Zalmen Reyzen, Poland, ca. 1930s. (YIVO)

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Reyzen, Zalmen

(Reisen; 1887–1941), scholar of Yiddish language and literature, editor, journalist, and cultural activist. The brother of Avrom and Sore Reyzen, Zalmen Reyzen was born in Koidanov, Belorussia; he studied in a heder and at a Russian school. His father, a maskil, wrote poetry in Hebrew and Yiddish.

Reyzen began his writing career by collaborating with his brother Avrom on textbooks for learning Yiddish language and grammar. The first volume of his Gramatik fun der yidisher shprakh (Grammar of the Yiddish Language; 1920) grew out of the first edition of his Yidishe gramatik (Yiddish Grammar; 1908). The second volume was never published, but sections of it appeared in journals. Reyzen also translated works into Yiddish, notably by Dostoevsky and Maupassant.

From Zalmen Reyzen in Vilna to members of the Yiddish Writers and Journalists Club in Palestine, 6 June 1929, about whether they have the authorization to form a branch of the Yiddish Pen Club there. He informs them that the regulations of the club prohibit a discrete organization from serving as a branch of the club, and also, that membership is limited to literary writers and excludes journalists. However, if a sufficient number of individual writers in Palestine join the Yiddish Pen Club, they will consider establishing a separate branch in Palestine. Yiddish. RG 107, Letters Collection. (YIVO)

Reyzen’s central contribution to Yiddish literary scholarship is his extensive work in creating biographical reference works on Yiddish writers. The first edition of Leksikon fun der yudisher literatur un prese (Biographical Dictionary of Yiddish Literature and Press; 1914) was a groundbreaking endeavor to present and systematize previously uncollected materials on Yiddish writers, and also included a list of Yiddish periodicals. Shmuel Niger, the book’s editor, wrote most of the critical appraisals. This first attempt was later expanded into the monumental Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur, prese un filologye (Biographical Dictionary of Yiddish Literature, Press and Philology; 4 vols.; 1926–1929), which continues to be the fundamental reference book in the field, and the main source for the Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur (Biographical Dictionary of New Yiddish Literature; 8 vols.; 1956–1981). Reyzen compiled his biographical dictionary from material supplied by the writers themselves and from his own intimate and extensive knowledge of the Yiddish press. He began the process of preparing a fifth volume; a portion of the collected materials was saved and is now housed in New York in the archives of the YIVO Institute.

In 1915, Reyzen settled in Vilna and dedicated himself to journalism, at first for the daily newspaper Letste nayes and later for the daily Vilner tog, which he edited from 1919 to 1939. The latter paper was also published under the name Undzer tog and other names that kept changing due to Polish censorship. Radical in nature, the newspaper supported Yiddish writers and served as a platform for the Yiddishist intelligentsia of Vilna. For example, it was the harbinger of the first collective publication of the literary group Yung-vilne, in 1929, a group that Reyzen encouraged and published on a regular basis.

Reyzen was active in the communal and cultural life of Vilna and in its extensive array of organizations, including the Association of Jewish Writers and Journalists and the Yiddish PEN club. His consistent interest in the local history of Jewish Vilna is most clearly evident in the monumental publication for which he served as editor, Pinkes far der geshikhte fun Vilne in di yorn fun milkhome un okupatsye (Annals of the History of Vilna in the Years of War and Occupation; 1922), a model of local historiography about the recent past.

Staff and visitors on a day honoring Yiddish writer Yitskhok Leybush Peretz (see portrait, center) at the Sholem Aleichem High School, Zdzięcioł, Poland (now Dzyatlava, Bel.), 1937. (Seated, first row center), Helena Peretz, the writer's widow; (2nd row, near center, with glasses) Zalmen Reyzen; (behind Reyzen's left shoulder, in white shirt and tie) Max Weinreich. (Written on back of photograph in Yiddish) "You cannot imagine how the children moved her with their speaking about Peretz. (YIVO)

Reyzen centered his Yiddish literary research on the Haskalah and on popular works of the nineteenth century. His textbook Fun Mendelson biz Mendele (From Mendelssohn to Mendele; 1923) introduced the contemporary reader to a broad selection of the works of the then-known Yiddish writers of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In collaboration with Maks Erik, Reyzen prepared an anthology of old Yiddish literature titled “Fun Elye Bokher biz Moyshe Mendelson” (From Elye Bokher to Moses Mendelssohn), but the book never appeared. He did publish, with A. Fridkin, A. B. Gotlobers yidishe verk (A. B. Gottlober’s Yiddish Works; 1927). Reyzen’s interest in modern Yiddish literature and his personal connection with its creators also merged in his editorship of Vayter-bukh: Tsum ondenk fun A. Vayter (Vayter Book: In Memory of A. Vayter; 1920; coedited with Shmuel Niger).

Zalmen Reyzen was one of the principal figures in YIVO, in the realm of both institutional work and scholarly accomplishments. He was an editor of the journal Yidishe filologye (1924–1926) and of Filologishe shriftn (3 vols.; 1926–1929) and was a member of the editorial board (and later, editor) of YIVO-bleter (1931–1939), in which he published research and critical reviews. His travels to the United States in 1930 and to Argentina in 1932 played a significant part in strengthening connections among the various international centers of Yiddish culture and in awakening interest in YIVO’s work.

When the Soviets invaded Vilna in September 1939, Reyzen was arrested, despite the fact that the Vilner tog had maintained a radical and pro-Soviet stance. He was shot to death by the Soviets in 1941, at the beginning of the German–Soviet war. A selection of his works was published in the series Musterverk fun der Yidisher Literatur (1965).

Suggested Reading

Hirsz Abramowicz, “Zalmen Reyzen,” in Profiles of a Lost World: Memoirs of East European Jewish Life before World War II, pp. 313–320 (Detroit, 1999), includes many other references to Reyzen; Afn shvel 260 (October–December 1985), issue dedicated to Reyzen; Ber Borokhov, Shprakh-forshung un literatur-geshikhte (Tel Aviv, 1966), pp. 161–169; Samuel Kassow, “Zalmen Reyzen un zayn gezelshaftlekh-politishe arbet, 1915–1922,” YIVO-bleter: Naye serye 2 (1994): 67–97; Leyzer Ran and David E. Fishman, “Biblyografye fun Zalmen Reyzens verk,” YIVO-bleter: Naye serye 2 (1994): 99–125; Elye Shulman, “Reyzen, Zalmen,” in Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, vol. 8, cols. 478–482 (New York, 1981).



Translated from Yiddish by Yankl Salant