MORTKHE-ARON GINTSBURG (MORDECHAI AHARON GINZBURG, GÜENZBURG) (December 3, 1795-November 5, 1846)
He was born in Salant (Salantai), Kovno region, Lithuania. His father, Yehuda-Asher (1765-1823), was one of the first followers of the Jewish Enlightenment in Russia, the author of Hebrew writings on grammar and algebra, all of which came into his son’s possession, and all of it burned up during the great fire in Palanga, Lithuania, in 1831. He was able to save only ten of his father’s letters for his collection Devir (Sanctuary), part two. He attended religious primary school, and at age seven he began to study Gemara, later studying the Mishna and commentators, but at the same time he was studying Hebrew and Tanakh. By chance at age thirteen he gained access to a series of historical volumes in Hebrew, such as: Tsemaḥ david (The sprout of David) by David Gans, Shaarit yisrael (The remnant of Israel [second part of the Yosippon]), and the like, which aroused in him both an interest in history and the desire to write. His first written efforts were in the literary vein of that era: flowery, inflated, and contrived. His father showed him the importance of simplicity and naturalness in writing. There were two books which left an impression of the young Gintsburg: the philosophical Sefer habrit (The book of the covenant) by Pinḥas-Eliyahu Horovitz; and Moses Mendelssohn’s Phädon oder über die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (Phädon or the immortality of the Soul) in its Hebrew translation. He was given in marriage at age fifteen, and went to live with his in-laws in Shavel (Šiauliai), Lithuania. This unduly early marriage of such a weak, immature lad with a physically more developed woman became a source of pain and suffering for Gintsburg for quite some period of time. In his well-known autobiographical book, Aviezer, he described with courageous, merciless realism this life drama of his. He gave his own life as an example in opposition to the ancient Jewish marriage custom of marrying off young children—fragments of Aviezer in Yiddish translation can be found in Zalmen Reyzen’s Fun mendelson biz mendele (From Mendelssohn to Mendele), with translation by E. Y. Goldshmidt, and in an article by Dr. Menakhem Glen concerning Gintsburg in the collection Lite (Lithuania), vol. 1. After his marriage, Gintsburg continued studying Gemara. For a certain period of time, he even devoted himself to Kabbala. He did not, however, give up on the Jewish Enlightenment. He read the works of the Mendelssohn school in Hebrew, and this strengthened in him an interest in literature generally. An influence on his intellectual growth was exerted in those years by an old doctor he befriended in Shavel. Through him Gintsburg acquired a mastery of German, read a great deal, and sought to expand his education. In 1816 he completed his time with his in-laws’ support and had to find a means of support for his family. He moved to Palanga where he took up teaching elementary school and also worked as a translator of various legal papers into German. Yet, all of this was still not enough to feed his family, and he was forced to set out “across the world” in search of sustenance. He was in Vienna (Austria), Memel [Klaipėda] (Lithuania), Libave [Liepāja] (Courland), and other cities. He tried his hand at teaching, with giving lesson in German, and even for a time with running a tavern. Thus, in poverty and hardship, he was looking mainly in Courland for a position get his life in order, but without luck. In 1829 for the first time he settled, “for good,” in Vilna where he initially lived by giving private lessons in Hebrew and German, and later with the poet Shloyme-Zalmen Zalkind, he opened a school for children. In the 1830s, as his literary activities branched out, his name was more widely known, and his books found a market, his material conditions improved, and he was able calmly to proceed with his writing and with community activities.
He began to write in the 1820s. His first major work was an early Hebrew translation of Joachim Heinrich Campe’s Die Entdeckung von Amerika (The discovery of America), under the title Gelot haarets haḥadasha al yede kristof kolombus (The discovery of the new land by Christopher Columbus) (Vilna, 1823), 212 pp.; a second edition, entitled Maase khristof kolumbus, o gelot haarets haḥadasha (The story of Christopher Columbus, or the discovery of the new land) (Warsaw, 1894), 144 pp. The publication of his first book involved such expenses that placed the author back into real poverty. Inasmuch as there were no Jewish publishing houses at that time in Vilna, he had to buy his own type for the book, and after printing it had to sell it for a pittance. One year later, in 1824, perhaps so as to right the sad fate of the Hebrew book, he published the same work in a Yiddish translation, Di entdekung fun amerike (The discovery of America). Although his name was not directly stated on the title page, the authenticity of the writer was sufficiently clear from the subsequent text on the same page: “In three parts from the Hebrew translator in Vilna, [in Polish:] Missionary Publishers, in the year 1824.” On the back side of the title page, the ban is noted which R. Abraham Avli decreed on all Jewish publishers not to reissue this book without the author’s permission. The book was published in old Yiddish typeface. In the “Foreword” to the book, we read: “I have rewritten this translation of The Discovery of [America] from my Hebrew translation into a pure, simple Yiddish, without the hodge-podge [mish mash] of Hebrew, Aramaic, Polish, Russian, [and] Turkish words that one finds all mixed together in the Yiddish language. I hope that those who have no facility to use the lovely Hebrew translation will be sure to purchase this volume and will find it more useful and more easily accessible than the outrageous, legendary stories of One Thousand and One Nights.” This “Foreword” also included a discussion of “Geography to help understand the country, a map which I have placed at the end,” which ends with the words: “These are the first principles of geography: He who has the desire can with one globe of the world see and correctly locate it, and this surely makes it more useful and pleasurable than all the silly stories that one reads—Vilna, Marḥeshvan, 1824.” The first part of the Yiddish translation contains 80 pp., the second part 67 pp., and the third 48 pp. Ignoring the translationese in his language and in the sentence structure in numerous places, the translation is an excellent job. The manner in which he recounts things is simple and reads even today with a certain suspense. In 1889 a Warsaw book dealer by the name of Shmuel-Ayzik Peshes published a booklet entitled Maase kolombus o gelot haarets haḥadasha al yede kristof kolumbus (The story of Columbus, or the discovery of the new land by Christopher Columbus), “this work is published in all languages, and in the south they have also translated it into archaic Yiddish, so that people who know no other languages may understand it.” This short book, as it is, later (1893) was republished by a book dealer in Bialystok, Moyshe Ari Glik. The later reprinting was a plagiarism of Gintsburg’s book, which coarsened it with boorish and neglectful language and style; it can serve as a measure of the decline that the Yiddish book market went through for sixty-five years from Gintsburg’s edition in Vilna. For a long period of time in our literature, people confused Gintsburg’s Di entdekung fun amerike with a second description of Columbus in Yiddish that Khayim-Khaykl Hurvits published in 1817 in Berdichev: Tsofnes paneyekh [the name Pharoah gave to Joseph].
Di entdekung fun amerike was Gintsburg’s only book in Yiddish. His other works were all written in Hebrew. In 1835 he translated from German portions of Karl Heinrich Ludwig Pölitz’s Handbuch der weltgeschichte (Handbook of world history), and it was published as Toldot bene ha-adam (History of mankind). In the same year he published Kiryat sefer, mikhtavim melukatim al tohorat leshon hakodesh (Republic of letters, letters compiled in the purity of the language of holiness), a letter-writing manual, together with several articles. In 1837 he brought out Sefer hamalakhut al kayus kaligula hakesar hashlishi leromim (Delegation to Gaius Caligula, third emperor of the Romans), a translation from the German of a work by Philo of Alexandria who sent this to Roman Caesar, Gaius Caligula. In 1839 he wrote Itote rusya (Russian times), a history of Russia; in 1842, Hatsarfatim berusya (Frenchmen in Russia), a history Napoleon’s march into Russia in 1812 (the second part of his book, entitled Pi haḥerut [Voices of freedom], concerning the history of the Napoleonic Wars of 1813-1815, appeared in 1845); in 1844 his book Devir was published, a collection of letters and articles, in part translated from German. He wrote much more which was not published during his lifetime. Years later, fifteen or twenty years after his death, his brother brought out some of this, such as: Ḥamat dameshek (The wrath of Damascus) in 1860, the history of the 1840 blood libel case in Damascus; Yeme hador (Days of the generation) in 1860, the latest history of Europe; part two of Devir (1862), a book of immense biographical and cultural historical interest; Aviezer (1864), the autobiographical work mentioned above; Tikun lavan haarami (Righting Lavan the Aramaean) (1864), a description of a play by a troupe of comedians. All of these books were published in Vilna.
His writings had an impact on Jewish intellectuals in Vilna, more than anything in awakening in them an interest in history and in worldly knowledge in general. His special service on behalf of Hebrew literature, though, consisted in his helping clean up the Hebrew language of exaggerated, tasteless, florid prose. He fought for simplicity and naturalness in the literary Hebrew language, and he himself offered an example of writing fluidly, with logic and clarity, a fine prose without rhetoric and without randomly repeated verses from the Bible. He belonged to the moderate wing of Enlightenment intellectuals then, while in his personal life observing the commandments of religious Judaism, but at the same time he highly valued freedom of thought and study, even in the field of faith. In this he was linked to those in the radical Enlightenment wing, as he, just like them, believed in the need to abolish the distinctive, old-fashioned clothing of the Jewish masses at that time. When Max Lilienthal in the early 1940s during his well-known fund-raising tour (to create Nikolaevsky schools for children) across the Jewish towns in the Pale of Settlement in Russia, he released in Vilna his appeal, “Magid yeshuo” (Herald of salvation), Gintsburg—under the pen name “Yona ben Amitai”—issued an opposing brochure, Magid emet (Herald of truth) (Leipzig, 1943), which boldly made a great tumult in Enlightenment intellectual circles. He was a central figure in the Jerusalem of Lithuania [as Vilna was known] at that time. He was highly respected and had numerous admirers and friend. His death was a great blow for the followers of the Jewish Enlightenment and provoked a profound sadness even in those circles which were far from the Enlightenment. The Vilna city preacher, R. Velvele said, in his eulogy at the funeral, that the Enlightenment followers became a powerful force of agitation and embitterment and decided to separate from the general community and found their own synagogue for themselves, the famed Vilna “Taharat hakodesh” reform synagogue. Gintsburg’s death summoned practically an entire literature of eulogies and poems of lamentation. The best known of them were: A. B. Lebensohn, Kinat soferim (Lamentation for writers) and Kol bokhim (Voice of the crying) which was included in the eulogy of Wolf Tugendhold (translated from German), together with poems by Kalmen Shulman, laments from Mikhl Lebensohn, Zev Kaplan, Mikhl Gordon, and Shloyme-Zalmen Zalkind (Vilna, 1946).