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Vaysenberg, Itshe Meyer

(1881–1938), Yiddish prose writer. Itshe Meyer Vaysenberg (Isaac Meir Weissenberg), was born in Żelechów, Poland, into a working-class family. He attended heder and in his youth was a craftsman. In 1904, Vaysenberg published his first two short stories in Di yudishe bibliotek, edited by Y. L. Peretz. One of these stories, “Dor hoylekh vedor bo” (A Generation Comes and a Generation Goes), already heralded the place that Vaysenberg was about to occupy within Yiddish literature. He became a master of realistic descriptions of social tensions in the shtetl, even as he avoided open ideological commitment.

In the first years of his literary career, Vaysenberg benefited from Peretz’s encouragement and guidance. Bal-Makhshoves proclaimed Vaysenberg “perhaps our greatest hope.” Vaysenberg’s background had a significant influence on his reception into the Yiddish literary world: in the eyes of Yiddish critics, the fact that he came from the humblest stratum of society was proof of the rich creative potential that lay hidden there.

Bal-Makhshoves’s pronouncement was based on Vaysenberg’s first short stories and particularly on the novella A shtetl, first published in the Warsaw daily Der veg in 1906 under Peretz’s editorship. Central in A shtetl is the social and political unrest brewing under the influence of the revolutionary events of 1905, when social struggle was undermining the accepted structure and hierarchy of traditional Jewish society. The remarkable artistic achievement of this work lies in the powerful shaping of scenes that blend naturalistic directness and ironic distancing. The work ends, however, with the defeat of the revolutionary forces, and one can infer from its structure a rather reserved attitude toward the possibility of creating significant changes in the established way of life. A shtetl is recognized as Vaysenberg’s masterpiece and has been reprinted several times (an English translation appears in Ruth R. Wisse, ed., A Shtetl and Other Yiddish Novellas; 1973 [rpt., 1986]).

Because Vaysenberg’s novella came out two years after Sholem Asch’s Dos shtetl, Yiddish critics have tended to contrast Asch’s romantic view of the shtetl with Vaysenberg’s realism and naturalism, features evident in his early short stories. Nonetheless, Vaysenberg’s artistic range is much broader: in his works one can also find traces of a romanticized treatment of Hasidim; stylizations in the spirit of Peretz’s Folkstimlekhe geshikhtn; a deep, psychological approach to the complex erotic situation of women in traditional Polish Jewish society; and a combination of naturalism and sentimentalism in the shaping of characters at the fringes of the underworld. Motifs originating in the satirical maskilic view of the shtetl are combined in his writing with biting humor.

The first published collections of Vaysenberg’s early short stories, which were issued between 1909 and 1914, established his place in Yiddish literature. (English translations were later produced by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, eds., in A Treasury of Yiddish Stories [1954 (rpt., 1989)]; and Joachim Neugroschel, ed., The Shtetl [1976]).

After the first decade of his creative output, Vaysenberg never sustained the level of his early successes. With the death of Peretz, however, he claimed the role of literary mentor for young talent; in the years 1918–1920 he edited the literary magazine Yudishe zamlbikher and published Oyzer Varshavski’s first book, Shmuglars (Smugglers; 1920). Vaysenberg introduced several young prose writers and poets into the literary arena, including Shimen Horontshik and Yekhiel Lerer.

In the 1920s, Vaysenberg’s oppositional stance within the Polish Yiddish literary world grew increasingly strident and often led to grotesque and scandalous incidents. Considering himself to be the most authentic Polish Yiddish writer, he attacked the successful writers Yoysef Opatoshu and Sholem Asch. Vaysenberg built his critical analyses on a highly artificial contrast between Polish Yiddish writers, who were supposedly distinguished by feeling and imagination, and the dry, intellectual writers of Litvak background. At the same time, he wanted Yiddish orthography to reflect the Polish Yiddish dialect as closely as possible. With this in mind, he created his own independent literary journals, particularly Indzer [sic] hofenung (1926–1932) and also published literary pamphlets. Several times during his career he tried his hand at playwriting, mostly without significant success.

After the Holocaust, several volumes of Vaysenberg’s collected works were published (in Warsaw, 1950; New York, 1954; and Chicago, 1959). The latter collection, edited by his daughter Pearl Weissenberg-Axelrod, focused mainly on the writer’s later work. All three volumes include his novella A shtetl. Weissenberg-Axelrod also issued I. M. Vaysenberg: Zayn lebn un shafn (I. M. Weissenberg: His Life and Work; 1986), a comprehensive book about her father that also includes a rich bibliography and an anthology of reviews of his works.

Suggested Reading

Samuel Niger, Vegn yidishe shrayber, vol. 2 (Warsaw, 1914), pp. 43–77; Y. Rapaport, Oysgerisene bleter (Melbourne, 1957), pp. 204–245; Yehiel Yeshaia Trunk, Idealizm un naturalizm in der yidisher literatur (Warsaw, 1927), pp. 77–131; Uriel Weinreich, “I. M. Vaysenbergs nit-dershatst ‘shtetl,’” Di goldene keyt 41 (1961): 135–143.



Translated from Yiddish by Yankl Salant