ASCH, SHOLEM (1880-1957), Yiddish novelist, dramatist and essayist was born in Kutno,
Poland. His father was a cattle-dealer and innkeeper. One of ten children, he received a
traditional Jewish education until as a young man he was drawn to the world of European learning
and literature. In order to expand his horizons Asch moved to the town of Wloclawek, to
continue his education while earning his living as a letter writer for the illiterate Jewish
townspeople of the
area. From there he moved to Warsaw, the center of the Jewish literary world in Poland. Asch
began his literary life writing in Hebrew, but upon the urging of the great Yiddish writer, I. L.
Peretz, he switched to Yiddish and continued to write in that language throughout his long and
prolific career. It was during his early years in Warsaw that he met and married his wife,
Mathilde, the daughter of the Polish-Jewish writer, M. M. Shapiro.
Asch's early works include the following: A Shtetl ("The Village," published in Fraynd, 1904).
His first play (published as a Yiddish novel, Mitn Shtrom -- "With the Stream," 1904) won him
further recognition, and it was followed by dramas that were performed on the Russian, Polish,
and German stage, the best of these being Got fun Nekomeh (1907; English tr. "God of
Vengeance," in J. Landis, The Dybbuk and other Great Yiddish Plays, 1966). Mary (1917), and
its sequel, Der Veg tsu Zikh ("The Way to Oneself," 1914), both of which deal with worldwide
Jewish problems and which were written after Asch had traveled in Europe and made journeys to
Palestine (1908) and the U.S. (1910). Other early works are Reb Shloyme Nogid (1913), a new
look at shtetl life, the socially-conscious novel Motke Ganev ("Motke the Thief," 1917) and Onkl
Mozes, 1918 (translated into English in 1938). In 1919, his novel Kiddush ha-Shem was
published (Eng. tr. 1926). One of the earliest historical novels in modern Yiddish literature, it is a
story of Jewish martyrdom during the Chmelnitsky uprising in mid-17th century Ukraine and
Poland. Di Kishufmakherin fun Kastilien ("The Witch of Castile," 1921) continues the theme of
"sanctification of God's name" with the story of a Jewish girl's choice of death in order to defend
During World War I Asch lived in the U.S., returning to Poland after the war and later living in
France. After 1938 he again made his home in the U.S., where he published most of his literary
works. In 1920, on the occasion of Asch's fortieth birthday, a committee headed by J. L. Magnes
was founded in New York which published Asch's collected works in twelve volumes, with an
introduction by S. Niger. In 1932 he was awarded the Polish Republic's Polonia Restituta
decoration and was elected honorary president of the Yiddish PEN Club.
Post-World War I works include: Di Muter, 1919 ("The Mother" 1930), Urteyl ("Death
Sentence," 1924); Khaym Lederers Tsurikkumen, 1927; and Three Novels, 1938. The
monumental trilogy, Farn Mabul ("Before the Flood," 1929-31, translated as Three Cities, 1933),
describes Jewish life during the first two decades of the twentieth century in St. Petersburg,
Warsaw, and Moscow. This massive work is followed by several lighter novels beginning with
Gots Gefangene ("God's Captives," 1933) and Der Thilim Yid ("Salvation," 1934). Bayrn
Opgrunt ("The Precipice," 1937) deals with Germany during the inflation while Dos Gezang fun
Tol, 1938 ("The Song of the Valley," 1939) is about the halutzim in Palestine, where Asch visited
Asch's next great trilogy, which dealt with the founders of Christianity, comprised The Nazarene
(1939) The Apostle (1943), and Mary (1949). They were enthusiastically received by the English-language press, but not by the Yiddish. The Yiddish daily Forward, to which Asch had hitherto
been a regular contributor, not only refused to publish the work, but openly attacked the author
for encouraging heresy and conversion by preaching Christianity. Only a very few critics
discussed the literary merits of the book, most of the Jewish press following the Forward's lead in
attacking Asch. The result was an estrangement between Asch and the Yiddish reading public
which never healed. His last book was The Prophet (1955) about Deutero-Isaiah.
Controversial, aggressive, and tireless in his search for new horizons, Asch, who began as the
poet of the shtetl, nevertheless liberated Yiddish literature from these narrow confines. Deeply
attached to the legacy of the Jewish past, which he enshrined in novels and dramas of aesthetic
beauty and moral grandeur, he connected the Yiddish world to the mainstream of European and
American culture, becoming the first Yiddish writer to enjoy a truly international vogue.
Though he died in London, Asch spent his last years in Bat Yam, a suburb of Tel Aviv. In accordance with his request, his house in Bat Yam was converted into a Sholem Asch Museum. The bulk of his library, containing rare Yiddish books and manuscripts, including the manuscripts of some of his own works, is at Yale University.
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Updated: August 7, 1999