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Orshanski, Ber

(1883–1945), Yiddish writer and literary historian. Born in Horodok, Belorussia, Ber Orshanski received a traditional education until the age of 16. From 1902 to 1906 he lived in Riga, where he joined the Bund. Subsequently he moved to Vilna, where he wrote and published his first Yiddish plays. Between 1910 and 1913, Orshanski worked as a proofreader at a number of Vilna-based newspapers, including Vilner vokhnblat (Vilna Weekly), edited by Lipman Levin. Orshanski also edited an almanac, Der shnayder (The Tailor), in 1913.

A member of the Communist Party, Orshanski worked in 1918 at the Jewish Commissariat and on its periodicals; in this capacity he advocated spelling Hebrew words and forms according to the general (phonemic) rules of Yiddish spelling. In the spring of 1919, he briefly edited the Communist newspaper Der shtern (The Star) in Vilna and Vitebsk. The following year, he joined the managing committee of the Moscow Circle of Yiddish Writers and Artists. His short novel Af khvalyes (On Waves; 1924), dedicated to his friend Solomon Mikhoels, was one of the first notable prose works written by a Soviet Yiddish writer. Its protagonist, the harassed, illegitimate son of a Jewish thief, finds himself among revolutionaries whom he eventually joins.

Orshanski arrived in Minsk in 1924 to head the Jewish department at the Institute of Belorussian Culture, the precursor of the Belorussian Academy of Sciences. The department was the first center for scholarly Yiddish studies, and Orshanski was the founding editor of its academic journal, Tsaytshrift (Chronicle; 1926–1931). His monograph Di yidishe literatur in Vaysrusland nokh der revolutsye (Yiddish Literature in Belorussia after the Revolution; 1931) is among the most comprehensive sources on Soviet Yiddish literary life in the years following 1917.

In Minsk, Orshanski played an active role in creating a stronghold of proletarian culture. As early as February 1920, in his article published in the Kiev daily Komunistishe fon (Communist Banner), which he coedited at that time, he accused highbrow Yiddish writers, most notably those associated with Kultur-lige, of ignoring Jewish workers and targeting only “the bachelor, the external student, and the intellectual nudnick.” In 1926, the collection Kep (Heads), dedicated to the victims of White Guard terror, was published in Minsk as the first forum of Belorussian Yiddish proletarian writers. In his introduction, “Undzer ershter organizirter aroystrit” (Our First Organized Appearance), Orshanski announced that the proletarian literary youth had come to “smoke out” the old literature.

Together with Yashe Bronshteyn and other Minsk literati, Orshanski criticized the “national-aestheticism” of such Ukrainian Yiddish writers as Der Nister, Nokhem Oyslender, and Yekhezkl Dobrushin, contesting their right to be regarded as the founding fathers of Soviet Yiddish literature. He briefly edited the Minsk daily Oktyabr (October) in 1926, combining it with his position at the agitprop of the Belorussian Communist Party. In 1928 he visited Berlin as a representative of the Society for the Settlement of Jewish Toilers on the Land (OZET).

At the same time, Orshanski remained a writer of plays, children’s books, stories, and critical works. His play Blut (Blood; 1929), set in pre-1917 Poland, features Polish and Jewish revolutionaries; it was staged by the Belorussian State Yiddish Theater. The collection Kolyma dertseylungen (Kolyma Stories; 1941) is based on his two-year experience editing the Russian newspaper Kolymskaia pravda (Kolyma Truth). Labor prison camps, which then inundated that area of Siberia, are not mentioned in the stories. Rather, Orshanski portrays indigenous nomadic people and their progress under Soviet rule. In the 1940s, he contributed to publications of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.

Suggested Reading

Avram Abchuk, Etyudn un materyaln tsu der geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur-bavegung in FSSR, 1917–1927 (Khar’kov, 1934); Alfred Abraham Greenbaum, Jewish Scholarship and Scholarly Institutions in Soviet Russia, 1918–1953 (Jerusalem, 1978).