YITSKHOK-MEYER VAYSENBERG (ISAAC MEIR WEISSENBERG) (1881-August 13, 1938)
He was born in Zhelekhov (Żelichów), Shedlets (Siedlce) district, Poland, to a father who worked as a tanner. He studied in religious primary schools. From his earliest youth, he was a laborer, initially twisting rope and later as a box maker. He was already known in his town while quite young as the author of songs mocking the rich. He had a difficult life from childhood on and suffered from want all the years of his life. He began writing in 1904 when he published the stories “Der kitel” (The white robe [worn by men on the High Holidays]) and “Dor hoylekh vedor bo” (A generation goes and a generation comes) in Y. L. Perets’s revived Yudishe biblyotek (Jewish library)—Perets became a close friend of Weissenberg’s; these stories drew the attention of literary circles in Warsaw, and he would later join the group Virklekhkeyt (Reality) there in 1925. His story “Di meshugener in dorf” (The crazy man in the village)—initially published in Avrom Reyzen’s Dos yudishe vort (The Yiddish word) in Cracow (1905); later published separately in Vilna by “Di velt” (The world) in 1907, 24 pp.; and included in the volume Kine un tayve (Jealousy and lust) in Warsaw (1911)—had even greater success. But a huge impression was made by his novella Shtender (The pulpit)—first published as a supplement to the daily newspaper Der veg (The way) in Warsaw (1906), later separately in Warsaw by “Progres” (Progress) in 1910, 76 pp.; and then it was republished in Warsaw in 1909 and in 1911 and in Moscow in 1933, 189 pp.; later still it was included in Weissenberg’s Geklibene shriftn (Selected writings) (Warsaw, 1950). He took the material for this work—as for many other works of his—from the surroundings in which he was raised. Numerous leather workers had lived in Żelichów for generations, and they stamped their seal on all life there. Weissenberg brought this group of people to the fore in his work A shtetl (A town) with the background of the events of the revolutionary year of 1905, when the old way of life was broken and new types pf personages were emerging on his canvas. Perets, to whom he brought the manuscript, marked it as a great event in Yiddish literature. He then left his work as a tanner and turned his full attention to writing. He published in a variety of Yiddish newspapers, magazine, and anthologies, and he wrote his best work there until WWI. His stories from that era excelled in their flexible energy and simultaneously possessed an exquisitely profound, hidden lyricism. And, thus, he wrote his well-known stories at the time, among them: “A tate mit bonim” (A father and sons), initially published in Di literarishe monatshriftn (Monthly literary writings) in Vilna (1908); “Khanele” (Little Hannah); “A vald-meydl” (A forest girl); “A shlekhte froy” (An evil woman). Among his books written at this time: Shriftn (Writings), three short volumes (Warsaw: Velt-biblyotek, 1909/1910); Kine un tayve un andere dertseylungen (“Jealousy and lust” and others stories) (Warsaw: Progress, 1911), 174 pp.; Geklibene shriftn, one volume (Vilna: Shreberk, 1911), 222 pp.; Ertseylungen un bilder (Stories and images) (Warsaw: A. Gitlin, 1912), 160 pp.; and Shriftn (Warsaw: Bikher far ale, 1914), 156 pp. In these volumes, aside from those already noted, he included the following stories: “A pomnik” (A monument), “Di bobeshis ophitn” (Grandma’s observance), “Khayim-arn” (Chaim-Aron), “A ganeyve” (A thievery), “Der lerer grinshteyn” (Teacher Grinshteyn), “Kleydele” (The little dress), “Der oremer yung” (The poor youngster), “Zumer-tog” (Summer day), “Khoyv” (Duty), “Fun fayer un vaser” (From fire and water), “A dertrunkener” (The drowned one), “Tsum eydem af kest” (Before boarding with the in-laws), “Der bal-tshuve” (The penitent), “Nit bashert” (Undestined), “Dray shvesterlekh” (The little sisters), “In der shtil” (Quietly), and “Shmerl un berl” (Shmerl and Berl), among others; the dramatic work, Kasper (Casper), a play in three acts, which was published separately (Warsaw: Progres, 1910), 85 pp.—appeared earlier in Di yugend shtime (The voice of youth); Kine un tayve, a drama in three acts—published earlier in Teater-velt (Theater world) 6.17 (1908-1909); and his first dramatic works, Dvorele and R. yoyel (Joel), in which he evinced significant dramatic talent—Bal-Makhshoves predicted at the time that Weissenberg would have a great career as a playwright.
With these writings—which were subsequently republished at various times—the first phase of Weissenberg’s work came to a close with the advent of WWI. The second phase began after Perets’s death, which was for Weissenberg personally an immense moral loss. He believed that the standing of Yiddish literature had declined, while journalism had begun to assume the place of honor. He first published several pamphlets with the goal of “making the Yiddish press distinctive and creating a distinctive tribune for artists.” At that time he began to publish his Yudishe zamlbikher (Yiddish anthologies), which he first brought out together with Dr. B. Tsipor (four issues) (Warsaw, 1918-1919) and later by himself (Warsaw, 1920). Young writers assembled around him, and he highlighted and published their works in these “anthologies.” He published his own “In tog fun gerikht” (On the day of judgment) here—a political satire on Polish-Jewish relations in verse—as well as critical and current-events articles. He also brought out the polemical magazines: Der shtrom (The current), a weekly for literature, criticism, theater, film, humor, and satire (Warsaw, 1924), five numbers; Kritik (Critic) with Y. Rapaport and Inzer hofenung (Our hope) in Warsaw (1932). In his magazines, he featured such important writers as: Oyzer Varshavski, Y. M. Papernikov, Yekhiel Lerer, and Shimen Horontshik. Horontshik’s first novel included—thanks to Weissenberg—a chapter concerned with the Warsaw literary scene which at the time aroused consider bad blood and brought about Weissenberg’s provisional withdrawal from membership in the literary association. His periodicals also, however, became a platform to combat the “Lithuanians,” whom he accused of seizing important positions in Warsaw’s Jewish community and literary world [that is, in the heart of the Polish Yiddish world—JAF]. He even tried to impose on his writers a distinctive [Polish] Yiddish spelling. Belonging to this era was his novel Der moderner shed (The modern demon) (Warsaw, 1930), 270 pp., new edition (Warsaw, 1938)—a work that depicted the Yiddish literary scene in Warsaw. While he was devoting his best efforts to community quarrels, he did not, nonetheless, cease writing. And, the stories from the first period of his work were regularly reprinted as well. Subsequent editions of his work in book form include: A shlekhte froy un andere ertseylungen (An evil woman and others stories) (Warsaw: Di tsayt, 1921), 160 pp.; Geklibene verk (Selected works), volumes 1-5 (Warsaw, 1930-1931; Kiev, 1930); Geklibene verk, volume 6 (Goyroles vos lakht [Fates that laugh]) (Warsaw, 1930-1931). Around 1930 he completed his autobiographical novel, Der ibergang fun kindheyt tsu dervaksung, roman (The passage from childhood to adolescence, a novel) (Warsaw: Kultur-lige, 1930), 215 pp. In 1932 he published the pamphlets: Kunst un subyektivitet (Art and subjectivity) and Di velt a troym (The world, a dream). He also wrote a work that was supposed to appear in ten volumes, entitled In der tifer eybikeyt (In deep eternity), of which only one volume was published (Warsaw, 1936), 32 pp., packed with mysterious allusions. In 1938 he published a booklet entitled Far yugnt (For youth) in Warsaw (56 pp.). Prior to his death, he prepared a volume, Dertseylungen fun mayn ershtn period shraybn (Stories from my first period of writing), which appeared in print at the time of his shloyshim (thirty-day mark following his death) (Warsaw, 1938), 167 pp. The following works were published posthumously: Geklibene verk (New York: L. M. Shtayn-folks-biblyotek, 1954), 311 pp.; Geklibene shriftn (Warsaw: Yidish bukh, 1950), 107 pp., with an introduction by D. Sfard; Geklibene verk, vol. 1 (Chicago, 1959), 355 pp., with a foreword by Weissenberg’s daughter Pearl who was living in Canada. He also translated into Yiddish Toyznt un eyn nakht (1001 [Arabian] nights). Portions of his work have been translated into Hebrew, English, Polish, Russian, German, French, and Spanish. In the 1930s the Warsaw community awarded him the first prize for literature, but he refused to accept it. He spent his entire life in Warsaw and Lodz, with the exception of his visits to Ukraine after WWI and, to promote his publications, to the United States in 1923. He died in Legionowo, near Warsaw. His funeral was arranged by the Warsaw Jewish community and was turned into a popular demonstration. After WWII a stone was place at his grave at the Gensia Cemetery, at the expense of the Polish state.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1 (with a bibliography); Z. Zilbertsvayg, Leksikon fun yidishn teater (Handbook of the Yiddish theater), vol. 1; Bal-Makhshoves, Geklibene shriftn (Selected writings), vol. 1 (Warsaw, 1929), pp. 203-12; Avrom Reyzen, Epizodn fun mayn lebn (Episodes from my life), vol. 1 (Vilna, 1929) and vol. 3 (Vilna, 1935); M. Litvakov, Geklibene verk (Selected works) (Kiev, 1930); Shmuel Niger, in Tsukunft (New York) (July 1930; April 1949); Niger, in Tog (New York) (September 19, 1931); Niger, in Draysik yor keneder odler, yubiley oysgabe (Thirty years of Keneder odler, jubilee publication) (Montreal, 1938); Niger, Habikoret uveayoteha (Inquiry and its problems) (Jerusalem, 1957), pp. 349-50; D. Bergelson, in Forpost (Birobidzhan) 2 (1937); Y. Kharlash, in Foroys (Johannesburg) (September 1938); A. A. Roback, The Story of Yiddish Literature (New York, 1940), pp. 223-27; M. Ravitsh, Mayn leksikon (My lexicon), vol. 1 (Montreal, 1947), pp. 80-85; Y. Rapaport, Heldn un korbones fun der ibergang-tsayt (Heroes and victims from the transition period) (Melbourne, 1949); Rapaport, Oysgerisene bleter (Random leaves) (Melbourne, 1957); Zhelikhover bulletin (Żelichów bulletin) (Chicago, 1950); B. Mark, in Yidishe shriftn (Warsaw) (October 1951); Dov Sadan, Kaarat egozim o elef bediha ubediha, asufat humor beyisrael (A bowl of nuts or one thousand and one jokes, an anthology of humor in Israel) (Tel Aviv, 1953); Zhelikover yoyvl-bukh (Żelichów jubilee volume) (Chicago, 1954); Y. Freylikh, in Undzer veg (New York) (October 1954); Yankev Glatshteyn, in Idisher kemfer (November 26, 1954); Khayim Leyb Fuks, in Kultur un dertsiung (New York) (December 14, 1954); B. Y. Byalostotski, in Di goldene keyt (Tel Aviv) (Tel Aviv) 21 (1955); Byalostotski, Kholem un vor, eseyen (Dream and reality, essays) (New York, 1956), pp. 363-73; Y. Shtark, Portretn (Portraits) (Buenos Aires, 1956), pp. 95-112; Perl Vaysenberg (Pearl Weissenberg), in Yidishe shriftn (June 1957); Perl Vaysenberg, in Morgn frayhayt (New York) (September 29, 1957); D. Eynhorn, in Forverts (New York) (July 14, 1957); B. Mark and Froym Kaganovski, in Yidishe shriftn (August 1958); A. Kvaterko, in Morgn frayhayt (August 31, 1958); L. Domankevitsh, in Unzer vort (Paris) (September 6, 1958); Y. Goldkorn, in Fraye arbeter shtime (New York) (November 1, 1958); Y. M. Papernikov, Heymishe un noente (Familiar and close) (Tel Aviv, 1958), pp. 142-45; Helen Londinski, in Tsukunft (July-August 1959).
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