MARK VARSHAVSKI (November 26, 1848-1907)
He was born in Odessa, Ukraine, into a prominent family. In his youth he moved with his parents to Zhitomir, studied there for four years in the rabbinical school, then graduated from high school, studied law for a year at Odessa University, and completed his studies in 1875 in Kiev. He married in 1879 and then for many years practiced as a courtroom lawyer. He was also employed by the district court and the superior court. A man with good-natured humor and considerable spiritual virtue, he was beloved of Kiev intellectuals and was a major hit with his improvised humorous couplets, but he suffered materially, barely able to make ends meet. Only in 1903 when he became legal counsel for the Belgian firm of Huttes, did his situation improved. Early in 1905 he became seriously ill and returned to Kiev where he grew weak over the final two years of his life and greatly suffering. He died of apoplexy in Kiev.
Over the course many years, Varshavski wrote poems with his own tunes (just like Avrom Goldfaden who was a frequent visitor in his father home and throughout his life remained Varshavski’s friend), but he did not want to make use of them. He thought they had no literary value and did not even want them to be published. At the end of the 1890s, he was discovered by Sholem Aleykhem who pushed him to write down his poems with the melodies, and a portion of them—twenty-five in all—were (with the help of Kiev Zionists) published in a collection entitled: Yudishe folks lider mit notn (Jewish folksongs with notation), with a preface by Sholem Aleykhem (Warsaw, 1901), 78 pp. The collection had extraordinary success and made it possible that he and Sholem Aleykhem would appear on stage together in the evenings, and he would attempt to sing his own songs. A second edition of his book with a biographical, critical preface by Sholem Aleykhem and with the addition of twenty-one new songs—two of which were initially published in Yud (Jew) and Yudishe familye (Jewish family)—appeared in print only after Varshavski’s death (Odessa: Moriya, 1914), 93 pp. and 14 pp. Another edition of his folksongs was published in 1918 in New York (80 pp.), with a number of new, previously unseen songs that emerged from his posthumous writings. Certain of his poems were published with the music, such as: Afn pripetshok, oder alef-beys (On the hearth, or the ABCs) (New York, 1913), 14 pp. (second edition, 1914); Dem milners trern (The miller’s tears) (New York, 1917), 3 pp.; and many more. Finally there was published a new edition of his folksongs with thirty-one tunes, edited and with an introduction by Shmuel Rozhanski (Buenos Aires, 1958), 213 pp.; this edition includes, in addition to Varshavski’s poems and musical notation, “fragments of research work on their character and memoirs concerning Varshavski” by Sholem Aleykhem, Itsik Manger, Yankev Fikhman, V. Zhabotinsky, Elye Lipiner, B. Shefner, and Zalmen Hirshfeld, as well as renditions of his works: Komets alef-o (Komets-alef אָ [is pronounced] “o”)—(including extracts of poems): “Der alef-beys” (The ABCs), “Peysekh” (Passover), “Dem milners trern,” “A briv fun amerike” (A letter from America), “A yidish lid fun rumenye” (A Yiddish song from Romania), “Dos lid fun broyt” (The song of bread), “Der yid in veg” (The Jew on the road), “Der kholem” (The dream), “Shtey oyf!” (Rise up!), “Di tekhter fun tsien zingen” (The sisters from Zion sing), “Tsien” (Zion), “Af kidesh-hashem” (To the martyrs), and “Leshono habo birusholaim” (Next year in Jerusalem); and A khasene bay yidn) (A wedding among Jews)—including extracts: “Der shadkhn moyshe-arn” (The matchmaker Moshe-Aharon), “Di bobe” (Grandmother), “Sore un rivke” (Sarah and Rebecca), “Der bekher” (The goblet), “Der zeyde mit der bobe” (Grandfather with Grandmother), “Dos freylikhe shnayderl” (The happy little tailor), “Kalenyu, veyn-zhe, veyn” (Our bride, go ahead and cry), “Di rod” (The wheel), and “A freylekhs” (A cheerful tune). Certain of his songs were genuine folksongs, such as: “Der alef-beys,” “A briv fun amerike,” “Afn pripetshok,” “Sore un rivke,” “Der zeyde mit der bobe,” “A milners trern,” “Dos lid fun broyt,” “Der bekher,” and “Di muzinke” (The female musician). His songs were of the same essence as Jewish folk poetry itself and just like them reflected Jewish folk life with all its suffering and delights. The language of Varshavski’s songs was just as authentic and not contrived in their content. The beautiful heartfelt songs were fitted completely to the motifs of the texts, and altogether brought about a situation in which his songs could be sung anywhere one heard a word of Yiddish.
Varshavski (second row from front, third from left)
with the Sons of Zion (Sholem Aleykhem is two over to his left)
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1 (with a bibliography); Y. Entin, Yidishe poetn (Jewish poets), part 1 (New York, 1927), pp. 117-20; Y. Sh. (Shatski), in in Pinkes, amerikaner opteyl fun yivo (Records of the American section of YIVO), vol. 2 (New York, 1929); N. Shtif, Yidishe literatur (Yiddish literature), part 1 (Kiev, 1928); I. Manger, Noentn geshtaltn (Recent impressions) (Warsaw, 1938), pp. 163-69; N. Mayzil, ed. and comp., Amerike in yidishn vort, antologye (America in the Yiddish word, an anthology) (New York, 1956), see index; Shmuel Niger, in Tog-morgn zhurnal (New York) (December 9, 1956); Yankev Glatshteyn, in Idisher kemfer (New York) (July 11, 1958); B. Ts. Goldberg, in Tog-morgn zhurnal (July 1`3, 1958); N. Sverdlin, in Tog-morgn zhurnal (August 7, 1958); Y. Yeshurin, Mark varshavski-biblyografye (Bibliography of Mark Varshavski) (New York, 1958); Dr. A. Mukdoni, in Tog-morgn zhurnal (September 7, 1958).
Khayim Leyb Fuks