Joseph Opatoshu was a Polish-born Yiddish-language novelist and short-story writer. He was born Josef Mair Opatowski on Christmas Eve in 1886, in Stupski Las, near Mława.
Opatoshu’s father belonged to a noble Hasidic family, but he soon became a Maskil (supporter of the Jewish Enlightenment). He worked as wood merchant and wrote poems in Hebrew.
After receiving a traditional religious education, Opatoshu attended a state school in Mława and a trade school in Warsaw. In 1905, he went to France, where he began studies at the Polytechnic in Nancy, which he could not complete due to financial problems. In 1907, he joined his father, who had emigrated to the United States. Opatoshu studied engineering, making a living by working in a shoe factory, selling newspapers and teaching in Hebrew schools. He graduated in 1914 and that same year he published an anthology titled Di naye heym (New House), which included his short story about adapting to life in America – Fun nuyorker ghetto (From the New York Ghetto). Four years later, he became the editor of the newly-established daily newspaper Der Tog (Day), publishing in Yiddish. From that time, he regularly contributed to this paper with his stories and literary sketches.
Opatoshu’s first novel A roman fun a ferd Ganev (Romance of a Horsethief), published in 1912, earned him some popularity. It was adapted for a film directed by Abraham Polonski in 1971, who cast many prominent actors. The screenplay was written by Opatoshu’s son David. The theme of the novel revolves around authentic events from the writer’s childhood. Seemingly, Opatoshu knew a Jewish horse thief who smuggled horses to Germany and was eventually killed defending his fellows.
Opatoshu was encouraged to write by Sholem Aleichem, who highly rated his literary portrayal of the Jewish immigrant community in America. As a result, in 1919, he created another masterpiece, Lerer (Teacher), also known under the title Hibru ('Hebrew') or Farloyrene mentchn (Lost People) – written in a naturalistic style similar to previous works. In this spirit, and touching on related subjects, Opatoshu wrote a collection of short stories, Rase, lintcherai dertzeylungen (Race, Lynching and Other Stories, 1923), Di tentzerin (Dancer, 1929), and Arum Grand Strit (Around Grand Street , 1929).
Opatoshu mainly wrote historical novels, which were translated into Polish and are the main reasons for his recognition among Polish readers. His most well known work is the In di poylishe velder (In the Polish Woods) trilogy, which depicts Jewish life in the times of the Kościuszko Uprising, the January Uprising, and after. Interestingly, publication of the trilogy started with the last volume Aleyn (Lonely Ones, 1919), followed by the first volume – In di poylishe velder (1921), then the second – 1863 (1926). The first volume of the trilogy was translated by Saul Wagman under the title W lasach polskich (In the Polish Woods) (1923), and the second volume – Żydzi walczą o niepodległość Polski. Powieść na tle powstania 1863 (The Jews are Fighting for Polish Independence. The Story from the Times of Uprising 1863), was translated by Aleksander Dan (born. Aleksander Weintraub) (1931). The trilogy has been translated into eight languages and repeatedly reprinted. It secured Opatoshu a place in the pantheon not only of Yiddish but of world literature.
The trilogy was adapted for film in Yiddish and produced in Poland by Leo Forbert. It was directed by Jonas Turkow, with the screenplay written by Henryk Boym. The distinguished historian Meyer Balaban contributed to the making of the film as a consultant. The film premiered on January 8, 1929. At that time, the author lived in Poland, where he wrote in Yiddish for publications such as Der Moment and Folkszeitung. He visited Poland twice in 1922 and 1929. In 1934, he took a trip to Israel.
In 1933 Opatoshu published two works: a collection of short stories titled A tog in Regensburg, published in English in 1935 under the title Day in Regensburg, (the Polish edition includes also Opowieści o Elii Bachurze. Trzy obrazy/ Tales of Elia Bachur. Three images), and Elie Bocher – a story about the 16th-century author of Yiddish songs Bowe Buch. In the book, Opatoshu describes the world of itinerant Jewish artists and nobles in stylized old Yiddish.
In 1944, the author received the Lamed award for his book Ven Poyln iz gefaln (When Poland Fell Apart). From 1948 to 1952, he worked on another historical novel about the desperate uprising of the people of Judea under the leadership of Bar Kochba against the Romans, which was brutally suppressed. The novel was titled Der letzter oyfshtand (The Last Uprising), and was probably inspired by the tragic fate of the Jews in the Shoah.
In 1958, as part of the Yiddish Buch series that ceased to exist in 1968, he released a novella Lintcherai (Lynching), touching on the issues of racism, which was first published in Warsaw in 1923 under the title Rase. Opatoshu died in New York in 1954.
Author: Bella Szwarcman-Czarnota, September 2014, transl.GS, 12.09.2014
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