SHLOYME MENDELSON (March 30, 1896-February 9, 1948)
He was born in Warsaw, Poland. On his father’s side, he was the great-grandson of the eminent Warsaw rabbi, Shloyme-Zalmen Lifshits, author of Ḥemdat shlomo (Solomon’s precious gift) (Warsaw, 1836); on his mother’s side, he was a grandson of the Koyler Rav, Avigdor-Leybush Levental. His father Hershl Mendelson was a son-in-law of Shaye Prives, the affluent Hassidic intimate of the Gerer rebbe. Shloyme Mendelson (named after his grandfather) was orphaned at an extremely early age on his father’s side and was raised in the home of his grandfather, Meyer Mendelson, in a strictly traditional Jewish environment. At age three he started attending religious elementary school; at six he was already starting to study Talmud, even leading the prayers at the conclusion of reading a tractate. At thirteen he was already a master of the Talmud, paying visit to the Gerer Rebbe, and later (unbeknownst to his family) he began to turn his attention to secular subject matter and in 1910 entered M. Krinski’s eight-level business school. He would come to class there in his long capote, and at the school’s front gate he would change clothes, so that those inside would not discover who he was. After graduating from school with distinction, he entered Warsaw University. Initially he was in the medical faculty and later switched to law. In 1920 he was expelled from the university for leading an action of Jewish academic youth, who were demanding that Jews be assured national rights in voluntarily joining the Polish military. After this break in his studies, Mendelson devoted himself thoroughly to community-pedagogical work and became one of the leaders of the Yiddishist movement in Poland. Prior to this, in 1915, he was a cofounder of a dormitory for abandoned Jewish children and introduced Yiddish in the institution as the language of instruction. In 1916 he began working in the elementary school “Ḥinukh yeladim” (Children’s education), run by Sh. Gilinski, and subsequently over the course of five years he worked as a teacher of Yiddish literature and Jewish history in private Polish Jewish middle schools. Politically he was associated at the time with the Folks-partey (People’s party), led by Noyekh Prilucki. He was a witty speaker and writer for the party. From early 1917 he was contributing to the organ of the Folks-partey, Dos folk (The people), for which he composed ideological and programmatic articles. The artisans’ union at the time stood close to the Folks-partey. When in 1919 it began to bring out a Yiddish-language journal, Di hantverker shtim (Voice of the artisan), Mendelson became editor of it. He sat on the central council of the Folks-partey. He was the party’s emissary to the Warsaw Jewish community and the Warsaw city council. After H. D. Nomberg’s departure from the Polish Sejm, Mendelson was set to take over his Sejm credentials, but due to a dispute over principles, he refused to do so and in 1921 completely seceded from the Folks-partey. Seven years transpired thereafter, until the decision matured for him to become an active leader of the Bund, a party for which he had over the course of many years felt close. He joined the Bund in 1928. The most important area of Mendelson’s activity was the secular Jewish school system. In October 1919 he had participated in the cultural conference in Warsaw, at which was worked out the foundations for the future Jewish school movement that later formed in Tsisho (Central Jewish School Organization). He served as one of the three chairmen at the conference and the speaker on two issues: teachers’ courses and the coming school conference. He was elected onto the editorial board of the pedagogical journal that was to be published. He was in the organizing bureau that prepared for Passover 1920 a subsequent meeting of cultural and educational associations. At that meeting, he was elected onto the provisional committee of the projected “Tsisho for Poland, Lithuania, and Byelorussia.” At the same time the “Central Dinezon School Committee” was organizing teachers’ courses, at which Mendelson gave lectures on Yiddish and methods for teaching Yiddish. He was active at that time with the inter-party organization “Shul-bukh” (School-book), which was engaged in preparing teachers to adapt to the character of the new school. When Shul-bukh named a special orthography and terminology commission, Mendelson was on it along with Noyekh Prilucki, Vladimir Medem, and Y. M. Weissenberg, among others. The first school convention, at which Tsisho was found (June 1921), found Mendelson on the leadership of the “independent school faction” which was represented at the convention by sixty-three delegates. Aside from his role as an organizer and his pedagogical activities at various conferences, teachers’ conventions, and pedagogical courses, Mendelson was among the most productive contributors to publications of the Jewish school movement. His articles in Di naye shul (The new school), Shul un lebn (School and life), Shulvegn (School ways), and Eltern-tribune (Parents’ tribune) were among the foundational essays for the ideological platform of the secular Jewish school system. Not only on pedagogical issues did he write. In Dos folk (1917) he also wrote about current problems, issues of Yiddish culture, literature, theater, and general community matters. He was a contributors to: Bikher-velt (Book world) in Warsaw (1922-1928); Der vokhnshrift far literatur un kultur (Weekly writing for literature and culture), Foroys (Onward), Folkstsaytung (People’s newspaper), Unzer tsayt (Our time), and Yugnt-veker (Youth alarm)—all in Warsaw; Tog (Day) and Unzer gedank (Out idea) in Vilna; and other publications. He was also the author of a series of projects, texts, theses, etc. for the field of history and literature in the Jewish school. In 1920 he edited the publication of Dr. Shloyme Etinger’s Mesholim (Proverbs), for which he wrote a long piece about Etinger (Warsaw: Nayer Publ., 1920). With Kh. Sh. Kazdan, he translated Shimon Dubnov’s Nayste geshikhte fun yidishn folk (Recent history of the Jewish people), which the publishing house Kultur-lige (Culture league) in Warsaw began to publish. Mendelson often served as the envoy for the Jewish school system in Poland to the broader Jewish world. In 1924 he served as a Tsisho delegate to an international congress of history teachers in Berlin, where he gave a speech on the subject of history in secular Jewish schools in Poland. This performance was carried further to Paris, and there he had the opportunity to arouse general interest for this sort of school. In 1937 he organized a pavilion for secular Jewish culture at the World Exposition in Paris. At the solemn opening of the pavilion, he gave a speech in Yiddish. On his own terms Mendelson was an active leader of the Bund.
In 1933 he was sent as a representative by the central committee of the Bund in Poland to the United States, where he administered a broad program for the Bundist movement. In 1938 he was elected onto the central committee of the party and was enrolled on the Bundist list for the Warsaw Jewish community council and the city council. Like numerous other active leaders in the Jewish political and cultural movement, the outbreak of WWII forced him to leave Warsaw. After a series of wanderings, he arrived in Vilna. While the Communists were in power there, he had to go into hiding. In October 1939, when Vilna went over to Lithuania, the possibility emerged to do something, and Mendelson—together with Kh Sh. Kazdan and Sh Gilinski—renewed their activities for the school movement. He was also among the administrators of YIVO there. The second time the Communists gained control of Lithuania (summer 1940) created a new situation, and in compliance with a decision of the party, Mendelson (together with Dr. Sherer) made his way to Switzerland. With help from the Jewish Labor Committee, from there he came to New York in the summer of 1941. In his extraordinarily active community life, a new chaptered now opened up. He soon became popular as a great orator. He wrote pieces for: Unzer tsayt, Tsukunft (Future), Der veker (The alarm), and Kultur un dertsiung (Culture and education)—in New York; Foroys in Mexico City; Unzer shtime (Our voice) in Paris; and Veker (Alarm) in Brussels; among others. YIVO in New York published his two speeches: Vi azoy lebn poylishe yidn in di getos (How Polish Jews are living in the ghettos) (New York, 1942), 30 pp.; and Der vidershtand in varshever geto (The resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto) (New York, 1944), 40 pp., and in Spanish as La resistencia desesperada en el ghetto de Varsovia (Buenos Aires, 1944) by the local YIVO. When on assignment for the coordinating committee of the Bund in Los Angeles, he suddenly died of a heart attack. Doctors had warned him against excessive exertion, which he had taken on, but his duty disparaged all such warnings. He died on February 9, 1948, a half hour before he was scheduled to deliver his second speech about Perets. In his writings which survive him, there are chapters of an unpublished work on national-cultural autonomy—a work that he began in America. This work is rich in materials about various “autonomies” which people were beginning to realize after the revolution of 1917 in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic states, Poland, and elsewhere. Mendelson’s literary bequeathal is scattered over dozens of journals, periodicals, and anthologies. In one sentence, Viktor Shulman, the longtime secretary of the Bundist periodical, characterized Mendelson’s written success as follow: “Mendelson’s literary-journalistic works excelled in their concise style—short, matter-of-fact sentences, simplicity, clear, cool logic, but fully charged with temperament, ardor, and dynamism.” A portion of his literary writings was reissued in the collection Shloyme mendelson, zayn lebn un shafn (Shloyme Mendelson, his life and works) (New York: Unzer tsayt, 1949), 492 pp. In the section “from Sh. Mendelson’s pen,” there are included the following sub-sections: “Literature and writer,” sixteen essays; “Secular Jewish schools,” six essays; “Zionism and community-cultural issues,” five essays; “Impressions,” twenty-one essays; “Fifty years of the Bund,” nine essays—altogether over sixty pieces, which constituted only a portion of his many-sided literary output.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 2; Y. Yeshurin and A. Brumberg, bibliographical listings; Mendelson, A yor nokh der aveyde (A year after the destruction) (Paris, 1949), 55 pp., with articles by E. Sherer, L. Blit, Leybetsher, E.Novogrudski, Kh. Sh. Kazdan, Y. Y. Trunk, P. Shvarts, Khayim Leyb Fuks, and M. Perenson; the anthology Shloyme mendelson, zayn lebn un shafn (Shloyme Mendelson, his life and works) (New York: Unzer tsayt, 1949), with essays by V. Shulman, E. Sherer, Kh. Sh. Kazdan, Y. Y. Trunk, and L. Finkelshteyn; Dr. A. Mukdoni, in Morgn-zhutrnal (New York) (March 26, 1950); Mukdoni, In varshe un in lodz (In Warsaw and in Lodz) (New York, 1955), pp. 42-43; M. Mandelman, in Lite (Lithuania) anthology, vol. 1 (New York, 1951), p. 1348; S. Kahan, Meksikaner viderklangen (Mexican echoes) (Mexico, 1951); Kahan, in Di shtime (Mexico City) (August 3, 1963); Z. Turkov, Fragmentn fun mayn lebn (Fragments from my life) (Buenos Aires, 1951), pp. 191-203; Frants Kurski, Gezamlte shriftn (Collected writings) (New York, 1952), see index; Y. Rotnberg, in Foroys (Mexico City) (February 1953); D. Naymark, in Der veker (New York) (February 15, 1953; March 1, 1958); Y. Y. Trunk, Poyln (Poland), vol. 7 (New York, 1953); Y. Sh. Herts, Di yidishe sotsyalistishe bavegung in amerike (The Jewish socialist movement in America) (New York, 1954), see index; B. Shefner, Novolipye 7, zikhroynes un eseyen (Nowolipie 7, memoirs and essays) (Buenos Aires, 1955), pp. 145ff; Shefner, in Di prese (Buenos Aires) (February 16, 1958); Kh. Sh. Kazdan, Fun kheyder un shkoles biz tsisho (From religious and secular primary schools to Tsisho) (Mexico City, 1956), see index; Kazdan, Mentshn fun gayst un mut (Men of spirit and courage) (Buenos Aires, 1962), pp. 253-80; Khone Gotesfeld, in Forverts (New York) (July 5, 1959); M. Vaykhert, Varshe (Warsaw) (Tel Aviv, 1961), see index; Y. Gar, and F. Fridman, Biblyografye fun yidishe bikher vegn khurbn un gvure (Bibliography of Yiddish books concerning the Holocaust and heroism) (New York, 1962), see index; Arbeter-ring boyer un tuer (Builders and leaders of the Workmen’s Circle) (New York, 1962), p. 248; M. V. Bernshteyn, in Forverts (March 16, 1963); Z. Davidzon and M. Mandelman, in Foroys (August-September 1963); Y. Varshavski (Bashevis), in Forverts (June 27, 1964); P. Vald, Geshtaltn fun yidishn velt-folk (Images of Jewish people of the world) (Buenos Aires, 1964).