My Lexicon - Matilda Asch
Updated: Feb 5, 2021
Matilda (Madzhe) Asch
Nee Shapiro, originally from Lodz, the wife of Sholem Asch.
This was in 1911 and I was then in Lemberg (Lviv). At that time, my teacher in the poetic arts, Shmul Yankev Imber, was just returning to Lemberg from a brief visit to Warsaw. At that time, Warsaw was a magic kingdom to me, a place populated by magicians and by the one God--Peretz. It was then that Imber told me about the wife of Sholem Asch, the woman whose name was Matilda--or Matle, in Yiddish--or Madzhe, as Asch called her--and who I had already encountered in the dedication pages of his books. Then, Imber told me--no, he didn’t tell me, he sang to me--of an incredibly beautiful woman who spoke Polish like a Galitsianer, with whom you could discuss world literature, who was full of poetry, who was herself a poem.
The impression stuck. It was only twelve years later that the impression would take living form before my own eyes, when I first met Mrs. Matilda Asch in Warsaw.
Heavy is the crown of the queen consort, as it is called in English, of a Sholem Asch in the world of Yiddish literature. We got lucky with our literature’s queen consort. I wouldn’t dare to imagine what would have become of such a stormy, creative personality like Sholem Asch without his Matilda, whom he always loved and had-to-thank-for-everything. I required a word which does not exist--had-to-thank-for-everything--but there it is on the page.* Let it stand.
Countless are the anecdotes about Sholem Asch--and Matilda Asch. But Asch hates anecdotes, so let us show a little piety--piety toward Matilda Asch. How many times did I see Asch fly into a rage--in Warsaw, at the PEN Congress in Vienna--and then with that one word, “Shulem,” in Matilda Asch’s Ur-Polish accent, the lion would retract his claws, the lion would smile, even.
And how gracefully did Mrs. Asch, who had excellent command of several European languages, bear Yiddish in her mouth. In her mouth, Yiddish naturally became one of the European languages, like Swedish, Norwegian, or French.
Mrs. Asch would always let you know that she knew her husband’s work, but she would never talk about it. At most, she would discuss technicalities, when and where something was published, staged, or translated. Only a few times did I get to see Mrs. Asch’s enthusiasm in discussing Asch’s work. But under discussion was not the work of Sholem Asch--but of their son, Nathan (Nosn) Asch. Then Mrs. Asch would abandon her role to fall into that eternal and holy role: the mother. And she was always shocked when someone was unfamiliar with this or that piece by Nathan, and she would order them to read it, since everyone was saying that Nathan Asch was growing to be great.
Once at a ball I saw a couple dancing a waltz. The man was then around fifty, the woman was around the same age, but she looked very young. A classy pair: the man was tall, and the woman was a little shorter, in perfect proportion. They danced silent and elegant. I stood transfixed with a beating heart marvelling at them, as if I was standing before some holy landscape, and I thought: A marriage made by God.
The couple: Matilda and Sholem Asch. It was in Warsaw, on 13 Tłomackie Street in the hall of the Association of Jewish Writers--the year was 1931.
*- “Had-to-thank-for-everything” is a translation of fardankt. The root fardanken appears only to be used in the phrase hobn tsu fardanken (Havings s.o. to thank for stg.)” I could not think of a neologism that was both communicative and obvious, let alone elegant, and so I opted merely to spell out the sense of term.