Thursday 12 November 2015


SHIMEN DUBNOV (SIMON DUBNOW) (September 18, 1860-December 1, 1941)
            He was born in Mstislavl, Byelorussia, into an elite family of scholars and merchants.  The Dubnov family drew its pedigree from the renowned kabbalist R. Yoysef Dubno, who took his surname from the city of his birth, Dubno, in Volhynia, from whence Dubnov’s ancestors came at the end of the eighteenth century to Mstislavl.  His father, Yankev Meyer, was employed as a clerk in the timber business of his wealthy father-in-law.  He would come home only on the major holidays.  His father’s earnings were insufficient to support a family with numerous children, and his mother, Sheyne, had also, in addition to her housework, to run a shop selling glassware and porcelain.  For Dubnov’s education, he turned to his grandfather, R. Ben-Tsiyon Dubnov, one of the most prominent householders in their town, a well-known scholar and opponent of Hassidism.  His entire life, he sat before the Torah and prayer, and over the course of forty-five years he ran a yeshiva in the study chamber of Mstislavl, during the daytime for younger pupils and in the evenings for adult Jewish scholars.  Shimen Dubnov studied Tanakh and Gemara in religious elementary school.  With a thirst for knowledge from his earliest childhood years, by age nine he zealously consumed the Yosippon, which he had discovered by chance in his grandfather’s library.  The episodes from this historical drama, which he read in the abridged Hebrew version of Flavius Josephus’s historical work, sparked his youthful imagination, and already at that age he was not satisfied with the traditional style of Tanakh instruction in elementary school.  He began looking for other commentaries to the text and ultimately stumbled across Mendelssohn’s commentary which was considered heretical.  Hiding it from the rabbi and from the adults around him, he read through the entirety of this commentary alone and with his friends.  In subsequent years, he followed a well-worn path, that a young lad would have experienced in that era, one who had transgressed and become a follower of the Jewish Enlightenment.  Dubnov quickly acquainted himself with Haskalah literature in Hebrew.  He matured early and there awakened in him the need and the desire to extract himself from his fanatical religious surroundings.  After his bar-mitzvah he became a student in his grandfather’s yeshiva.  At that time, however, the young Dubnov was not only thoroughly engrossed in Haskalah writings, but also in currents events writings by Enlightenment journalists, as well as in learning Russian and mathematics.  His bolting from the traditional path caused his grandfather great heartache, as he had no choice but to yield to Dubnov’s desire to attend the local state school for Jewish students.  This transpired in the spring of 1874.  Over the course of three months in this school, he completed a three-year course, but at just that time the Russian government abolished this sort of specialized school.  He then became a student in a Russian school.  For the eighteen-year-old Dubnov, thus began a series of years of self-study.  He failed in an effort to attend the teachers’ institute in Vilna, and in the same manner he lost out in a subsequent endeavor to receive, as an external student, a high school diploma, initially in Dvinsk (Daugavpils), until in 1880 he set out for St. Petersburg.  At the time he still had not relinquished his plan to get the necessary diploma, so as to attend a university.  Meanwhile, the main hall of the municipal library was becoming his university, where he was able to satisfy his spiritual hunger.  His principal interest was concentrated on historical research, a pursuit which drew out an intrinsic passion in him.  His difficult material circumstances compelled him, however, to discontinue his intense studies and to seek a means of earning a living.  After several successful and unsuccessful efforts, he published in a Russian Jewish monthly, Russkii Evrei (The Russian Jew), April 1881 issue, the first chapter of his first major work: “Neskol’ko momentov v istorii razvitiia evreiskoi mysli” (Several moments in the history of the development of Jewish thought).  From 1882 he was a regular contributor to Voskhod (Sunrise).  He contributed as well to Razsviet (Dawn) and Hashiloaḥ (The shiloah).  During this period, until the late 1890s, he published a number of important historical monographs.  Some of these he later included in chapters of his work Weltgeschichte des Jüdischen Volkes (The world history of the Jewish people), and others subsequently appeared in book form.  Among Dubnov’s first works in the Russian Jewish and Hebrew periodicals: a series of treatises concerning the movements of Shabatai Zvi and Jacob Frank; the rise of Hassidism; and the Council of Four Lands.  At the same time in this early period, he also published current events articles in which he reacted to the events of the day and contemporaneous issues, and parallel with these, he was also turning his attention to literary criticism (using the pen name “Kritikus”).  Aside from criticism and reviews of Russian Jewish and Hebrew books, Dubnov responded to events in literature in “zhargon” (Yiddish) and aroused interest and respectability for Yiddish literature, still in its youth.  Around 1883 he married Ida Fridlin and thus settled with his family for several years in his hometown.  Over the years 1890-1903, he lived in Odessa, and 1903-1906 he spent in Vilna.  In 1906 he returned to live in St. Petersburg where he was accepted as a lecturer in the faculty of social science at the free higher school of Professor Peter Lesgaft.  In this second period of his residence in St. Petersburg, he managed to occupy himself with various sorts of work: literary, community, and academic.  More than anything else, though, realizing the goal that he placed before himself dominated: to write a ten-volume work on the world-history of the Jewish people.  To be able to do this work without any obstacles, he declined an offer to assume the editorship of a Jewish encyclopedia in Russian.  The fee for this work, 5,000 rubles per year for five years running, would have materially secured him for a long period of time.  However, Dubnov would not allow himself to contemplate the thought of cutting himself off from his work for five years, a work that he conceived as his mission in life.  In subsequent years—years of WWI, revolution, and civil war—under the harshest of conditions, he discontinued his scholarly research.  In the spring of 1922, he received permission from the Soviet regime to leave Russia.  He was delayed en route for several months in Kovno, and in September of the same year he reached Berlin.  Over the years 1925-1929, the Jüdischer Verlag initially brought out the full ten-volume edition in German translation of his Weltgeschichte des Jüdischen Volkes.  In the years prior to WWI, when single original volumes in Russian were published, and in the first years following WWI, before all ten volumes had been translated into German, there appeared in Yiddish: Algemeyne yidishe geshikhte fun dem urelter biz der nayer tsayt (General Jewish history from ancient to modern times) (Vilna, 1909), part 1, 266 pp., part 2, 506 pp., translated by Z. Kalmanovitsh.  In 1920 Historisher farlag in Vilna brought out the same translation in ten parts.  Di nayste geshikhte funem yidishn folk (The recent history of the Jewish people), vol. 1, 1789-1815, translated by N. Shtif, under the editorship of the author (Berlin, 1923), 284 pp.  Single volumes of Dubnov’s Weltgeschichte appeared in Warsaw as well.  The historical section of YIVO in Vilna published volumes 8, 9, and 10 in 1938.  Digests of his work in adaptations for school came out at various times in Europe and the United States.  From his other historical writings, we have: Geshikhte fun khsidizm (History of Hassidism), Yiddish translation by Z. Kalmanovitsh, vol. 1 (Vilna, 1930), 290 pp., vol. 2 (Vilna, 1931), 239 pp.  (Both volumes were reissued by the YIVO Library in Vilna in 1938.)  Vol. 3 of this work remained in the Hebrew original.  All three volumes appeared in Yiddish: Buenos Aires: Kultur-kongres, 1957-1958).  Aside from Hebrew, his world history—in full or summary form—was published in almost all languages of culture.  Over the years 1948-1955, the World Jewish Culture Congress in New York and Buenos Aires published a complete ten-volume edition of his world history from antiquity through contemporary times.  The volumes were translated at different times as separate works by: Y. Rapoport, L. Hodes, Z. Kalmanovitsh, N. Shtif, Yudl Mark, and Kh. Sh. Kazdan.  As for Dubnov’s work in Yiddish: for the first time in 1907 he published in Fraynd (Friend) a polemical article in connection with the Folkspartey (Jewish People’s Party) which he, incidentally, was the inspiration.  Shortly thereafter he published in the same newspaper two further current events pieces.  From 1925 he frequently contributed to such serials as: Forverts (Forward), Tog (Day), and Tsukunft (Future) in New York; Frimorgn (Morning) and Dos folk (The people) in Riga; Folksblat (People’s newspaper) in Kovno; Literarishe bleter (Literary leaves) in Warsaw; Yivo-bleter (Leaves from YIVO) in Vilna; Dos fraye vort (The free word) in London; and Afn sheydveg (At the crossroads) in Paris.  He wrote current events essays, articles, and chapters from his memoirs.  His Yiddish period was particularly distinguished by the book, Fun “zhargon” biz yidish (From “jargon” to Yiddish) (Vilna, 1929), 177 pp.  Other works in Yiddish include: Briv vegn altn un nayem yidntum (Letters concerning old and new Judaism), Yiddish trans. by Shoyel Ferdman (Mexico City, 1959), xvi, 464 pp.; Dos bukh fun mayn lebn, zikhroynes un rayoynes (The book of my life, memoirs and thoughts) (New York-Buenos Aires: Kultur-kongres, 1962-1963), 3 vols. (Yiddish trans. of vol. 1 and 3 by Y. Birnboym; vol. 2 by Y. Okrutni).
In his approach to Jewish history, he was the first great Jewish historian who ceased treating Jewish history solely in its purely spiritual process of development.  He argued that Jewish life in Europe was not only an attachment to pious Jewishness, to a cultural heritage, but a social way of life.  Dubnov was the first among the great Jewish historians who saw in his world history of the Jewish people not only the historical yesterday, but a pulsating, national today as well.  He composed his life work in Russian, in the language that he had begun his current events work and literary criticism in the early 1880s.  Dubnov’s extraordinary service on behalf of the history of Yiddish literature consisted in the fact that he was one of those who aided the growth of Yiddish literary and language consciousness; he helped Yiddish literature attain the position that it had in Jewish cultural life; and he assisted the Yiddish language in making the transition from jargon to Yiddish.  In his emphasis on the Jewish folk masses and the here and now, Dubnov consequently became an ideologue for national Jewish cultural autonomy in the countries of their dispersion.  The Jewish people’s language, according to Dubnov, ought to become the political and cultural instrument of all Jewish organs of autonomy.  Several months after the Nazis came to power in 1933, Dubnov had perforce to leave Berlin.  He settled in a suburb of Riga, where he continued intensively to work on his memoirs, Kniga zhizni: Vospominaniia i razmyshleniia (Book of life, reminiscences and reflections), portions of which were published in Tsukunft over the years 1932 to 1937.  In 1935 he participated in a conference in Vilna to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the founding of YIVO.  In April 1940, when he was ill and heartbroken (his wife died in early 1934), he made another a visit to Vilna where he attended the celebration that YIVO organized to honor the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Y. L. Peretz.  On that occasion Dubnov made two appearances before large audiences.  The reception that the refugee writers and journalists gave Dubnov in Vilna was of historical proportions.  On this occasion he also visited Kovno and from there returned to Riga, because he wanted to be close to his archive.  With the outbreak of WWII, Dubnov’s American friends tried to persuade him to come to the United States.  He put them off for a time, “until it becomes dangerous for me to remain in the Baltics.”  Meanwhile, he planned to “move to Vilna so as to help with the restoration of our Yiddish Scientific Institute [YIVO], which has suffered terribly from the war.”  Among the versions of Dubnov’s death in the Riga ghetto, one that appears to be close to the truth was given by an eye-witness, Hillel Melamed: in an Aktion on December 1, 1941, when they were loading the sick and weak on buses, they chased Dubnov who was sick and harboring a high temperature out onto the street.  When he failed to get onto the bus quickly enough, a drunken Latvian policeman shot him in the neck; Dubnov died on the spot, and the next day he was buried in a mass grave in the old Jewish cemetery in the Riga ghetto.

Sources: Dr. Y. Shatski, in Tsukunft (New York) (July 1923); Dr. M. Vishnitser, in Tsukunft (January 1930); Vishnitser, in Literarishe bleter (Warsaw) (September 26, 1930); Shmuel Niger, in Tsukunft (November 1930, May 1931, September 1938, December 1951); Y. Leshtshinski, in Tsukunft (February 1931); L. Shusheym, in Der veg (Mexico) (September 18, 1943); Sh. Mendelson, in Veker (New York) (July 1943); Kh. Sh. Kazdan, in Undzer tsayt (New York) (July 1943); Kazdan, in Tsukunft (March 1946, July-August 1955, May-June 1957); Yivo-bleter (New York) 23 (January 1944), pp. 163-77; Professor Chaim Tchernowitz (Rav Tsair), Masekhet zikhronot (A tractate of memories) (New York, 1945), pp. 107-15; H. Melamed, in Tsukunft (April 1946); L. Finkelshteyn, in Veker (October 1, 1950); Y. Hart, in Undzer tsayt (July-August 1951); Sh. Berman, Hapolmos ben lilienblum leven aḥad ha’am vedubnov vehareka shelo (The polemic between Lilienblum and Aḥad-Ha’am and Dubnov and its background) (Jerusalem, 1951); S. Dubnov-Erlikh, Dos lebn un shafn fun shimen dubnov (The life and work of Shimen Dubnov), Yiddish translation by M. Ferdman (Mexico, 1952);[1] Dr. R, Mahler, in Arbeter-vort (Paris) 42 (1952); Sh. Simon, Kinder-yorn fun yidisher shrayber (The childhood years of a Yiddish writer) (New York, 1953), pp. 63-96; Sh. Rabidovits, Sefer deshimon dubnov (On Shimen Dubnov) (London, 1954); H. Rogof, in Forverts (New York) (October 3, 1954; May 23, 1955; September 23, 1956; April 7, 1957); Sh. Leshtshinski, Literarishe eseyen (Literary essays), vol. 2 (New York, 1955); A. Menes, in Forverts (February 13, 1955; March 16, 1958); Ben-Tsien Kats, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (New York) (December 11, 1955); A. Levinson, Ketuvim (Writings) (Tel Aviv, 1956); Dr. M. Vakhsman, Bishvili hasifrut vehamaḥashava haivrit (Toward Hebrew literature and thought) (Tel Aviv, 1956); A. Shmueli, in Molad (December 1956); Sh. A. Ḥorodski, Zikhronot (Memoirs) (Tel Aviv, 1957); Dr. F. Fridman, in Faktn un meynungen (Facts and opinions) (New York) (May 1957); Dr. A. Mukdoni, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (December 1, 1957); D. Shub, in Forverts (September 22, 1957); A. Trotski (in a series of articles), in Amerikaner (New York) (September 25, 1957); Kh. Bez, in Kultur un dertsiung (New York) (March 1957); G. Aronson, in Tsukunft (December 1957); Tsum hundertstn geboyrntog fun shimen dubnov, zamlung (On the 100th birthday of Shimen Dubnov, collection) (New York: IKUF, 1961), 92 pp.; R. M. Seltzer, Simon Dubnow: A Critical Biography of His Early Years (unpubl. dissertation) (Ann Arbor, 1970).
Borekh Tshubinski

[Additional information from: Berl Kagan, comp., Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers) (New York, 1986), col. 191.]

[1] Translator note. There is an English translation of this work by Judith Vowles: The Life and Work of S. M. Dubnow: Diaspora Nationalism and Jewish History, ed. Jeffrey Shandler (Bloomington, Ind., 1991).

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