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  • Writer's pictureCorbin Allardice

My Lexicon - Sholem Asch’s Warsaw Years

Sholem Asch’s Warsaw Years

Little old me lived in Warsaw between 1921 and 1934. At the same time, Sholem Asch--the metropolitan of Yiddish literature--lived in that metropolis of Yiddish literature for two years. Of course he suddenly appeared for a short stay countless times, but he only lived there “af stale” [permanently], as they say in Warsaw, from 1924-1925.

Asch poses a general problem for the framework of “My Lexicon.” I only include writers whom I knew personally and who lived in Poland during the aforementioned years.

I wrote the above words about Asch in 1936, were I to write them now, they would sound different, but only in the details--not in their general sense. So I let it stand. But the stages of Sholem Asch’s development are not the only subject of interest. Interesting too are the stages of development of people’s relationship to him. And my own relationship to him is characteristic of that of a whole set of Yiddish writers.

And so here is a word about Asch’s Warsaw years.

1921. He suddenly appears. He was forty then and “at forty wisdom”--as the holy quotation tells us (Pirkei Avot 5:21, “בֶּן אַרְבָּעִים לַבִּינָה”). But Asch’s customs were always a bit incongruous. I remember the very minute he entered, dressed to the nines (oysgetputst in esik un in honik), into our smokey beehive at 13 Tłomackie Street.* It was six years after Peretz’s death and Warsaw was leaderless, like any nation after the death of its great leader. A few well-known oldtimers showed up in the half-dark blend of kettle steam, cigar smoke, gossip, peeling wallpaper, self-love, and few electric ceiling lights covered in flies. Asch hardly recognized them, and wanted to recognize them still less. They left. He dithered around for a half hour, ordered a coffee from the waiter, didn’t drink it, and left. This was not how he had imagined his triumphant return to Warsaw, where he had spent so many years, where he had even buried a son in the local cemetery.

And then the Khalyastre (The Gang) started making noise, and that was an evening, the crowd was enormous. [Perets] Markish took the stage, [Uri Tzvi] Grinberg, [I. J.] Singer, [Mikhl] Vaykhert, [Yoysef] Kirman, [Alter] Katsizne, [Nakhmen] Meyzil, Ravitch. Asch was invited, of course, but would he come? Indeed he did come, paced angrily around the street, ran to the box office, bought the best seat in the house--he was the only one to buy such a ticket--strode impatiently into the hall and after ten minutes he strode back out.

And Warsaw’s Yiddish culture was yearning for a Peretz...Don't you remember that magnificent story from the Russian Chronicle? земля наша велика и обильна--приходи князит над нами...our soil is vast and fertile, come and be king...**

But Asch couldn’t even be a king over himself. He was once in Tallinn, Estonia--so people say--by the Baltic Sea with Mrs. Asch. He’s wandering around the shore, as gloomy as the Baltic Sea: “What am I doing here, Madzhe, there are no Jews here, let’s run away today, come on, we have to catch the train.” But Mrs. Asch knew that they had to stay for another week, so she says: “Shulemshi, didn’t you notice that a Jew just passed back and shouted “Wow, Sholem Asch”...Asch continues walking and suddenly the gloom vanishes from his face. He smiles: “You know, Madzhe, I like this town, why should we live anywhere else? Let’s bring all our things here and the children and let’s settle right here in, what’s it called? Tallinn”...

But he didn’t settle in Tallinn. In 1924, he settled in Warsaw. Settled permanently, so he said. He rented an apartment on Królewska Street in Warsaw, not far from the location of Peretz’s last apartment on the Avenues [aleyes, aleje in Polish. A reference to Peretz’s apartment on 78 Aleje Jerozolimskie.] He found the apartment through an ad in Haynt (Today): “An apartment suitable for a daydreamer, a poet”....But after three or so days living in Warsaw, he hopped over to Berlin for three months. After that he stuck to his announcement and managed to stay in Warsaw for almost two years. And not much longer. On another note, Peretz Markish, that beautiful and successful poet, would often irritate him. Once, he had the gall to use du (the informal second person address) and call him Melekh Markish....well Markish was no bum so he used du right back, calling him Hersh Dovid Asch…(Nomberg’s first name). Even buying a place not far outside of Warsaw didn’t help. Asch did not accept the sceptre and the crown we presented to him...Really, no one wanted to take it and so it changed hands between many guests: Hirshbeyn, Opatoshu, Leyvik--and so it was destined to be, everyone their own king.

After they liquidated*** the daydreamer’s apartment, which the Asch’s hadn’t even properly furnished, Mrs. Matilda Asch would often explain it by saying that Asch needed a lot of open space, otherwise he simply couldn’t write, but we knew that his ‘permanent residence’ in Warsaw was coming to an end. But his magnificent book “Warsaw” (Varshe) was written in that apartment...later on Asch would visit Poland almost every year, certainly more often than not, but he would justify this in brutal terms: “I’m simply thirsty for Jews, starving, I come to Warsaw to slake my thirst and fill my belly with it’s Jews. I can’t live without it”....When, in 1931, we celebrated his Jubilee as an occasion of national importance for the Jewish people, he brought his entire family, even his eighty year-old mother, to the event. And again did we extend the scepter to him, but even we didn’t believe in it anymore. Over Warsaw, the sword of Damocles was already hanging…


*- This is a play on words, as the phrase for “dressed to the nines” is literally “dressed up in honey and vinegar.” There is also a general association in much of Yiddish literature between poets and bees and poets’ meeting places as beehives. This shows up often, for example, in Sutzkever’s poetry.

**- From “The Invitation to the Varangians” in the Chronicles of Old Rus. For more information, see this article. This is not an exact quotation, but clearly from memory. The original quotation reads: “земля наша велика и обильна, а порядка в ней нет. Приходите княжить и владеть нами.”

***- I have chosen to maintain the very charged term “liquidation” (likvidirn) which Ravitch chose to use. By 1944, when he wrote this, the association with the Khurbm (Holocaust) was already established. Thus it was a stylistic choice to let it stand and one which I respect here.

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