Sunday 20 May 2018


ELYE SPIVAK (December 10, 1890-April 6, 1950)

            He was a linguist and literary scholar, born in Vasilkov (Vasyl'kiv), Ukraine, into a devoutly religious family. At age three and one-half, he was already attending religious primary school, studying with an assortment of teachers, and later when he was studying on his own, he sat every year for the external student examinations; he then decided to dedicate himself to philological studies and research into Hebrew and Yiddish. After the Revolution, he was known in Ukraine as an excellent teacher and expert in Yiddish. He worked in the first schools of the Kultur-lige (Culture league) in the towns of Vasyl'kiv and Glukhov (Hluchiv). During the Russian civil war, he worked in homes for homeless Jewish orphans who had lost their parents in pogroms. He himself survived the Petliura pogroms in Vasyl'kiv. In the early 1920s he was working in the famed Kiev Jewish pedagogical technicum in preparing the teachers for Jewish elementary and middle schools. He was also a teacher of Yiddish in the first polytechnic trade schools in Kiev and in Kharkov, while at the same time working intensively on fundamental questions in linguistics and assuming a prominent position among Ukrainian and Jewish linguists. His lectures in the pedagogical institutes in Odessa, Kiev, and Zhitomir (Zhytomyr) awakened for the Jewish people the treasures of their language. He raised a large number of highly qualified teachers of Yiddish, active cultural leaders, writers, and poets in the 1920s. He did research on Yiddish in Odessa under the leadership of Professor Yashe Reznik. He examined the issue of dialect in the Jewish school, continued work on Yiddish grammar, and compiled textbooks and readers with the poet Dovid Hofshteyn and with Yekhiel Yakhinson. He was a regular contributor to the journal Di yidishe shprakh (The Yiddish language), founded by Nokhum Shtif in Kiev in 1927, and in it he published work on reforming Yiddish spelling. He wrote a great deal for other journals and newspapers. Over the years 1929-1931, he served as a member of the editorial board of Ratnbildung (Soviet education), as well as Di yidishe shprakh. In 1934 he was one of the most productive leaders at the Yiddish language conference, at which he read the papers: “Di sovetishe shprakhpolitik in der onvendung tsu yidish un spetsyel tsu der prese” (Soviet language politics as applied to Yiddish and especially to the press), “Yidish in der ongang- un mitl-shul” (Yiddish in elementary and middle school), and “Metodologishe problemen in shaykhes tsu yidisher terminologye” (Methodological issues in relation to Yiddish terminology). After the death in 1933 of Nokhum Shtif (pen name: Bal-Dimyen [Master of imagination]), he was appointed to assume leadership in Kiev of the linguistics section in the Kiev Institute for Jewish Culture, as well as the editorship of Afn shprakhfront (On the language front). In 1935 he penned an introduction to Shtif’s Geklibene verk (Collected works), which his section was preparing for publication. That year he completed for publication a book on problems in Soviet Yiddish, in which he incidentally attempted to bring Soviet linguistics closer in research on Yiddish outside the Soviet Union. Creative work for him always went hand-in-hand with practical pedagogical activity. He led the lexicography seminar for research student linguists in his own section, and for the research student writers in Maks Erik’s “section on literature and criticism.” He gave lectures at the Jewish pedagogical institute in Kiev and at the Jewish senior high schools in Zhytomyr, Odessa, and elsewhere. In mid-1936 the Kiev institute was closed, and many of those who worked there, his colleagues and close friends, including Maks Erik, Mikhl Levitan, and others, were arrested and exiled. In 1937 he was officially appointed as director of a newly founded “Department for Teaching Soviet Yiddish Literature, Language, and Folklore,” within the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in Kiev, as well as head of the linguistics section of the Department and editor of Afn shprakhfront. The aim of the “Department” was to hide from the world the brutal liquidation of the Kiev institute and to conceal the liquidation of Jewish scholarship and culture in Soviet Russia. Under such conditions of terror, one could not say a thing about being dismissed from new posts. In the years of the “Department,” Spivak concentrated mainly on the field of lexicography and published in the collections of Afn shprakhfront a series of works, in which he expressed his positive stance concerning the Hebraisms and negative view of the project vis-à-vis a “Slavic-Yiddish language.” Incidentally, he became a professor even before he received his doctorate in philological science, and before WWII he became a “corresponding member of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences” (in 1941), an extremely high-level title, which was given only to great scholars in the Soviet Union. He also played a central role in the 1939 celebrations surrounding the eightieth anniversary of Sholem Aleichem’s birth. He ran the special literary-linguistic session dedicated to the classic Yiddish writers and published in the jubilee issue of Afn shprakhfront two of his own works concerning Sholem Aleichem. With the Nazi invasion of Soviet Russia, the “Department” as a part of the Ukrainian Academy was evacuated to Ufa, Bashkiria, where it continued the work of both sections: language and literature. Under Spivak’s leadership, the “Department” began collective research projects there: “Language and style in wartime” and “Studies of Yiddish literature and language, their history and contemporary condition.” At the time he worked intensively on the rise, development, dialects, and literary language of Yiddish in the Soviet period, but far from everything that was ready for publication ever actually appeared in print. In late 1943, during the war, a meeting took place between the “Department” for Yiddish culture and Moscow Yiddish writers. In 1944 the “Department” and its director returned to Kiev where their work was revived. Personnel was allowed to number twelve scholarly contributors. In 1946 he published the volume: Di shprakh in di teg fun der foterlendisher milkhome (Language in the days of the war of the fatherland), which was not only the first postwar book in Kiev, but also his only one postwar and his last. Over the course of his creative life, he published dozens of schoolbooks for Yiddish and books about grammar and lexicography. Under his editorship the philological section exerted an extraordinary amount of effort in the creation of a Russian-Yiddish dictionary. This work was completed in 1947, but it did not survive to see the light of day. Spivak was also quite knowledgeable of music and Jewish musical folklore. He was unusually diligent, ignoring his own ill heart and high blood pressure. He was arrested in January 1949 together with his coworkers, as were hundreds of others working in the field of Jewish culture at that time. The investigative organs of the authorities seized his rich specialized library and his unpublished manuscripts, some dedicated to the classic Yiddish writers and on the works of Meyer Viner and Nokhum Shtif. By a happy twist of fate, his wife managed to secure his manuscript works, though we do not know where they are presently located. We also do not know all the circumstances surrounding his death, save that he was shot on April 6, 1950, in the Lefortovo Prison in Moscow.[1]

            He published in book form a long list of literary readers for the schoolroom, notebooks on mathematics for schools and for youth generally, and language textbooks, published under a variety of titles in Kiev and Kharkov and together with others over the course of the years 1920-1940. His many volumes include, among others, the following: Yidish, literarishe khrestomatye farn dritn shul yor (Yiddish, a literary reader for the third school year) (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1920), 104 pp., part two (Kiev: State Publ., 1921), 158 pp. + 21 pp.; Oys ameratses, an alefbeys far groyse (Away with ignorance, a textbook for adults) (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1921), 27 pp.; Matematishe heftn, far shuln fun der ershter shtupe (Mathematics notebooks, for schools at the first stage), part 1 (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1922), 53 pp., second printing (1923); Yidish, literarishe zamlung far shul un hoyz (Yiddish, literary anthology for school and home), third printing (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1923), 138 pp.; Farn yungn dor (For the younger generation), part 1 (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1924), 152 pp., part 2 (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1924), 310 pp., second edition (1924), part 3 (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1924), 144 pp.; Yugnt, literarishe zamlung, hilfsbukh far der arbet-shul (Youth, literary anthology, auxiliary text for labor school) (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1925), 369 pp.; Arbet un freyd (Word and joy), part 1 (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1925), 96 pp., second edition (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1927), 258 pp.; Yidishe shprakh (Yiddish language), part 1: Intonatsye, fonetik un ortografye, elementn fun morfologye (Intonation, phonetics and orthography, elements of morphology) (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1925), 95 pp.; Yidishe shprakh, part 2: Morfologye un sintaks (Morphology and syntax) (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1926), 108 pp.; Shpil un arbet, hilfsbukh farn ershtn lernyor (Play and work, auxiliary text for the first school year), part 1 (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1925), 96 pp., second editions (1926, 1928), part 2 (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1925), 115 pp., second edition (1926); Arum unz, khrestomatye (Around us, a reader), part 1 (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1926), 305 pp., second edition (1927), part 2 (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1926), 360 pp., second edition (1927), part 3 (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1927), 315 pp.; Yugnt, literarishe khrestomatye farn 4-5tn lernyor (Youth, literary reader for the 4th-5th school year) (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1927), 358 pp.; Arbetshul, khrestomatye farn tsveytn lernyor (Labor school, reader for the second school year) (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1928), 295 pp., second edition (1929); Arbetshul, khrestomatye farn dritn lernyor (Labor school, reader for the third school year) (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1928), 320 pp., second edition (1929); Arbetshul, khrestomatye farn fertn lernyor (Labor school, reader for the fourth school year) (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1928), 358 pp.; Metodik fun shprakh un literatur in shul (Methods for language and literature in school), part 1: Ivre (Hebraic [elements in Yiddish]) (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1928), 151 pp.; Undzer vort, arbetbukh af shprakh (Our word, workbook for language), part 1 (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1929), 139 pp., part 2 (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1929), 102 pp.; Arbetbukh af shprakh, literatur un gezelshaftkentenish (Workbook on language, literature, and community lore), with A. Makogon and Henekh Kazakevitsh (Kharkov: Central Publishers, 1930), 447 pp.; Shprakh-kultur, teorye un praktik (Language culture, theory and practice) (Kharkov: Central Publishers, 1931), 256 pp.; Marks un engels vegn shprakh-problemes (Marx and Engels on language issues) (Kiev: Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, 1934), 98 pp.; Matematishe terminologye (Mathematical terminology) (Kiev: Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, 1935), 128 pp.; Geografishe terminologye (Geographical terminology) (Kiev-Kharkov: Ukrainian State Publishers for National Minorities, 1936), 128 pp.—this appears to have been the last book that the Kiev institute brought out before its liquidation; Reyd antviklung far der mitlshul (Speech development for middle school), part 1 (Kiev: Ukrainian State Publishers for National Minorities, 1937), 80 pp., second edition (1938), 139 pp.; Naye vortshafung (New word formation) (Kiev: n.p., 1939), 240 pp.; Stilistishe genitungen far der mitlshul (Stylistic exercises for middle school), third printing (Kiev: Ukrainian State Publishers for National Minorities, 1940), 110 pp.; Sholem-aleykhems shprakh un stil, etyudn (Sholem Aleichem’s language and style, studies) (Kiev: Ukrainian State Publishers for National Minorities, 1940), 167 pp.; Geklibene verk (Selected works [of Sholem Aleichem]), edited together with Khayim Loytsker (Kiev: Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, 1940), 204 pp.; Rusish-yidisher rekhtlekh-administrativer verterbukh (Russian-Yiddish legal-administrative dictionary) (Kiev: Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, 1941), 275 pp.; Di shprakh in di teg fun der foterlendisher milkhome (Kiev: Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, 1946), 64 pp.

Sources: A Zaretski, in Pedagogisher byuletin (Kiev) 5 (1923), pp. 105-10; Zaretski, “Matematishe terminologye” (Mathematical terminology), Emes (Moscow) 77 (1936); Zaretski, “Vegn naye vortshaftn” (On new word formation), Sovetishe literatur (Kiev) (August 1940), p. 122; Dr. A. Koralnik, “Vos men tor nit makrev zayn” (What we must not sacrifice), Tog (New York) (November 24, 1934); L. Reznik, “Di adyektive grupe fun yidish” (The adjective group in Yiddish), Afn shprakhfront (Kharkov) 1 (1934); A. Kahan, “Vegn hebreizatsye un vegn dem hebreishn element in yidish” (On Hebraization and the Hebrew element in Yiddish), Afn shprakhfront (Kiev) 2 (1934); Kahan, “Yidish-sovetishe terminologyes” (Soviet Yiddish terminologies), Afn shprakhfront 3-4 (1935); Fragn fun yidishn shprakh (Issues in the Yiddish language) (Moscow, 1938); :Notitsn vegn sholem-aleykhems sintaksis” (Notes on Sholem Aleichem’s syntax), Sovetishe literatur (Kiev) (January 1939); Y. Mark, “Yidishe lingvistishe arbet in sovetn-farband” (Yiddish linguistic work in the Soviet Union), Yivo-bleter (New York) 16.1 (1940), pp. 31-44, (September-October 1940); Kh. L. (Khayim Loytsker), “Af der bagegenish funem ‘kabinet’ mit di moskver yidishe shraybers” (On the meeting between the “Department” and the Moscow Yiddish writers), Eynikeyt (Moscow) (October 14, 1943); Y. Gusinov, in Eynikeyt (November 8, 1944); Y. Serebriani, “Dos milkhome vort” (The word milkhome [war]), Eynikeyt (July 30, 1946); B. Mark, “Grundshtrikhn fun der yidish-sovetisher literatur” (Main features of Soviet Yiddish literature), Folks-shtime (Lodz) 40 (1947); Mark, “Vegn der literaturisher yerushe fun di umgekumene shraybers” (On the literary heritage of the murdered writers), Eynikeyt (January 14, 1947); M. Elboym, in Forverts (New York) (January 13, 1958); N. Mayzil, Dos yidishe shafn un der yidisher shrayber in sovetnfarband (Jewish creation and the Jewish writer in the Soviet Union) (New York, 1959), see index; Mayzil, Tsurikblikn un perspektivn (Retrospectives and perspectives) (Tel Aviv: Perets Publ., 1962), see index; Chone Shmeruk, comp., Pirsumim yehudiim babrit-hamoatsot, 1917-1961 (Jewish publications in the Soviet Union, 1917-1961) (Jerusalem, 1961), see index; Ester Rozental (Shnayderman), “Elye spivak” (Elye Spivak), on the tenth anniversary of his death, Di goldene keyt (Tel Aviv) 44 (1962), pp. 135-44; 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.

Aleksander Pomerants

[Additional information from: Berl Kagan, comp., Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers) (New York, 1986), cols. 410-11; Chaim Beider, Leksikon fun yidishe shrayber in ratn-farband (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers in the Soviet Union), ed. Boris Sandler and Gennady Estraikh (New York: Congress for Jewish Culture, Inc., 2011), pp. 268-70.]

[1] It was long thought that he was shot with the group of twenty-six writers and cultural activists on August 12, 1952. Witnesses reported horrific torture.

1 comment:

  1. The 1st edition of Yidish, literarishe zamlung far shul un hoyz (Yiddish, literary anthology for school and home), (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1922), Part 1 Ershter teyl :farn yingstn elter.- 153, [6] pp., ill
    יידיש :ליטערארישע זאמלונג פאר שול און הױז
    צונױפגעשטעלט פון אליהו ספיװאק
    ערשטער טײל :פארן ײנגסטן עלטער
    The contents differs from the next printing. Illustrator is Yosef Tshaykov among others "young artists"