MAKS (MAX) ERIK (November 17, 1898-October 16, 1937)
The adopted name of Zalmen Merkin and the younger brother of Moyshe Merkin, he was a literary historian, born in Sosnovits (Sosnowiec), Zaglembye (Zagłębie), Poland, into a well-to-do family. His father was a follower of the Jewish Enlightenment from Shlov (Szkłów). His mother was a sister of Yitskhok Peysakhzon, one of the founders of the Bund. She was murdered by the Germans during WWII. Until he was twelve, he studied in religious elementary school and with private tutors. He went on to study in a Russian senior high school. In 1918 he graduated from a Polish high school. Over the years 1919-1921, he served in the Polish army and completed officers’ school. In the period 1921-1924, with interruptions, he studied law at Krakow University. The school years of 1922-1923 and 1925-1926, he worked as a teacher of Yiddish and Polish literature in the Vilna Jewish middle school. In his last classes of high school, he became interested in Yiddish literature and aspired to engage in his own writing work. He debuted in print with an essay on Hugo Zuckermann in Di yidishe zamlbikher (The Yiddish anthologies), edited by Y. M. Vaysenberg 5 (1918). He went to publish essays and critical treatments in: Ringen (Links), Literarishe bleter (Literary leaves), and Bikher velt (Book world) in Warsaw, and Vilner tog (Vilna day). In Vilna, he and Zalmen Reyzen compiled a reader of Old Yiddish literature, but they did not publish it, and the manuscript was apparently lost. For a long period of time, he worked on Old Yiddish texts in the municipal library and archives of Danzig. In 1926 he traveled to England and France, and he worked on Old Yiddish literature at the British Museum, in Oxford University’s library, and at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Erik was an extraordinarily gifted and productive writer, literary historian, and critic. In the twenty years of his creative activity, he wrote countless essays, studies, and substantial work. In 1923 he published in Bikher-velt 3-4 (Warsaw) his first major work, an essay entitled “Tsu der konstruktsye fun y. l. peretses ‘di goldene keyt’” (On the construction of Perets’s “Di goldene keyt” [The golden chain]), in which he analyzed the various texts of the drama. This piece was included in his first book, Konstruktsye-shtudyen (Construction studies) (Warsaw: Arbeter-heym, 1924), 66 pp. Also included in this collection was a philosophical essay entitled “Batrakhtungen vegn patos” (Thoughts about pathos). He also composed treatments of Perets’s Baynakht afn altn mark (In the old market at night). His second book was Vegn altyidishn roman un novele, fertsnter-zekhtsnter yorhundert (On the Old Yiddish novel and novella, fourteenth-sixteenth centuries) (Warsaw-Kovel, 1926), 247 pp. He analyzed a series of foundational works of the oldest Yiddish literature, such as the Bovo-bukh (Bovo book), Artur-romanen (Arthurian tales), Mayse-bukh (Story book), Mayse briyo vezimro (A story of Beria and Zimra), Til oylnshpign (Till Eulenspiegel), and Ben hameylekh vehanazir (The prince and the monk), and he came to general, synthesized conclusions. Erik developed in this book his theory of the troubadour (shpilman) era in Yiddish literature. He argued that Yiddish poets from the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries would do as modern Yiddish poets do, namely sing them and read them aloud. Erik considered Elye Bokher (Elijah Levita) the last Yiddish troubadour. As demonstrated by Yankev Shatski, this theory was already stated earlier by Eliezer Shulman in Hebrew-language volume on Yiddish literature: Sefat yehudit-ashkenazit vesifruta, mikets hamea ha-15 ad kets shenot hamea ha-18 (Yiddish language and literature, from the end of fifteenth century to the last years of the eighteenth century) (Riga: A. Levin, 1913). Erik, however, was the first scholar to substantiate this theory. That same year (1926), he published a monograph on Brantshpigl (Burning mirror) and Elye Bokher’s poem on the fire in Venice—in Tsaytshrift (Periodical) 1 in Minsk. In the same journal he also published a major work “Inventar fun der yidisher shpilman-dikhtung” (Inventor of Yiddish troubadour poetry), Tsaytshrift 2-3 (1928), and “Vegn sotsyaln mehus fun aksnfelds shafung” (On the social essence of Aksenfeld’s work) 5 (1928). In the revived Yidish velt (Jewish world) 2 (May 1928), he published an assessment of the Minsk-based Tsaytshrift, and on the American Pinkes (Records) for Filologishe shriftn (Philological writings) 2-3. In Landoy bukh (Volume for [Alfred] Landau) (Vilna, 1926), he contributed “Vegn mayse briyo vezimro” (On the story of Beria and Zimra), and in the third number of YIVO’s Filologishe shriftn (Vilna, 1929), he wrote a piece on the first Yiddish comedy by Itsik Aykhl, Reb henokh. In 1926 his pamphlet Iberblik iber der geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur, konspeḳṭ fun dem tsikl lektsyes gehalten in dem arbayter ring, london (Overview of the history of Yiddish literature, synopsis of a cycle of lectures given at the Workmen’s Circle, London) was published in London. This was a synopsis of a series of lectures that he gave in London from October 31 to November 9, 1926. The pamphlet (24 pp.) was published by the central education committee at the Y. L. Perets Institute of the Workmen’s Circle. He also published a number of works and reviews in the Kiev journal Di yidishe shprakh (The Yiddish language) (1927-1929), and he participated in a discussion of the Mayse-bukh with Dr. Shiper, Dr. Tsinberg, and Perferkovitsh in Literarishe bleter (1926-1927). Somewhat earlier, in 1924, he published in the Warsaw journal Ringen: “Tsu der kharakteristik fun der nayster poylisher dikhtung” (On the character of the latest Polish poetry), and he penned a piece as well on humor which remains in manuscript. Also valuable are his essays on Dovid Bergelson (in Literarishe bleter, April 24 and May 8, 1925), on Moyshe Kulbak (in Literarishe bleter, September 10, September 22, and October 8, 1926), “Vegn aynflusn in der literatur” (On influences in literature), “Der bukh un di literarishe-geshikhtlekhe situatsye” (The book and the literary-historical situation) (in Literarishe bleter, November-December 1924), and “Yoysef opatoshus trilogye” (Yoysef Opatoshu’s trilogy) (Yidishe velt, August 1928). Erik’s crowning achievement was: Di geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur fun di eltste tsaytn biz der haskole-tekufe, fertsnter-akhtsnter yorhundert (The history of Yiddish literature from oldest times until the Enlightenment era, fourteenth-eighteenth centuries) (Warsaw: Kultur-lige, 1928), 450 pp. The appearance of this book was a major event in Yiddish literature. There grew up around this book, as noted by Yankev Shatski, an important academic discussion, the first discussion of the way in which Yiddish literature generally developed. Shmuel Niger, Yisroel Tsinberg, and Yitskhok Shiper all wrote about this book. “The entire work,” wrote Yankev Shatski, “is written with a broad scope, with finely painted historical background, and with a dizzying measure and weight for the literary, social, and artistic-aesthetic value of the works and authors with whom he engages…. Erik expresses his views of the Yiddish literary past and possesses the intellectual strength to defend and motivate his views. This is not simply a book with images drawn from Yiddish literature, but Yiddish literature in magnificent images.” Although invited to the United States and London, he had found a home in Soviet Russia, and in September 1929 Erik took Soviet citizenship in the Soviet embassy in Warsaw; that same month he, his wife, and young daughter came to Minsk where he was appointed chairman of the department of Yiddish literature. Until 1932 he lived in Minsk and thereafter, until his arrest, in Kiev. He was a professor of Yiddish literature in Jewish senior high schools and teachers’ seminaries (in Minsk and Kiev), and he was in charge of the section for literature and criticism at the Institute for Jewish Culture in the Ukrainian Academy of Science. In the six years that he was active in the Soviet Union, he was highly productive. He conformed easily to the various demands of the new environment of “Marxist-Leninist positions” in the field of literature. He contributed to most journals and scholarly anthologies. He faithfully held to the Party line in the volume Fashizirter yidishizm un zayn visnshaft (Fascist Yiddishism and its scholarship) (Minsk: Byelorussian Academy of Sciences, 1930), in which appeared his “A bintl briv vegn der eltster yidisher literatur” (A batch of letter on oldest Yiddish literature) which conformed ideologically. He published such studies as: “Kasrilevke” (Kasrilevske), Farmest (Challenge) 5-6 (1936) in Kiev; “Menakhem-mendl” (Menakhem-Mendl), Shtern (Star) 5-6 (August 1935), in Minsk; and “Tevye der milkhiker” (Tevye the milkman), Farmest 11 (1935). He contributed to the editorial work for the Academy’s publications of Dovid Edelshtadt, Yoysef Bovshover, and Morris Winchevsky. In the Soviet Union, he published the following works: Sholem ash, 1900-1930 (Sholem Asch, 1900-1930) (Minsk: Byelorussian Academy of Sciences, 1931), 125 pp.; Di komedyes fun der berliner oyfklerung (Comedies of the Berlin Enlightenment) (Kiev: State Publ., 1933), 187 pp.; editor of Shloyme Ettinger, Geklibene verk (Selected works) (Kiev, 1935), 387 pp.; editor with A. Rozentsvayg, Di yidishe literatur in XIX yorhundert, ershter bukh, 1800-1881 (Yiddish literature in the nineteenth century, vol. 1: 1800-1881) (Kiev: Ukrainian State Publishers for National Minorities, 1935). Together with B. Beznosik and R. Rubin, he edited Antireligyezer literarisher zamlbukh (Anti-religious literary anthology) (Moscow: Central Peoples Publishers, USSR, 1930), 415 pp. His book, Fun der literarishe yerushe (From the literary heritage), contained treatments of Levenzon, Aksenfeld, Ettinger, Gotlober, Winchevsky, Perets, and Sholem-Aleichem; it was ready for publication but never published. Also very valuable were: his introduction to Sholem-Aleichem’s “Ksovim fun a komivoyazher” (Writings of a traveling salesman), Visnshaft un revolutsye (Science and revolution) 3-4 (1935); “Perets af der tshernovitser konferents” (Perets at the Czernowitz Conference), Visnshaft un revolutsye 8 (1936); a piece on Mendele, Farmest 1 (1936); on Morris Rozenfeld, Farmest 1 (1933); on Russian translations of Sholem-Aleichem, Tsaytshrift 5 (1935); “Naye materyaln vegn aykhlen” (New materials on Aykhl), Tsaytshrift 5 (1935).
As he did not attempt to conform to the Party orientation, he did not avoid difficulties and fell a victim. Already in 1932 he confessed to deviations from the Party’s ideology. In a speech he gave at an official meeting of the Institute for Jewish Proletarian Culture in Kiev, he enumerated his sins, his Yiddishism, and his mechanical-empirical approach to literature, and as a result he was isolated not only for his Di geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur which was published in Poland, but for a number of works which had appeared in the Soviet Union. In 1933 there appeared in Poland a scholarly collection entitled Arkhiv far yidisher shprakhforshung (Archive for Yiddish language research), edited by Noyekh Prylucki and Sh. Lehman. In it appeared a work by Maks Erik on the memoires of Tosafot Yom-Tov following an old manuscript. Erik had prepared the text and delivered it to Prylucki in 1926. Erik published an explanation that he was distancing himself from the work and sharply criticized Prylucki for publishing it in 1933. In March 1936 when Pravda (Truth) in Moscow launched a fight “against formalism in literature and art,” Erik played his part in the campaign. Soon, though, the Stalinist knife was at Erik’s throat. On April 8, 1936, he published in Der shtern (The star) his review of Ziskind Lev’s volume of stories Fun velt tsu velt (From world to world) brought out by “Emes” (Truth) publishing house—it would be his last publication. Two days later, in the night of April 10-11, he was arrested. He was deported to a concentration camp, and there he died on October 16, 1937 in the Siberian city of Kirov. All of his essays, articles, and reviews have not as yet been assembled.