YOYSEF (JOSEPH) OPATOSHU (December 24, 1886-October 7, 1954)
The adopted name of Yoysef-Meyer Opatovski, he was born in Stupsker Vald, near Mlave (Mława), Poland. His father, Dovid, was a timber merchant from an old Polish Hassidic family which traced its pedigree from Rabbi Leyb Khaneles, author of Vayigash yehudah (And Judah drew near); he was one of the first Maskilim in Poland and wrote poetry in Hebrew. His mother hailed from generations of forester Jews, born and raised in the woods. At age twelve he graduated from Russian public school. Together with his older brother, Fayvl—who later published Yiddish poetry in Roman-tsaytung (Fiction news), Fraye arbeter shtime (Free voice of labor), and elsewhere and Hebrew poems in Hayehudi (The Jew) in London—he studied Hebrew, Bible, and Talmud with his father. At age fifteen, he entered a trade school in Warsaw, and at age nineteen he left for Nancy, France, where he studied engineering in the local polytechnic. One year later in 1906, due to a lack of funds, he had to interrupt his studies and return home, where he once again became engaged in self-study and made his first effort to write fictional stories (among them the first sketch of “Af yener zayt brik” [On the other side of the bridge]). At this time, he paid a visit to Y. L. Perets (later described in Zamlbukh y. l. perets [Y. L. Perets anthology], New York, 1915). Early in 1907 he emigrated to the United States and settled in New York, where his father had earlier moved. There he worked at first in a factory, then delivered English newspapers, later becoming a teacher in a Jewish elementary school, while in the evenings he studied at Cooper Union from which he graduated in 1914 with a degree in civil engineering. For a short time he was engaged with his trade, but soon he switched over to literature.
His first literary publication appeared in 1910 with the story (newly revised) “Af yener zayt brik” in the anthology, Literatur 2 (New York). In Avrom Reyzen’s Dos naye land (The new land), he published fragments from later works. In 1912 he published A roman fun a ferd-ganef (A novel of a horse thief) in the first volume of D. Ignatov’s anthology, Shriftn (Writings) of which he was also a co-founder; and in volume 2 he published Moris un zayn zun filip (Morris and his son, Philip). These two stories together brought the young author notice. In 1914 there appeared in the anthology Di naye heym (The new home) Opatoshu’s long story, “Fun nyu yoker geto” (From the New York ghetto), later dramatized as “Heys blut” (Warm blood). In the same year (November 8), he began to publish stories in Tog (Day) in New York, and he remained thereafter a regular contributor to this daily newspaper until the end of his life; he published hundreds of longer and shorter pieces there. In 1918 he published in Tsukunft (Future) his novel, Aleyn (Alone), the story of a forest girl, which was later considered to be the third part of his historical novel, In poylishe velder (In the Polish woods). In 1919 in Di naye velt (The new world), he published his novel, Lerer (Teacher)—in book form it appeared as Hibru (Hebrew)—in which he offered a strong, though a bit one-sided, depiction of the environment surrounding a “Hebrew teacher” at that time in New York. In 1921 his novel In poylishe velder appeared, and this work made him famous. A historical novel of great scope with marvelous descriptions of Hassidism in a time of decline remains a monument for the generations in Yiddish literature—not to mention the fact that this actual work came out in fragments. It was reprinted more than ten times and was as well translated into many foreign languages. His work 1863 appeared in 1926—the second part of this novel which mainly depicts the Polish uprising of that year, although the characters of the first novel all figure in the story. The organic tying together of the two novels was slack, and between these two parts and the third, Aleyn, a loose connection reigns.
In 1922 and 1929, Opatoshu visited his old home, Poland, and made contact with the Vilna publisher, B. Kletskin, which, aside from a few isolated works, began (in 1928) to publish Opatoshu’s collected writings in fourteen volumes [see below]. From that year as well, his works began to be reprinted in Soviet Russia, although with special introductions. At the same time, he did not stop publishing short stories weekly, as well as translations from other languages under the pseudonym A. Pen. Beginning in 1922, he contributed to Moment (Moment) and Folks-tsaytung (People’s newspaper) in Warsaw, Der yidisher kemfer (The Jewish fighter) and Tsukunft in New York, Di prese (The press) in Buenos Aires, and in his last years Di goldene keyt (The golden chain) in Tel Aviv. He also gave lectures on the Yiddish language in the Jewish teacher’s seminary and in the Jewish Workers University in New York. His novel, Di tentserin, roman a shtik yidish lebn in di yorn 1910-1911 (The dancer, a novel from Jewish life in the years, 1910-1911), belongs to the more significant of his works of his early years, and his masterpiece, A tog in regensburg (A day in Regensburg) is a story of German Jewish life in the sixteenth century. He demonstrated in his shorter works many artistic strengths and a pulsating life in the reconstructed and half stylized manner of the wider epoch. In May 1934 he traveled to Palestine and Soviet Russia (his impression of the Land of Israel were published in his book, Tsvishn yamen un lender [Between seas and lands]). The Yiddish literary world celebrated his fiftieth birthday in 1937. In his last years after WWII, he worked on his historical novels entitled: Der letster oyfshtand, 1: r. akiva (The last uprising, vol. 1: R. Akiva) published in 1948; and 2: bar kokhba (Vol. 1: Bar Kokhba) published in 1955, posthumously. In 1951 he made a trip to three countries in South America (Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil), and Jewish intellectuals as well as the wider public honored the distinguished writer. He received just as warm a reception in Israel when he visited for the second time in 1952. Opatoshu was active in New York in all undertakings and institutions that were linked to secular Jewish culture; he was a member of the managing committee of YIVO and the Jewish Culture Congress, and he was also a leader in the Y. L. Perets Writers Union as well as the Jewish Pen Club. In the evening after Yom Kippur, 1954, he died suddenly. He was buried in the old cemetery of the Workmen’s Circle where one also finds the graves of Sholem-Aleykhem, Yehoash, Yankev Gordin, and other major figures in Yiddish literature.
Yoysef Opatoshu, who became one of the group known as the “Yunge” (Young ones) around 1910 and was well known for his In poylishe velder, was one of the first writers of the historical novel in Yiddish. His subject matter had the widest scope. The heroes of his hundreds and hundreds of stories were either powerful, full-blooded, and uncouth—portrayed as powerful and full-blooded or the opposite: refined, gentle, and purely spiritual figures. His Yiddish grew ever more polished and refined. His sentences were short, strong, condensed, and rhythmic in their energy. He was one of the most cultivated and productive Yiddish storytellers, and he occupied an honored place at the head of the table in Yiddish literature. His unexpected death made a tremendous impression in the entire Jewish world.
His books include:
Fun nyu yorker geto (From the New York ghetto) (New York, 1914), 102 pp.
A roman fun a ferd-ganef, un andere dertseylungen (A novel of a hose thief, and other stories) (New York, 1917), 266 pp. (Warsaw, 1922; Kiev, 1928)
Untervelt (Underworld) (New York, 1918), 209 pp.
Aleyn, roman (Alone, a novel) (New York, 1919), 211 pp.
Hibru (Hebrew) (New York, 1920), 275 pp.
In poylishe velder (In the Polish woods) (New York, 1921), 357 pp.; (Warsaw, 1922), 339 pp.; by 1928 it had gone through ten printings and 17,000 copies in print; (New York, 1947), 340 pp., a corrected edition; (Buenos Aires: Y Lifshits-fond, 1965(, 412 pp.
Favloyrene mentshn (Lost people) (Berlin, 1922), the novel Hibru under a different title.
Untervelt (Underworld) (Warsaw, 1922), 282 pp.
Der mishpet (The trial) (Warsaw, 1923), 15 pp., edition for children.
Rase, lintsheray, un andere dertsyelungen (Race, lynching, and other stories) (Warsaw, 1923), 104 pp.
Arum di khurves (Among the ruins) (Vilna, 1925), 240 pp., stories.
1863, roman (1863, a novel) (Vilna, 1926), 231 pp.; (Kiev, 1929).
Lintsheray un andere dertseylungen (Lynching and other stories) (Vilna, 1927), 240 pp.;
Shikh-putser (Shoeshine boy) (Kharkov, 1927), 39 pp.
Arum grand-strit (Around Grand Street), with a forward by Shakhne Epshteyn (Kharkov, 1929), 244 pp.
Di tentserin (The dancer) (Vilna: Farlag Kletskin, 1930), 373 pp.
Koylngreber (Coalminers) (Kharkov, 1929), 14 pp.
Af yener zayt brik (On the other side of the bridge) (Kharkov, 1929), 299 pp.
Soreke, funem bukh aleyn, farkirtst far kinder (Little Sarah, from the novel Aleyn, abridged for children) (New York, 1923), 27 pp.
A tog in regensburg (A day in Regenburg) and Elye bokher (Elijah Bakhur [Levita]) (New York, 1933), 127 pp.; (Paris: Goldene pave, 1955), 106 pp.
Pundeka retivta (Pundeka Retivta) (Chicago, 1933), 24 pp.
Blut un fayer (Blood and fire) (Warsaw, 1935), 64 pp.
Gorek strit, dertseylungen (Gorek Street, stories) (Warsaw, 1936), 46 pp.
Tsvishn yamen un lender (Between seas and lands) (New York, 1937), 177 pp.
Mlave-nyu york, dertseylungen (Mlave-New York, stories) (Vilna, 1939), 297 pp.
Mentshn un khayes (Men and beasts) (New York, 1938), 288 pp.
Ven poyln iz gefaln (When Poland fell) (New York, 1943), 311 pp.
Der letster oyfshtand, roman, 1: r. akiva (The last uprising, a novel, vol. 1: Rabbi Akiva) (New York, 1948), 402 pp.
Yidish un yidishkeyt, eseyen (Yiddish and Jewishness, essays) (Toronto, 1949), 96 pp.
Afn barg nevo (On Mount Nevo) (New York, 1949), privately printed in fifteen exemplars, 16 pp.
Yidn-legende, un andere dertseylungen (A legend of the Jews and other stories) (New York, 1951), 320 pp.
Lima-gogo (Toronto, 1951), private printing with fifteen published exemplars, 16 pp.
Mlaver dertseylungen (Stories of Mlave) (Buenos Aires, 1954), 306 pp.
Der letster oyfshtand, roman, 2: bar kokhba (The last uprising, a novel, vol. 2: Bar Kokhba) (New York, 1955), 322 pp.
Lintsheray (Warsaw: Yidish bukh, 1958), 47 pp.
Gezamlte verk (Collected works) (Vilna: Farlag B. Kletskin, 1928-1936) in 14 volumes:
1. A roman fun a ferd-ganef
6. In poylishe velder
8. Arum di khurves
9. Af zaytike vegn (Along side ways)
11. Di tentserin
12. Klasnkamf (Class struggle)
13. Shtet un mentshn (Cities and people)
14. Mi un furem (Effort and form)
Translations of his works into Hebrew include: Moris (New York, 1918); Be-ya’arot polin (In Polish woods) (New York, 1921); 1863 (Tel Aviv, 1929); Yom be-regenspurk (A day in Regensburg) (Tel Aviv, 1943); Be-tsel ha-dorot (In the shadow of generations) (Tel Aviv, 1945); Anashim ve-khutsot (People and the streets) (Tel Aviv, 1945); Khurban polin (The catastrophe of Poland) (New York, 1947); Dare matah (Dwellers below) (Tel Aviv, 1946); Ha-mered ha-akharon, r’ akiva-bar kokhba (The last uprising, R. Akiva-Bar Kokhba, a novel) (Tel Aviv, 1953).
In poylishe velder also appeared in Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, English, German, Spanish, and Romanian translations; Roman fun a ferd-ganef in Polish and Russian; 1863 and A tog in regensburg in Polish; A rayze kin erts yisroel (A trip to the Land of Israel [= Tsvishn yamen un lender]) in Russian; Lintsheray in Ukrainian and Romanian; Der letster oyfshtand in English; and a number of his stories in Spanish. [Translator’s note. Many more translations have appeared since this was written.]
Aside from the anthology Di naye heym (New York, 1914), he edited the anthology Fun tsayt tsu tsayt (From time to time) (New York, 1925) and Zamlbikher (Anthologies) (with H. Leivick) (New York, 1936-1952). He received the Louis Lamed Prize in 1944 for his book, Ven poyln iz gefaln. Among his pseudonyms: A. Pen, Y. Davidson, Y. D. The first volume of Opatoshu’s writings in Hebrew were published in 1955 in Israel under the title: Meah sipur ve-sipur (Hundreds of stories), translated by Dov Sadan, with an autobiographical introduction (Tel Aviv, 1955), 411 pp.
Sources: Opatoshu-biblyografye (Opatoshu bibliography), vol. 1, published by the (Mlaver-Bendiner) Y. Opatoshu Branch 639 of the Workmen’s Circle (New York, 1937), 71 pp., vol. 2 (New York, 1947), 32 pp.; Tsu opatoshus bazukh in lite (On Opatoshu’s visit to Lithuania), collected notebooks, published by the Yiddish Literary Group in Lithuania (Kaunas, 1930), 16 pp.; Nachman Mayzel, Yoysef opatoshu, zayn lebn un shafn (Joseph Opatoshu, his life and work) (Warsaw, 1937), 195 pp.; B. Rivkin, Yoysef opatoshus gang (Joseph Opatoshu’s course) (Toronto: 1948), 59 pp.; Y. Freylikh, Yoysef opatoshus shafung-verk (Joseph Opatoshu’s creative work) (Toronto, 1951), 162 pp.; B. Grobard, A fertlyorhundert, esey vegn der yidisher literatur in amerike (A quarter century, an essay on Yiddish literature in the United States) (New York, 1935), 211 pp.; Algemayne yidishe entsiklopedye (General Jewish encyclopedia), vol. 4 (Paris, 1937), pp. 118-21 (Shmuel Niger); Entsiklopediyah ha-ivrit (Hebrew encyclopedia) (Loynson); Entsiklopediyah israelit (Israeli encyclopedia) (Berlin-Jerusalem, 1929); Entsiklopediyah kelalit (General encyclopedia), vol. 1 (Tel Aviv, 1950); Rashim be-yisrael (Leaders in Israel) (Tel Aviv, 1953-1955) (David Lazar); Yankev Pat, Shmuesn mit yidishe shrayber (Chats with Jewish writers) (New York, 1954).
Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 8 (New York, 1942) (B. Rivkin); Grosse Jüdische National-biographie (Czernowitz, 1925), vol. IV, pp. 564-66 (S. Wininger, ed.); Jüdisches Lexikon (Berlin, 1930); Bol’shaia Sovetskaia Entsiklopeiia, vol. 8 (Moscow, 1934); Malaia Sovetskaia Entsiklopeiia, vol. 6 (Moscow, 1930), p. 87; Literaturnaia Entsiklopeiia, vol. 8 (Moscow, 1934), pp. 303-4.