Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the

Oyslender, Nokhem

(1893–1962), Soviet Yiddish author, critic, and literary scholar. Born into a timber merchant’s family in Khodorkov, Volhynia, Nokhem Oyslender received his secondary education in Kiev and studied medicine at universities in Berlin and Kiev. He served as a doctor in the Red Army between 1919 and 1922 while also publishing articles and short stories in Russian in army newspapers. His revolutionary enthusiasm found its expression in three collections of Yiddish poetry (1917–1922) and a collection of his civil war stories, Af lodemirer veg (On the Way to Ludmir; 1930).

In his early critical essays—Gruntshtrikhn fun yidishn realizm (Main Features of Yiddish Realism; 1919) and Veg-ayn-veg-oys (Way In, Way Out; 1924)—Oyslender explored the generic relationships between Yiddish folklore, realism, and modernist literature, emphasizing the significance of “primitive” art forms for formal experiment and stylistic innovation. The mission of the modern Yiddish writer, he argued, was to revitalize the tradition of Jewish collective creativity that originated in folklore. Oyslender served as a coeditor of the Moscow modernist magazine Der shtrom from 1922 to 1925, later heading the departments of Yiddish literature at the Institute of Belorussian Culture’s Jewish sector (1925–1926) and the Institute of Jewish Culture in Kiev (1926–1931).

Over the course of his career, Oyslender held professorial positions in Yiddish literature at universities in Minsk and Kiev, edited the collected works of Sholem Aleichem in Kharkov (1931–1933), and taught Yiddish literature at the State Pedagogical Institute in Moscow. He also held academic appointments at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences from 1936 to 1946.

After 1925, Oyslender’s interests began shifting toward literary history, and his methods incorporated elements of Marxist sociology. In seminal articles published in Soviet Yiddish periodicals between 1925 and 1948, Oyslender explored the impact of the sociohistorical context on the creativity of individual authors, including Avrom Goldfadn, Mendele and his contemporaries, the Warsaw Yiddish writers of the 1850s and 1860s, early Sholem Aleichem, and Y. L. Peretz. Oyslender’s works on the history of Yiddish theater before the October Revolution were collected in the monograph Yidisher teater (1887–1917), published in Moscow in 1940. He was also active as a theater critic and playwright, composed textbooks and readers for Soviet Yiddish schools, and edited the academic editions of Mendele’s and Sholem Aleichem’s collected works.

During World War II, Oyslender belonged to the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee’s historical commission. After the war, he resumed his work at the Kiev Office for the Study of Soviet Jewish Literature, Language, and Folklore until it was closed down in 1948. During the last two years of his life, he was in charge of literary criticism at the Moscow magazine Sovetish heymland.

Oyslender’s main achievements were in literary criticism and history. A champion of early Soviet Yiddish modernism and the avant-garde, he was increasingly criticized for his “formalist,” “nationalist,” and “petit-bourgeois” deviations during the late 1920s, and was forced to recant during the ideological campaign of 1931–1932. Like many of his colleagues, he ultimately chose the safer haven of academic research. His studies of nineteenth-century Yiddish literature and theater remain indispensable for any student of Yiddish literature, and his critical essays on Soviet Yiddish literature offer invaluable insights into that culture from the early postrevolutionary years. His memoirs, which have been published only in fragments, present a vivid portrait of Yiddish cultural life in Kiev before and after the October Revolution.

Suggested Reading

Gennady Estraikh, In Harness: Yiddish Writers’ Romance with Communism (Syracuse, N.Y., 2005); Abe Finkelshteyn, “Tsum 75stn geburtstog fun Nokhem Oyslender (bio-bibliografishe notitsn),” Sovetish heymland (December 1968): 142–146; fragments of Oyslender’s memoirs appeared in Sovetish heymland (September 1969): 130–133, and (February 1980): 118–140.