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Shapira, Ḥayim Naḥman

(1895–1943), historian of Hebrew literature, author, and translator. Ḥayim Naḥman Shapira was born in Minsk. His father was the chief rabbi of Kovno (Lith., Kaunas) and his mother came from a distinguished family of rabbis. Shapira received his education at a heder and at several yeshivas. In 1921 he began to study Semitic philology in Vienna, earning his doctoral degree in 1925. That year, he began lecturing in that field at the University of Kaunas, and was promoted to professorial rank in 1931. He was also involved in Lithuanian Zionist activities and served on the boards of numerous cultural and literary societies. In 1935, he was a delegate to the Zionist Congress.

Shapira published stories, articles on current affairs and philosophy, and research papers in such publications as Ha-‘Olam, Gilyonot, Moznayim, Hed Lita, and Mizraḥ u-ma‘arav. In 1927, his two-volume translation of Animal Heroes by Ernest Thompson Seton appeared in print, followed one year later by his book Avraham Mapu of Kaunas, which was written in Lithuanian. In the latter work, Shapira argued that the scenic descriptions in Mapu’s biblical novels had actually been created in the image of Lithuania.

In 1931, Shapira translated an article about the writer Vincas Krėvė from the Anthology of Lithuanian Literature, publishing it under the title Meshorer ha-agadot mipi zikne ha-‘am asher be-Dainavah ha-arets (The Poet of Legends from the Mouths of Old Folks in the Land of Dainava).

In the last years of his life, Shapira embarked on a major literary project, Toldot ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ha-ḥadashah (The History of Modern Hebrew Literature), which he intended to produce in 12 volumes. He brought the manuscripts with him to the Kovno ghetto (Slobodka) during the Holocaust, but they were not recovered after his death. Only the first volume, dealing with Haskalah literature in central Germany (beginning with the founding of Ha-Me’asef in 1784, through developments of the year 1829), appeared in print in 1940. In his approach to literary history, Shapira stressed the importance of spirituality and historical views, as well as the poetic and artistic aspects of writing.

Active in the Kovno ghetto, Shapira headed the education and culture office of the Ältestenrat (the Jewish “elders council” appointed by the Germans; precursor to the Judenrat) and even organized schools. The Nazis shot Shapira, along with his wife, mother, and only son, in December 1943. In 1944, his friends and disciples illegally published a book in his memory, Ha-Yatmut be-maḥaneh ha-sefer (Orphaned in the Literary Corps), in the ghetto where he had died.

Suggested Reading

Getzel Kressel, Leksikon ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ba-dorot ha-aḥaronim, vol. 2, cols. 968–969 (Merḥavyah, Isr., 1967); Noah Shapira, “Doktor Ḥayim Nakhman Shapira,” in Genazim, vol. 2, ed. Baruch Karu, pp. 61–62 (Tel Aviv, 1965).



Translated from Hebrew by Rami Hann