S. L. Shneiderman- Decades Together
by Eileen (Hala) Szymin-Shneiderman
translated by Fannie Peczenik from What Time is it On the Jewish Clock
...among the papers on his desk, I found a substantial manuscript
entitled, "My Beginnings as a Yiddish Writer - notes for an
autobiography." As I remember, these were the notes for a talk he
gave in Canada. He always prepared himself well for his lectures, so
these notes can be regarded as his memoir.
The manuscript begins with these words: "To retrace the steps in my
career as a Yiddish writer -- to return to the beginning -- would be
no small task. It would mean going back to the origins of modern
Yiddish literature, as well as to Jewish political and social life in
the reborn Polish republic."
In these memoirs, Shneiderman talks about his shtetl, Kazimierz on the
Wistula (or Kuzmir, as it was known in Yiddish); his family; his love
for nature and for the life of the Polish peasants.
That was a time when, in Poland as elsewhere, artists and writers
extolled village life. In 1924, the Polish writer, W. Reymont, was
awarded the Nobel prize for his novel, The Peasants., which appeared
in an excellent Yiddish translation by Schlomo Rosenberg, a close
friend of Shneiderman's. Incidentally, Rosenberg later became
well-known for his Yiddish historical novels; he was also Sholem
Asch's secretary for fifteen years. It is worth noting that Sholem
Asch himself was a candidate for the Nobel prize for A Shtetl,which,
in its use of the rich, idiomatic language studied by Polish
enthnographers and students of folklore, can be seen as the Yiddish
answer to Reymont's novel.
The same kind of admiration for Polish village life is found in
Shneiderman's first book of poems, Gilderne Feigl (Gilded Birds),
which was published in 1927, two years after he arrived in Warsaw.
His second volume of poetry, Feiern in Shtot (Unrest in Town),
which appeared in 1932, depicts the author's youthful experiences
when, like most young Yiddish writers, he came to the big city from
his small home town. The poems here are imbued with contemporary
social issues -- poverty, unemployment, rapid industrial expansion,
rejection of war and militarism -- as well as lyrical longings for
his hometown. Some of the poems were published in the leading Yiddish
weekly in Warsaw, Literarische Bletter (Literary Pages), edited by
The poems Shneiderman wrote in the first few years after he came to
New York in 1940, are much better known. By then the Nazis had
already inflicted their savagery on Poland and we were overcome with
anxiety about the fate of the Jews, especially our own family and
countless friends. That cycle of songs, which was to be called, The
Hudson is My Witness, was never published in book form, , and only a
few of the poems appeared in newspapers.
In 1925, when Shneiderman came to Warsaw from Kuzmir and wrote poems
about poverty and the revolutionary ferment that dominated the Polish
capital, he was, at the same time, carried away by the creative forces
driving all aspects of Jewish culture.
Despite increasing assimilation among the Jewish intelligentsia --
which older Yiddish writers, like Z. Segalowitch, deplored;
Segalowitch waged a war against what he called the "shmendrikes" (wise
guys) who were becoming estranged from their own culture -- the young
Shneiderman saw great opportunities for himself as a Yiddish writer.
His energy and ambition were virtually inexhaustible. He tried every
literary genre: he wrote poems; published interviews with Polish
writers in Literarische Bletter ; translated Polish poems and novels
into Yiddish; and wrote songs for the Yiddish theatre. Years later,
this is how Melech Ravitz, in his book Mein Leksikon, (My Lexicon),
good-humoredly characterized this early period in Shneiderman's
Shneiderman brought poems with him from Kuzmir, many poems, a good
knowledge of Polish, and a readiness to undertake every kind of
literary endeavor: an article, a review, a translation, a poem, a
short story, a news report .... I once even wrote a little lampoon
against him when he was a novice poet and journalist and the piece was
a big hit among his fellow writers. From this, I deduce that in the
literary community you don't have to wait for a Nobel Prize or world
fame to find rivals. You can have them right at the first rung of your
Because of my attack, Shneiderman became three times as energetic and
he attacked me on three fronts. First, he sent me some poems under a
pseudonym; he fooled me and I gave the poems a good review. Second,
he attacked me in print. Third, he submitted the case to the judgment
of our fellow writers.... Needless to say, we were soon reconciled and
even became great friends.
In those first few years in Warsaw, besides exploring a variety of
literary genres, Shneiderman also became interested in the new art of
In September,1928, the first Yiddish journal devoted to the cinema,
Film Velt (Film World), appeared in Warsaw. The journal was edited
by Saul Goskin and Mark Tannenbaum and the two most important articles
in this first issue were by Shneiderman. We were reminded of all this
by Jim Hoberman, author of the great work (in English) on the history
of Yiddish film, Bridge of Light: Yiddish Films Between Two Worlds.
This richly illustrated, 400-page book was published in New York in
1991 by the Museum of Modern Art in collaboration with Schocken Books.
The museum organized a large exhibit on Yiddish films (we attended
the opening of the exhibit) and for six months showed a Yiddish film
every week. The film festival was made possible by the National Center
for Yiddish Film at Brandeis University in Boston, which collected the
old films and restored many of them.
Hoberman brought our early years back to us when he sent us a copy of
the first issue of Film Velt from 1928, which contains Shneiderman's
two articles. One of the articles, "Film Has Deep Meaning," is signed
by S. L. Shneiderman, and in it he argues that the new art of movie
making is an important form of cultural entertainment for the masses.
He emphasizes the social significance of the cinema: international, it
brings together citizens from every land, opposes war, and appeals to
a wide audience.
The second essay, "Behind the Scenes of In the Polish Woods," recounts
the excitement of making a film based on the novel by Yosef Opatoshu,
which had aroused a great deal of interest. The movie, a monumental
work, was produced by Leo Forbert, who was already well-known, and
directed by Jonas Turkow; the screenplay was written by H. Bojm.
Forbert and Bojm already had two popular Yiddish films to their
credit: Tkies-Kaf (The Agreement) and Lamed-Vovnik (The Hidden
Fascinated by the broad historical scope of the film, Shneiderman
followed its production very closely. He once took me along to the set
to watch the film being made. The outdoor scenes were filmed in the
region around Piaseczno, a shtetl near Warsaw, where, incidentally, my
uncle, Mendel Segal, who was the scribe (secretary) for the Jewish
community, lived. The scenes were shot in a beautiful part of a dense
forest, near a lake. The trip was a romantic adventure for us and
Shneiderman's enthusiasm was boundless.
Unfortunately, the whole enterprise, in which Polish filmmakers were
also involved, came to a disappointing end. Because of protests from
both Jewish religious quarters and Polish government authorities, some
scenes were cut and the film soon disappeared from the screen. But the
film quickly gained full recognition in America.
The article on In the Polish Woods was printed under Shneiderman's
pseudonym, "Emil." He was known by that name among his colleagues,
especially in Yiddish theatre, and that is what my family called him.
In his own family and in Kuzmir at large, he was still known by his
real name, Shmuel-Leib.
The journal Film Velt appeared for ten months, from September, 1928,
until the summer of 1929. It may have been the only one of its kind in
the entire history of the Yiddish press.
In Israel, in 1988, at a conference on the history of the Jews in
Poland held in Jerusalem, Shneiderman had another encounter that also
reminded him of his early years in Warsaw. Among the scholars present
at the conference was the Polish art historian, Prof. Jerzy
Malinowski, who had just finished a book on the Yiddish avant-garde
movement centered on the journal, Yung Yiddish (Young Yiddish),
published in Lodz from 1918-1925. Researching the history of Polish
art after World War I, Prof. Malinowski came upon many poets and
artists with Jewish names. That led him to Yung Yiddish because,
despite denunciations from the anti-Semitic press, many of the Polish
avant-garde artists participated in the Jewish movement's exhibitions
and literary gatherings.
In the first of a series of essays on Prof. Malinowski's book,
I was deeply moved by the book about Yung Yiddish and, unnerved, I
devoured page after page.... all of a sudden the writers and artists
murdered in Hitler's death camps and in the ghettoes at Lodz and
Warsaw rose up alive before me. Only a few, like Moshe Broderson and
the painter Yankl Adler, survived the Holocaust, but they have since
That wonderful moment of my youth came back to me in all its colors,
the moment when I first arrived in Lodz and Warsaw and there came
face-to-face with the poets and artists of Yung Yiddish. Along with
his book, Prof. Malinowski gave me a photo of my portrait painted by
Wolf Weintraub in 1925. Weintraub was then already a well-known
artist and he had been a great friend to me during my "debut" in
Warsaw. This portrait (which, nonetheless, bears little resemblance
to its subject) is reproduced in Prof. Malinowski's monograph as an
example of expressionism, of which Weintraub was one of the pioneers
Beneath the portrait is written: "W. Weintraub -- Portrait of the
young poet, S. L. Shneiderman." Weintraub also designed the cover for
Shneiderman's first volume of poetry, Gilderne Feigl.
For many years, the futurist manifestoes of Moshe Broderson, styled
after V. Mayakovsky, continued to resonate among Yiddish poets. This
can be seen, for example, in the speech Shneiderman gave at the
Congress for the Defense of Culture in Paris, in 1935. The speech
(published in Literarische Bletter , July 19, 1935) begins as follows:
The man addressing you today is a citizen of the Land of Yiddish, a
land without barracks, without soldiers -- a land in which a pen is
the only weapon. You won't find this land on any map, the boundaries
of this land can be found only in the regions of cultural achievement
and heroic artistic labor.
More than any other, Yiddish literature carries within itself the
kernel of anti-Fascism .... from the beginning, Yiddish literature has
depicted the struggle against want and oppression.
The generation of Yung-Yiddish was also buttressed by the Warsaw
avant-garde journals: Chalyastra , edited by Peretz Markish, who spent
five years in Poland before returning to Moscow; Albatros, edited
Uri-Zvi Greenberg. Melech Ravitz, I. J. Singer, and Uri-Zvi Greenberg
also belonged to the Chalyostra group.
In his series of articles on Yung-Yiddish, Shneiderman also discussed
the interest that this group of poets and painters aroused in America
when the works of Yankl Adler, Mark Shwartz, Henrik Berlevy, Yitzhak
Brauder, and others were shown in New York in the early 1920's. Sholem
Asch was the first to buy two paintings by Yankl Adler, who later
enjoyed international fame. The poets of Yung-Yiddish formed a close
alliance with the American group called the "Yunge" (Young Ones),
especially Moshe-Leib Halpern, Zishe Landau, and Yosef Opatoshu.
We lived in Paris from 1933 to 1940. During that time, under the
influence of the master of literary reportage, Egon Erwin Kisch, the
young poet S. L. Shneiderman began to write prose. His reports from
the Spanish Civil War were published by all the Yiddish newspapers, by
Ma'ariv in Israel, and by four Polish-Yiddish newspapers. A
selection of these reports also appeared in book form along with
photos taken by my brother, David Szymin (Chim), who was in Spain as a
news photographer for French magazines. The book was published in
Warsaw in 1938, by the well-known publishing house owned by my father,
B. Szymin, while the war in Spain was still going on.
Shneiderman's first volume of reportages, Zwishn Nalewkes un
Eifel-Turm, (Between Nalewky and the Eiffel Tower) appeared in 1935,
with a foreword by E. E. Kisch. After the collapse of the Spanish
Republic in 1938, Shneiderman was invited for a lecture tour in South
Africa; on his way back, he visited Israel for the first time.
In my archives, I found a rare document concerning our departure from
Paris in the early months of World War II: the February 9, 1940,
issue of the short-lived weekly, Die Voch (The Week). On the first
page, there is a news item reporting that S. L. Shneiderman and B.
Frimer have embarked for America on a mission for the Federation of
Polish Jews. My hands trembled as I leafed through the four large
sheets of yellow and crumbling newspaper which had been published by
the Federation of Polish Jews in Paris together with the relief
organization for Jewish refugees from Poland, where the Nazi
occupation had already sown death and destruction in ghettoes and
labor camps. Shneiderman and Schlomo Rosenberg were the editors of
the weekly and Shneiderman, accompanied by Frimer -- set off for
America to raise money for their enterprise.
Those four sheets of newsprint record the tragic moments just before
the Holocaust. The Jewish refugees who had managed to escape to Paris
were literally barefoot and naked and in need of immediate material
First to catch the eye on the front page are the four empty spaces
stamped in French, "Censuré" (censored) -- which shows how hard France
was trying not to provoke Hitler's Germany. On the same page there is
also a long article by Dr. Heszel Klepfisz, "The Jews of Poland." By
then he was already a noted scholar of the history of Eastern
European, or Ashkenazi, Jews and had written articles for Orthodox
publications in Warsaw. After we left for America, Dr. Klepfisz became
the editor of Die Voch and remained in that post until he was drafted
into the army. In May, the Germans overran Paris.
This issue of Die Voch also contains a heartrending report by Z.
Segalowitch, who had just arrived in Paris from Poland. He tells how,
when war broke out, in confusion the Jews from the shtetls tried to
flee to Warsaw and from Warsaw to the Soviet or Rumanian border.
Thronging the roads, the Jews were bombed by German planes and many
A poem by A. Leyeles, "Lament of the Fields," is printed in this
newspaper and also a letter from Israel by M. Wolman-Sieraczkowa about
a Jewish-Arab "peace conference," which is supposed to demonstrate
that relations between Jews and Arabs are improving ... An article by
M. Dluznowski about the Federation of Polish Jews in Paris and New
York. And next to it -- an enthusiastic review by the art critic, H.
Aronson, of a showing of some works by Marc Chagall. Even in the
announcements and advertisements, many of them censored, one can feel
terror at the approaching disaster. And how ominous an article such
as "Let Us Organize," (A. Rosen) or "What Is Really Going to Happen
to Us Jews?" (H. Hochbaum) sounds to us today.
I am dwelling on this newspaper not only because it touches on our
biography, but also because this may be the only extant copy of that
short-lived publication and because it is a relic of that tragic
moment when the extermination of the European Jews had begun.
Arriving in New York after a six-day journey aboard the liner
Manhattan and after another week in Ellis Island, we somberly began
the process of settling in the new land. Anxiety about the fate of
our friends and relatives in Poland and about Shneiderman's brother
and sister in Paris still plagued us in the free land of America.
We lived in America for nearly fifty years, but we frequently traveled
to Israel, France, Poland, and other countries in Eastern Europe. In
his reports and essays, Shneiderman described the conditions in the
dwindling Jewish communities and what they had experienced during the
Holocaust..... For the rest go to;