OYZER VARSHAVSKI (April 15, 1898-October 10, 1944)
He was born in Sochaczew, Warsaw district, Poland, into a well-off family. His father was a follower of the Jewish Enlightenment who had lived for a time in London. Oyzer received a traditional Jewish education, for a short time worked as a Hebrew teacher, and thereafter mastered the art of photography. He began writing during WWI. In 1920 I. M. Vaysenberg (Weissenberg) published his work Shmuglers, a novel in three parts about Jewish life in Poland under German occupation (illustrated with drawings by Y. Zaydenbeytel) (Warsaw, part 1, 94 pp.; part 2, 94 pp.; part 3, 120 pp.). The book made a huge impression among Yiddish readers in Poland, Russia, and various other countries. In a short period of time, it appeared in several editions (Warsaw: Kultur-life, 1922; Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1930; Vilna: Kletskin, 1930), in Hebrew translation by Y. H. Yeivin, as Mavriḥim, roman (Smugglers, a novel) (Tel Aviv, 1930), 231 pp., and in a Russian translation by Yankev Slonim, Spekulianty (Moscow, 1927), 294. “He gives us the smugglers so crude and brutal, and perhaps cruder and more brutal than they were in life…,” wrote Shmuel Niger. “His depiction of them is fresh and moist, like a section of a field about to be ploughed…. The crude life is painted crudely—this is The Smugglers—a sprout of a not yet mature but fresh and full artistic kernel.” It was also reprinted much later: (Buenos Aires: Lifshits fund, 1969), 315 pp.
After the great success of his book, Varshavski remained in Warsaw. He wrote more, and people expected more work from him. He took part in activities of writers’ associations. He published correspondence pieces in Di tsayt (The times) in London, and from time to time places stories in New York’s Tsukunft (Future); “In di berg” (In the mountains), Khalyastre (Gang) 1 (1922), pp. 36-39 (Warsaw); “Vayberish” (Womanly), Dos naye lebn (The new life) (1922) (New York); “Der mundir” (The uniform), Khalyastre 2 (1924), pp. 25-66 (Paris). He published fragments of a new book, “Shnit-tsayt” (Harvest time), in: Literarishe bleter (Literary leaves) in Warsaw, Di royte velt (The red world) in Kharkov, Albatros (Albatross, edited by Uri-Tsvi Grinberg) in Warsaw, Milgroym (Pomegranate) in Berlin-London, and elsewhere. Due to some sort of confusion with his documents, in 1923 he left Poland, spent some time in Berlin and London, and in 1924 settled in Paris. In 1926 he edited a one-off publication in Paris, entitled Literarishe revi (Literary review) in which he published his story, “In keler bay berele bas” (In the cellar with Berele Bas), and from there he also published his writings in various magazines, among them in the revived Yidishe velt (Jewish world) in Warsaw.
In 1926 Varshavski’s novel Shnit-tsayt (381 pp.) was published by the Vilna publishing house of Kletskin. This novel did not realize the hopes that the Yiddish literary critics had placed on him. It was received coldly by both critics and readers. He was discouraged and could write very little thereafter. At least he was able to derive satisfaction from artists’ circles in Montparnasse and took up painting and writing essays on art and artists. In this genre he published: Pinkhes kremer (Pinkhes Kremer), in the series “Monographs on Jewish Artists” (Paris: Triangl, 1928), 16 pp. in album format; and Avrom manyevitsh un zayne molerishe verk biz haynt (Avrom Manyevitsh and his work in painting until today), with a foreword by A. Lunatsharski (New York, 1930), 64 pp. In the 1930s, when publication began in Paris on the “General Encyclopedia” supported by the Dubnov Fund, Varshavski performed technical editorial work on it, but he kept himself entirely aloof from the life of a Yiddish writer. He associated all the more with artists and those working in the plastic arts in Montparnasse. He was often in the company of Perets Markish and Ilya Ehrenburg when they spent time in Paris. Foreign guests from the family of Jewish writers regretted his literary decline and sought an explanation for it. “It seems to me,” wrote Y. Botoshanski, “that no writer among us has so fallen—so to speak—to the spiritual nadir as has Oyzer Varshavski…. He glimpsed the abyss, and he gave no accounting of it that under the water in the well is more soil, that from the other side of the abyss are more people with new endeavors, with new complications. Varshavski has not gone further.”
With the outbreak of WWII, Varshavski was faced with a spiritual crisis. Filled with his artistic sensibility that gruesome events were impending, particularly for Jews, he feverishly prepared for the great theme: Jews during WWII. He regularly jotted down, registered, recorded everything that he saw and what was looming about him. In May 1941 when the Germans were approaching Paris, he was able to reach Marseilles, and there sought out a possibility of emigrating anywhere to a country west of the ocean, and then as he lost all hope for this plan, he departed for the small village of Gard in Vaucluse department. He was there with his wife as well as many other Jews at the time, as “involuntary residents” under police supervision. For a period of time in 1942 he was in Nice. In the summer of 1943 when the Germans took all of France, he was able to save himself and make his way to Saint Gervais in Savoie which was then under Italian occupation. Thereafter as the Italians concluded a separate armistice and the Nice Jewish community assembled the Jews from the southern zone, so that—according to an agreement with the Italian authorities—they could evacuate to Italy, Varshavski, although the plan did not come to fruition, left with the receding Italian army. In September 1943 he reached Rome, and over the course of several months he lived tormented under extremely severe circumstances, in hiding, for a lengthy period of time in prison in Rome, and in 1944 he was deported from there to Auschwitz. According to testimony of a survivor in the Oswego refugee camp (in the United States), Aba Furmanski, Varshavski was seized by the Gestapo on May 17, 1944. The last information that we have of him dates to October 1944. In the Paris remembrance volume and in the local Jewish press, several fragments from his work were published which indicate that in these most fateful of moments for him, he was still writing. He died there at Auschwitz.
Varshavski Varshavski (left), with Perets Markish to his left and H. Leivick facing him; man on right unidentified
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1 (with a bibliography); H. Leivick, in Tsayt (New York) (May 8, 1921); Shmuel Niger, in Tsukunft (New York) (May 1921), pp. 315-20; Niger, in Tsukunft (1924), pp. 325-29; Niger, Shuesn vegn bikher (Chats about books) (New York, 1922), pp. 309-15; N. Mayzil, Noente un vayte (Near and far), vol. 2 (Vilna, 1926), pp. 204-13; Mayzil, Geven amol a leybn (As life once was) (Buenos Aires, 1951), pp. 76-78, 107, 336; Y. Y. Trunk, Idealizm un naturalizm in der yidisher literatur (Warsaw, 1927), pp. 137-57; Trunk, Di yidishe proze in poyln in der tekufe tsvishn beyde velt-milkhomes (Yiddish prose in Poland in the era between the two world wars) (Buenos Aires, 1949), pp. 32-49; Trunk, in Poyln (New York) 7 (1953), pp. 78-81; Trunk, in Unzer tsayt (New York) (July, August, September 1958); Y. Y. Zinger, in Literarishe bleter (Warsaw) (February 4, 1927); P. Markish, in Shtern (Minsk) (March 1928), pp. 23-28; Biblyografishe yorbikher fun yivo (Bibliographic yearbooks from YIVO), vol. 1 (Warsaw, 1928); Avrom Reyzen, in Tsukunft (March 1930); Y. Botoshanski, Portretn fun yidishe shrayber (Portraits of Yiddish writers) (Warsaw, 1933); Botoshanski, in Di naye tsayt (Buenos Aires) 92 (1950); B. Vinogura, in Literarishe bleter (December 11, 1936); Report of the first World Jewish Culture Congress (Paris, 1937); Z. Shaykovski, Yidn in frankraykh (Jews in France) (New York: YIVO, 1942); D. Tsharni (Daniel Charney), in Tsukunft (January 1943); M. Ravitsh, Mayn leksikon (My lexicon), vol. 1 (Montreal, 1945); “Tsum ondenk fun oyzer varshavski” (To the memory of Oyzer Varshavski), Naye prese (Paris) (March 22, 1946); A. Tsaytlin and Y. Y. Trunk, eds., Antologye fun der yidisher proze in poyln (Anthology of Yiddish prose in Poland) (New York, 1946); Kh. Aronson and Y. Vagman, Yizker-bukh tsum ondenk fun 14 umgekumene parizer yidishe shrayber (Remembrance volume to the memory of fourteen murdered Parisian Yiddish writers) (Paris, 1946); B. Y. Rozen, in Tsukunft (February 1947); Z. Diamant, Loshn un lebn (London) (June 1947); Diamant, in In gang (Rome) 4-5 (June-July 1947); Diamant, in In dinst fun folk, almanakh fun yidishn folks-ordn (In the service of the people, almanac of the Jewish People’s Order) (New York, 1947), p. 436; Diamant, in Yivo-bleter (New York) 37 (1953), pp. 334-37; Diamant, in Fun noentn over (New York) 4 (1958); M. Litvin, in Naye prese (March 13, 1948), including a list of Varshavski’s literary heritage; Kh. Lits, Hasefer haivri (The Hebrew book) (New York, 1948/1949); L. Kenig, in Di goldene keyt (Tel Aviv) 14 (1952); B. Kutsher, Geven amol varshe (As Warsaw once was) (Paris, 1955); A. Bekerman, Bleter far geshikhte (Warsaw) 8.1-2 (January-June 1955), p. 63; Y. Rodak, Kunst un kinstler (Art and artists) (New York, 1955), p. 180; Y. Papyernikov, Heymishe un noente (Familiar and close) (Tel Aviv, 1958), pp. 230-77; Z. Diamant, in Yivo Annual of Jewish Social Science (New York) 8 (1953).
[Additional information from: Berl Kagan, comp., Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers) (New York, 1986), col. 234.]
 In 2008 an English translation by Golda Werman, Smugglers, appeared (New York, 234 pp.); and in French by Aby Wievorka et Henri Raczymow, Les Contrebandiers, roman (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1989), 219 pp. (JAF)