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Levin, Gershn

(1868–1939), Yiddish and Hebrew writer, physician, and communal activist. Gershn Levin was born in Lublin and moved to Warsaw, where he completed medical studies in 1896. An energetic promoter of improved hygiene, he collaborated with Yisra’el Ḥayim Zagorodski (1864–1931) to write Ḥayenu ve-orekh yamenu: ‘Etsot ve-ḥukim lishmor beri’ut ha-guf (Our Life and Longevity: How to Stay Healthy; 1898). Levin’s views are particularly expressed in the chapter “Gidul-banim” (Childrearing), a critique of traditional heder education that contained a plea for children’s rights.

In later years, Levin’s books on health included Shvindzukht (Consumption [Tuberculosis]; 1911), Di higiene bay yidn amol un atsinder (Hygiene among Jews in the Past and Today; 1924), and Lungen-shvindzukht iz heylbar (Tuberculosis Is Curable; 1925). He was a leader in the Jewish health organization TOZ and the sports movement Bar Kochba. Levin’s concerns for physical well-being were matched by his interest in cultural activities: chamber music (he played the cello), the Warsaw Hazomir literary–musical society (of which he was a leader), and, especially, his writing.

As a writer, Levin is most acclaimed for a memoir in which he describes his childhood in Lublin, his service in the Russian army, and his associations with Sholem Aleichem and Y. L. Peretz. Yiddish critic Mordkhe Joffe took note of Levin’s brand of Jewish humor, which was written in idiomatic Lublin Yiddish. Though audiences responded enthusiastically to Levin’s hundreds of stories and feuilletons, he was, in fact, far more than a genial feuilletonist. His piece titled “Der ferbisener” (The Truculent One, chapter 4 of In velt krig; 1923) seems to focus on a teapot, yet is an epiphany of familial disruption in a period of migration.

A secular nationalist with a warm respect for Jewish tradition and a deep aversion to assimilationism, Levin is said to have been the first physician to speak to patients in Yiddish at the Warsaw Jewish hospital. He wrote extensively for the city’s Haynt daily newspaper and other pro-Zionist journals, though he did not ally himself to any particular Zionist group. He could be bitterly ironic, as he was in an encounter with the Union of Romanian Jews in 1916–1917, in which he criticized their leadership.

In Levin’s other writings, he recorded his experience as an army medical officer during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905 (Iberlebenishn: Epizodn un ayndrukn fun der rusish-yaponisher krig [Experiences: Episodes and Impressions from the Russian-Japanese War; 1931]) and during World War I (In velt krig [In World War]; 1923, first published in Haynt; 1918). In these texts, he provided telling accounts of the Russian army’s logistic disorder and highlighted its endemic antisemitism.

A writer and friend of other writers, Levin was Y. L. Peretz’s closest companion, confidant, and physician. In Perets; A bisl zikhroynes (Peretz: Some Memories; 1919), he paints a figure with contradictory strains in a complex character. His relationship with Peretz earned him a wicked parody by Yoysef Tunkel. Levin was also close to other writers, including Sholem Aleichem, whose jubilee celebration committee he chaired.

Little is known of the circumstances of Levin’s death, but The Martyrdom of Jewish Physicians in Poland (Louis Falstein, ed., 1963, p. 84) states, “Dr. Lewin [sic] died during the first days of the Nazi occupation, a sick, broken man, his condition aggravated by the terror unleashed by the Germans on the Jewish people.”

Suggested Reading

Chaim Finkelstein, Haynt: A tsaytung bay yidn, 1908–1939 (Tel Aviv, 1978).