Yiddish writers Oyzer Varshavski (left), Perets Markish (standing), H. Leyvik (seated, right), and an unidentified man, Paris, ca. 1924. Photograph by J. Deutscher. (YIVO)

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Varshavski, Oyzer

(1898–1944), Yiddish writer, painter, and art critic. Born in Sochaczew, Poland, Oyzer Varshavski received a traditional Jewish education and settled in Warsaw with his family at the age of 14. He was encouraged to write during World War I by Itshe Meyer Vaysenberg, whose publishing house later produced Varshavski’s first novel, Shmuglars (Smugglers; 1920). The book was well received by critics and readers and went through several editions and reprints in Warsaw, Vilna, and Kiev before 1930. In the 1920s, he published stories in various—usually modernist—journals in Poland, the United States, and Western Europe.

By 1923, Varshavski had left Poland and, after a short stay in Berlin and London, settled in Paris in 1924. There he became a part of the artists’ community of Montparnasse, painting and writing art criticism. In the realm of literature, he played an important role in Paris by publishing two avant-garde periodicals: issue number two of Khalyastre (Gang; 1924) in conjunction with Perets Markish; and the first and only issue of Di literarishe revi (The Literary Review; 1926). His second novel, Shnit-tsayt (Harvest Time), which was published by B. Kletskin Publishers in Vilna in 1926, was poorly received. In the years that followed, he mainly published essays about art.

At the beginning of the German occupation of France in 1940, Varshavski was still in Paris. In May 1942 he moved to the southern region of France where Jews were not yet subject to mass arrests and deportation. In June 1943, fleeing increasing persecution, he and his wife went to the Italian-occupied zone of France. In September, they were both evacuated to Rome. There, in May 1944, he fell into the hands of the Nazis and was murdered in Auschwitz on 10 October 1944.

With the outbreak of the war, Varshavski had again started to write literature, sketching scenes of the defeat of France and the first actions against Jews. While in the southern region, he wrote a longer narrative work, Rezidentsn (Residences). These texts were preserved in manuscript form and were published in part after the war. There is also a diary of his last months in Italy; it has not yet been published. Varshavski’s work sheds light in original ways on the two Jewish war tragedies of the twentieth century, focusing not on battles, massacres, and destruction, but on the irremediable tottering of human values.

Illustration by Y. Zeydenbaytl for Shmuglars (Smugglers), by Oyzer Varshavski (Warsaw: Vaysenberg Ferlag, 1920). “Bertshe pumps and hands out beer.” (YIVO)

Shmuglars, the only one of Varshavski’s books to appear posthumously in a new edition (1969), is considered the pinnacle of Yiddish naturalism. Its action takes place during World War I, when the Jews of a Polish town find relief from the grave economic crisis by distilling illegal whiskey and smuggling merchandise into German-occupied Warsaw. This illegal trade is accompanied by generalized corruption. Formerly respectable Jews compete or even form alliances with underworld figures; violence and prostitution spread within families; and the lowest elements get the upper hand. The language of the novel is deliberately unpolished and raw, and the narrative point of view changes frequently. All details coincide to reflect the chaos brought on by war; and in the words of Shmuel Niger, “The raw, basic, and primal dialect took over from the refined, cultivated, and complex ‘literary’ language! That is the sum total of war” (Niger, “Dos roye lebn,” Tsukunft [May 1921]: 320).

The plot of Shnit-tsayt takes place in a shtetl in the brief period between the outbreak of World War I and the beginning of the German occupation. The mood of approaching collapse is expressed through a wide variety of characters, situations, and locales. The language is more refined and the descriptions are not as drastic as in Shmuglars. Interspersed in the predominantly realistic style is a series of hazy, modernistic allegorical modes with which Varshavski often experimented in his short stories.

Rezidentsn, published in the Parizer tsaytshrift (Paris Review, nos. 9 and 10; 1955) under the title “Residence forcée” (Forced Residence), describes with a rapid, laconic style the experiences of several Jewish characters in their wanderings to escape the Nazis in occupied France. These characters use quasi-conspiratorial language, full of allusions and euphemisms, but the thoughts of the protagonist, through whom the writer speaks, foreshadow imminent, collective death.

Suggested Reading

Irène Boyer and Gilles Rozier, eds., L’éclat des crépuscules: Oser Warszawski, 1898–1944; Un écrivain yiddish entre chien et loup / Oyzer Varshavski: A yidisher shrayber in likht fun beyn-hashmoshes (Paris, 1998), exhibition catalog in French and Yiddish; Susan A. Slotnik, “Oyzer Varshavski’s Shmuglares: A Study in Form and Meaning,” in The Field of Yiddish: Studies in Language, Folklore, and Literature, vol. 4, ed. Marvin I. Herzog et al., pp. 185–236 (Philadelphia, 1980).



Translated from Yiddish by Yankl Salant