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Steinberg Brothers

Russian intellectual figures, active in literature and politics. Yitskhok Nakhmen Steinberg (1888–1957) was a political activist and public intellectual. His brother Aron (1891–1975) was a Russian and Yiddish writer and essayist. The Steinberg brothers were born in Dvinsk (now Daugavpils, Latvia) into an educated, religious, and wealthy merchant family. Their mother was a sister of the Yiddish critic Isidor Eliashev, also known as Bal-Makhshoves.

Yitskhok Nakhmen Steinberg graduated from a Russian high school and in 1906 began to study law at Moscow University, but was drawn into revolutionary politics, joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SR), was arrested, and was then released on the condition that he leave Russia. He continued his legal studies at the University of Heidelberg, combining them with the study of the Talmud under a private tutor, Zalmen Borukh Rabinkov, in a small circle that included Erich Fromm, Naḥum Goldmann, and Ernst Simon. After completing his term of exile and defending his doctoral thesis on Talmudic criminal law, Steinberg returned to Moscow in 1910 and practiced law. He married in 1914 and became an active member of the Moscow Jewish community, being considered as a future rabbi of Moscow. During World War I, Steinberg participated in activities of the Jewish Committee for Aiding Victims of War (EKOPO).

Steinberg resumed his activities within the SR party in 1916 and quickly rose through its political ranks. In the summer of 1917, he was elected as a member of the city council of Ufa in the Urals, and after the split of the party in August of that year, became one of the leaders of its independent left wing (LSR). The LSR welcomed the Bolshevik revolution but rejected the Marxist theory of class struggle, arguing that the main moving force of the revolution had to be the peasants. Needing peasant support, Lenin invited the LSR to join his government and, from December 1917 to February 1918, Steinberg served as the People’s Commissar for Justice of Soviet Russia. His position was largely decorative, as the real power was in the hands of the fearsome Cheka (Extraordinary Commission for Fighting Counterrevolution and Sabotage), controlled by the Bolsheviks. Trying to resist Bolshevik terror, Steinberg succeeded in saving the lives of a number of political prisoners. But his most fateful political action was his legal approval, as commissar of justice, of the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918 by the Bolsheviks, a decision that quenched all hopes for democratic development in Russia for nearly 70 years.

After the breakdown of the coalition over the issue of the peace treaty with Germany in February 1918, Steinberg traveled to Europe to mobilize support for the LSR, probably saving himself from arrest after the failed anti-Bolshevik coup of July 1918. Upon his return, he served as a mediator between the LSR opposition and the Bolshevik leadership. In 1923, however, he moved to Berlin and turned to literature and journalism. His first Yiddish publication appeared in 1925; and from 1926 to 1937 he edited the Vilna journal Fraye shriftn—farn yidishn sotsialistishn gedank (Free Papers—For Jewish Socialist Thought), which covered a wide range of political and cultural issues. He was affiliated with YIVO from its inception in 1925.

Two years after moving to London in 1933, Steinberg became active in the newly resurrected territorialist movement. His work was subordinated to the urgent task of finding a territory in which to settle endangered Jews from Europe and in planning the future life in this territory. Rejecting Zionism on moral and political grounds, Steinberg believed that the salvation of the Jewish people lay in autonomous Yiddish-speaking agricultural settlements under the political patronage of colonial empires. For this purpose, he visited South Africa (1935–1936) and Australia (1939–1943); in 1943, he settled in the United States, where he became involved in Yiddishist activities.

A prolific writer in Russian, German, Yiddish, and English, Steinberg wrote hundreds of articles and more than a dozen books, including an award-winning play about the Russian Revolution, which have been translated into many languages. A controversial political thinker and activist, he tried to remain true to the ideals of Russian populism, as well as to the commandments of Judaism.

Aron Steinberg was a Russian and Yiddish writer and essayist who studied law and philosophy at Heidelberg University. During World War I, he was interned in Germany but returned to Russia in 1918. He lectured at the Petrograd Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies and was one of the founders of the Free Philosophical Association (VOLFILA), the last independent academic body that tried to resist the ideological pressure of the Bolshevik regime. He was briefly arrested in 1919 and, in 1922, moved to Berlin, where he contributed to the Russian, German, and Yiddish press, translated Simon Dubnow’s history of the Jewish people from Russian into German (10 vols., 1925–1929), as well as edited and contributed to the Yiddish Algemeyne entsiklopedye (General Encyclopedia; 1934). In 1934, he moved to London, and between 1948 and 1968 served as the head of the Cultural Department at the World Jewish Congress and as the World Jewish Congress’s representative at UNESCO.

Aron Steinberg published numerous essays on Russian literature and Jewish thought, and helped to promote Yiddish culture after the Holocaust. His memoir, Druz’ia moikh rannykh let (1911–1928) (Friends of My Early Years [1911–1928]), published posthumously in 1991, presents a broad portrait of Russian intellectual life around the time of the revolution. A friend and associate of prominent Russian writers and thinkers such as Alexandr Blok, Andrey Bely, and Lev Karsavin, Aron Steinberg combined his lifelong engagement with Russian culture with his commitment to religious Judaism and Jewish culture.

Suggested Reading

Benjamim Bialostotzky, ed., Yitskhok Nakhmen Shteynberg: Der mentsh, zayn vort, zayn oyftu (New York, 1961); Mikhail Krutikov, “Isaac Nahman Steinberg: From Anti-Communist Revolutionary to Anti-Zionist Territorialist,” Jews in Eastern Europe 1–2 [38–39] (1999): 5–24; Aaron Steinberg, Dostoievsky (New York, 1966); Aaron Steinberg, History as Experience: Aspects of Historical Thought—Universal and Jewish; Selected Essays and Studies (New York, 1983).