Presidium of the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture, Kiev, 1934. Pictured are (first row, right to left): Osher Margulis (head of the Historical Section), M. Kadishevich (head of the Birobidzhan section), Kalman Marmor (a visiting scholar from America), historian Yoysef Liberberg, Gershon Gorokhov (director of the Institute from November 1934), Shimon Dobin (staff member of the Philological Institute); (second row) bibliographer Israel Mitlman, Iona Khinchin (archivist and dean of the Jewish Division of the Kiev Teachers College), philologist Elye Spivak, ethnomusicologist Moisei Beregovskii (head of the Folklore Section), literary historian Maks Erik (Zalman Merkin), Yashe Reznik (head of the Literature and Criticism Section), and Mikhl Levitan (head of the Philological Section). (YIVO)

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Margolis, Osher Leibovich

(1891–1976), Soviet historian and literary critic. Margolis (later Margulis) was born in Rovno (Rivne), Ukraine. He graduated from the history department of Kiev University and taught Jewish history at the Jewish Pedagogical Institute in Kiev in the early 1920s. At the end of the 1920s, he headed the historical section of the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in Kiev. At this time, he was also affiliated with the Jewish Section of the Moscow-based Communist University of the Peoples of the West, known in Yiddish as the Mayrevke.

Margolis’s scholarship reflects the ideological climate of the interwar period, when a cadre of Soviet Jewish scholars attempted to forge a Marxist-Leninist school of Jewish historiography that would reinterpret existing “bourgeois” Jewish scholarship and create new authoritative texts written from a strict class perspective. While Margolis clearly worked within this official institutional framework, his scholarship at times resists easy classification. As Alfred Abraham Greenbaum observes, Margolis’s frequent use of Hebraisms—reflecting what was probably a traditional childhood Talmudic education—seemingly disregarded the political taboos of state-sponsored Soviet Yiddish-language scholarship.

In 1930, Margolis published the first and only volume of Geshikhte fun yidn in Rusland: Etyudn un dokumentn 1772–1861 (History of the Jews of Russia: Studies and Documents 1772–1861), a publication that may have been intended as a text for intermediate and higher Jewish institutions. Here Margolis addresses four major themes: the economic life of Jews, grass-roots social struggle, Russian legislation regarding Jews, and the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment). Particular emphasis is placed on resistance to the kahal, the Jewish communal self-governing organization abolished by the tsarist regime in 1844. The strength of Margolis’s study lies in its rich collection of primary sources, including legal, commercial, and statistical-ethnographic materials.

Margolis’s dissertation Yidishe folksmasn in kamf kegn zeyere unterdriker, XVIII–XIX yh (The Jewish Masses in Struggle with their Oppressors, XVIII–XIX Centuries) was published as a book in 1940 and earned him the title of Candidate of Historical Sciences. This work focuses on the resistance of ordinary Jews to both internal and external class enemies in pre-partition Poland and imperial Russia. The study received a tepid review in a 1943 issue of YIVO-bleter, which deemed the work intellectually uneven and politically tendentious. In contrast, Soviet reviews—including one in a 1946 issue of Eynikayt (Unity), the organ of the USSR’s Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee—praised Margolis’s focus on the historical evolution of Jewish resistance and pronounced the work a major contribution to Marxist-Leninist scholarship.

In addition to his historical scholarship, Margolis wrote widely on literary themes in the Soviet Yiddish press. He published articles on the works of Mendele Moykher-Sforim and Sholem Aleichem, and together with literary historian Meir Wiener, he helped edit Yisroel Aksenfeld’s Dos shterntikhl (The Headband) and Nokh tsvey hozn (After Two Hares) for publication by Der Emes publishers in1938. In 1946, under the auspices of the Cabinet of Jewish Culture of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, he wrote an article about the historical foundations of Dovid Bergelson’s play Prints Reuveyni (Prince Reuveni).

In 1940, Margolis also published Viazoy lebn yidn in Sovetfarband (The Life of Jews in the Soviet Union), a propagandistic work glorifying Soviet policy toward Jews. The book methodically enumerates the social and economic rights guaranteed by the Stalin Constitution of 1936, and emphasizes both the ethnic equality of Jews with other Soviet nationalities and the success of Jews in the Red Army. Presumably, this publication was targeted at Polish Jews undergoing Sovietization in territories annexed after the signing of the 1939 Hitler–Stalin Nonaggression Pact.

Between 1941 and 1945, Margolis served as a member of the historical commission of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Either during or after the war (sources offer conflicting data) Margolis relocated to the city of Ryazan, southeast of Moscow, where he taught at a local pedagogical institute. According to an obituary in Sovetish heymland, Margolis was still living in Ryazan at the time of his death. His permanent relocation, and his conspicuously diminished publication record thereafter, strongly points to the long-term impact of the postwar anticosmopolitan campaign, when Jewish intellectuals were targeted as “rootless” enemies of the Soviet state. Margolis escaped the ultimate fate suffered by many of his Jewish colleagues, but the full consequences of late Stalinist persecution on his scholarly agenda awaits further investigation.

Suggested Reading

Chaim Beider (Khayim Beider), Bibliographical Dictionary of Yiddish Writers in the Soviet Union (New York, 2010); Zaynvl Diamant, “Margolis, Osher,” in Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, vol. 5, cols. 481-482 (New York, 1963); Alfred Abraham Greenbaum, Jewish Scholarship and Scholarly Institutions in Soviet Russia 1918–1953 (Jerusalem, 1978); “Margolis, Osher,” in Rossiiskaia evreiskaia entsiklopedia, vol. 2, p. 246 (Moscow, 1994).