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Gordon, Shmuel

(1909–1998), Yiddish writer. Born in Kovno (mod. Kaunas), Shmuel Gordon spent his youth in Jewish orphanages in Ukraine. In 1929, as a student in the Yiddish Department at the Second Moscow State University, he was castigated in the Soviet press for sending poems to the Warsaw “bourgeois nationalistic publication” Literarishe bleter (Literary Pages). This incident signaled the total alienation of Soviet Yiddish literary figures from their Western colleagues. Nevertheless, in 1931 Gordon graduated from the university and had a successful, albeit unglamorous, career as a Yiddish journalist and prose writer.

Gordon’s first collection of stories, Tsvishn Azovn un Shvartsn (Between the Azov and Black Seas; 1934), describes settlers in new Jewish agricultural colonies. His pieces devoted to Birobidzhan came out in the collections Patriotn (Patriots; 1936), Birobidzhaner kinder (Birobidzhan Children; 1937), and Birobidzhaner toyshvim (Birobidzhan Dwellers; 1947). During World War II he worked for the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), writing for its newspaper Eynikayt (Unity). He had been admitted in the Soviet Writers Union in 1944. Some of his wartime stories were included in his book Milkhome-tsayt (During the War; 1946).

Gordon was imprisoned in 1949 during the Stalinist repression of Jewish intellectuals. Having survived interrogation, he was sent to the gulag, where he remained until 1956. He later lived in Moscow and took pride in having a flat in the same courtyard where Leonid Brezhnev had a Moscow residence.

Gordon was one of the most prolific Yiddish writers for the Moscow-based journal Sovetish heymland (Soviet Homeland) and the publishing house Sovetskii Pisatel’ (Soviet Writer). As a composer of documentary stories—a hybrid of journalism and belles lettres—in 1966 he wrote enthusiastically about contemporary topics, visiting, for example, collective farms in Kazakhstan and introducing their heroes into Yiddish literature. Gordon was sarcastic about the threadbare themes of the prerevolutionary or pre-Holocaust shtetl, and emerged as the pioneer of neo-shtetl literature. He wrote in Sovetish heymland about Jewish families who returned to their shtetls in the Podolian part of Ukraine and continued to preserve the pre-Holocaust way of life. Much of the material of Gordon’s travel stories appeared in recycled form as a play titled Dem balshemtov gesl (Ba‘al Shem Tov Street; 1968), set in Międzyboż in the 1960s.

As the author of several novels, from the late 1980s Gordon concentrated on his final work of long fiction, Yizker (In Memoriam; 2003), arguably the most significant prose work devoted to the persecution of Soviet Yiddish literary figures in the 1940s and 1950s. The victims of persecution, including Gordon himself, appear under false names, though their identities are usually transparent (for example, Dovid Bergelson is called Okhrimov, the name of his home shtetl). The novel, initially serialized in Sovetish heymland and in its post-1993 continuation, Di yidishe gas (The Jewish Street), was published in Israel in 2003 due to the endeavors of Professor Gershon Winer’s Foundation for the Advancement of Yiddish Studies.

Suggested Reading

Gennady Estraikh, “The Shtetl Theme in Sovetish Heymland,” in The Shtetl: Image and Reality, ed. Gennady Estraikh and Mikhail Krutikov, pp. 152–168 (Oxford, 2000); Gennady Estraikh, “Shmuel Gordon: A Yiddish Writer in ‘Ocean of Russian Literature,’” in The Yiddish Presence in European Literature, ed. Joseph Sherman and Ritchie Robertson, pp. 134–151 (Oxford, 2005).