The Reisens of Koydanovo

"This brochure celebrates the lives of Kalman Reisen and his five children: Rebecca, Abraham, Sarah, Hirsh and Zalman; in particular, it tells the story of the brothers Abraham and Zalman, whose names are among the most prominent in the history of the modern Yiddish culture, and in the history of the YIVO Institute as well. It is also a story of an East European Jewish family which, typically, was fated to live through wars, revolutionary upheavals, emigration, and the horrors of the Holocaust.

As histories of such families go, the Reisens hailed from a shtetl, a small town named Koydanovo in Belarus, not far from Minsk. Koydanovo was a proverbial Jewish town with all the usual characteristics: a market square crowding with kromen (stalls), Jewish houses on its perimeters, a tserkov (Russian orthodox church) with five onion-shaped cupolas on the one end and a shulhoyf, a synagogue yard surrounded by the town's synagogues - all four of them, plus a Hasidic shtibl and the rebbe's house - on the other. Six streets ran from the square in opposite directions, and where the streets ended, a forest, a field or a village began. One street stretched all the way to the train station, and that was the promenade: families used to walk there on Shabes and watch the "courier" trains passing by without stopping.

Several generations of the Reisens lived in Koydanovo until they began moving out and away in the 1890s. And maybe the little Koydenovo would have faded from view in time were it not for Abraham's obsessive remembrance of the shtetl and its people whom he never tired to bring back to life in hundreds of his masterful short sketches and poems. As David Pinsky wrote: "He was the creator of the Jewish street as he had seen it in his Koydanovo. He did not overlook even one house, including the house of the only Gentile living on the street. Some he peeked into, in the others he dwelled for a while, about each he had a thing or two to say... And he cast his melancholy glance on the dying Jewish street, and with a sad smile, masterfully told the stories of the falling branches."1

Symbolically, Abraham's very last publication was the Koidenover yizkor book which he edited for the United Koidenover Association and to which he, with his usual generosity appended a book-length selection of short sketches about the people he knew in Koydanovo. The book was published in 1955, two years after Abraham Reisen's death. And there is a Reisenesque irony added here by history: sometime during the Soviet period the name Koydanovo was officially changed to Dzyiarzhinsk in honor of the notorious Feliks Dzerzhinskii, the creator of the Soviet secret police. And it is by this name that, notwithstanding the end of the Soviet rule, the town is still known. Thus, Koydanovo lives today only in the pages of its famous landsman's stories, thanks to Abraham Reisen's enduring genius.

These are the generations of the Reisen family, as recounted in Zalman Reisen's Leksikon fun der yiddisher literatur, prese un filologie ("Lexicon of Yiddish Literature, Press, and Linguistics", Vilna 1926-1929):

Moyshe Reisen, who lived during the early1800s, was a well-to-do town trader, and a saintly and pious Jew who never slackened in the studying of sacred texts. His wife Shulke stemmed from a very distinguished family to which among others belonged the Great Rabbi of Lodz Eliyohu Khayim Meisel, and the renowned Russian scholars Nicolai and Osip Bakst, as well as the famous artist Lev (Leon) Bakst.

Moyshe's son Kalman Reisen (1848-1921) received a traditional Jewish education from the best teachers in town but his intellectual pursuits took him in the direction of modernity as represented by the Haskala (Enlightenment) movement. He attained fluency in German, in addition to his extensive knowledge of Hebrew and Russian. To the horror of his pious parents, he was enthralled by socialist ideas. He wrote poems, mainly in Hebrew but also in Yiddish, and he published articles in the Hebrew newspaper Hameylits. He traded in grain but went almost bankrupt and, following the death of his wife Kreyne in 1890, left Koydanovo with his younger children to try his luck elsewhere. He lived intermittently in Vinnitsa, Zhitomir, Minsk, Warsaw, and again in Minsk - all part of the Russian Empire. He died in 1921 at the age of 73.

Five children were born to Kalman and Kreyne: Rivke (Rebecca), Avrom (Abraham, 1876), Sore-Bashe (Sarah, 1885), Hirsh (Harry, 1886) and Zalmen (Zalman, 1887). Periods of moving from place to place, living in with relatives, experiencing crushing poverty pierced through their childhood years - but somehow, through all these difficult moments they were able to get either private education or finish school, and Sarah, working all the while as a seamstress even made it through junior college. Hirshke and Zalmen literally rammed their way into the non-Jewish gorodskoie uchilishche (municipal high school) in Minsk which they completed with honors. When there was no other alternative to earn a living, Kalman, Abraham and Sarah would take jobs in the countryside estates as private tutors.

Almost everyone in the family wrote; writing was in their blood. Kalman, Abraham, Zalman, and Sarah - all found their way into encyclopedias and biographical lexicons as published authors. Of the two other siblings, Hirsh wrote in his youth Russian verses, but the fame of the older Abraham made him reluctant to seek recognition as a poet, and he ended up instead a wealthy businessman in Newark, N.J. The oldest Rivke is not remembered to have engaged in writing, perhaps because she was too busy taking care of her younger siblings.

Write they did almost exclusively in Yiddish. Yiddish was not only their tongue, it was their living space. "[Abraham] Reisen was an educated man with a considerable knowledge of European literature, but he lived out his life completely within the Yiddish milieu - for him, the culture was a sufficient world" 2, wrote Irving Howe, and these words apply to the other Reisens as well. In fact, Abraham and Zalman became two leading lights within that Yiddish milieu - Abraham as the great creative force in Yiddish poetry and prose, and Zalman as codifying grammarian of Yiddish language, the historian and lexicograper of Yiddish literature, and the activist for Yiddish-based cultural and national life. The greatly gifted Abraham saw his first poem in print in 1891 when he was 15 years old, having been introduced as an author by Y.L. Peretz, no less, in Peretz's anthology Yidishe bibliotek. "You have talent" - Peretz wrote the boy - send me more." A year later, more poems of his were published, on enthusiastic recommendation from Sholem-Aleichem, in a Yiddish newspaper in Philadelphia. At the same time the publisher Y.L. Matz in Vilna accepted Abraham's first work of prose, a story titled A kapore der noz abi a goldener zeyger mit 300 rubl nadn (Damn the Nose As Long As There Is a Dowry of a Gold Watch and 300 Rubles) which came out as a separate booklet.

Of course, the young age of the newly discovered author was in itself an event. But even more astonishing was the fact that Reisen appeared on the Yiddish literary scene a fully formed writer, who for the rest of his creative life would write very much in the same vein as he did in his early pieces. A short story and a songlike poem were his signature writing forms which he employed in most of his literary creations. Irving Howe wrote: "Drawing heavily upon Yiddish folk songs, though also influenced by Nekrasov's romanticism and Heine's romantic irony, Reisen usually employed simple rhyme schemes and a four-beat metric. He wrote hundreds of short poems, a good many of which would be set to music, as well as hundreds of stories, really the lightest pencil sketches in which the shtetl and, sometimes, immigrant life, are portrayed with mild, fluent economy. In Reisen's work an important strand of Yiddish sensibility found its home - the strand of anti-heroism, rejecting grand rhetoric and celebrating, instead, the little man, less for his wisdom than for his kindliness and endurance. There is no Sturm und Drang in Reisen, only the bittersweet remembrance of passions spent, hopes exhausted, ideals smashed. Though a socialist in his opinions, Reisen wrote in a spirit undercutting militancy; his poems and stories turn Yiddish readers inward, to an ironic contemplativeness.3 Little wonder that during his lifetime Abram Reisen was, next to Sholem-Aleichem, the most beloved writer among Yiddish readers, whose feelings and thoughts he was able to express with clarity of form and with lyricism and warmth.

By the year 1909 the Reisen family became split in two: Rivka and Hirsh were already in the U.S. to which they emigrated sometime around 1895, and Kalman, Abraham, Sarah (now married to the writer David Kassel) and Zalman settled in Warsaw. Zalman, barely 20, had already to his credit the publication of the first of his groundbreaking textbooks of Yiddish grammar, and he completed the Yiddish translation of Dostoyevski's Crime and Punishment (with Sarah's help). Afterward he set out to do a project with which he would be preoccupied for the rest of his life: to bring together in one publication the bio-bibliographic information about all past and current authors who wrote and published in Yiddish - going as far back as medieval times. His passion for Yiddish and the goal to defend Yiddish against its detractors found a powerful outlet in this endeavor: a literature this old cannot be a product of a "jargon"; it must be a product of a sustained national creativity. Thus, in 1914 a one-volume Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur un prese came out, and then, between 1926 and 1929, a greatly expanded four-volume Leksikon fun der yiddisher literatur, prese un filologie, Zalman Reisen's main opus, was published in Vilna. Zalman was determined to publish an additional fifth volume devoted to the contemporary Yiddish writers, and he continued collecting biographical data from the writers themselves. In the end the volume was not realized, but the huge collection of documents which Zalman assembled is now preserved in the YIVO Archives.

As World War I began, the Reisens left Warsaw and each went their separate ways in search for safe haven. Thus Abraham decided to leave the war-torn European continent altogether and emigrate to America. Sarah and her father Kalman returned to Minsk, while Zalman resolved to go to Vilna. It was natural for him to choose Vilna, which at that time was widely regarded as the center of Yiddishism with an infrastructure of Yiddish cultural and educational institutions that included elementary and high schools, technical schools, teachers' training institutes, theaters, press (including five Yiddish dailies), publishing houses, institutions of higher learning and research. Zalman Reisen, arriving in Vilna in 1915, brought with him a frenetic energy and a burning conviction that everything possible must be done to assure the spread of Yiddish as the national language of the Jews. Hirsz Abramowicz, a contemporary of Zalman's, remembers: "His thesis was as follows: In the daily life of the Jewish masses, Yiddish is the one prevalent language. It lends proper expression to the Jewish people's way of life. No other language has ever expressed the character of the Jewish people as well as Yiddish has. It accompanies the people from the cradle to the grave, as the saying goes... But Yiddish must become the language of intelligentsia, not only of the masses. Yiddish must become the language of instruction. There must be schools where Yiddish is taught, and gymnasia [high schools], even universities... Yiddish can hold its own, and the Jew who betrays Yiddish is a sinner...;" and Abramowicz concludes, "Indeed, Reisen was a fanatic where Yiddish was concerned."

Yet it was a constructive sort of fanaticism. Reisen presided over the extensive overhaul of the Yiddish used generally in print, ridding it of Germanic and other influences. As an educator, Reisen wrote for schools textbooks of Yiddish grammar and spelling, and compiled anthologies of Yiddish authors. As a scholar of Yiddish he wrote and edited an impressive array of publications on linguistic and historical topics. As an organizer of Jewish cultural life in Vilna, he was involved with practically every major Yiddish cultural institution there. Among others, he was a co-founder of the S. Ansky Jewish Historical and Ethnographic Society and of the Yiddish Scientific Institute - YIVO, the predecessor of the the present-day YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Reisen was one of the three directors (with Max Weinreich and Zelig Kalmanovitch) of the YIVO, and he headed its Philology Section. If the sheer number of initiatives with which his name was identified may be seen as truly mind-boggling, the most amazing thing of all was that he was doing all these things, so to speak, in his free time. He earned his living as the editor of the Yiddish daily Vilner tog ("The Vilna Day"), a popular and influential newspaper read by the majority of Vilna's Jews. Reisen did not belong to a particular party, and the Vilner tog was an independent, though left-leaning newspaper, however he was in trouble more than once over its publication. In the eyes of the vigilant Polish authorities the daily was seen as being a mouthpiece of the left, and Reisen as its ideologist who also subordinated the YIVO to his side. Every so often the offices of the Vilner tog and Reisen's own apartment were raided by the police and Reisen would be charged with anti-government propaganda. The Vilner tog reported at length about each such incident giving its readers riveting details, such as this: "In the apartment of Zalman Reisen the police went through the considerable bulk of the materials for the fifth volume of the 'Lexicon of the Yiddish Literature, Press and Philology' well as through other works of Zalman Reisen including the 'Grammar of the Yiddish Language, Part Two', and the anthology 'From Mendelssohn to Mendele'." Reisen was also prosecuted for items such as, "an article critical of the Head of the German State, Adolf Hitler".

The bitter irony of these accusations became apparent when Vilna, at the start of the second World War and in accordance with the Molotov-Ribentropp pact fell to the Soviet forces on September 18, 1939. In the very first wave of mass arrests perpetrated by the Soviet NKVD during the first week of October 1939, Zalman Reisen , together with his son Saul and the journalist Yosef Tchernichov were arrested and, after almost two years of incarceration, charged with anti-Soviet, nationalist Jewish propaganda. Immediately after the outbreak of the German-Soviet war on June 22 1941, Zalman and the others were forced to march on foot in a column of prisoners under the NKVD guard toward Minsk. An account published after the war in the Yiddish press quotes an eyewitness describing how, near the town of Borisov, some 400 prisoners who had not been able to go on marching, were shot by the guards.5 Reisen and Tchernichov were among them. Zalman's wife Miriam perished in the Gestapo prison during the final liquidation of the Vilna ghetto in November 1943. Both Zalman Reisen's sons, Saul and Leib were imprisoned in Russia but eventually released. Both survived the war.

Some ten years earlier, in 1930 Zalman Reisen came to the United States for a lecture and fundraising tour. This was the last time the "American" Reisens saw their brother Zalman. There was a moving family reunion at Hirsh's house in Newark, N.J., at which Hirsh - "the bourgeois Reisen", as the socialist inclined Zalman and Abraham used to joke - reminisced about the times when the little brothers, Hirshke and Zalmen, shared a bed in their sister Rivke's home in Mogilno, and about the time they spent under the police arrest for keeping forbidden socialist literature at home. After the reunion, Zalman returned to Vilna. He probably had a good chance to immigrate from Poland and escape the worsening political climate for the Jews on the eve of the war. Quite a few Yiddish intellectuals did leave in time, including his sister Sarah who with her son Misha arrived in the United States in 1933. But Zalman decided otherwise. Perhaps he could not bring himself to abandon the work of his life and the city where he had accomplished so much. Saul Reisen, who was freed from the Soviet prison in result of the November 1941 amnesty for the Polish citizens and went to Palestine, wrote from Jerusalem to Max Weinreich in New York in May 1943: "...I would think of those who were saved with envy, as my father lay near me. There is no harder thing than being together with a dear one next to you, and having to suffer for both...I tried, evidently not hard enough, to induce my father and Tchernichov, to save themselves, before it was too late. All those illusions...that paralyzed their will until they woke up engulfed by fire..."

The New York period in Abraham Reisen's life that began with his arrival here in 1914 lasted until the end of his long life. He married his wife Sarah, and a daughter Shaindl (Jeanette) was born to the couple in 1919. He also began his long association with the New York Yiddish newspapers Tog ("The Day"), Frayhayt ("Freedom"), and Forverts ("The Jewish Daily Forward"). From 1929 on he worked exclusively for the Forverts, where he wrote a story each week, without a break. When a long illness befell his daughter Sheyndl that affected her eyesight, Zalman Reisen wrote a personal letter to Abraham Cahan, the editor-in-chief of the Forverts, pleading with him to grant Abraham Reisen a month's vacation so that he could get some rest. Abraham also published several editions of his works, including collected works in 14 volumes, and autobiographical Epizodn fun mayn lebn ("Episodes From My Life") in 3 volumes.

Like his brother Zalman, Abraham Reisen was a commited and active Yiddishist, but his style was different. Abraham was one of the founding fathers of Yiddishism, along with Chaim Zhitlovsky, Y.L. Peretz, and his close friends Shalom Asch and H.D. Nomberg. He was present at the Czernowitz Yiddish Language Conference of 1908 at which Yiddish was proclaimed a national language of the Jews. But he was no firebrand activist. He lent as much support and encouragement forYiddish-related projects as he could muster, and he let his name be used to grace a variety of Jewish institutions: schools, libraries, camps, cultural centers, even Jewish agricultural colonies in the faraway Soviet Crimea in the 1920s. Yet it was his quiet presence, his personal modesty that was so beguiling to his admirers. "Reisen had to be an exceptional person to have virtually left no 'enemy' among his colleagues" - editorialized The Jewish Spectator at the time of Reisen's death in May 1953 - "There are many Yiddish writers who owe their success to Reisen's encouragement. For years he published and edited, under great sacrifices, Yiddish journals with the primary aim of providing a platform for young, struggling writers... He had no arrogance, no pretensions and no personal vanity."

Reisen's Yiddishist credo is thus explained by Irving Howe: "The miracle of a Reisen is not that he derives from the people but that he remains at harmony with them...Precisely because he regards being a Jew as a "natural" condition of life, beyond query or challenge, his poems and stories take his culture utterly for granted: they neither explain nor justify" 6; and more: "Yiddish poets have absorbed tonalities from Heine and Pushkin, techniques from Blok, devices from Eliot; but it is the founding fathers of the literature - Mendele, Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Reizen - who loom across every page written in Yiddish." The concept of Yiddishland, an extraterritorial homeland of Jews, grounded in the Yiddish language, emanates from Reisen's every phrase and stanza, and resonates in the hearts and minds of his readers.

As if to underscore the bond with his readers, Abraham Reisen took up residence around 1930 in the Sholem Aleichem Houses, the co-op built for the Yiddishist-minded trade-unionists at Giles Place near Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. Yiddish could be heard there in the hallways and on the streets, and Yiddish cultural events were organized every now and then in the co-op's club. By subway, it took well over an hour to reach the Forverts building located on East Broadway on the Lower East Side and the famous Cafe Royale - The Yiddish writers' haunt which Reisen frequented.

Abraham Reisen died in 1953, at the age of 77. He was preceded in death by his sister Rivke and brother Hirsh who both passed away in the 1940s. Their sister Sarah continued her literary career until her last years. She died in 1974, and with her passing the saga of the Koydanover Reisens came to an end.

In our time, the numbers of those who can read the Reisens in the original have dwindled considerably. We are now, using Jeffrey Shandler's definition, of the postvernacular phase - as far as the life of the Yiddish language is concerned.7 Its role as a language of daily and widespread use has been curtailed, though it still persists in a variety of forms and guises. Now is the time when any and all measures aimed at the preservation of the Yiddish cultural heritage are crucial. If and when students of Yiddish will return to reading and studying the literary and scholarly output of Abraham, Zalman and Sarah Reisen, they will assuredly find great treasures in print and in manuscript at the YIVO Library and Archives.

In the meantime, the Reisen family historians have taken over. They come from a large pool which decsends from Kalman and his children. One of them, Mr. Russel Galbut of Florida, a prominent industrialist and philanthropist for Jewish causes, and a descendant of Rivka Reisen-Sklar, compiled a genealogical chart of the Reisens and their descendants, which is reproduced in these pages. Even if still incomplete (for instance, it does not yet include the "English" Reisens descending from Zalman), the chart lists well over a hundred names.

Mr. Galbut is also planning a family trip this summer to visit Vilna and Minsk, and possibly other places associated with the Reisen family. "The purpose of this trip - writes Mr. Galbut - is to explore our family heritage which was very present in those areas before World War II."

We wish them much success.


1  David Pinsky, Avrom Reyzen. "Di Goldene kayt", Tel-Aviv 1953
2  Irving Howe, Ruth Wisse, Chone Shmeruk, The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse, Viking Penguin 1987, p. 25
3  The Penguin Book, p.26
4  Hirsz Abramowicz, Profiles of a Lost World, Wayne State University Press, p. 314
5  Michal Astur, Zalmen Reyzen, "Oyfn shvel", New York, Oct. 1985, p. 4
6  A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry, edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, Holt, Reinart and Winston, 1969, p. 25, 60
7  See: Jeffrey Shandler, Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language and Culture, University of California Press 2006

                                      Compiled by Jeff Ferber
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Last updated on August 13, 2016

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