by Eileen (Hala) Szymin-Shneiderman
translated by Fannie Peczenik from What Time is it On the Jewish Clock
September 14, 2000
Forlorn and grief-stricken in
the painful weeks and months after the death of my husband, S. L. Shneiderman, I
feverishly began to organize the stacks of papers that had accumulated in our
little apartment in Ramat Aviv. I had a strong desire to hold on to the past,
which meant tracing Shneiderman's literary career step-by-step.
the last few days of his life, he continued to devour the newspapers and
magazines (in Hebrew, Yiddish, English, or other languages) that were delivered
by mail or bought each day at neighborhood kiosks. He still read, cut out
clippings, took notes (writing by himself or dictating to me) for future
articles, although it was already clear he would never live to write them.
Through the long decades we worked together, it was my responsibility to
save and file his published works, news stories and longer essays, only a
fraction of which ever appeared in book form.
Throughout most of the
tragic twentieth century, our lives were busy and bustling and, often, before we
had time to finish with a current topic, something new occurred in the Jewish
world or an international cultural event fired Shneiderman's creative
imagination. And so we were always on the run, hurrying to be on the scene
wherever the news was happening.
We would come back from every trip
carrying bundles of notes, books, and magazines that Shneiderman's lively,
evocative prose style would transform into compelling articles on contemporary
events seen both from a Jewish perspective and from that of the world at large.
Writing did not come as easily to Shneiderman as readers of his often
breathtaking descriptions might think. He showed no mercy to his own
manuscripts; whole pages were frequently consigned to the waste paper basket.
If he only rejected half a page, then a pair of scissors and paste were
deployed. Unfortunately, I learned to use a word processor too late.
Shneiderman worked best under pressure. For a journalist this means at
the eleventh hour -- while the typesetter was waiting for the manuscript or a
telegram with the latest news report was on the way. Even when
the Forwerts became a weekly, the editors still had to
wait until the very last minute for Shneiderman's articles.
arrived in New York in 1940, I took a course in Yiddish stenography given by the
Workmen's Circle; the stenographer's notebook served us both well.
he was preparing one of his longer pieces of reportage, Shneiderman would often
spend days searching for the first sentence. He didn't believe in preambles:
the first paragraph presented the reader with a concrete fact pointing to the
subject under discussion. Not until later in the article did he permit himself
to import memories, comparisons, and anecdotes. One sentence led to another and
it was impossible to know how the article would end.
As his research and
interviews show, Shneiderman was particularly interested in the problem of
Jewish assimilation, conversion to Christianity, and the return to Judaism.
This was not a new phenomenon in Jewish history because during the centuries of
diaspora, foreign influences were unavoidable and, in fact, often enriched
Jewish culture, as it created new links in the golden chain of deeply rooted
values and traditions.
In When the Vistula Spoke
Yiddish, Shneiderman addressed the problem of assimilation through the
story of the nineteenth-century Jew from Kuzmir, Itzchak Hoga. And in Ilya
Ehrenburg, Shneiderman described the threefold division of that great
writer's identity: Jew, Russian writer, and man of Western European culture.
Shneiderman again analyzed the same problem in essays on Heinrich Heine and,
especially, Julian Tuwim. A Jew from Lodz, Tuwim was the most prominent Polish
poet of the twentieth century; Shneiderman admired his work, wrote a great deal
about him, and translated some of his poems. Contemplating these Jews estranged
from their tradition, Shneiderman searched their works for that quintessence of
Jewish identity, "dos pintele yid, " which usually surfaces at critical
moments in history.
At the end, when Shneiderman could no longer travel
far, his friends and colleagues asked him why he didn't write a memoir. His
answer was that his books and articles contained enough of his reminiscences and
experiences, but the stimulus for recounting them had always come from
Nevertheless, among the papers on his desk, I found
a substantial manuscript entitled, "My Beginnings as a Yiddish
Writer - notes for an autobiography." As I remember, these
were the notes for a talk he gave in Canada. He always prepared himself
well for his lectures, so these notes can be regarded as his memoir.
The manuscript begins with these words: "To retrace the steps in my
career as a Yiddish writer -- 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 reborn Polish republic.
In these memoirs, Shneiderman talks about his shtetl, Kazimierz
on the Wistula (or Kuzmir, as it was known in Yiddish); his family; his love for
nature and for the life of the Polish peasants.
That was a time when, in
Poland as elsewhere, artists and writers extolled village life. In 1924, the
Polish writer, W. Reymont, was awarded the Nobel prize for his novel, The
Peasants., which appeared in an excellent Yiddish translation by Schlomo
Rosenberg, a close friend of Shneiderman's. Incidentally, Rosenberg later
became well-known for his Yiddish historical novels; he was also Sholem Asch's
secretary for fifteen years. It is worth noting that Sholem Asch himself was a
candidate for the Nobel prize for A Shtetl,which, in its use of the
rich, idiomatic language studied by Polish enthnographers and students of
folklore, can be seen as the Yiddish answer to Reymont's novel.
kind of admiration for Polish village life is found in Shneiderman's first book
of poems, Gilderne Feigl (Gilded Birds), which was published in 1927,
two years after he arrived in Warsaw. His second volume of
poetry, Feiern in Shtot (Unrest in Town), which appeared in
1932, depicts the author's youthful experiences when, like most young Yiddish
writers, he came to the big city from his small home town. The poems here are
imbued with contemporary social issues -- poverty, unemployment, rapid
industrial expansion, rejection of war and militarism -- as well as lyrical
longings for his hometown. Some of the poems were published in the leading
Yiddish weekly in Warsaw, Literarische Bletter (Literary Pages), edited
by Nachman Mayzel.
The poems Shneiderman wrote in the first few years
after he came to New York in 1940, are much better known. By then the Nazis had
already inflicted their savagery on Poland and we were overcome with anxiety
about the fate of the Jews, especially our own family and countless friends.
That cycle of songs, which was to be called, The Hudson is My
Witness, was never published in book form, , and only a few of the poems
appeared in newspapers.
In 1925, when Shneiderman came to Warsaw from
Kuzmir and wrote poems about poverty and the revolutionary ferment that
dominated the Polish capital, he was, at the same time, carried away by the
creative forces driving all aspects of Jewish culture.
assimilation among the Jewish intelligentsia -- which older Yiddish writers,
like Z. Segalowitch, deplored; Segalowitch waged a war against what he called
the "shmendrikes" (wise guys) who were becoming estranged from their own culture
-- the young Shneiderman saw great opportunities for himself as a Yiddish
writer. His energy and ambition were virtually inexhaustible. He tried every
literary genre: he wrote poems; published interviews with Polish writers
in Literarische Bletter ; translated Polish poems and novels into
Yiddish; and wrote songs for the Yiddish theatre. Years later, this is how
Melech Ravitz, in his book Mein Leksikon, (My Lexicon), good-humoredly
characterized this early period in Shneiderman's career:
Shneiderman brought poems with him from Kuzmir, many poems, a
good knowledge of Polish, and a readiness to undertake every kind of literary
endeavor: an article, a review, a translation, a poem, a short story, a news
report .... I once even wrote a little lampoon against him when he was a novice
poet and journalist and the piece was a big hit among his fellow writers. From
this, I deduce that in the literary community you don't have to wait for a Nobel
Prize or world fame to find rivals. You can have them right at the first rung of
Because of my attack, Shneiderman became three times as
energetic and he attacked me on three fronts. First, he sent me some poems under
a pseudonym; he fooled me and I gave the poems a good review. Second, he
attacked me in print. Third, he submitted the case to the judgment of our
fellow writers.... Needless to say, we were soon reconciled and even became
In those first few years in Warsaw, besides exploring a variety of literary
genres, Shneiderman also became interested in the new art of the cinema.
In September,1928, the first Yiddish journal devoted to the
cinema, Film Velt (Film World), appeared in Warsaw. The journal was
edited by Saul Goskin and Mark Tannenbaum and the two most important articles in
this first issue were by Shneiderman. We were reminded of all this by Jim
Hoberman, author of the great work (in English) on the history of Yiddish
film, Bridge of Light: Yiddish Films Between Two Worlds. This richly
illustrated, 400-page book was published in New York in 1991 by the Museum of
Modern Art in collaboration with Schocken Books. The museum organized a large
exhibit on Yiddish films (we attended the opening of the exhibit) and for six
months showed a Yiddish film every week. The film festival was made possible by
the National Center for Yiddish Film at Brandeis University in Boston, which
collected the old films and restored many of them.
Hoberman brought our
early years back to us when he sent us a copy of the first issue of Film
Velt from 1928, which contains Shneiderman's two articles. One of the
articles, "Film Has Deep Meaning," is signed by S. L. Shneiderman, and in it he
argues that the new art of movie making is an important form of cultural
entertainment for the masses. He emphasizes the social significance of the
cinema: international, it brings together citizens from every land, opposes war,
and appeals to a wide audience.
The second essay, "Behind the Scenes
of In the Polish Woods," recounts the excitement of making a film based
on the novel by Yosef Opatoshu, which had aroused a great deal of interest. The
movie, a monumental work, was produced by Leo Forbert, who was already
well-known, and directed by Jonas Turkow; the screenplay was written by H.
Bojm. Forbert and Bojm already had two popular Yiddish films to their
credit: Tkies-Kaf (The Agreement) and Lamed-Vovnik (The
Fascinated by the broad historical scope of the film,
Shneiderman followed its production very closely. He once took me along to the
set to watch the film being made. The outdoor scenes were filmed in the region
around Piaseczno, a shtetl near Warsaw, where, incidentally, my uncle, Mendel
Segal, who was the scribe (secretary) for the Jewish community, lived. The
scenes were shot in a beautiful part of a dense forest, near a lake. The trip
was a romantic adventure for us and Shneiderman's enthusiasm was boundless.
Unfortunately, the whole enterprise, in which Polish filmmakers were also
involved, came to a disappointing end. Because of protests from both Jewish
religious quarters and Polish government authorities, some scenes were cut and
the film soon disappeared from the screen. But the film quickly gained full
recognition in America.
The article on In the Polish Woods was
printed under Shneiderman's pseudonym, "Emil." He was known by that name among
his colleagues, especially in Yiddish theatre, and that is what my family called
him. In his own family and in Kuzmir at large, he was still known by his real
The journal Film Velt appeared for ten
months, from September, 1928, until the summer of 1929. It may have been the
only one of its kind in the entire history of the Yiddish press.
Israel, in 1988, at a conference on the history of the Jews in Poland held in
Jerusalem, Shneiderman had another encounter that also reminded him of his early
years in Warsaw. Among the scholars present at the conference was the Polish
art historian, Prof. Jerzy Malinowski, who had just finished a book on the
Yiddish avant-garde movement centered on the journal, Yung
Yiddish (Young Yiddish), published in Lodz from 1918-1925. Researching the
history of Polish art after World War I, Prof. Malinowski came upon many poets
and artists with Jewish names. That led him to Yung Yiddish because,
despite denunciations from the anti-Semitic press, many of the Polish
avant-garde artists participated in the Jewish movement's exhibitions and
In the first of a series of essays on Prof.
Malinowski's book, Shneiderman wrote:
I was deeply moved by the book
about Yung Yiddish and, unnerved, I devoured page after page.... all
of a sudden the writers and artists murdered in Hitler's death camps and in the
ghettoes at Lodz and Warsaw rose up alive before me. Only a few, like Moshe
Broderson and the painter Yankl Adler, survived the Holocaust, but they have
since passed away.
That wonderful moment of my youth came back to me in
all its colors, the moment when I first arrived in Lodz and Warsaw and there
came face-to-face with the poets and artists of Yung Yiddish. Along
with his book, Prof. Malinowski gave me a photo of my portrait painted by Wolf
Weintraub in 1925. Weintraub was then already a well-known artist and he had
been a great friend to me during my "debut" in Warsaw. This portrait (which,
nonetheless, bears little resemblance to its subject) is reproduced in Prof.
Malinowski's monograph as an example of expressionism, of which Weintraub was
one of the pioneers in Poland.
Beneath the portrait is written: "W.
Weintraub -- Portrait of the young poet, S. L. Shneiderman." Weintraub also
designed the cover for Shneiderman's first volume of poetry, Gilderne
For many years, the futurist manifestoes of Moshe Broderson,
styled after V. Mayakovsky, continued to resonate among Yiddish poets. This can
be seen, for example, in the speech Shneiderman gave at the Congress for the
Defense of Culture in Paris, in 1935. The speech (published
in Literarische Bletter , July 19, 1935) begins as follows:
man addressing you today is a citizen of the Land of Yiddish, a land without
barracks, without soldiers -- a land in which a pen is the only weapon. You
won't find this land on any map, the boundaries of this land can be found only
in the regions of cultural achievement and heroic artistic labor.
than any other, Yiddish literature carries within itself the kernel of
anti-Fascism .... from the beginning, Yiddish literature has depicted the
struggle against want and oppression.
of Yung-Yiddish was also buttressed by the Warsaw avant-garde
journals: Chalyastra , edited by Peretz Markish, who spent five years
in Poland before returning to Moscow; Albatros, edited Uri-Zvi
Greenberg. Melech Ravitz, I. J. Singer, and Uri-Zvi Greenberg also belonged to
the Chalyostra group.
In his series of articles
on Yung-Yiddish, Shneiderman also discussed the interest that this
group of poets and painters aroused in America when the works of Yankl Adler,
Mark Shwartz, Henrik Berlevy, Yitzhak Brauder, and others were shown in New York
in the early 1920's. Sholem Asch was the first to buy two paintings by Yankl
Adler, who later enjoyed international fame. The poets
ofYung-Yiddish formed a close alliance with the American group called
the "Yunge" (Young Ones), especially Moshe-Leib Halpern, Zishe Landau, and Yosef
We lived in Paris from 1933 to 1940. During that time, under
the influence of the master of literary reportage, Egon Erwin Kisch, the young
poet S. L. Shneiderman began to write prose. His reports from the Spanish
Civil War were published by all the Yiddish newspapers, by Ma'ariv in
Israel, and by four Polish-Yiddish newspapers. A selection of these reports
also appeared in book form along with photos taken by my brother, David Szymin
(Chim), who was in Spain as a news photographer for French magazines. The book
was published in Warsaw in 1938, by the well-known publishing house owned by my
father, B. Szymin, while the war in Spain was still going on.
Shneiderman's first volume of reportages, Zwishn Nalewkes un
Eifel-Turm, (Between Nalewky and the Eiffel Tower) appeared in 1935, with a
foreword by E. E. Kisch. After the collapse of the Spanish Republic in 1938,
Shneiderman was invited for a lecture tour in South Africa; on his way back, he
visited Israel for the first time.
In my archives, I found a rare
document concerning our departure from Paris in the early months of World War
II: the February 9, 1940, issue of the short-lived weekly, Die
Voch (The Week). On the first page, there is a news item reporting that S.
L. Shneiderman and B. Frimer have embarked for America on a mission for the
Federation of Polish Jews. My hands trembled as I leafed through the four large
sheets of yellow and crumbling newspaper which had been published by the
Federation of Polish Jews in Paris together with the relief organization for
Jewish refugees from Poland, where the Nazi occupation had already sown death
and destruction in ghettoes and labor camps. Shneiderman and Schlomo Rosenberg
were the editors of the weekly and Shneiderman, accompanied by Frimer -- set off
for America to raise money for their enterprise.
Those four sheets of
newsprint record the tragic moments just before the Holocaust. The Jewish
refugees who had managed to escape to Paris were literally barefoot and naked
and in need of immediate material aid.
First to catch the eye on the
front page are the four empty spaces stamped in French, "Censur" (censored) --
which shows how hard France was trying not to provoke Hitler's Germany. On the
same page there is also a long article by Dr. Heszel Klepfisz, "The Jews of
Poland." By then he was already a noted scholar of the history of Eastern
European, or Ashkenazi, Jews and had written articles for Orthodox publications
in Warsaw. After we left for America, Dr. Klepfisz became the editor of Die
Voch and remained in that post until he was drafted into the army. In
May, the Germans overran Paris.
This issue of Die Voch also
contains a heartrending report by Z. Segalowitch, who had just arrived in Paris
from Poland. He tells how, when war broke out, in confusion the Jews from the
shtetls tried to flee to Warsaw and from Warsaw to the Soviet or Rumanian
border. Thronging the roads, the Jews were bombed by German planes and many
A poem by A. Leyeles, "Lament of the Fields," is printed in
this newspaper and also a letter from Israel by M. Wolman-Sieraczkowa about a
Jewish-Arab "peace conference," which is supposed to demonstrate that relations
between Jews and Arabs are improving ... An article by M. Dluznowski about the
Federation of Polish Jews in Paris and New York. And next to it -- an
enthusiastic review by the art critic, H. Aronson, of a showing of some works by
Marc Chagall. Even in the announcements and advertisements, many of them
censored, one can feel terror at the approaching disaster. And how ominous an
article such as "Let Us Organize," (A. Rosen) or "What Is Really Going
to Happen to Us Jews?" (H. Hochbaum) sounds to us today.
I am dwelling on
this newspaper not only because it touches on our biography, but also because
this may be the only extant copy of that short-lived publication and because it
is a relic of that tragic moment when the extermination of the European Jews had
Arriving in New York after a six-day journey aboard the
liner Manhattan and after another week in Ellis Island, we somberly
began the process of settling in the new land. Anxiety about the fate of our
friends and relatives in Poland and about Shneiderman's brother and sister in
Paris still plagued us in the free land of America.
We lived in America
for nearly fifty years, but we frequently traveled to Israel, France, Poland,
and other countries in Eastern Europe. In his reports and essays, Shneiderman
described the conditions in the dwindling Jewish communities and what they had
experienced during the Holocaust.
* * *
archives in New York grew larger and larger, it became necessary to
find for an appropriate and permanent place to house our collection of
printed works and manuscripts, letters, and unfinished works, along with the
rich collection of source materials in many languages. We chose the Institute
for Diaspora Research at Tel Aviv University. The head archivist at the
Institute, Prof. Joel Raba, gratefully accepted our offer and since 1988, with
the help of the Friends of Tel Aviv University in New York, we have been sending
him crates of documents, more or less organized.
I decided to talk about
"my" archive some time ago, after a Kol Israel broadcast, in
Yiddish, transmitted a rather long interview between Adam Grusman and the writer
Yosl Birstein, who had just finished cataloging the archives of Melech Ravitz
stored in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. According to Yosl Birstein, it
took a full twenty years to prepare the catalog. This, however, does not deter
me from what I still intend to accomplish so as to leave my husband's legacy in
better order for the archivists who will catalog it.
And perhaps there
will come a young scholar whom these archives will help to understand our epoch,
full of grand intellectual achievements and horrible destruction, as it is
reflected in the works of this extraordinary writer -- a poet and, as M. Tsanin
called him, the first modern journalist in Yiddish literature -- S. L.
Searching through my archives to make a selection of his
works for this book, I felt like a deep-sea diver hunting for treasures at the
bottom of the ocean..... So I decided, first of all, to include chapters from
each of his four books, and as part of my introductory chapter, digests of some
of his long series of reportages which appeared in newspapers in installments
but not in book form. Because of the declining market for Yiddish literature,
Shneiderman's books are now unlikely to be reprinted, so at least these
"samples" will appear in a new edition. The reader will also find a fairly
substantial chapter containing Shneiderman's reminiscences, "Notes for an
Autobiography," a selection of his poems, and critical essays on writers to
whom he was particularly close.
The articles about Shneiderman are
critical essays by leading Yiddish writers and journalists and as such, enrich
the contents of this book. I am grateful for permission to reprint these
In conclusion, I must add that without the help and encouragement
of my daughter, Helen, her husband, Haim Sarid, and my son, Ben Shneiderman,
and without the love and interest of my five grandchildren, I would not have
been able to complete this difficult undertaking.
I owe special thanks to
Shlomo Shweitzer, writer, editor of the I.L. Peretz Publishing House, and old
family friend, for his deep interest in this book, which was published by the
Peretz Publishing House in Tel-Aviv.
I would also like to thank the
writer Zvi Hirsh Smolyakov who prepared the proofs for this book and helped me
select the works included here.