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  • Writer's pictureCorbin Allardice

My Lexicon - Moyshe Zilburg

Moyshe Zilburg (Zilberg; Moshe Silburg)

Born 1884 in Molodetshne (Maladzyechna). Lemberg (Lviv) in 1910, following a period in a Tsarist prison. Vienna, 1915. Warsaw, 1922. Fled to Bialystok in 1939. 1941, remained there under occupation.

Moyshe Zilburg is a typical “dry Litvak.” A pointy nose, a pointy head, pointed words, and a principled and prodigious cough, no less (un dertsu a huster mit farnem, mit printsip.)

His named first surfaced in Yiddish literature in the “literarishe monatshriftn” (Literary Monthly) in 1908. The monthly was only published, in point of fact, for four months, but it will live on forever in the memory of our literature. It was published in the year of the Czernowitz language conference. It belongs to the youth of that golden epoch of our literature, and we best remember our youth (yugnt gedenkt zikh).

Almost all of the names which surfaced in the “literarishe monatshsrift” went on to surface atop the great waves of Yiddish World Literature. But the name Moyshe Zilburg has remained marginal. Moyshe Zilburg understood the issue of writing--and perhaps too the limits of his own talent--far too well, and this forced him to write things--stories--which could never win him a popular readership.

Ambition is proper to a career, for without ambition a career is impossible, and elbows are proper to ambition [for without elbows, you can hardly elbow people out of your way]--and Moyshe Zilburg’s ambition was sharp and pointed, but his elbows were round and supple, properly speaking, he didn’t have elbows at all.*

In 1920 there was a small but vibrant group of Yiddish writers in Vienna: A.M. Fuks, Moyshe Zilburg, Moyshe Gross, Meylekh Khmelnitski (Melech Chmelnizki), Ber Horovits, etc. For a year, they published a thin monthly with the title “Kritik” (Critique) in pointy, black lettering. Moyshe Zilburg was the editor. That is the only year of his life which has remained clear (iz geblibn boylet). He rejoiced. He published a series of articles with the daring title “Let me Tell you” (vos ikh hob aykh tu zogn)--and he really tore the reader a new one (hot arayngezogt af tish un af benk). The broader Jewish world continued on it’s way without so much as batting an eye at what Moyshe Zilburg had to say, but in the world of Yiddish literature, people noticed and treated the matter with complete seriousness. The thrust (inhalt) of the articles was: Jewish content can exist only through Jewish forms, and modern Jewish form exists, in the first instance, through the language of the Jewish folk [that is, Yiddish.] In starving post-War Vienna, however, there was no place for Jewish life in Yiddish. Poland, on the other hand, was then in the midst of the great waves of its Yiddish-influx; and so the majority of Yiddish writers from Vienna moved to join the great. Jewish [Yiddish] masses in Poland, Moyshe Zilburg included.

I first encountered Moyshe Zilburg in Lemberg (Lvov) in 1910. He was close friends with Dovid Eynhorn, who, at that time, occupied the throne of Yiddish lyricism, and Zilburg, who had shared a prison cell with Eynhorn, was very proud of their friendship. He was contemptuous, however, of our (onetime) group of Lemberg poets, save for Dovid Kenigsberg, who he considered to be a “bona fide talent” (geshvoyrenem talent.) Getting a compliment out of Zilburg was like pulling a tooth with a rope. And so it was one of the happiest moments of my soldier’s life when, in 1917--after the publication of my Ruinengroz (Ruingrass)--he scribbled , in his cheap Litvak fashion, a poem onto a complimentary postcard and sent it to my barracks in Hungary. This rapidly brought me “contra-compliments” from the first officer, who I forgot to salute out of excitement over the postcard. I still remember them both, Zilburg’s compliments and the Hungarian officer’s contra-compliments.

After settling in Warsaw, Zilburg devoted himself to journalism and to raising his two gifted children, and he came to have fewer and fewer complaints against the world and against himself. He never wanted to publish a collection of his entirely idiosyncratic stories. A few years ago he won the first prize in the Polish lottery, 20,000 zlotys…What can you say--save that our Jewish God has ideas, original and grotesque ideas (vos, vos--ober groteske un origenele aynfaln hot er, undzer yidisher reboynu shel oylem.)


*- This is a pun on the Yiddish idiom “hobn elnboygn” (lit. to have elbows), which means to “progress, make your own way, etc.” Presumably, the logic behind this is that elbows can be used to, well, elbow people out of the way. Hence my inserted gloss of the idiom.

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