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2017-07-11

60th anniversary of Shalom Ash's death

“I came from a Jewish shtetl, and in my creative work I have continuously followed the road to a Jewish shtetl”

[from the introduction to Gezamelte szriftn, vol. 1, Warsaw 1928, page III]

That is how Shalom Ash described in short his creative path. As the 10th of July marks the 60th anniversary of the writer's death, we would like to remind our readers of his biography and his creative output.

He was born in Kutno on the first of November (according to some reports, it was the first of January or the first of October) 1880, as one of the ten children of the cattle dealer Moszek Ash and Frajda Malka, maiden name Widawska. The family was pious, so the children were raised in the traditional way. Shalom attended the cheder, then went to the yeshiva, and supposedly he was even to became a rabbi. However, the talented young man became interested in secular literature. With the help of Torah German translation made by Moses Mendelson, Ash learned German. The approach to secular culture was met with disapproval of the family. Ash left Kutno and taught children in one of the small towns. Then, he settled down for a while in Włocławek, where he made money writing letters on demand. At that time, he began to try his hand at writing. However, he wrote in Hebrew.

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With his first writings probing his talent he came to Warsaw in 1900. Like many young authors from the province, he started with visiting Icchok Lejb Perec at Ceglana Street. He brought with him his first works overflowing with the spirituality of a small town. Perec appreciated the work of the young man from Kutno and encouraged him to focus on writing in Yiddish.

Ash moved to Warsaw, and in the same year, in the newspaper "Der Jud", appeared his debut story Mojszele. In the following years, collections of his stories were published. His prose poem A Shtetl, appearing in instalments in the magazine "Der Frajnd", greatly impressed both the critics and the readers.

Ash’s career gained momentum. Thanks to the marriage to Mathilda, the daughter of famous Hebraist and translator Menachem Mendel Shapiro, Ash started connecting with the higher cultural circles and could concentrate on writing.

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He wrote his first dramas at the beginning of the 20th century. His first play, Mitn Sztorm (Yiddish – With the Current), was staged in Polish in Kraków in 1904. In 1907, he created his best known and highly controversial drama Got fun nekome (Yiddish – God of Revenge).

The characters of Ash's works struggled with difficult moral choices, life in poverty, and depravity. The writer was presenting Jewish hypocrites, greedy types benefiting from the misery of others. He unveiled the taboos of the Jewish society, showed to the world a Jewish house of ill repute with prostitutes and their clients, as well as homosexual relationships. For breaking the taboos, he was met with criticism. Religious communities went as far as to call him a traitor to the nation.

That is how, already after the Second World War, Zusman Segałowicz reminisced about Ash:

“[Ash] after leaving Perec’s house, straight after the first literary success among Jewish readers, he began to seek a path to the Christian world. He went to Żeromski, to Kraków. With his Mesajiyeh Cayte (Messiah Times), he travelled to Petersburg, to Komisarzewska, Russia's famous actress. To Reinhardt in Berlin he took his play Got fun nekome (God of Revenge). And he kept on travelling until he reached the Christian God” [Segałowicz Z., Tłomackie 13, Wrocław 2001, page 119]

He was also successful in the non-Jewish market. Many of his works appeared in Polish. He made contacts with Polish writers. He was friends with Stefan Żeromski and Stanislaw Witkiewicz, and in later years with Maria Dąbrowska. The German translation of the controversial play Got fun nekome was staged by Max Reinhardt in Berlin, as early as in 1910.

According to Perec’s suggestions, he wrote in Yiddish. He also became involved in promoting the idea of transforming Yiddish into the national language of the Jews.

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Even before the First World War, Ash was ever more frequently travelling abroad. He visited Palestine, and then the United States, where he stayed at the outbreak of the First World War. He quickly gained American citizenship and found employment in the editorial board of "Forwerts" daily. Later, he also wrote for the Warsaw newspaper "Hajnt". He was one of the initiators of a charitable organization, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) or simply Joint.

In 1923, he returned to Europe, lived in France, and was a frequent sojourner in Germany. He also came to Poland, to Warsaw. In 1932, he was elected the honorary president of the Jewish PEN Club.

“Elegantly dressed, well-built, tall, comely, Ash was easily catching everyone’s attention. He wanted to be seen and liked. [...] We always had the impression that Ash paid no attention to us. Who were we in his eyes? Little scribers tramping the streets of Warsaw. He was something else. The whole world knew about him. "Vosische Zeitung", "Neue Freie Presse" and many other newspapers.

[Segałowicz Z., Tłomackie 13, Wrocław 2001, pages 128-129]

The works created at that time were almost immediately translated into other languages. For example, the translation of the trilogy Farn mabul (Yiddish – Before the Flood) was published in Polish some two years after the appearance of the original work.

At the end of the 1930s, when political tension in Europe increased, anti-Semitic sentiment intensified, and the threat of the Third Reich became ever more menacing, Ash left for the United States. The origins of Christianity became the main subject of his works. He was fascinated by the figure of Jesus and the apostle Paul. The parts of the trilogy published during World War II and just after it – Der man fun Naceres (Yiddish – The Man from Nazareth), Der Apostel (Yiddish – Apostle) and Maria brought accusations that they served as calls for conversion and apostasy. At that time, Ash stopped working for the "Forwerts" daily. At the same time, he published a collection of stories related to the time of the Holocaust – Brenendiker dorn (Yiddish – Burning thorn). Other works, in turn, referred to the problem of assimilation of Jewish immigrants in the United States.

At the end of the 1940s, Ash moved to Israel and settled in Bat Yam. He died in London on July 10, 1957. He was buried in the Golders Green Jewish cemetery.

Ash was one of the most prolific creators of Yiddish literature. He was the continuator of I. L. Perec, but went further than his master. He was not only a Jewish author writing in Yiddish, he became a world-famous writer writing in Yiddish.

Aleksandra Król

Bibliography:

  • Sherman J., Asch Sholem, [in:] The YIVO Encyclopaedia of Jews in Eastern Europe [online], http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Asch_Sholem [access: 10.07.2017].
  • Segałowicz Z., Tłomackie 13, Wrocław 2001.
  • Szalom Asz. Polskie i żydowskie konteksty twórczości (Shalom Ash. Polish and Jewish contexts of creative writing), ed. D. Kalinowski, Kutno 2013.
  • Świat dramatów Szaloma Asza (The world of Shalom Ash’s dramas), ed. D. Kalinowski, Kutno 2013.