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  • Writer's pictureCorbin Allardice

My Lexicon - Oyzer Varshavski

Oyzer Varshavski (Ozer, Oser Warszawski)

Born 1898 in a shtetl near Warsaw. Spent WWI and later years in Warsaw. From 1923 on, in Western Europe. Berlin, London, and many years in Paris. Remained there in 1941--during the German occupation.

The first name to resound over the resurrected continents and islands of Yiddish literature after the stagnation (shtandshtil) of the First World War--was the name Oyzer Warshavski; the first great work--his Smugglers (shmuglars). It was then an entirely new and unknown name, its bearer barely more than twenty years. The realists took it for what it was--a time of smuggling into German occupied Poland and Western Russia which had found its literary expression. It was only natural. The idealists turned up their delicate noses at it. It was not only a time of smuggling, it was a pathetic time, it was, too, a time of great upheavals in Europe, a time of preparation for great revolutions, a time of great transitions and great ideas, and here, in the work, the Jewish people, the people of seven faces--each invested in its own ideal--was revealed to have an eighth face, an improper face which did not properly belong to it, was revealed to be a people of smugglers; but the guilt for this is not Varshavski’s, rather the guilt falls on the heads of those who stayed silent about the seven faces, and the guilt is not his, no, not the guilt of the one who revealed the eight face. He is a naturalist artist and he did his duty. He can do no others’ duties.

Itshe Meyer Vaysenberg introduced Varshavski to literature. And he was always so proud that Varshavski was not merely an accidental discovery of his, but the apostle (sheliekh), the secretary who would record and remember his--Vaysenberg’s--work. Vaysenberg loved to discover talent and he had a talent for discovering talent--talents for prose above all (Shimen Horontshik was another of his discoveries)--but he also loved to remind the world that he had discovered this or that talent. He always made sure that the Yiddish literary world was aware of his balance-sheet of discovered talent. And he was not known to allow those balances to be repaid or forgotten, like a gentleman. He demanded constant praise and recollection and falling-on-your-knees-before-him for his discovery of this writer or that one. Had Columbus, for discovering America, acted the way Vaysenberg did for discovering some Yiddish writer, eventually someone would have said “You can have your stinking America and to hell with the balance!” And however much he demanded from Yiddish literature, he demanded still more from his ‘discoveries’ themselves. To them, he was nothing if not a despot. He would correct their writing, control their friendships, force his friendships upon them, his sympathies, his convictions, his strange spellings from his hometown of Zhelikhov (Żelechów). Varshavski left Warsaw for Western Europe soon after his greatest success. Indeed, some mix-up with documents, perhaps military records, played a role in his departure, but the starring role belongs to Vaysenberg. I would often observe their interactions. Varshavski was a gaunt and gentle man with blonde hair, pale skin, and a quiet speaking voice who couldn’t stand talking about lofty matters. Vaysenberg was just the opposite. When Oyzer saw Vaysenberg, he grew yet gaunter, gentler, blonder, paler, and quieter. His face all but changed colors. It was as if he was a tender child prodigy (tsarter ile) faced with his boorish father who believed that his little genius had to sit and study all day, while the boy knew all too well that he could do without it. When the discoverer would come into the [literary] club, the discoveree would look everywhere, perhaps he might be able to escape. But with the rest of us, Varshavski would praise his rebbe to high heaven.

After the massive success of Smugglers, Varshavski never again quite found his way, literarily. We all but put the entirety of Yiddish literature on his narrow shoulders. One person pulled him to the right, another to the left, and a secure and individual artistic path was nowhere to be found--and the European, bohemian lifestyle seduced and tempted him; and whosoever travelled from Warsaw to Paris, after 1924, considered it his very moral duty to whisper in every available ear that things weren’t going so well for Varshavski; one person told of his romantic excesses with French girls, another swore that he was boozing, another claimed that he took the bohemian principle “do nothing” entirely too literally--and Varshevski’s literary output became infrequent and eventually stopped entirely. I saw him in Paris several times. He had become even tenderer, paler and more quiet--the frequent despairing gesticulations of his slender hands portended a kind of quiet cynicism. But never extirpation (oysgeloshnkayt). I always left him with the conviction that all he needed was some good direction (rezhi) to revitalize him and extract another great literary performance. The material was there, in him; in his many years of silence, he had read a great deal, studied and observed [the world], what he lacked was internal organization and external stimulation.


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