YANKEV MEYERZON (1888-1947)
He was born in Krivorog (Krivoy Rog), southern Russia, the son of a ritual slaughterer. In his youth he moved to Kherson. He studied in religious elementary school, synagogue study chamber, and later Kiev University. Until the end of 1913 he was a teacher of Jewish history in Kiev and Vilna, where he was also active in the Labor Zionist Party. In early 1914 he moved to the land of Israel. He worked on the land and later was a teacher in Jaffa and Petaḥ Tikva. Around 1920-1921 he switched to join the Jewish Communists in Palestine. In late 1921 he left Israel and lived for a short time in Vienna, where (following a decree from the Comintern) he led the split with the Labor Zionists. After the 1922 conference with the Labor Zionists in Vienna, he broke completely with the Zionist labor movement and left for Moscow; he worked there as professor of the history of the Near East and Palestine. In the late 1920s he was head of the Odessa branch of the Institute of Jewish Culture at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He began writing in 1912 in Der fraynd (The friend) (St. Petersburg-Warsaw), as well as for the Labor Zionist Party press. In Israel he contributed to: Hapoel hatsair (The young laborer); and Unzer emes (Our truth) in Jaffa (1920), also serving as its editor. Later, he wrote for the illegal and semi-legal Communist periodicals in Yiddish and Hebrew in the land of Israel (until 1922). He also placed work in: Avan-gard (Avant-garde) in Vienna; Folkstsaytung (People’s newspaper) in Warsaw, where, using the pen names Y. Merzon and N. Broder, he published, among other items, a series of articles entitled “Tsi iz meglekh a fridlekh tsuzamenlebn tsvishn yidn un araber in palestine” (Is a peaceful co-existence between Jews and Arabs possible in Palestine?” Until 1937 he also wrote for: Emes (Truth) and Visnshaftlekhe yorbikher (Scientific yearbooks) in Moscow; Oktyabr (October) in Minsk; and Shtern (Star) in Kharkov; among others. His books include: Unzer geshikhte in ertselungen un lebens-beshraybungen far shulen un ovend-kursen (Our history in stories and life descriptions for schools and evening courses), part 1 (Kiev, 1912), 68 pp.; Unzer geshikhte far shuln (Our history for schools), part 2 (Kiev, 1913), 74 pp., published with assistance from the “Khevre mefitse haskole” (Society for the promotion of enlightenment [among the Jews of Russia]) in Kiev. Only the first part of his work, Di araber un di yidishe kolonizatsye in Palestine, a sakhakl fun der 50-yoriker tetikeyt fun di yidishe birgerlikhe un proletarishe kolonizatorn (The Arabs and Jewish colonization in Palestine, an accounting of fifty years of activities of the Jewish bourgeois and proletarian colonizers) (Warsaw: Di velt, 1922), 256 pp., appeared (under the name Yankev Merzon). In the mid-1930s a campaign was launched against him for his earlier “ideological errors,” and during the Show Trials of 1936-1937, he was arrested. His subsequent fate is the stuff of different legends. In one version, he was sentenced to camps in the distant North and in Kazakhstan, from whence he was freed in late 1941. Sick and starving, he wandered through the labor camp town of Ili, near Alma-Ata, and survived by begging. In those years Meyerzon became religious and supported himself by secretly teaching refugee children Jewish religious subject matter. Denounced, he had to go to Alma Ata, where the Lubavitcher Hassidim concealed him, and he became a teacher in their secret elementary school. In 1946 he fell into depression, although he continued to write Hebrew poetry and prayers, ethical tracts, and Hassidic tales. A number of his poems in the Yiddish originals were published in Sh. Yahalomi’s three-part article, “Meyerzon der bal tshuve” (Meyerzon the repentant), Davar (Word) (Tel Aviv) (late December 1956-early January 1957). In early 1947 he received permission to join his wife in Moscow and there he died. Another version has him living in Odessa until the beginning of the war, and he is then evacuated from there; some time after the war he returned to Odessa, became a fervent partisan on behalf of Israel, but kept this secret, as he continued his scholarly work. In 1947 he received a request from the Moscow publishing house “Der emes” (The truth) to write a work of Jewish history. He then proceeded to Moscow to discuss the book, but only five or six days after arriving there, he died.
Sources: Moyshe Kats, in Dos naye leben (New York) (January 1914), pp. 55-56; M. Unger, in Zamlbukh lekoved dem tsveyhundert un fuftsikstn yoyvl fun der yidisher prese, 1686-1936 (Anthology in honor of the 250th jubilee of the Yiddish press, 1686-1936), ed. Dr. Y. Shatski (New York, 1937); Sh. Yahalomi, in Hatsofe (Jerusalem) (January 1950); Yahalomi, in Davar (Tel Aviv) (December 24, 1956; January 4, 1957; January 11, 1957).
Khayim Leyb Fuks
[Additional information from: Chaim Beider, Leksikon fun yidishe shrayber in ratn-farband (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers in the Soviet Union), ed. Boris Sandler and Gennady Estraikh (New York: Congress for Jewish Culture, Inc., 2011), pp. 239-40.]