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Wiener, Meir

(1893–1941), Yiddish and German writer, critic, and literary scholar. Born into a middle-class family in Kraków, Meir Wiener (also known as Meyer Viner) grew up speaking Polish, Yiddish, and German. He attended a German gymnasium and was tutored at home in Judaism and Hebrew culture by Tsevi ha-Kohen Rapoport. Before the outbreak of World War I, the family moved to Vienna. Discharged from military service on health grounds, Wiener went to Basel and Zurich to study philosophy in 1915 but did not complete his degree. He returned to Vienna in 1919, and subsequently traveled intermittently between his family in Vienna and his editorial job in Berlin until 1925, when he joined the Communist Party of Austria and moved to Paris.

In the autumn of 1926, Wiener settled in the Soviet Union, where he wrote for the Yiddish journal Di royte velt (The Red World). From Kharkov he moved to Kiev as head of the literature and folklore section at the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture. Between 1935 and 1938, he headed the Department of Yiddish Language and Literature at the Moscow State Pedagogical Institute. After the German attack on the Soviet Union, Wiener enlisted in the Moscow Writers Battalion and was killed in action near Viaz’ma a few months later.

While studying in Switzerland, Wiener had become interested in medieval Hebrew poetry and mysticism, which resulted in his collaboration with the Prague rabbi and scholar Ḥayim Brody on an anthology of postbiblical Hebrew poetry, Anthologia Hebraica (1922). Initially an adept of the spiritual Zionism of Ahad Ha-Am and Martin Buber, around 1919 Wiener shifted toward a more radical “pan-Asiatic” variety of Zionism championed by the Austrian writer Eugen Hoeflich (Mosheh Ya‘akov Ben-Gavri’el). Wiener’s social life revolved around the artistic cafés of Vienna and Berlin, where the circle included prominent Hebrew, Yiddish, and German writers and intellectuals. His articles on German Jewish and Hebrew literature appeared between 1917 and 1920 in the German-language Zionist publications Der Jude, Jerubbaal, and Menora; the last issue of the Austrian Zionist journal Esra (1920) contained his fierce criticism of the bourgeois character of the Zionist movement.

In 1920, a collection of Wiener’s poetry, Messias: Drei Dichtungen (Messiah: Three Poems), inspired by his study of mysticism, came out simultaneously with a volume of his translations from Hebrew, Die Lyrik der (The Poetry of the Kabbalah), which was attacked by Gershom Scholem for its expressionist leanings and lack of academic precision. In Von den Symbolen. Zehn Kapitel über den Ausdruck des Geistes (On the Symbols: Ten Chapters on the Expression of Spirit; 1924), Wiener developed his concept of the autonomy of spiritual expression in art and religion. Under the influence of his Berlin friend, the Soviet Yiddish poet Leyb Kvitko, Wiener became interested in Yiddish and communism. Although he began writing poetry and ficition in Yiddish in 1920-1921, he was unable to publish his works until his arrival in the Soviet Union.

Wiener’s first novel, Ele Faleks untergang (The Downfall of Ele Falek; written in Berlin in 1923, published in Kharkov in 1929), told the story of the sad life and tragic death of a young Jewish intellectual in Kraków on the eve of World War I. Wiener’s second novel, Kolev Ashkenazi (1934), was set in seventeenth-century Kraków. Grown out of a psychological novella about a mentally unstable Polish aristocratic convert to Judaism, Kolev Ashkenazi represented an experiment in matching expressionism with socialist realism.

Wiener’s interest in seventeenth-century history led him to Venice, where the first two chapters of his unfinished novel “Baym mitlendishn yam” (At the Mediterranean Sea; 1935) were set. Some of his unpublished manuscripts, including his childhood memoir and the novella “Los khudios” (The Jews), appeared in Sovetish heymland in 1967 and 1968. But his magnum opus, a 450-page novel about Berlin Jewish bohemia in the early 1920s, remains unprinted.

Wiener’s Yiddish literary scholarship, most of which was posthumously collected in the two-volume set Tsu der geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur in 19tn yorhundert (On the History of Yiddish Literature in the Nineteenth Century; 1945), focused on the Haskalah authors Yisroel Aksenfeld and Shloyme Ettinger, as well as Mendele Moykher-Sforim and Sholem Aleichem (although he did write about the work of some of his contemporaries as well). Placing Yiddish literature in the context of European cultural history enabled Wiener to apply the Marxist scheme of literary development to the Yiddish case. In his scholarship, as in his fiction, Marxist rhetoric sometimes masked his idealistic leanings. In his 1940 study of Sholem Aleichem’s humor, he openly rejected his own “vulgar sociological” approach of the early 1930s and celebrated the “eternal spirit” of the Jewish collective psyche as it expressed itself in the folk character of Tevye the Dairyman.

Wiener’s interest in the expressive resources of the language, which informed his German criticism, prompted him to explore the complex relationships between the rationalist ideological commitment and the irrational artistic leaning toward folklore in the literature of the Yiddish Enlightenment. He also edited two volumes of studies of Jewish folklore. An untimely death prevented Wiener from realizing his plan to write a comprehensive scholarly history of modern Yiddish literature.

Suggested Reading

Mikhail Krutikov, “Soviet Yiddish Scholarship in the 1930s: From Class to Folk,” Slavic Almanach: The South African Year Book for Slavic, Central and East European Studies 7.10 (2001): 223–251; Mikhail Krutikov, “A Yiddish Author as a Cultural Mediator: Meir Wiener’s Unpublished Novel,” in The Yiddish Presence in European Literature: Inspiration and Interaction, ed. Ritchie Robertson and Joseph Sherman, pp. 73–86 (Oxford, 2005); Eliyohu Shulman, “Meyer Viner,” in Pinkes far der forshung fun der yidisher literatur un prese, vol. 2, pp. 77–144 (New York, 1972).