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Smolar, Hersh

(1905–1993), Polish and Soviet Yiddish writer and editor. Born to a poor family in the town of Zambrów, Poland, Hersh Smolar (also rendered Smolyar) attended primary school until the age of 11, when he began working, and soon became involved in revolutionary activities. He was a leader of the local branch of the Jewish Socialist Youth Association from 1918 to 1920. During the 1920 Polish–Soviet War, Smolar belonged to a revolutionary committee that had formed in Zambrów when the Red Army had occupied the town.

Smolar fled to Soviet Russia in 1921, initially living in Kiev. He moved to Moscow two years later, after being admitted to the Yiddish department at the Communist University for the Peoples of the West (known in Yiddish as Mayrevke), one of the universities run by the Comintern. Forced to interrupt his studies the next year, Smolar was dispatched to Khar’kiv (then the Ukrainian capital), where he was given the task of reinforcing the local Yiddish-speaking Communist cadre. He helped to edit the newspaper Yunge gvardye (Young Guard), which targeted Yiddish-speaking youth. He returned to Moscow in 1926 and continued his studies at the Communist University, coediting its Yiddish journal Mayrevnik (Student of the Mayrevke).

Smolar served as a Comintern agent in Poland from 1928 to 1939; twice arrested, he spent six years in prison. After World War II began, he fled to Białystok (then in Soviet-occupied territory), where he gained prominence among refugee Polish Yiddish writers and as editor of the Communist newspaper Byalistoker shtern (Białystok Star). Smolar did not manage to evacuate when Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941. A leading member of the resistance in the Minsk ghetto, he became commissar of a partisan group operating in Belorussian forests. His wartime memoirs, Fun Minsker geto (From the Minsk Ghetto), were published by Emes in Moscow in 1946.

Smolar and his wife, Walentyna Najdus, subsequently returned to Poland, where he held key positions in the Jewish community as chair of the Jewish Cultural Alliance and editor of the Yiddish newspaper Folks-shtime. He published a collection of partisan stories, Yidn on gele lates (Jews without Yellow Patches; 1948), and the play A posheter zelner (An Ordinary Soldier; 1952). His Folks-shtime editorial “Undzer veytik un undzer treyst” (Our Pain and Our Comfort; 4 April 1956), which was reprinted all over the world, became the first semiofficial source of information on the liquidation of Soviet Yiddish cultural institutions and their leading personalities between 1948 and 1952. Indeed, this editorial triggered a radical decline in the number of Yiddish-language organizations that supported the Soviet Union.

As a result of the 1968 anti-Jewish campaign and the involvement of his sons (Aleksander [1940– ] and Eugeniusz) in dissident student circles, Smolar acknowledged that his life in Poland had become untenable. He left for Israel in 1971. The four volumes of his Yiddish memoirs—Vu bistu khaver Sidorov? (Where are You, Comrade Sidorov?; 1975), Fun ineveynik (From Inside; 1978), Af der letster pozitsye mit der letster hofenung (On the Last Position with the Last Hope; 1982), and Sovetishe yidn hinter geto-tsoymen (Soviet Jews behind Ghetto Walls; 1985)—constitute comprehensive sources on Jewish political and cultural activities in the Soviet Union and Poland. Some of Smolar’s former colleagues, however, felt hurt by his suggestions that they had collaborated with the Polish secret police; an anonymous pamphlet, Der tsadik in pelts (The Too-Pious Man; 1985), denounced his 1982 book as a self-serving exercise.

Suggested Reading

Gennady Estraikh, “Metamorphoses of Morgn-frayhayt,” in Yiddish and the Left, ed. Gennady Estraikh and Mikhail Krutikov (Oxford, 2001); Hersh Smolar, The Minsk Ghetto: Soviet-Jewish Partisans against the Nazis, trans. Max Rosenfeld (New York, 1989).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1247, Paul (Pesakh) Novick, Papers, 1900-1988.