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Feldman, Wilhelm

(1868–1919), literary historian, writer, critic, editor, and politician. Born into a poor Orthodox family in Zbaraż, Wilhelm Feldman ultimately found a place among Poland’s intellectual elite. At 18 he broke with his Hasidic milieu and moved to Lwów, a stronghold of the Haskalah movement. There he joined Agudas Akhim, a group of young maskilim promoting Polish (as opposed to the traditionally German) political orientation among Galician Jews. Intense social activism did not prevent him from immediately launching a career as a writer, publicist, and literary critic.

The “Jewish Question” was the central focus of these activities. Feldman believed that Jews had no future and that they faced gradual dissolution in Polish society as a distinct group. The erosion of ghetto culture, the disappearance of Yiddish, and the eradication of barriers to integration were unavoidable stages in this process. In reality, Feldman’s vision ran counter to key political trends: assimilation was stalling; and both antisemitism and Zionism were on the rise, setting the scene for a confrontation between Polish and Jewish nationalist forces.

In addition to Jewish reform, Feldman maintained a lifelong commitment to socialism, which he actively championed in journals he edited after moving to Kraków in 1886. His second editorial venture, Krytyka (Criticism; 1901–1914), became a leading Polish cultural institution, proving intellectually vibrant and socially progressive.

In 1891, Feldman was appointed secretary of the Vienna-based Hirsch Foundation, a body concerned with the well-being of Galician Jews. Feldman applied his considerable managerial skills to establish schools, set up vocational training programs, and improve health conditions. In 1894–1895 he, who had been self-educated, attended universities in Heidelberg and Berlin. His studies, however, were cut short as a result of his expulsion from Germany for spreading Polish nationalistic propaganda.

Feldman wrote extensively on Jewish issues, including countless newspaper articles, several longer studies (among them, Żargon żydowski [The Jewish Jargon; 1891], Asymilatorzy, sionisci i Polacy [Assimilationists, Zionists, and Poles; 1893]), and essays on Polish Jewish history. He wrote a body of fiction and plays that, although artistically unremarkable, offered a passionate if highly critical portrayal of ghetto life, intertwined with autobiographic themes (Piękna Żydówka [The Beautiful Jewess; 1888]; Zydziak [The Jewboy; 1889]; Cudotworca [The Miracle Worker; 1901]; and Sądy boże [God’s Judgment; 1901]). Jewish issues also appear as a theme in Feldman’s writings on various aspects of Galician life, including the economy, education, political parties, and the history of political thought.

Feldman spent World War I in Germany at the head of Józef Piłsudski’s press bureau and briefly served there as chargé d’affaires for the reborn Polish state. It was there that he published several studies on Central European politics in German.

Feldman’s most lasting contribution to Polish scholarship was in the field of literary studies. He strongly influenced Polish modernism by pioneering a new school of criticism that emphasized the subjectivity of perception and the role of artistic personality. In addition, he resurrected several Romantic values. Feldman’s fundamental work Współczesna literatura polska (Contemporary Polish Literature; 1908), presented the first synthesis of Polish literature of the modern period.

The public response to Feldman’s achievements was mixed. Together with professional recognition came vicious antisemitic attacks warning of the dangers of Jewish “infiltration” of Polish culture and condemning assimilation. Attacks from the Polish right were combined with hostility from Zionists, who warned him to stay out of politics. This amounted to a personal tragedy for the self-described “child of the Jewish proletariat”-turned Polish scholar and patriot. Isolated and bitter, Feldman died in 1919 after having been baptized.

Suggested Reading

Tadeusz Stanisław Grabowski, “Feldman Wilhelm,” in Polski słownik biograficzny, vol. 6, pp. 399–404 (Kraków, 1948); Ezra Mendelsohn, “Jewish Assimilation in Lvov: The Case of Wilhelm Feldman,” Slavic Review 28 (1969): 577–590; Z. Szweykowski, ed., “Wilhelm Feldman,” in Bibliografia literatury polskiej: ‘Nowy Korbut,’ vol. 13, Literatura Pozytywizmu i Mlodej Polski, pp. 499–510 (Warsaw, 1970).