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  • Writer's pictureCorbin Allardice

My Lexicon - Shimen Horontshik (Szymon Horonczyk)

Updated: Mar 16, 2021

Shimen Horontshik

Born 1889 in Vyelun (Wieluń). Lived in various cities in Poland. Traveled to France. Returned to Warsaw. Took his own life in 1939 after the Nazi invasion.

Shimen Horontshik was one hundred percent a Polish Jew, a poet, a full-blood man. His face really is full-blooded, it is swollen and meaty. Though he was surely no strong man (giber.) He tells an anecdote about how he once went to a store to buy a hat (kapelyush). They kept measuring him and measuring him and it just wasn’t working. So the impatient shopkeep (soykher) says to him “Another butcher was just in here and it was so easy to fit a hat for him and yet nothing fits you. The same hat you’ve been considering, the one you don’t like, he bought it.” When Shimen Horontshik talks, his voice is so coarse (grob-shtimik) that it feels like he’s arguing with you. But he isn’t at all aggressive, he is, in fact, quite restrained.

Horontshik was a shopkeep (kremer) and only became a writer around his thirtieth birthday. Once, in his simple manner of storytelling and deep Polish dialect, he sketched the scene for me of the first time he ever saw something of his in print:

“It was a fine bit of business it was. Made out welll. But around midday the mailman brought the journal. So I looks I does (yekh gib a kuk) and there it is in black and white 'Shimen Horontshik' above a poem of mine, for real.” (Horontshik wrote a few dozen lyrical poems.) “I all but wanted to throw all my wares on the floor.* I never did business again. I didn’t know what was happening to me, people probly stole half my goods at that market. Customers talked to me, but I didn’t know what was happening to me. And when the customers see a thing like that, they get on their way. That printed poem cost me half a store.”

Horontshik takes his business terribly seriously. He takes every word of criticism to heart, deep in his heart. He is the only Yiddish writer who ever tried to drink poison as a protest against bad reviews.

I once visited his rather needful home, a lone shack (eyntsikn shtibl) in Włocławek where he was living at the time. In the tidy, all but unfurnished room there were a few cooking implements--and writing implements. Horontshik was his own cook at the time as his wife was abroad. Over the writing desk there hung a newspaper clipping which read “Ten Commandments of a Writer.” I no longer remember who’s work (khiber) that was, but Horontshik took those ten commandments very seriously. The house was located in a non-Jewish and quite unwelcoming (umheymlekh) neighborhood. To walk through it at night one had to pass through hoards of drunken soldiers, brash boys and street walkers, and the ‘business’ continued late through the night. His ground floor (parter-shtub) windows were shattered more than once. You had to sleep with the shutters locked and the lights off and you had to speak very softly so that no one would know that anyone actually lived in the house.

But a writer who has thirty years of unwritten life under his belt has a great many experiences about which to write. All writers’ best work is that of their youth, of that time when they took life for what it was (flegn dos lebn ufgenumen ekht), without a writerly gaze. And, in that sense, I would say that Hornotshik’s youth lasted for thirty years...He draws from a rich and unfalsified well of Polish-Jewish life. The more experiential a novel of his is, the truer and the better. Horontshik’s writing is protracted and vast; he loses himself in endless details. His handwriting is like that too, one letter draws the next into itself, although he writes separate letters; one line engulfs the next. And an entire page looks like a heap of dried branches around a tree in the depths of autumn. But although his writing is protracted and vast, not to mention his horrid handwriting, I once read a novel of his, in manuscript no less, and it drew me into itself and would not let me go. For it was lyrical and warm and experiential and painterly (bilderish) and, above all, it read itself. When he goes out of his element--that is, the houses of Jewish workers and Jewish bourgeoisie before the [First] World War--he begins to lose his way, but when he stays in his element and on his own fields, he becomes his own writerly and artistic home. All of which is to say, he is one of the best writers on the subject of that way of life (lebns-shteyger). Everything is true and whole. Cut from one cloth (meoyer ekhod, מעור עחד). The tradition of generations flows in the blood. That cannot simply be waved away.

Horontshik’s prose was discovered by [Yitskhok-Mayer] Vaysenberg and, if I am not mistaken, his poetry by Hershele. You can thank him for the ruins (yarid-khorbn) of Horontshik’s shop. Vaynberg caused yet more ruination by writing a whole chapter into one of Horontshik’s novels. That was the infamous “chapter 46,” which became quite the stir (shem-dover) on the Polish side (poylisher podvire) of our literature.** It was a kind of homoliterary rape, truly one of kind (homoliterarishe fargvaltikung, vos iz a khod b’mini)...And only Horontshik’s strong and simple nature could have endured that violation and all its consequences. He has written a half dozen novels since then and that “chapter 46” is long forgotten. Even 13 Tłomackie Street, the prototype for the chapter, will soon be forgotten.


*- This line includes a word (lade) I cannot find “yekh hob gevolt iberkern di lade mit der gantser skhoyre.” It may be related to lyade meaning “any, anything.” Perhaps something like “I wanted to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

**- Apparently, Vaysenberg caused the addition or inclusion of a chapter (chapter 46) in Horontshik’s debut novel, Farplonterte vegn, oder tsvishn di khurves fun yidishn lebn, decrying the Yiddish literary scene in Warsaw. It was not, I gather, well received.

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