Thursday 6 August 2015


ARN GURSHTEYN (November 1895-1941)

            A critic and literary scholar, he was born in the city of Krolevets', Ukraine.  His father was an employee in a transport company, who frequently changed residence, and the family lived in various cities: Nikopol', Kakhovka, Yelyzavethradka, Grodno, and Proskurov (Khmel'nyts'kyy). He studied in religious primary school with various itinerant teachers and attended private modern schools, as well as studying at home with tutors and as an auditing student.  In 1913 he graduated from Kagan’s Jewish high school in Vilna.  In 1916 he studied Hebrew literature in the Department of Oriental Languages of Petrograd University, and he also attended special Jewish courses.  The October Revolution of 1917 found him in the Ukrainian city of Nikopol'. He did not return to Petrograd and took up social and cultural work in Ukraine: he was active as a secretary of the local office of the People’s Commissariat for Jewish Affairs, appeared publicly giving lectures and reports, and became an active contributor to the local newspapers; he later served for a year from May 1920 in the army, and when demobilized in 1921, he went to Moscow to continue his education, all the time working as a journalist for various newspapers and journals. At that time, his work belonged to the field of Yiddish literature: Mendele, Perets, and Sholem-Aleichem. His first literary historical efforts—on Y. Y. Linenski and Y. L. Perets—he published in 1925. Thereafter, he began to work on orders from the Jewish division of “Invayskult” (Institute of Byelorussian Culture) in Minsk and published in the serial of the Institute, Tsaytshrift (Periodical), a lengthy work on Perets. In 1926 he was a researcher at the Institute for Language and Literature at Moscow State University, specializing in the history of Yiddish literature in the nineteenth century, and he began pedagogical work as well. From 1931 he became professor of literary history and theory in the pedagogical institutes of Kiev and Odessa, was an active member of the Writers’ Union, and worked as an editor of the scholarly publication of the works of Mendele Moykher-Sforim being published by “Der emes” publishing house and of a series of scholarly works. On the eve of WWII, he was one of the central figures not only in Soviet Yiddish literature and criticism, theater, and language—such as works by Dovid Bergelson, Der Nister, Shmuel Halkin, Ezra Fininberg, Leyb Kvitko, and others—but also in Russian literature. He was active as a bibliographer and archivist, literary historian and critic, theater researcher and linguist. He had a long and deep-rooted correspondence with many Soviet Yiddish writers and leaders in the literary realm, such that his personal archive in the Moscow Central Archives for Literature and Art is a rich source for elucidating the history of Yiddish literature in the Soviet Union. His contemporaries and colleagues from that difficult time have recorded his portrait: a rather small man, in glasses, a shy and quiet man, slow and—highly nearsighted—not always sure where he was going on Moscow streets, especially when the movement was rough. His creative activity was cut short in June 1941. When WWII began, he volunteered to serve in the Moscow people’s defense army, and on July 6 his life as a soldier began. On the night of July 11, 1941, the division comprised of writer-defenders left Moscow and headed west. He died that autumn.

            The most important of his best 150 bibliographic, historical, and methodological works would include: “Der istiker tsushtand fun peretses byografye” (The present state of Perets’s biography), Tsaytshrift 1 (Minsk, 1926), pp. 87-104; “Sakhaklen fun der mendele-forshung” (A summing up of Mendele research), Tsaytshrift 2-3 (1928), pp. 485-524; “Der yunger mendele in kontekst fun di 60er yor” (The young Mendeke in the context of the 1860s), Shriftn (Writings) 1 (Kiev, 1928), pp. 180-98; “A naye vendung in der Mendele-forshung” (A new turn in Mendele research), Visnshaftlekhe yorbikher (Scholarly yearbooks) 1 (Moscow, 1929), pp. 214-26; “Plekhanovs onshoyungen vegn literatur” (Plekhanov’s conceptions of literature), Visnshaft un revolutsye (Science and revolution) 3-4 (Kiev, 1935), pp. 9-46; “Mendeles briv” (Mendele’s letters), in the anthology Mendele un zayn tsayt, materialn fun der geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur in xix yorhundert (Mendele and his times, materials from the history of Yiddish literature in the nineteenth century), ed. Gurshteyn (Moscow: Emes, 1940), 252 pp.; “Der yidisher teater in di 60-er yorn funem XIX yorhundert” (The Yiddish theater in the 1860s), in the same anthology.  Among his books: Fragn fun marksistisher literatur-kentenish (Issues in Marxist literary knowledge) (Moscow: Central People’s Union, USSR, 1931), 85 pp.; Problemes fun kritik (Problems of criticism), with Meyer Viner (Moscow: Emes, 1933), 269 pp.; Sholem-aleykhem, zayn lebn un shafn (Sholem-Aleichem, his life and work) (Moscow: Emes, 1946), 64 pp.; Kritish-biblyografishe fartsaykhenungen vegn sholem-aleykhem (Critical bibliographical notes concerning Sholem-Aleykhem) (Moscow, 1937), published 20,000 copies.

Sources: Shmuel Niger, in Tsukunft (New York) (November 1934); Y. Nusinov, in Eynikeyt (Moscow) (August 5, 1942); Dr. Y. Shatski, in Yivo-bleter 23 (1944), pp. 125-39; Shatski, in Yidishe kultur (New York) (August 1946); M. Notovitsh, in Eynikeyt (February 24, 1945); Y. Dobrushin, in Eynikeyt (March 17, 1945); Rivke Rubin, in Eynikeyt (November 17, 1945); Rubin, in Yidishe kultur (August 1946); Kh. Nadel, in Eynikeyt (July 5, 1947); Y. Serebryani, in Yidishe kultur (September 1949); Al. Pomerants, in Edelshtat-gedankbukh (Remembrance volume for [Dovid] Edelshtat) (New York, 1953).

Aleksander Pomerants

[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. 81-83.]

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