl did not know which brother it was until he opened the door and saw Avram.  This was the only family member that Yosl would see again until after the war.  Except for his sister Sore, the rest of the family perished in the Holocaust.
While still in Vilna, Yosl received word that a Japanese diplomat was granting exit visas out of Lithuania. Yosl waited in line in Kovno for days for visas for him and Avram and is one of the last persons to meet the hero Chiune Sugihara, one of the Yad Vashem noted "righteous gentiles" before Sugihara is recalled to Japan for his "traitorous" act of issuing transit visas and rescuing a few thousand Jews.  But for this fortuitous happenstance of being at the right place at the right time, Yosl would not have been able to leave Europe.

Traveling by foot, wagon, train and boat, Yosl, together with Avram, started the long trek around the world from Vilna to Vladivostok to Kobe Japan.  After a year's sojourn in Japan, the Jews learn that Japan will not host them and they are deported to Shanghai China where a ghetto was established for them.  While in Shanghai, he received news of the devastation that had befallen his family and his people in the Holocaust.  As previously mentioned, the only other family member to survive was Sore, who spent the war years in Siberia, and who later emigrated to Canada. 

While in Shanghai, Yosl worked for the Yiddish community, at the Russian library and on the Yiddish newspaper and magazines.  The Jews recreated for themselves a cultural life in the Shanghai ghetto with weekly lectures, concerts, and newspapers and Yosl was one of the active participants of that activity.

In 1947, after the war and after numerous attempts, he finally received a visa to come to North America, and settled in Calgary Canada for two years before receiving a visa into the United States.  While in Calgary, he received a scholarship to UCLA to study Jewish folklore and linguistics with Max Weinrech as part of a YIVO sponsored program.  There he again met his "lebns bagleyterin", his life-partner, Chana Gordon, affectionately called by his friends, "dos varshever meydl fun der Bronx" - the Warsaw girl from the Bronx.  Yosl and Chana corresponded when classes ended and he returned to Calgary and she to the Bronx, until Yosl received his visa.  They soon became engaged and on August 7, 1949 were married.

Two years later, on June 15, 1951, Chana gave birth to their first son, Zalmen Nosn, and four years later on August 8, 1955, she gave birth to their second son, Moish - Mark Elchonen.
Upon arriving in New York, Yosl took a job as a teacher in the Workmen’s Circle school system.  In his spare time, he wrote curriculum, including the well received “Yidishe Kinder” text books for the shule system, and was quickly promoted to director of the schools in New York City.  In 1966, the then Educational Director of the Workmen’s Circle, Zalmen Yefroiken, suddenly passed away and Yosl ascended to his position.  His accomplishments in this position are described in the next section.
Yosl was always very close to the remaining family that he had and was a devoted son-in-law to Bessie and Leo Gordon, Chana’s parents, adopting them as his own, visiting them every day when they were old and infirm.  He was a loving brother-in-law to Malke and Bing Gottlieb, Chana’s sister, and a prideful uncle to Joey & Judy Gottlieb and to their families.
He took care of his brother Avram during his illnesses and was a loving brother-in-law to Dina and a wonderful uncle to Ruth and her family. He had a special kinship to Sore, his sister, who was doing similar work as Yosl in Canada, as leader of the Canadian Yiddish community.  He was especially proud of Sore who won Canada’s highest honor, the Order of Canada for her work, and was a loving brother-in-law to Hershl, and a devoted uncle to Moish, Zalmen and Fay and their families. 
Most of all, Yosl was especially proud of his wife Chana – who has an incomparable font of knowledge of Yiddish folklore and songs and who helped him on a daily basis in his work – and of his children and their families.   Yosl was particularly close as a mentor to my cousin Moishe, guiding him in his chosen career of being a Jewish cultural impresario and producer.
He was so proud of Zalmen, who has contributed so much to the field of Yiddish music, and who has taken the helm of and is responsible for the revival of the National Yiddish Theater - Folksbiene.  Zalmen also gave Yosl so much joy and happiness with his marriage to Debbie and their subsequent “production” of three wonderful grandchildren, Avram, Elisha and Sarah.
He was also so proud that Moish grew up and became a president of the Workmen’s Circle, continuing his tradition of helping that organization, which he loved, to perpetuate the Eastern European heritage as a living and vibrant culture.  Yosl loved Audrey as if she were his own daughter and he had a special place in his heart for his other two loving and adoring grandchildren, Marissa and Lee.
Yosl had many illnesses throughout his life and his last few years were not easy. While he was able to work writing columns until his very last day, his physical health deteriorated rapidly.  It was only his strong will, his passion to survive, his love for his work and for his family, that enabled him to overcome for as long as he did, until finally he succumbed at the age of 81.