"Dear Opatoshu!"

On August 20, 1945, after seven years of silence, a correspondence resumed between two friends—Peretz Markish (1895–1952) and Joseph Opatoshu (1886–1954). Born in Polonne (Volhynia), Markish was a famed Yiddish poet and prose writer. After sojourns especially among Warsaw’s Yiddish avant-garde in the first half of the 1920s, he settled in the Soviet Union in 1926 and quickly rose to literary fame. Already in 1922, though, Markish had befriended the Polish-born, now American Yiddish writer Joseph Opatoshu when the latter visited Warsaw. It was the start of a strong friendship that weathered extreme geographical as well as significant ideological distances, even (or especially) after Markish’s Soviet repatriation.

Markish’s 1945 letter to Opatoshu opens up a window into Soviet Yiddish re-conceptualizations of Jewishness in the wake of the Holocaust. For Markish, a leading member of the Soviet Jewish Antifascist Committee, like for most Soviet Jews, the “Great Patriotic War” (the Soviet name for World War II) and the Holocaust were understood as interrelated phenomena that, despite their catastrophic nature, brought about the final overcoming of traditional Jewishness and the transformation of backward Russians into heroic Soviet Jews. As such, the letter is part of a large body of Jewish responses to the Holocaust that discuss and potentially call into question the enduring validity of traditional Jewish martyrology in the face of the Nazi onslaught. On August 12, 1952, Markish, along with other Soviet Jewish cultural figures, was sentenced and killed on trumped-up charges of “Jewish nationalism.” Opatoshu died suddenly two years later, on the evening of Yom Kippur, in New York City.

 

Moscow,[1] 20 August 1945[2]

Dear Opatoshu!

Your letter made me very happy. I even trembled with excitement when I opened the envelope. That’s quite something––seven years. And what years! I also received a letter from Peske and replied to her immediately, of course. Sadly, I could not write anything consoling whatsoever. Her family probably shared the terrible fate of the whole of Polish Jewry. But in the time since you have written me your letter until my present reply the most important thing happened on earth: the destruction of Fascism both in the West and in the East!

Now, a response of our literature has to come forth, one that not only describes but also interprets what has happened, and on the basis of which the spirit of our unfortunate people will be put to the test. The blood of six million martyrs needs to cry out not through the mouth of Julian Tuwim, who has fed himself on tidbits about Jews until a grave of six million reminded him that he is connected to the Jewish people. His Jewish-Catholic mysticism adds up to nothing more than a belated embracing of the notion that Jews are God’s Chosen People rather than a true understanding of what has happened.[3]

Now, our literature will need to draw up conclusions, to reevaluate anew the notion of Kiddush HaShem as an eternal national category, which de facto helped Fascism and made it easier to annihilate our people.

In this war, the Jewish warrior was born, the Jewish partisan, who in shedding his blood has earned the right to reevaluate Peretz’s “Matones.”[4]

I long for a word from our Americans. It would be great if you sent over to me the most important things that have recently been published. I wait impatiently for your When Poland Fell.[5]

I’m finishing up a long poem about the war and about the catastrophe of the Jews. Parts of it have been printed in the “Almanach.”[6] The poem will be printed shortly. As soon as it is out, I will send it to you.

Well, I don’t really have any other news. If possible, send me some of your son’s stories. I would gladly read them.

Farewell and warmest regards to Adele.

Your Peretz Markish

[1] Parts of this letter were translated by Gennady Estraikh. See Gennady Estraikh, “Anti-Nazi Rebellion in Peretz Markish’s Drama and Prose,” in A Captive of the Dawn: The Life and Work of Peretz Markish (1895–1952), eds. Joseph Sherman, Gennady Estraikh, Jordan Finkin, and David Shneer (Leeds: Legenda, 2011), 172–185, 175. This is a complete and new translation.

[2] The letter was stamped by the Soviet military censor.

[3] According to Gennady Estraikh, Markish refers here to Julian Tuwim’s 1944 manifesto, in which he wrote, “I believe in a future Poland in which [the Star of David painted on the Warsaw ghetto fighters’ armbands] will become the highest order bestowed upon the bravest among Polish officers and soldiers. [...] And there shall be in Warsaw and in every other Polish city some fragment of the ghetto left standing and preserved in its present form in all its horror of ruin and destruction. We shall surround that monument to the ignominy of our foes and to the glory of our tortured heroes with chains wrought from captured Hitler’s guns, and every day we shall twine fresh live flowers into its iron links, so that the memory of the massacred people shall remain forever fresh in the minds of the generations to come, and also as a sign of our undying sorrow for them.” See Monika Adamczyk-Garbowsko, Patterns of Return: Survivors’ Postwar Journeys to Poland (Washington, DC: USHMM, 2007), 18–19, quoted in Gennady Estraikh, “Anti-Nazi Rebellion in Peretz Markish’s Drama and Prose,” 184.

[4] Reference to a story by I. L. Peretz, translated as “Three Gifts,” in which a soul is redeemed through the deaths of three Jews who protect their Jewish values above their lives.

[5] Yoysef Opatoshu, Ven Poyln iz gefaln (Stories) (New York: Ikuf, 1943).

[6] Markish published two fragments of his long poem Milkhome (War), namely “The Surgeon” and “The Old Tailor,” in Tsum zig. Literarisher zamlbukh (Moscow: Der emes, 1944), 201–236.

Image of Markish and Opatoshu used with permission from the Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

MIRIAM SCHULZ is a Ph.D. candidate in Yiddish studies at Columbia University, New York, and the Harriman PepsiCo Fellow 2018–2019. She is the author of Der Beginn des Untergangs. Die Zerstörung der jüdischen Gemeinden in Polen und das Vermächtnis des Wilnaer Komitees (Berlin: Metropol, 2016), for which she was awarded the Hosenfeld/Szpilman Memorial Award 2017.