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Briv Funem Arkhiv: Letters of Sholem Aleichem to Vladimir Waisblat

Artur Rudzitsky

INTRODUCTION

In geveb​’s briv funem arkhiv (let­ters from the archive) series high­lights archival finds that are too good not to share. You can learn more and sub­mit your own briv here, or see all briv posts here.

Vladimir Naumovich Waisblat (ps. Alexander Ger and V.Belolistov, 1882-1945) — art historian, theater critic, playwright, collector and publisher — was born in the town of Malin, and was the son of Nahum Yakovlevich (Menachem Nachum) Waisblat (1864-1925), who served as the Chief Rabbi of Kiev in 1900-1925. After graduating from the Kiev gymnasium, he went to study at the University of Berlin. After returning to Russia, Waisblat published his articles on literary studies and art in the St. Petersburg magazines “Der Fraynd”, «Русский Библиофил» (Russian Bibliophile), «Аполлон» (Apollo), in the Kiev magazines of his friend Vasily Kulzhenko – «Искусство и печатное дело» (Art and Printing), and elsewhere. Also in 1910-17, he was the compiler (under the pseudonym V. Belolistov) of the very popular collections in Russia «Чтец-Декламатор» (Reader-Declamator) and in 1913 (under the pseudonym Alexander Ger) he compiled a "Theatrical Anthology," the preface to which was written by the director and actor of the Moscow Art Theater Nikolaj Popov.

Vladimir Waisblat was interested in theater as a student in Germany, where he met famed German actor and director Max Reinhardt, as well as Emil Preetorius, a major artist and set designer of the German musical theater, about whom Waisblat later wrote in an article in the magazine "Art in Southern Russia" («Искусство в Южной России») in 1912.

In 1906-1908, Waisblat wrote several letters to the editor of the St. Petersburg Jewish newspaper Der Fraynd (״דער פֿרײַנד״, which was edited by the famous publicist Saul Ginzburg) where he argued that there should be a "Jewish art theater" in the Russian Empire for Yiddish actors to perform Yiddish plays. Weisblat’s appeal attracted the attention of Sholom Aleichem himself. When the famous Yiddish author went to Odessa to meet with major Jewish writers, he invited Waisblat there as well. This meeting prompted Weisblat to compile and publish the "Jewish Almanac" in 1908 (Kiev, ed. Samonenko), which included translations (including those made by Waisblat himself) into Russian of the works of Sholem Aleichem, Mendele Mocher Sforim, Isaac Leib Peretz, Hayim Nahman Bialik, Sholem Asch, etc., as well as his own play (under the pseudonym A. Ger) "To the Sun," which was soon staged at the Solovtsov Theater in Kiev.

The breadth of V. Waisblat's interests is evidenced by his circle of acquaintances, which included, in addition to figures of Jewish literature and culture, outstanding figures of Ukrainian culture – Georgy Narbut, Academician Mychaylo Hrushevsky, academician Serghiy Efremov, Andiy Nikovsky, and many others. After 1917, V. Waisblat was among the founders of Ukrainian book publishing. In 1920, together with Mikola Zerov, he translated into Ukrainian and published classics of Yiddish literature, among many other accomplishments. He went on to work as an art editor in various Kiev publishing houses, publishing works by Ukrainian writers and books on art. He was a professor at the Ukrainian Scientific Institute of Book Studies, taught at the Kiev Art Institute, and headed the Lavra Printing House of the Academy of Sciences. In 1931 and 1933 he became the de facto editor of Taras Shevchenko's Kobzar, which was illustrated by the Ukrainian graphic artist Vasil Sedliar, who was shot in 1937.

After the release of these volumes, V. Waisblat was under investigation by the OGPU (Joint State Political Directorate) for a year and a half. He was dismissed from the State Publishing House. In 1933, the disgraced professor was sheltered in the department of ancient manuscripts of the Library of the Academy of Sciences by his old friend, the literary scholar Professor Sergiy Maslov. Prior to World War II, Waisblat worked as a researcher at a medical publishing house, where he published books by Ukrainian medical scientists. During the war he was evacuated to Tashkent. He later returned to liberated Kiev, where he died from typhus in 1945.

In 1908, Waisblat wrote a letter to the editor of Der Fraynd concerning the necessity of founding a Yiddish Art Theater in Kiev. The original Yiddish version of the article can be found here.

Tova Benjamin’s English translation of the letter from Yiddish follows:

A Yiddish Art Theater (a letter to the editor)

A few summers back it was said that Jewish artists who act on the Russian stage were looking to organize an Artistic Yiddish theater. [At first] I considered the idea as nothing more than a splendid anecdote. But not long after, when I heard about the idea a second time, I was told the names of those who are actually organizing it.

I reached out to one of them, V. N. Dagmarov, (an artist and director of the theater “Solovtzov” in Kyiv), and he shared with me the following:

He, V. N. Dagmarov, together with another artist, A. L. Zinoviev, began to brainstorm a few years back about how they could build a Yiddish Art Theater. They reached out to other Jewish artists (in their calculations: twenty men and five women, since they only considered the most well-known actors and actresses), and all of them happily embraced the project. But in order to carry out the project, they needed at least a hundred thousand rubles, a sum which they did not have. They were forced to give up the idea—for now. But, if the Jewish intelligentsia is prepared to support and assist them, they will renew the project, which can very quickly come to life.

Those who have seen Dagmarov’s productions…of Yiddish plays… are aware what an excellent Jewish director he is.

Those who have seen Dagmarov’s [performances].... know what an excellent Jewish actor he is.

Now that we’re seriously speaking about [starting] an artistic Yiddish theater, I take it upon myself to say this. That [such a theater] is necessary, all of us can agree, and we need specifically a Jewish theater, a model theater, which everyone can also acknowledge.

The only question is: where do we begin? How do we create this?

The answer is: act! The potential is there; now act, all of you for whom Yiddish theater is dear! Those of you who understand the usefulness it can bring—take part! Jews of the intelligentsia: do something! Fulfill your responsibility!

Signed,

Volf Waisblat

Ps. Those who wish to learn more about the project can reach out to:

Volf Waisblat, Kiev, Zhiliankskia, 3 or the director V. N. Dagmarov, Kiev, Theater “Solovtsov.”

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In the letter that follows, dated November 12, 1908, Sholem Aleichem writes in Russian to Waisblat in response to Waisblat’s letter to the editor above. Sholem Aleichem’s enthusiasm for his work being included in the project helps to contextualize this Yiddish literary giant in the broader context of cultural actors that he navigated. This is one of several letters that Sholem Aleichem wrote to Waisblat. They all can be found here in the original Russian and with Yiddish translations. The 1908 letter, translated from Russian to English by Tova Benjamin, reads:


Berlin 12. 11. 08
Geneva (Switzerland)
21, Avenue du Maie

Dearest Mr. Waisblat,

I’m writing in Russian so you can show this letter to V. N. Dagmarov.1

I’ve read your heartfelt words about an “Artistic Yiddish Theater”” in the Jewish newspaper, “Der Fraynd.” Your words concern me to some extent, and here’s how: I have written two plays, a drama and a comedy. Of the two, I prefer the latter, since we have an abundance of [Yiddish] dramas, and practically no comedies. Even among the Russian-language plays, there are very few comedies. Generally speaking, a good comedy is one in which the viewer must (as the expression among my American critics goes) “hold his sides [with laughter].” I have written such a comedy. It will be translated here, in Berlin, in Russian and in German. The German [translation] will be performed in one of the Berlin theaters, and the Russian version—well, I don’t know, it’s likely—in the Moscow artist’s theater.

I’m not sure whether you’re aware that I myself am a Keivan. It would be a great idea to perform my comedy in Kiev—see about the actor Dagmarov. The play deals with everyday Jewishness, that is, Jewish types and depictions of Jewish life, but the themes are universal. The play is called, “The treasure, a comedy in four acts by Sholem Aleykhem.” I’m here [in Geneva] only temporarily. I am constantly in America. My family is in Geneva, in Switzerland, where I’d like you to address your reply to this letter.

All best, even if the best is not possible in Russia,

Sh. Aleykhem

MLA STYLE
Rudzitsky, Artur. “Briv Funem Arkhiv: Letters of Sholem Aleichem to Vladimir Waisblat.” In geveb, January 2023: https://ingeveb.org/blog/vladimir-waisblat.
CHICAGO STYLE
Rudzitsky, Artur. “Briv Funem Arkhiv: Letters of Sholem Aleichem to Vladimir Waisblat.” In geveb (January 2023): Accessed Feb 04, 2023.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Artur Rudzitsky

Artur Rudzitsky (born 1968, Kiev) is a Ukrainian art historian, publisher, and public figure. He is the grandson of Prof. Vladimir Waisblat.