“Ovnt khmures,” by Moyshe Altman, n.d. Poem by Moyshe Altman, “Ovnt khmures” (Evening Clouds), n.d. One of two poems with the same title. A note in different handwiriting at the bottom of the page reads: "When Esther visited us during her stay in Czernowitz." Yiddish. RG 108, Manuscripts Collection, F5.11. (YIVO)

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Altman, Moyshe

(1890–1981), Yiddish writer. Born in the shtetl of Lipkan in Bessarabia, Moyshe Altman received a traditional Jewish education and attended the Russian school in Kamenets Podolski. Thanks to his exceptional memory and diligence, he acquired an encyclopedic education and mastered six languages. In 1919, he moved to Chernivtsi, where, beginning in 1921, he worked for the Yiddish Culture Federation of Romania, lecturing on Jewish and world literature in the shtetls of Bessarabia.

Poem by Moyshe Altman, “Ovnt khmures” (Evening Clouds), 1920. One of two poems with the same title. Yiddish. RG 108, Manuscripts Collection, F5.11. (YIVO)

Following a brief visit to Argentina in 1930 and several unsuccessful attempts to earn a living as a bookkeeper and farmer, Altman finally settled in Bucharest. However, as a result of the annexation of Bessarabia by the Soviet Union in 1940, he moved with his family to Kishinev. During World War II, he was evacuated to Soviet Central Asia, returned to Chernivtsi in 1945, and worked for the local Yiddish theater. In 1949, he was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in Stalinist camps “for Trotskyite and Zionist activity.” On the way to Siberia he tried to commit suicide but was prevented from doing so by his guards. Released in 1953 and rehabilitated in 1955, he spent the rest of his life in Chernivtsi.

Altman began writing Yiddish poetry at the age of 14. His poems first appeared in print in 1911, and the first collection of his stories, Blendenish (Radiance), was published in Chernivtsi in 1926. He tried his hand at writing in Hebrew and was encouraged by the poet Eliezer Shteynbarg to engage in serious literary work. His most productive years spanned 1920–1940, when he published poetry, stories, and essays in Yiddish newspapers in Romania and Poland. His first short novel, Di viner karete (The Viennese Coach; 1935), earned him his reputation as the leading Yiddish novelist in Romania. His next book, Medrash Pinkhes (Midrash According to Pinkhes; 1936), was praised as the most interesting Yiddish novel about World War I. It was followed by Shmeterlingen (Butterflies; 1939), which, some critics said, raised the prestige of all Yiddish literature in the country.

During the Soviet period, Altman’s works appeared mainly in the periodical Sovetish heymland and in the Warsaw publications Yidishe shriftn and Folks-shtime. However, his first Soviet book, which mainly contained works written in Romania, came out when he turned 90 in 1980. His books were also published in New York (1955), Bucharest (1974), and Tel Aviv (in Hebrew; 1967). Altman wrote two plays: an adaptation of Y. L. Peretz’s poem “Monish” (1945), which was performed in Bucharest in 1977, and the biblical Yiftakh shpil (Jephthah Play; 1970). In the 1930s, he composed theatrical revues that were staged by his coauthor, Yankev Shternberg, in Bucharest.

From Shloyme Bikl in Bucharest to "Gruder" in New York, 13 December 1938, about arrangements for Bikl’s emigration to America with his family. Bikl cites Yiddish writers such as Yoysef Opatoshu for having helped him procure a visa. He gives news about other Jewish writers in Bucharest, such as Yankev Shternberg, Moyshe Altman, Kraft, and Shefler, and says that everyone is thinking of emigrating. Yiddish. Romanian letterhead: Dr. S. Bickel, Advocat. RG 107, Letters Collection. Published with permission. (YIVO)

Altman addressed the theme of Stalinist repression in his poem “Me geyt antkegn” (One Goes Toward;1958), which was published in Warsaw, while the autobiographical gulag episodes Nit-dertseylungen (Non-Stories) appeared only partially and in Russian translation (Sovetish heymland; 1991).

The major influences on Altman’s work were Russian and French literature. He called the Russian critic Vissarion Belinsky “my great rabbi in literature.” His reading of Anatole France and Romain Rolland was reflected in the formal aspects of his prose. By merging European and Jewish traditions and blending realism with romanticism, and skepticism with optimism, Altman excelled in creating the synthetic character of Bessarabian Jews in their shtetl environment.

Suggested Reading

Israel Bartinay, “Moyshe Altman,” Di goldene keyt 53 (1965): 89–92; Yisrael Berkovitsh, Hundert yor yidish teater in Rumenye, 1876–1976 (Bucharest, 1976); Leyzer Podryadtshik, “Vegn Moyshe Altman,” Yerusholaymer almanakh 19 (1989): 134–139.



Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson; Yiddish titles translated with the assistance of Boris Kotlerman