top of page
  • Writer's pictureCorbin Allardice

My Lexicon - Falk Heylperin (Halperin)

Falk Heylperin (Halperin)

Born 1876 in Nesvizh (Nyasvizh)--lived in various cities in the former Russian empire. Settled in Vilne in 1921 and emigrated to Eretz-Israel in 1935.

One must be quite the expert (kener) about Yiddish literature to know of the existence of Falk Heylperin and a true expert on Yiddish short stories and dramas to have read his work--but this fact in no way implies his work to be insignificant.

Strangely did he travel along the footpaths and strangely through the palaces of the royal garden of Yiddish literature. It has been a long time since I last heard his name and I doubt that he is terribly active now--while this is being written in 1942--on the occasion of his 66th birthday. He travelled through life like the messenger (meshulekh) in An-ski’s Dybbuk, neither silent nor speaking. And when he spoke at length, it was not him speaking but a dybbuk within him; and when he spoke little and when he was all but silent, people hardly listened.

But a single glance at Falk Heylperin was enough to realize with absolute certainty that he was fated (bashtimt) for something more, although what he did was no nothing. He was an active teacher and pedagogue and always in the most important Yiddish-language educational institutions. Primarily, he was a high-school (gimnazyum) teacher. On pedagogy, people listened to him. He published countless children’s books and his grammars and chrestomathies are first rate (ersht vu)...but that’s not all. Now there come his translations of major works in prose, entire literary histories, and translations of that classic European writer--Friedrich Schiller. And now there come his own works, several volumes of short stories, all of them rather strange--they are prose and yet they are not prose, you understand them and yet you do not. And finally there comes an abundance of unpublished dramas--and here we come to the mountain top of the internal tragedy of Falk Heylperin. This is the mountain top from which he has been destined to look down upon, but only for a moment, his yearned-for land.

He was already almost fifty when I first met him. This was in Warsaw. Two days prior and with great reverence Perets Markish showed me a long letter written in fastidious and tiny letters (zeyer tsikhtike oysyes, kleynenke, dribninke)--and, with great reverence, he told me that it was a letter from Falk Heylperin and that he was coming for a visit and that we had to make a proper scene (an emesn tuml). I too--may my sins not be counted against me in the world to come, for I will be punished for this--did not then know a single concrete thing about Falk Heylperin. What I did remember was that he was the author of the Hebrew textbooks used in Yiddish schools, but I didn’t understand the big fuss. I also knew that Heylperin was the author of a very few popular stories. Markish wanted to lynch (lintshn) me for my brutish ignorance (grobyungishkayt), not so much for Heylperin’s sake, but rather because I did not know that Markish had dedicated many of his poems to Heylperin out of gratitude and not without reason. When Markish was still wet behind the ears, around 1918, both he and Heylperin were living in Katerinoslav (Ekaterinoslav, now Dnipro) and the older writer guided the beginner into Yiddish literature with his firm and kind hand. And...his tragedy: He was more of a pedagogue, even as a writer of and about literature, than a poet. All that came of the great commotion throughout all of Warsaw that Markish had wanted to cook up was the reunion of two friends; and even at that reunion, Falk had far more to say about Markish than the other way around. Through it all, he adamantly said that this was how it had to be, but deep in his soul it ate at him.

What a severe and splendid face. A prophet’s face. Gray. Sparse hair, an artist’s length, not down to his shoulders--just natural. Enormous spectacles. Behind his spectacles, large, severe, dark green-gray eyes; his brow always furrowed and large. Severe. His mouth, broad, passionate, expressively silent. He is gaunt. Middle height. Always dressed in dark and severe attire. Boney but strong hands. His voice is quiet, a little hoarse. Penetrating. His mouth does not permit even a single unnecessary word to pass. Never a joke. I once visited Falk in his impoverished apartment in Vilne. Aside from a few thin scraps of furniture and a great many books, I don’t remember a thing about his apartment. He is an incredibly modest man, but, as is so often the case, his modesty flows out of his enormous but repressed arrogance. He used to talk about the mass of writers with a natural contempt. It was clear that at the bottom of heart, he believed himself worthy to sit at the head of the table (rekhnt er zikh tsu der same mizrekh vant). And perhaps, in the final account, it really is his own fault that he was never seated at the head of the table. He asphyxiated his pride within himself and his greatest work--a vast historical drama Ts. A.--in his desk drawer.

Once, a call for a Jubilee edition of Falk Heylperin’s work found its way into our Writer’s Union in Warsaw. The whole of Vilne had signed it and the creation of a Falk Heylperin subscription series was predicted. That was the last I ever heard of that “national undertaking.” Instead, Falk appeared in Warsaw a few years later, even thinner and more severe than before, as a messenger sent to collect subscriptions for YIVO. I saw him. He spoke with bitterness about everything possessed, about the whole of our communal life (klekoydesh). He cursed us in his rage. His eyes shot out sparks, his hoarse voice quietly hissing behind the agitation of his speech. He returned to Vilne post haste.

In Erets-Israel, his vast Herod drama found its redemption (tikn). It was very successful in the Hebrew theater.


For more on Heylperin's Vilne milieu, centered on a photo of his farewell party (included below), see Saulė Valiūnaitė excellent article

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page