PERETS VYERNIK (PETER WIERNIK) (March 6, 1865-February 12, 1936)
He was born in Vilna; he descended from a family named Neemanim (Vyernik in Russian [“faithful one(s)”]). His father was a wandering preacher, his mother a businesswoman. He studied in religious elementary school, later with the recluses in the synagogue study hall. At age thirteen, he left to become an apprentice to a woodcutter, later moving on to Riga where until the fall of 1881 he worked as a turner, while simultaneously learning some German and beginning to read secular books. For a certain period of time, he studied in Kovno and in Smorgon (Smarhon, Smargon) with his older brother, who was a Hassid. In 1882 he moved to Bialystok where his parents had by this time settled, studied Talmud and, under the influence of Leon Zolotkof who had at the time come there from Paris, also secular subject matter and foreign languages. In July 1885, he moved to the United States and settled down in Chicago, where he peddled goods for four years, worked in a lumberyard, and was a laborer at the docks. In the summer of 1887 when Zolotkof founded the Teglekher yudisher kuryer (Daily Jewish courier), Vyernik became a silent partner to the “Courier Company,” as well as a typesetter for the newspaper. As he recounted in his “Zikhroynes fun vilne biz nyu york” (Memoirs from Vilna to New York), discovered in the archives of Yeshiva University in New York and published in Morgn-zhurnal (Morning journal), New York, from October 10 to December 23, 1951, his connection to the Kuryer was “a turning point in all my efforts and writing career.” He began writing while still in Russia with Torah novellae (published in his father’s work, Keren tsvi [Might of a gazelle], Warsaw, 1883), and now there was aroused in him a powerful desire to write; he began to publish “Letter from Chicago” in Hayom (Today) in St. Petersburg (1886), and he was initially a contributor and later co-editor with Zolotkof of Yudisher kuryer. He also edited Vokhntlekher kuryer (Weekly courier) in December 1887, Kol (Voice), and Keren haor (Power of the light) (issue 22)—all in Chicago. He wrote correspondence pieces from the International Exposition in Chicago in 1893 for Yidishes tageblat (Jewish daily newspaper) in New York). In 1896 he interrupted his writing activities and went work in a shop selling glassware. He also continued his community activity in Chicago. He was the founder and chairman of the first “Society of People from Vilna,” “Exponents of Hebrew Literature,” and the educational group “Self-Education Club,” among others. At the start of 1898 he settled in New York, became a typesetter for Yidishes tageblat, and an internal contributor at first to the English division of the newspaper, later to the newspaper generally. He worked as a reporter, and he wrote the news and reviews of Yiddish theater. At that time, he also composed lyrics and couplets for over fifty Yiddish theatrical pieces.
In July 1901, when his friend Y. Sapirshteyn established Morgn-zhurnal in New York, Vyernik became a regular contributor to the newspaper, and from 1914 until his death, he was its chief editor. He is said to have published over 30,000 editorials and essays on current affairs in Jewish and general life, as well as on wider political, cultural, and scholarly topics, arguing in them his standpoint on the necessity of Americanization, on the on hand, and the stance of Jewish Orthodoxy, on the other, toward all opposing directions on the Jewish street in America. Of particular significance was his regular column “Unzer filshprakhige literatur” (Our multilingual literature), in which he covered virtually all Yiddish, Hebrew, and English books and important scholarly literary accomplishments in Yiddish-Hebrew and Jewish American cultural life of the time. Over the course of a long period, he published “Vokhndige piyutim” (Weekly liturgical poems), articles in verse, which were a new thing in Jewish journalism. In his series, “Brif fun der zayt sambatyen” (Letter from this side of the Sambation), as well as in “Humoristishe beshraybungen” (Humorous descriptions)—published under the pen names: Avi Khamul, Avi Khatsren, and mainly Zakef Katon—he also proved to be an innovative humorist. Aside from Morgn-zhurnal, over the course of his fruitful writing career, he also wrote for: Zelig Rabinovitsh’s Idisher magazin (Jewish magazine) in 1896, Der nayer gayst (The new spirit) in 1897-1898, M. M. Dolitski’s monthly periodical Di tsayt (The times) in 1897-1898, all issues of Minikes’s Yontef bleter (Holiday sheets), Der amerikaner (The American), Yoyvl-bikher fun der yidisher zetser yunyon (Jubilee volumes from the Jewish typesetters’ union) until 1936, Yoyvl-bukh fun vilner brentsh (Jubilee volume from the Vilna Branch) of 1934, and others—all in New York. In Hebrew, he wrote for: Hayom in St. Petersburg (1886-1890); Hamelits (The advocate) in Odessa; Hatsfira (The siren) in Warsaw; Ner hamaarvi (Candle of the East), Hamodiya (The herald), Haivri (The Jew), Hapisga (The summit), and all the publications of Gershon Rozentsvayg—all in New York. In English, he wrote for: Chicago Times (1893); American Hebrew, Jewish Messenger, Reform Advocate, and Jewish Forum in New York; and Jewish Comment in Baltimore. He was also a standing contributor to Jewish Encyclopedia (London-New York, 1901-1906), in which he published over 300 biographies of Jewish personalities (rabbis, writers, actors, and scholars), on the Jewish Enlightenment movement, monographs on cities (among them Cracow, which was considered the best entry on a city), and on Yiddish literature and theater. He also contributed to Otsar yisrael (Treasury of Israel) in London.
His books would include: Di idishe geshikhte, fun avrom avinu biz di yetstige tsayt (Jewish history, from Abraham to contemporary times), adapted from Zelig Kasel’s history of the Jews, with a foreword by the author (New York, 1901), 372 pp.; Geshikhte fun di idn in amerike, fun di peryode when di naye velt iz entdekt gevorn biz hayntige tsayt (A history of Jews in America, from the era when the New World was discovered until contemporary times), with a foreword (New York, 1914), 466 pp., and with excerpts from the author in English, 16 pp.—this book appeared earlier in English (New York, 1912). From the large number of biographies he wrote for Morgn-zhurnal and Der amerikaner, the only ones published separately were: Rav saadye goen, der ershter idisher religyons filozof, zayn leben, verken un shriften (Rabbi Saadya Gaon, the first religious Jewish philosopher, his life, works, and writings) (New York, 1903), 29 pp.; and Der vilner goen, der gaystiger firer fun misnagdim (The Gaon of Vilna, the spiritual leader of the anti-Hassidic, Orthodox Jews) (New York, 1906), 38 pp. (several editions published). He was the founder and chairman of the “Circle for a Higher Discussion of Jewish Issues and Scholarship,” known as “Ḥevruta” (1924-1936), chairman of the Committee of Jewish Places of Origin, member of the executive of the Joint Distribution Committee, of Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, of the yeshiva of Rabbi Yitskhok Elchonon and other small yeshivas, and treasurer of the relief fund for sick writers in the name of Israel Metz in New York. On his sixtieth birthday, a special humorous publication was published: Der morgn-zhurnal bizer anpin (The morning journal in miniature) (December 17, 1925), 8 pp.—also a great number of articles in the Yiddish, Hebrew, and English-language Jewish press. He died in New York.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1 (with a bibliography); B. Yevnin, in Hashkem vedavar (Milwaukee) 2 (1903), p. 29; Y. Kirshenboym, in Yidishes tageblat (New York) (December 13, 1925); Biblyografishe yorbikher fun yivo (Bibliographic yearbooks from YIVO) (Warsaw, 1928), see index; Y. D. Ayzenshteyn, Oyster zikhroynes (Treasury of memories) (New York, 1930), p. 54; Dr. K. Fornberg, in Der tog (New York) (February 14, 1931); Av. Goldberg, in Morgn-zhurnal (New York) (March 4, 1931; February 16, 1936); A. Oyerbakh, in Morgn zhurnal (June 5, 1934); Zh. Leybner, in Shikago (Chicago) (May-June 1935); Indritskis yontef bleter (New York) (June 1935); editorials dated February 13, 1936 in Morgn-zhurnal, Tog, and Forverts (New York); Y. Fishman and Froym Kaplan, in Forverts (February 13, 1936); Yankev Glatshteyn, in Forverts (February 14, 1936); Z. B. Komeyko, in Forverts (February 17, 1936); A. Z. Aguz, in Forverts (February 19, 1936); Moyshe Shtarkman, in Tog (February 14, 1936); Shtarkman, in Hadoar (New York) (May 23, 1947); Moris Mayer, in Di tsayt (London) (February 14, 1936); Y. Rabinovitsh, in Keneder odler (Montreal) (February 16, 1936); Mortkhe Kats, in Idisher kuryer (Chicago) (February 19, 1936); E. R. Malachi, in Hadoar (November 27, 1936); Dr yankev shatski-biblyografye (Bibliography of Dr. Yankev Shatski) (New York, 1939), see index; Talush, Yidishe shrayber (Yiddish writers) (Miami, 1953), pp. 121, 122; Y. B. Beylin, in Morgn-frayhayt (New York) (October 5, 1958); The American Jewish Yearbook 5697; The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia (New York, 1943), p. 516.
Khayim Leyb Fuks