Sunday, April 20, 2014

Notes for an Autobiography

by S. L. Shneiderman
translated by Fannie Peczenik

August 1, 2001

My Journey as a Yiddish Writer

To retrace the steps in my journey as a Yiddish writer andd to return to the beginning would be no small task. It would mean going back to the origins of modern Yiddish literature, as well as to Jewish political and social life in the first decade after the rebirth of an independent Polish republic in 1919.

After the Holocaust, whenever I went to Poland, I would go to my hometown, Kazimierz-on-the-Vistula, that we Jews called Kuzmir.  In a reverie, I would stroll down the street that led to the post office, where one day, when I was still a young man, I went to pick up a magazine in which my first published poem, "Evening Bells" a Polish motif from the Jewish shtetl appeared.   It was 1923, and the monthly magazine, Arbeter Kultur  (Workman's Culture), was published in Lemberg (Lvov) and edited by the leader of the left-wing Labor Zionists, Nathan Buchsbaum, who later perished in the Lvov Ghetto.

The publication of that poem more than half a century ago put an end to my vacillation between writing in Yiddish or Polish.  I had already had my first Polish verses published in the hectographed (an early copying technology) magazine put out by my school in Kuzmir, in whose drama circle I had also played the role of Kirkor in Slowacki's Balladyna

After my debut in Arbeter Kultur, I put aside my notebooks full of Polish poems and sedulously began to write in Yiddish, and I became immersed in its literature.

My father, a traditional learned Jew in a long gabardine coat who had also delved into the study of mechanics, would have liked to see me become an engineer.  He had a number of ideas for inventions and hoped I would be able to help him turn his dreams into reality.  He considered literature impractical, even though he was aware that Scholem Asch, whom he personally knew well, had achieved fame and fortune by writing.  My father told me about the conversations he had had with Asch, when, at the beginning of the century, the writer was working on Dos Shtetl  (The Shtetl) and frequently came to visit Kuzmir.  My father never forgave him for publicly opposing circumcision and, moreover, he thought that Asch's descriptions of the shtetl were mere fabrications.

My mother, on the other hand, was a passionate reader of modern Yiddish literature.  She held Scholem Asch in very high esteem and strongly encouraged my literary endeavors in Yiddish.  It was a great day for her when the journal with my first published poem arrived.  In the same year, my poem, Goldene Poilishe Herbstn (Golden Polish Autumns) appeared in Folk und Velt  (People and World), a labor union weekly from Lvov (Lemberg).

The estrangement between Yiddish and Polish writers was painfully evident in Kuzmir, where both groups spent the summer months and often even stayed in the same pensions. Yet the two had absolutely no contact with each other.   In part, this was the result of a language barrier: with a few exceptions, Yiddish writers tended not to have a proper grasp of Polish.  Since I was trying to become acquainted with both groups, in the inside pocket of my jacket, I carried two notebooks, one with Yiddish poems and another with Polish. By then writers like Z. Segalovitsh,  H. D. Nomberg , and H. L. Zhitnitski *,  all of whom came to Kuzmir, had pessimistic prognoses concerning the future of Yiddish literature.   The Polish writers, on the other hand, paid close attention when I read aloud to them, made incisive remarks, but encouraged me to continue writing and studying.

Those days saw the beginning of my friendship with Anatol Stern and Adam  Wazyk,  major figures in Polish avant-garde poetry who were both Jewish and came to Kuzmir for their summer vacations every year.

In 1925, when I first went to Warsaw, my dream was to form a bridge between Yiddish and Polish writers, as well as to translate the works of the major Polish poets into Yiddish, especially Jewish ones like Boleslaw Lesmian, Julian Tuwim, and Josef Wittlin, who, at the time, had risen to the top ranks of modern Polish poetry.

In Warsaw I "discovered" a world previously unknown to me, a world where there was a great Yiddish press and where Jewish literature was beginning to be written in Polish.  The latter was often harshly criticized, even ridiculed, in the Polish press.  Frequently, the first to disparage the Jews who undertook to write their national literature in Polish were themselves Polish writers of Jewish origin.  Particularly zealous in this regard was Wiadomosci Literackie, the leading Polish literary weekly, whose editor was Grydzewski (Gretzhandler), a convert to Christianity, and whose chief associates were Antoni Slonimski and Julian Tuwim.

At the journalism school I attended, I again encountered what was, to me, a new phenomenon: Jews and converted Jews creating Polish literature. The director of the school, Prof. Ernest Luninski, had converted to Christianity, yet he evinced a singular interest in the history of the Jews in Poland, placing particular emphasis on their patriotism.  He was the author of the seminal work on Berek Joselewicz, the commander of a Jewish cavalry regiment during the 1794 national uprising led by Tadeusz Kosciuszko.

Another teacher was Jozef Wasowski (Wasertzug), the former editor of the first great Jewish-Polish weekly, Izraelita, [which was] published during the 1890's.

At the Warsaw school for journalism, I met my future lifelong companion, Halina Szymin, the daughter of the eminent Yiddish-Hebrew publisher, Benjamin Szymin, co-owner of the prominent publishing house "Central."  She has played an active role in my literary life since our student days.  At the time, she was translating Yiddish literature into Polish and reviewing books for the literary annual published by the Jewish students' union.  I edited the annual, which appeared in three languages: Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew.

The problem of the psychic split in culturally assimilated Polish Jews weighed heavily on my mind.   As I attempted to delve into that phenomenon, I became even more deeply rooted in the Yiddish literary world and published my poems in the Literarishe Bletter.

In 1927, my first collection of poems, Gilderne Feigl, was published with a cover designed by the well-known Jewish artist, Wolf Weintraub, later martyred in the Ghetto.

The years 1926 and 1927 saw many advances in Jewish cultural life in Poland.  The May revolt of General Josef Pilsudski had breached the anti-Semitic regime of the "Endecja" and for a little while, vain hopes for better times prevailed among the Jews.  From cities and towns, a stream of young Jewish writers came to Warsaw in the hope of scaling the Jewish Mt. Olympus, whose physical embodiment was the Writers Union located at 13 Tlomacka Street.

A cornucopia of new publishers and new journals appeared.  A young businessman from fashionable Hoza Street, a certain Zilbershtein, started a literary  magazine, Shprotzungen (Green Shoots), which soon attracted the disgruntled young writers complaining about the so-called "clique" who barred their way to well established periodicals such as Literarishe Bletter.

After several months, Zilbershtein suddenly left Poland and turned up in Mexico as Moshe Rosenberg; there he founded the weekly,Undser Weg  (Our Way).  Before leaving Poland, Zilbershtein-Rosenberg consigned Shprotzungen  to a group of young writers from the eastern border.  They were David Sfard, M. Elbirt, Uri Gliklich, and Joel Perel.  They had studied at Nancy, France, and then returned to Warsaw to take their doctorates.  Theirs was the first student group to appear among the coterie of Yiddish writers in Warsaw.

Along with Josef Rubinshtein and S. Zaromb, I joined that group, which kept growing till it represented the largest number of young poets and prose writers centered on any periodical. Among the participants in Shprotzungen was Borukh Olitski, who had just arrived in Warsaw and paid a visit to the editorial offices.  He owned a shoe store and was famous for not knowing the Latin alphabet, although he wrote highly literary sonnets in Yiddish.

The circle gathered around Shprotzungen did not represent any specific orientation.  The journal was eclectic and its literary criticism was first rate. Shprotzungen was maintained by funding from the writers themselves, but after two years of hard struggle, the journal ceased publication.

A series of conversations with Polish writers that I published in Literarishe Bletter from 1928 to 1930 piqued the interest of the Yiddish literary world in Warsaw.  It was the first time a Yiddish periodical had established contact with Polish writers.  The only Yiddish writer with whom the leading Polish writers had ever gotten acquainted and the only one whose talent they recognized was Scholem Asch.  But that was long before the first World War.

During the interviews, the Polish writers showered me with a thousand questions about Yiddish literature and Yiddish culture in general and my answers were a revelation to them.  They expressed a desire to meet with Yiddish writers and to have their own works translated into Yiddish.

My first interview was with Stanislaw Przybyszewski the distinguished writer who, at the height of his fame in the late 19th century, was known as the Polish Dostoevsky. For a time, he lived in Munich and played a leading role in German Expressionism.  When I paid my visit to Przybyszewski, he was ailing, forgotten, and living in a basement apartment at the royal palace in Warsaw, where a home for destitute writers had been established. Przybyszewski was excited to hear about the flowering of Yiddish literature.  He asked after Hillel Zeitlin, with whom he used to discuss Kabbalah.  He also showed me a Hebrew grammar book and told me he was studying the language.

Other writers whom I interviewed for Literarishe Bletter were:  the great prose writer and president of the Polish PEN Club, Juliusz Kaden-Bandrowski, whose novel, My Mother's Home Town, which included warm descriptions of Jews in the shtetl, I translated into Yiddish; Julian Tuwim, a Jew from Lodz, who although he lived barely two houses away from the offices of the Yiddish newspaper,Heint (Today), on Chlodna St. in Warsaw, had never before had a conversation with a Yiddish writer.

Tuwim spoke enthusiastically about H. Leivick, whose poems he read in Polish translation, and the Lodz Polish-Yiddish journal,Miesiecznik Literacki (Literary Monthly).   He expressed his readiness to cooperate in preparing an anthology of Yiddish poetry in Polish.  The project never materialized, however, because of a lack of interest on the part of the Yiddish writers.

Among the other leading Polish writers I interviewed on that occasion were: Andrzej Strug, socialist and comrade in arms of Josef Pilsudski, from whom he sharply diverged later on; the two masters of prose, Zofia Nalkowska and Waclaw Berent; the dramatist Karol Rostworowski, whose play, Der Surpriz  (The Surprise) I translated for the Yiddish theatre; and finally, the great poet Kazimierz Wierzynski, who was awarded the "Olympian Laurel" for his volume of verse by the same name, The Olympian Laurel.  In 1928, I published a translation of these poems in Di Yiddishe Velt  (The Jewish World); that journal was published by B. Kletski in Vilna.

Within the limits of the market for Yiddish books in Poland, my translation of Bruno Jasienski's internationally acclaimed novel, Ch' Varbren Paris  (I'm Setting Paris on Fire), became a best seller.  The translation was published by Neie Kultur (New Culture), which belonged to the left-wing Labor Zionists and whose editor was S. Sagan, afterwards a hero and martyr of the Warsaw Ghetto.  More than 400 pages long; the novel went through three printings.  When I wrote to Bruno Jasienski to ask for the right to translate his work, he not only gave me permission but also refused any royalties.

In one of his letters to me, he said that he would consider it an honor to see his book printed in the Yiddish alphabet, "from which I was estranged by my father."  And thus his personal drama was discreetly revealed.

In 1925, Bruno Jasienski (Zusman), the son of a Jewish doctor from Klimontow near Sandomierz (Tzoysmir) who had converted to Christianity, moved to Paris, where he became involved in the Communist movement. In his fantasy novel, Ch' Varbren Paris  (I'm Setting Paris on Fire), the city is poisoned and then divided into Lilliputian states.  The book first appeared in French in 1928, and caused a storm in the political and literary world.  The Polish original was detained by the censors and when it was eventually published in Warsaw, some lines were deleted. 

Jasienski was immediately exiled from France but he was not permitted to return to Poland, despite protests from the Writers Union and the PEN Club.  He fled to the Soviet Union where he was welcomed as a hero, but a few years later he fell victim to Stalin's chistka  (purges).

I received dozens of invitations from towns and cities all over Poland to lecture on Ch' Varbren Paris.  These events were arranged by the association of Ovent Kursen  (Evening Courses), an institute of the Labor Zionists, where I lectured on Polish literature. The head of the association was the young historian Dr. Emanuel  Ringelbaum, who later organized the underground movement, Oneg Shabbath, in the Warsaw Ghetto.

During 1928, I visited a different shtetl every Friday evening and saw how, despite widespread poverty, the flame of Yiddish and Yiddish culture was kept alive.  Many of the towns did not even have a hotel or inn and the lecturer had to sleep at the home of the library director or the representative of Poale Zion (Zionist Labor Party).

At the time, no one could have imagined that within some ten or twelve years, ghettoes would be set up in the shtetlech and those splendid young men and women would perish in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Treblinka.

In 1930, I was chosen to be the editor of the leading publication of the league of Jewish students, Trybuna Akademicka, which appeared in three languages: Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew.  As editor, I oversaw a significant expansion of the Yiddish section.  I enlisted the collaboration of Yiddish writers, especially poets, as well as Polish translators of the young Yiddish poets.

At our editorial meetings, arguments frequently broke out because I gave more space to Yiddish and Hebrew at the expense of Polish.  Nevertheless, I had the support of influential colleagues who came from opposite extremes of the political spectrum. They were the revisionist Elkhanan Levin and the Communist Jakub Berman, who was later to become the eminence grise of the Communist regime in Poland.  Both of them also supported my proposal to publish an anthology of modern Yiddish and Hebrew literature in Polish translation, which appeared in 1931 under the title Almanach Literatcki .

Halina Szymin, my colleague from journalism school, also collaborated on this anthology by translating short stories by two Jewish-American writers, Jonah Rosenfeld and Barukh Glazman, who happened to be visiting Warsaw just at that time and were guests at her family home.

Halina Szymin was a graduate of the Zofia Kalecka Gymnasium for Young Women, the only private Jewish gymnasium in Warsaw where Yiddish was taught.  The Yiddish teachers were David Herman, the director of the "Vilna Troupe," and later Moshe Mendelssohn, who became a leader of the Bund.

At that time I began to experiment with literary reportage: poetic metaphor and lyric descriptions smoothly intertwined with hard facts.  I published my first reportages written in this style in Literarishe Bletter.

My first piece of reportage, which dealt with the Yeshivah of the Sages of Lublin, had the sarcastic title, "In a Torah Factory," and my second was called "The Sad Geography of the Nalewki."  Both pieces manifested the anticlerical sentiments that, in those days, were rife among young Yiddish writers.

These reportages, which introduced a new genre to Yiddish literature, were permeated with pointed critiques of social conditions.  The same is true of the poems I had not stopped writing even though I found myself more and more attracted to reportage. My second volume of poetry, Feiern in Shtot (Unrest in Town), appeared in 1932, and in 1934, when my wife and I were already living in Paris, my first collection of reportages, Zwishn Nalewkes un Eifel Turm (Between Nalewki and the Eiffel Tower), was published with a preface by the prominent German-Jewish writer, Egon Erwin Kisch, whose work had a decisive influence on me, spurring me on to devote myself to this literary genre.  The book also appeared in a Polish translation by Halina Szymin.

Kisch belonged to that group of writers from Prague, Czechoslovakia, who at the beginning of this century elected to write in German and quickly gained prominence in modern German literature.  Of these, the most important were: Franz Werfel, Max Brod, Franz Kafka, and the philosopher Hugo Bergman.

In the 1920's, Kisch, who prided himself on being a direct descendant of the Maharal of Prague, shocked the city with a reportage attempting to disprove the legend that the clay figure of the Golem was stored in the attic of the Maharal's synagogue.  The attic of the Old New Synagogue was high up, almost inaccessible, and Kisch described how he managed to clamber up and ascertain that only pages from torn prayer books were to be found there. However, the legend survived intact.

Egon Erwin Kisch and I became friends in Paris, where he had fled from Berlin after the Nazis put him and other left-wing writers under arrest for several weeks following the fire in the Reichstag. That was in the summer of 1933.  Kisch took up residence in Versailles and his home become a center for exiled, anti-Fascist German writers, whom I met through him.  Among them were: Berthold Brecht, Anna Seghers, Johannes Becher, and Manes Sperber, who for years was the Marxist guru among the anti-Fascist intelligentsia.

Hitler's rise to power in Germany and the growing anti-Semitism of the Sanacja regime in Poland brought thousands of legal and illegal Jewish immigrants, most of them young, to Paris.  Their arrival reinforced the cultural activities of the Yiddish-speaking community and opened new possibilities for a diversity of opinion in the Yiddish press. 

In Paris during the 1930's there were two daily Yiddish newspapers Pariser Heint  (Paris Today), published by S. Yatzkan, and the Communist Neie Presse  (New Press).  The influence of the Presse increased until its circulation greatly exceeded that of  Heint. 

Just at that moment, Israel London, who was running a large print shop and for years had entertained the ambition of becoming a publisher, started the weekly Parise and invited me to serve as editor.   For the task, I enlisted the aid of the most important Yiddish writers in Paris, beginning with Zalman Schneur, David Einhorn, and Oyzer Warshawski, as well as others from Poland and America.

For Parise, I interviewed writers who had fled Germany, as well as Yiddish writers and actors from Poland and America who happened to be visiting the city.

The international Congress for the Defense of Culture, which took place in Paris in the summer of 1935, indirectly revealed that Stalin was devising a plot against the populous Jewish community of the Soviet Union.   Inspired by Moscow, the Congress convened anti-Fascist writers from all over the world as a manifestation of the popular movement to defend Europe against the spectre of Nazism.

The largest delegation was sent by the Soviet Union and it included representatives of all the national literatures in their various languages.  Among the representatives were writers from distant Asian republics with ethnic minorities who had only recently developed a written alphabet.  But not one representative of Yiddish literature a widely diffused language with large centers in Moscow, Minsk, Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa, and Birobijan had been sent.

Realizing that the aim had been to eliminate any spokesman for the Yiddish writers in the Soviet Union, a fact ignored by the Jewish Communists in Paris I felt moved to approach the directors of the Congress with an offer to give an informative lecture on Yiddish literature.  I conferred with Ilya Ehrenberg, one of the organizers of the Congress, about the lecture.  To my great surprise and delight, Ehrenberg supported my proposal and tacitly confirmed my suspicion about the reasons for the exclusion of the Soviet Yiddish writers.

The lecture, which I gave in French at a session chaired by Henri Barbusse, was published in a slightly abridged version in a special volume of the proceedings of the Congress and cited by the French press.  The Communist Neie Presse alone criticized me for "gate crashing" at the Congress and in its typical demagogic style advised its readers that the Soviet Yiddish writers had well-founded reasons for their absence: in the light of growing anti-Semitism in Hitler's Germany, they did not want to create the impression that the battle against Nazism was being fought only by and for the Jews. 

At that historic Congress, my wife and I became acquainted with a number of internationally known writers, such as: Andre Malraux and Andre Gide from France; Isaac Babel, Boris Pasternak, and Aleksei Tolstoy from the Soviet Union; Michael Gold and Waldo Frank from America; and especially the two representatives of Ukrainian Soviet literature Mikitenko and Korneichuk, both of whom were fluent in Polish.

I had a fairly long conversation with Mikitenko and, in confidence, he told me that hard times were coming for Yiddish writers and all Jews in the Soviet Union.  He also told me that a Yiddish translation of his widely acclaimed novel about homeless children after the revolution, Besprizornie (Homeless), had been published in Minsk.

Shortly after he returned from Paris, Mikitenko himself fell victim to Stalin's terror and was accused of being a Ukrainian nationalist. On the other hand, his close friend Alexander Korneichuk became prominent.  During the Second World War he was foreign minister of the Ukrainian SSR.  He married the well-known Polish writer Wanda Wasilewska, who played a leading role in the creation of the Communist regime in Poland.  At the very same time, I befriended the great Hebrew-Yiddish poet and prose writer, Zalman Schneur, who for years had been living in Paris.  It is actually difficult to speak of being a friend of Zalman Schneur's because he was such a terrible egotist.  Rather than a friend, I was more like a sounding board to which he could voice his bitterness and his endless complaints about the major Yiddish and Hebrew writers, although he occupied a secure place in the literature of both languages.

Schneur owned a villa adjoined by a garden with fruit trees in Fontenay-sur-Bois, a suburb of Paris.  Thanks to his wife's fortune and his own substantial income from royalties, he was the only Yiddish writer in Paris able to live in luxury.  In summer, he used to go to the spa at Vichy and from there he would send me letters written in his tiny handwriting on long sheets of paper, and in each he mauled a few Yiddish or Hebrew writers from Europe, America, and Eretz Israel.  I ended up with a collection of about a hundred letters from Zalman Schneur.

In the summer of 1936, I went back to Poland to report on the regrettably famous Przytyk trial then taking place in Radom.    The trial was not so much focused on the perpetrators of the pogrom, only a few of whom were under arrest after the shtetl of Przytyk had been pillaged and a number of Jews killed, as on those Jews who had tried to defend themselves and fight back against their attackers. Przytyk became a symbol of organized Jewish resistance in the shtetlech.

The chief defendant at the trial was the eighty-year-old Abraham Feldman.  Tall, broad shouldered, white bearded, and powerful, he had pulled out the shaft from a farmer's wagon and used it as a weapon against the thugs who had come on a market day to plunder the Jewish stalls in Przytyk.  Because resistance had been previously organized by the Jewish community, the merchants were able to thrash quite a few of the hooligans. But a Jewish couple, Minkowski and his wife, who sold boots and shoes at their stall, were murdered.  Miraculously, their three children managed to survive by hiding themselves under the bed in their home when the frenzied peasants spilled out of the marketplace to loot the shtetl.

Asked by the judge to give his name and nationality, the defendant Abraham Feldman replied, "My name is Abraham and I come from the nation of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob!"  Preserved in our archive is a photograph of a group of journalists who were at the trial together with the Minkowski's three orphaned children.

 At that time, Poland was growing closer and closer to Hitler's Germany and had begun introducing Nuremberg-like laws into daily life.  I found it particularly painful that as president of the PEN club, Julian Kaden Bandrowski, whose book I had translated into Yiddish, conducted a Polish cultural exchange with Nazi Germany.

When the Przytyk case ended, we went on to Krakow where a trial was in progress against a group of striking factory workers led by Socialist leaders.  The police had opened fire on the strikers, killing nineteen and wounding scores of them. 

In the dock, along with the striking workers, were Jewish leaders of the Polish Socialist Party, PPS, who were charged with making speeches during the demonstrations. Among them was the renowned Boleslaw Drobner.  The workers were defended by some of the most prominent legal experts in Poland, chiefly Waclaw Szymanski, the great orator and advocate of human rights, and Alexandrowicz and Bross, two Jewish attorneys from Krakow.

While the anti-Socialist trial in Krakow was under way, word arrived that on July 18, 1936, civil war had broken out in Spain.  I immediately telephoned the editors of Heint and Nasz Przeglad   (Our Magazine), the periodicals for which we were covering the two trials, and let them know that I was prepared to go to Spain.

Civil War in Spain

During the Spanish Civil War I was the official correspondent for five Yiddish daily newspapers, namely, the leading Zionist paper in Warsaw, Der Heint, and four Jewish newspapers written in Polish (Nasz Przeglad in Warsaw, Chwila  in Lemberg, Nowy Dziennik(New Daily) in Krakow, and Glos Poranny (Morning Voice) in Lodz).  After my first reports from the Spanish front appeared inHeint, I received telegrams from Davar  in Tel Aviv, Tog in New York, Die Presse in Buenos Aires, and Undser Weg in Mexico asking for my reports.  The telegram from Tel Aviv was sent by Zalman Rubashov, who was then a newspaper editor but later became the third president of Israel, Zalman Shazar; the telegram from the Tog was sent by B. Z. Goldberg; the one from Die Presse by Pinie Katz, and that from Undser Weg by Moshe Rosenberg.

Besides those eight publications, which remitted creditable fees to me, dozens of other Yiddish newspapers in Lithuania, Latvia, France, and a number of Latin American countries reprinted my articles along with the warning, "All Rights Reserved."  In this way, I became the chief war correspondent for practically the entire Yiddish press.  I carried official letters from all of the newspapers but the credentials that proved most important, that opened the doors of every political party and government ministry in Spain came from the little Mexican weekly that had a circulation of about 1000 or 1500, in contrast with the great newspapers in Tel Aviv, Warsaw, and New York that had readerships of 100,000 or more.

This can be explained by the fact that Mexico was the only Latin American country to support the embattled Spanish Republic.  Furthermore, the letter was written in Spanish and El Camino appeared above the Yiddish name of the periodical.

Before leaving for Barcelona, I became aware of the rising tension in Paris.  Because of its own internal difficulties and pressure from Britain and America, the Popular Front government, formed by Leon Blum only a month before, was trying to remain neutral.

The United Popular Front of Socialists and Communists demanded support for the Spanish Republic, however, and began to organize relief.  A call was also made for volunteers to rescue the young Spanish democracy and to check the forces of Hitler and Mussolini threatening to destroy peace in Europe.

By the time I arrived in Barcelona at the beginning of August, hundreds of volunteers ethnically and linguistically diverse (Slavs, Poles, Yugoslavs, Czechs, Bulgarians, as well as Lithuanians and anti-Nazi Germans) were already there.  Jews were to be found in each of these groups.  The formation of the International Brigades had begun.

The recruitment center for the Brigade was at the Colon, a large, modern hotel right in the heart of Barcelona, which in the early days of the war was taken over by the united Socialist and Communist parties, the so called PSUC.  The Anarchists, the strongest revolutionary mass movement in Catalonia, did not belong to the Popular Front.  Neither did the Trotskyites, known as the POUM, a party that chiefly attracted well-educated people and intellectuals.

The first surprise in store for the newcomer to Spain was the discovery that the Republican camp was divided into factions and that the Communist party, though very small in reality, was attempting to monopolize the power by receiving aid from the Soviet Union, which came in the form of military advisors and NKVD agents (secret police).

In order to act as a war correspondent, I needed authorization not only from the central military command but also from all of the various political parties because each of them had its own militia that fought on its own allotted share of the front.  That was the situation  in Catalonia, in the Catholic Basque country, and in Aragon, the stronghold of the Anarchists. One had to be careful to show the right documents in the right places

The second thing that surprised me was the number of Jewish volunteers who had come from various countries, including Israel.  The organizer of the International Brigades was an intelligent, politically trained Jewish tailor from Krakow, a Communist who had already spent several years in prison in Poland and in 1933 fled to Spain.  He was Shia Kinderman, a man of medium size and great courtesy.  Shia spoke to the volunteers in their own language.  He also managed the multilingual radio station and promptly invited me to broadcast to Poland in Polish and Yiddish.  He knew my name and had read my poems and articles in the Literarishe Bletter, to which he subscribed.  His had to be the only copy of Literarishe Bletter in all of Spain.

I will never forget my adventures with Shia Kinderman, or "Jorge." Among other "incidentals," he once rescued me from the hands of the savage Spanish secret police, which was controlled by the Soviet NKVD. Years later I met him again in Warsaw.  He had retired as a colonel in the Polish army and was living on a pension.

* * *

Botwin Company was the first, last, and only military unit that ever performed its exercises in Yiddish.

In the spring of 1938, when fighting flared up along the Rio Ebro, Botwin Company, on its way to the front, marched by the Generalidad, the palace housing the provincial government of Catalonia, whose facade contains a fragment from a seventh-century Jewish tombstone.  The president of the Catalan government, Luis Campanys, who, two years later, in 1940, would be executed by the Franco regime, addressed the Jewish soldiers with these words:  "This company, on whose flag Hebrew letters are embroidered (i.e., the name Naftali Botwin), forges a link in the golden chain from the embattled Spanish Republic to the glorious Jewish chapter in our history that was so brutally cut short by the Catholic Inquisition."

From the beginning, there was disagreement about what name to give the proposed Jewish battalion.  "Bar Kochba" was one suggestion, and it was favored by the well-known German writer and former captain in the Kaiser's army, Ludwig Renn, author of the pacifist novel 1914, which appeared even before Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front.  He was the military expert for the International Brigades and commander of the German 13th Thaelmann Brigade.  

A number of Jewish communists, especially Gershon Dua (Admani), a former  Labor Zionist, and Eugeniusz  Szir opposed the idea and, instead, won approval of the name "Botwin," to honor the memory of the Communist hero and martyr from Lemberg, Naftali Botwin, condemned to the gallows for shooting a Polish provocateur.

On one hand, the tragedy of the Spanish Republic came about as a result of the non-intervention policy of the democratic countries, especially England and the French Popular Front government of Leon Blum; and on the other hand, it was a result of the negative role played by the Soviet Union, which did send arms and other forms of aid but, in an effort to transplant the methods of Stalin's NKVD in Spain, tried to destroy the influence of various deeply rooted political movements, especially the Anarchists and Trotskyites.

At the Aragon front, I witnessed the birth of the first Yiddish language periodical in Spain.  It was the bulletin of the Jewish unit of the Polish Dombrowski Brigade, the unit on whose flag was embroidered the name of Naftali Botwin.  The bulletin was typewritten and then copied by hectograph.  Later, the commander of the Botwin Battalion, Eugeniusz  Szir (who was to become a minister in the Communist regime in Poland) found Hebrew type at the University of Barcelona press and the bulletin began to appear in printed form.  The typesetter was a Catalan who had used the font for a scholarly edition of medieval Hebrew poetry from Spain. This same Catalan was a forerunner of the non-Jews employed to print Yiddish newspapers in Mexico and other Latin American countries.

In South Africa

In the spring of 1938, I received a double invitation from Johannesburg, South Africa:  to become the editor of the Afrikaner Yiddishe Zeitung  (African Yiddish Newspaper), published semiweekly, and to give a series of lectures on the Spanish Civil War, by then already nearing its tragic end.  The offer was tempting but I hesitated to accept it because I didn't want to be separated from my wife and our three-month old daughter, Helen.  My wife persuaded me to go and she went to visit her parents in Warsaw for six months.

During the twenty-one day sea voyage from Marseilles around the west coast of Africa, I prepared the first volume of my collection of reportages, Krig in Shpanien  (Civil War in Spain), for publication and mailed it from Capetown to my wife in Warsaw.  The book appeared towards the end of 1938, with photographs taken by my brother-in-law, David Szymin, or "Chim," as he was called, who was covering the Spanish Civil War as a photographer for a number of French and American newspapers.

In South Africa, I came upon a restive Jewish community, where I found an unfortunate antagonism between the linguistically assimilated, Zionist-leaning Lithuanian Jews who spoke English with a lisp, were fluent in Hebrew but hated Yiddish, and the deeply rooted, Yiddish speaking faction also Lithuanian, by the way, and favorable to Zionism, but fighting for the primacy of Yiddish.

The English speaking Jews of South Africa had three weeklies, but the Yiddish-speaking community could take pride in its talented writers of prose and poetry who had already published a number of books.  Among them were, to name a few: David Fram, a highly original poet; Leibl and Richard Feldman; and Z. Ehrlich, the nonagenarian poet and satirist.  Yet the English speaking, and wealthier, community had not produced a single serious writer or poet.  If a gifted writer or columnist did happen to crop up in their midst, he quickly abandoned the Jewish milieu for the larger world of English literature.

It is also significant that the Jews absolutely avoided the official language and culture of the country, Afrikaans, an offshoot of Dutch and English.  In fact, the speakers of Afrikaans, the real masters of the land, criticized the Jews for assimilating into English culture and shunning Afrikaans in exactly the same way they shunned Yiddish.

In the six months that I worked as editor of the Afrikaner Yiddishe Zeitung , its circulation steadily increased, and I took this as evidence of a still undiscovered reservoir of Yiddish readers.  The owner of the newspaper, Boris Gershman, was one of those rare Yiddish publishers who actually enjoyed sending checks to their writers. So I was able to employ Yiddish writers from Paris, Warsaw, and Tel Aviv and reward them with handsome honoraria.

In the winter of 1938, I went back to Europe in order to bring my wife and child, who were then staying in Poland, back to Johannesburg. Making the journey to France on a tramp steamer that stopped in all the major ports along the east coast of Africa, I had an opportunity to visit the small Jewish communities along the way.

I visited Louren Marques (Maputo), Mozambique; stopped on the island of Zanzibar (where I slept in a bed reputed to be the one Marco Polo, the thirteenth century Italian traveler, slept in) and in the palace of the local sultan, I saw a program for a concert of Felix Mendelssohn's work that was printed on silk.  I disembarked at Nairobi, Kenya, and travelled to Uganda, where I visited the small Yiddish community in the capital, Kampala.  There the ba'al tefilah  (preceptor) of the synagogue was a Polish Jew, a baker from Wolin.  He uttered deadly imprecations against the leaders of the sixth Zionist Congress, held in 1903, who had rejected Herzl's plan for the temporary settlement of Jews in British Uganda.

At a hotel in Entebbe, Uganda, I met the members of a Polish expedition led by Pilsudski's adjutant, Major Lepecki, and the director of emigration for the Warsaw HIAS, Dr. Leon Alter.  They were returning from a fact-finding trip to the island of Madagascar, where Poland was planning to settle a million "surplus" Jews.  At that time, Jewish opinion in Poland and all over the world was sharply critical of the plan which, of course, never materialized.  Would that it had!

From Mombassa, the port of Kenya, I continued on my way to Aden to visit the large community of Yemenite Jews there.  Then I continued on via the Red Sea and the Suez Canal until I arrived in Cairo, where, in those days, there was a thriving Jewish community in which Polish Jews played an active role.

At the Polish consulates in Cairo and Alexandria, I encountered political fortune hunters who made no secret of the fact that they were supporting the Palestinians fight against the Jewish immigrants to Israel.  The Polish censors confiscated my correspondence about these encounters in Egypt.

My First Time in the Land of Israel

From Alexandria I sailed to Haifa and arrived there in late winter, when the intoxicating scent of almond blossoms wafted over the roads. A few days later, I participated in the historic aliyah up to Hanita (which appears in the Talmudic literature from the Byzantine era) to plant trees for Tu b'Shevat in the new kibbutz, barely a year old, on the border with Lebanon.  In our caravan of armored cars and buses with armed guards rode the future members of the first Israeli government.

In Tel Aviv I met a number of Yiddish writers, among them Zerubavel, Daniel Leibl, Nir Rafalkes, Yosef Papiernikow, Abraham Lis, and Moshe Erem, whom I had guided to the battle fronts of Spain the year before.  They were fighting a bitter campaign against the Gdud Maginei HaSafa  (The Defenders of the Language), which had set fire to a kiosk where Yiddish newspapers were sold.  For several weeks I traveled across the land and gave lectures about the Spanish Civil War at a number of kibbutzim.

In Degania Aleph, my lecture was introduced in Yiddish by Levi Skolnik, who was later to become the Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol. The fact that the lecture hall was crowded showed me that not only the older members of the kibbutz, but also the younger ones understood Yiddish well.  While I spoke, the lecture hall was guarded in case the Arabs made one of their frequent raids against the kibbutz.

I brought a book-length collection of reportages about Africa and a fairly long series of articles about Israel back to Paris with me.  But I did not manage to get the book on Africa printed because impending events soon made it impossible to publish a Yiddish book in Europe.

The news of the Nazi invasion of Poland reached us on September 1, 1939, while we were sitting in a cafe on the Champs Elyses with a number of Yiddish reporters and writers from Poland who had been to a Zionist Congress in Switzerland and were supposed to leave for Warsaw in a few days. Some of the people at our table did, in fact, leave for Poland immediately; others remained in France.

The Polish Consulate in Paris confiscated my passport in order to, as they said, "verify" my Polish citizenship.  Under the foreign minister, Colonel Beck, this practice of "verifying" citizenship was reserved almost exclusively for Jewish-Polish citizens living abroad who came to the consulate to extend their external passports.  In many cases, the passports were never returned and those Jews suddenly became stateless.  My passport, too, was not given back to me and I could not return to Johannesburg or leave France at all.  In May, 1939, when my wife and child left Poland, they had had to travel by ship from Gdynia via London to the French port of Le Havre because, by then, it was already impossible for her to get a German transit visa.

In Paris, a feverish campaign of fund raising for the Jews in Poland began and a weekly, Der Weg (The Way) was founded to help the cause.  Shlomo Rosenberg and I were the editors.   After Poland capitulated, a Polish government in exile was set up in Paris under General Sikorski. The information minister was the well-known anti-Semitic columnist and former editor of the Kurjer Warszawski(Warsaw Courier), Stanislaw Stronski (who was by the way of Jewish descent) had fiercely attacked my reportages from the Spanish Civil War.  Now he positively treated me with affection and when he gave me back my passport, he told me in confidence that it had been confiscated by order of the foreign minister, Colonel Beck, to punish me for my reports from Spain.

Because of wartime conditions, it was impossible to return to Johannesburg.  We stayed in Paris through several months of the so called "phony war" ("drole de guerre" ), until I obtained an American visa.  Arriving in New York on February 22, 1940, we were consigned to Ellis Island for a week, before the Federation of Polish Jews helped us get through the formalities and then, without further ado, we settled ourselves in the new land and went to work.

As a journalist, I was associated first with the Tog (Day), afterwards with the Morgen Journal  (Morning Journal), then later with theTog Morgen Journal, and finally with the Forwerts (Forward).  Since its founding in 1945, I was the United Nations correspondent for Davar and almost every Yiddish newspaper in the world, all of whom had printed the reportages describing my travels through Europe and Israel.

I lived half my life in America.  Yet in America I still remained a Polish Jew and as such I considered it my duty to help preserve the heritage of the Jewish community in Poland, whose history no other Jewish community in Europe can equal.


From the Balfour Declaration to the Oslo Accords

( S. L. Shneiderman's "From the Balfour Declaration to the Oslo Accords...", which appeared in Forwerts on December 5, 1995, belongs among his "Notes Toward an Autobiography."  An excerpt from the article is reprinted here.)

When news of the Balfour Declaration reached my hometown of Kuzmir, the Shabbos goy, Pisula, a veteran of the tragically failed Polish rebellion against Czarist power in 1863, an invalid with a wooden leg who spoke fluent Yiddish complete with Hebrew expressions,  put on a dumb show.  In honor of the event, he donned his legionnaire's hat which bore a white eagle and threw a few coins into Jonah Siskind's charity box (pushke) to demonstrate his solidarity with the Jews.  Jonah Siskind was the only one in town who had built a radio, so he was the first to receive the news of the Balfour Declaration.

The town did not, however, lack skeptics with no confidence in the glad tidings brought by Jonah Siskind, who had befriended the local landowner, Josef Dzerzynski,  who, in turn, was a brother of the Bolshevik Felix Dzerzhinski.  The latter was a close associate of Lenin's and later became the founder and dictatorial head of the Communist secret police, the Cheka, which eventually became the KGB.

The skeptics waited until evening when the Lubliner Tageblat (Lublin Daily) arrived and announced the news of the Balfour Declaration.  Although the daily circulation of the Lubliner Tageblat was barely 2,000, it was very influential among the Jews in the region.  A single copy of the paper was read by dozens of families.  The editor, S. I. Stupnicki, was considered one of the most important columnists in the Yiddish press in Poland and in the late 1920's, he joined the Warsaw-based daily newspaper Moment.  

The first shipment of blue and white pushkes for the Jewish National Fund arrived in Kuzmir at the end of the Russian-Polish War. The young Kuzmir rabbi, Israel Zilbermintz, known to be sympathetic to the Orthodox Zionism of the Mizrachi movement, was the first one in the synagogue to collect money for the Fund.

From the agricultural institute in Pulawy, located on the estate of Duke  Czartoryski a Jewish student named Jacob Ratnowski came to Kuzmir.  He was a landsman of Chaim Weizmann's from the town of Motele near Pinsk and during the Sabbath prayers, he gave a fiery speech at the synagogue, urging the Jews to make donations for Israel. The men brought gold watches up to the platform before the Ark and the women threw gold earrings and pearl necklaces down from the balcony.  By those historic days of November, 1947, when the U.N. was struggling over the resolution to divide Israel into two nations, one Arab and one Jewish, not a single Jew remained in Kuzmir.

In the winter of 1942, when the Kuzmir Ghetto with some 2,000 souls was liquidated, the rabbi, Israel Zilbermintz, carrying a Torah scroll in his arms, strode at the head of his congregation as they went to meet their deaths in the ghetto of the neighboring town of Opole.  Among the Jews of Kuzmir marching toward their deaths on that bleak, wet November day were my parents, two brothers, and their wives and children -- eleven in all.  And of those eleven, only one survived, my  nephew Pinie Shneiderman, who was sixteen at the time.

The last letter from my parents arrived in New York a few days after America entered the war and all contact with Nazi-occupied Europe was cut off.  My father began the letter by saying that he had received the second package of food we had sent and listing its contents.  The rest of the letter had been smudged out with black ink by Nazi censors. Yet even through the missing lines, one could read my parents' anxiety about family members living abroad and their fears for the future.

In 1946, as a war correspondent in the American army, I was present when the Nazi war criminals were tried at Nuremberg.  That was also when I visited Poland for the first time after the Holocaust.  I was not able to go to my hometown, Kuzmir, because the anti-Semitic underground Polish army, the NSZ, was still on the rampage there, killing Russian soldiers and Jews who had been hidden by Poles.

On the afternoon of July 4, 1946, despite the warnings by Polish authorities, I went with a group of American journalists to the killing fields of Kielce, where in the early morning hours a pogrom had broken out.  As soon as we arrived, we saw the Jews who had been murdered lying on the pavement in front of the community center, where survivors of the concentration camps were housed.

The next morning we attended the funeral of the forty-two victims of the pogrom, and a few days later, the trial of those accused of the slaughter, nine of whom were sentenced to death.

The tragic events in Kielce, coming right after the death of six million Jews, persuaded thousands of Polish Jews, most of whom had been repatriated from the Soviet Union, to join the "flight" to Israel, where they participated in the building of the land and later fought in the War for Independence.

On my way back to America, in a German Displaced Persons (DP) camp in Landsberg, I found my nephew Pinie Shneiderman and his young wife, Judith, both of whom had been rescued from Auschwitz.   Landsberg had a lively Jewish cultural life, in which my nephew and his wife actively participated as actors and singers in the drama circle.

As I am writing this, my nephew and his wife have come from America to Israel in order to attend a guest performance by their daughter Helene, a mezzo-soprano who, in the past couple of years, has won high praise at major European operas.  This is her first guest appearance in Israel, where she has been invited to give three performances at the new opera house in Tel Aviv.

The opera rehearsals proceeded normally, despite the difficulties of that November in Israel where, along with a literal earthquake, came the political earthquake following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.  Therein lies the greatness and heroism of the Israeli nation.

(Forwerts,  New York, 1995)