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[Page 1313]

The Elyashev[1] Family of Kovno
(Bal-Makhshoves and his sister)

by Dr. Shmuel Elyashiv (Fridman)

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Donated by Barisa K. Johnson

A.

The Elyashev house was renowned in Lithuanian Jewry. Reb Shlomo Zalkind Elyashev – the father of the Bal-Makhshoves [The Thinker][2] and of Ester Elyashev, a quiet, earnest, pious follower of the Enlightenment – was descended

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from the khokhme-zoger [preacher of wisdom]. The mother, born an Aronson from Kalvaria, Chaya-Sura Zalkes was descended from one of the very wise women, from the smartest women of the older Kovno generation.

Much was required of the children. They

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were given an education that matched the beliefs of their strict father, on one side modern culture in German clothing and on the other side fundamental Yidishkeit [Jewish way of life] for the children, musar [disciplined ethical and spiritual development] for the sons, but the daughters also knew Hebrew and understood a chapter of the Mishnah [record of the oral traditions].

An atmosphere of great cultural tension reigned in the house itself for dozens of years that left its traces on an entire generation and raised personalities whose names were known to the wide public and not only in small Kovno. In the first generation one should record, in addition to the Bal-Makhshoves and Ester Elyashev, their brother, Moshe Elyashev, with a worldly name, who years later was a world master and began to win prizes in international chess tournaments.

In the second generation were the “nephews,” my cousins, the brothers Yitzhak-Nakhman and Ahron Shteinberg, who were well known among the Jewish public and who both inherited a great deal from the Elyashev house. To those who contributed to the cultural atmosphere must be included the first husband of Ester Elyashev, the well known educated man and writer Ahron Gurland, a son of an illustrious Vilna family.

 

Photo
Sitting from the right: Dr. Ester Elyashev-Weisbart (died 1941 in Kovno), Sonya Elyashev Frizman (died in 1945 in Tel Aviv), the Bal-Makhshoves, Shimarye Fridman (now in Israel), Borukh Elyashev (died in 1943 in Siberia)
Standing from the right: Mordekhai Maks Elyashev (died in 1901 [possibly a typographical error] in Kovno), Moshe Elyashev (died in 1920 in Moscow).

 

The house drew other people to it, among them those who in time began feeling almost like family members and who on their part contributed to the general cultural atmosphere. Here let us remember Shmuel

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Rozenfeld who lived in the house for years in his “blue” room as a teacher of the youngest daughter, Ester, and who felt a warm connection to the family for many years after this.

 

B.

Years passed. The old father died. The son and daughter traveled to other cities and abroad. Only an old aunt remained in the house and, neighboring her, the family of one of the daughters, my mother Sheyna Fridman. However, those who left were always spiritually connected with the old town and would often come together in the old home.

In 1909 the Bal-Makhshoves even made an unsuccessful attempt to settle in Kovno as a doctor.

While in Riga, the Bal-Makhshoves had a particular experience that is worth relating. A few years earlier he had written an enthusiastic article about Maria Spiridonova [a Russian socialist and revolutionary who killed a police official in 1905]. Years later, when the revolutionary wave had quieted down and the regime was able to carry on trials of a kind that did not have to consider public opinion, the Tsarist regime brought him before a court. The trial took place in Vilna. The Bal-Makhshoves' defender was Shimshon Rozenbaum. The Bal-Makhshoves would often say that he himself would later wonder at the sort of apathy he had had sitting in the courtroom on the accusation bench as if the entire matter had not concerned him. He was sentenced to two months in prison. A considerable time passed until they came to demand that he serve his sentence. While he was in Riga, police came to him once and led him to prison. Good friends arranged that he would spend almost all of his time not in the prison itself, but in the prison hospital. However, he also left from there with many impressions. He collected everything with which to write about his experiences in prison. However, he did not succeed in accomplishing this plan.

 

C.

The outbreak of the First World War found the Bal-Makhshoves in Warsaw. He moved there from Riga and was intensely busy with literary work. It was a very difficult time for him in his personal life; he began increasingly to feel the

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illness from which he had suffered earlier. In addition to his illness, he suffered the ruin of his family life. He and his wife Ulina, the beautiful sister of the well- known journalist, Saul Barchan, divorced at that time.

Warsaw was under severe danger because of the war. The Bal-Makhshoves, as a military doctor, had to leave from there. He was sent to small, deeply provincial shtetlekh [towns] in central Russia, first to Tver gubernia [principal administrative district] then to Kostroma gubernia. The picture of Russian life that was revealed before his eyes was a new one for him. He saw a new world, the real Russian man with his generationally unchanged way of life. His relation to this was critical, with his innate polite skepticism. In the articles that he published as well as in private letters and conversations, he would speak about the negative direction of Russian society in Tsarist times, about the vagueness of the character of the Russian intelligentsia then, about the formulaic way of life of the Russian provinces, about the inertia and apathy of the average man. For him, for the Lithuanian Jews who had spent many years in Western Europe, this was the first encounter with the real, tangible Russia.

At the time the Tsarist regime completely closed the Jewish press. Only Jewish weekly publications in Russian were published. The Bal-Makhshoves worked with the Moscow Yevreyskaya Zhisn [Chronicle of Jewish Life – a publication of the Russian Zionist Central Committee] (Zionist weekly instead of Rassvet [Dawn], which was closed by the regime). His articles carried the general name, Listki (Leaflets), according to the pattern of Sketches and Thoughts, and the Bal-Makhshoves was seen as a lustrous stylist in Russian, too. He traveled to Moscow.

It was in this era that his dispute with Maksim Gorkiy [Maxim Gorky] is recorded in connection with the society to fight anti-Semitism that Gorky founded and to which he drew the best representatives of the Russian intelligentsia. It was then under the editorship of Gorky that the anthology, Shtshit (Der Shuts-Shild [The Shield of Protection]), was published in which the esteemed Russian writers took part. Many saw this as a bit of revenge in the poisonous atmosphere of hostility to Jews. The Bal-Makhshoves was the only Jewish writer who appeared against this enterprise with pride and dignity. He recognized an insult

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in the fundamental idea of Russians coming together to study the Jewish people at the time of the very brutal threat against the Jews by their people. He wrote, “Wolves from the steppes are going to study the life of the ants.” M. Gorky published his answer in the Jewish organ, Evreyskaya Nedelya [Jewish Week] (published instead of the former Voschod [Sunrise]. The Bal-Makhshoves answered him. The matter was the subject of a very lively debate for a time, not only in Jewish circles, but also in circles of the Russian intelligentsia.

At that time the Bal-Makhshoves fully believed that Russian Jews needed to declare a struggle against the Russian progressive intelligentsia and state very clearly and publicly that it [the Russian intelligentsia] could not feel innocent of what was being done against the Jews in Russia.

Filled with this idea, ignited and ready to fight, the Bal-Makhshoves was cheerful and refreshed. At the beginning of 1916 he came to visit us in Poltava and I remember how pleased [and] surprised we were because we saw him in a cheerful mood. We, too, his young nephews, my brother and I, had become acquainted with Russians and with the Russian environment these past few years. Our family lived in Poltava and we had the good fortune of being close neighbors with the great Russian writer, Vladimir Korolenka, who, without a doubt, was the nicest example of the real Russian intelligentsia, an embodiment of the best characteristics of the Russian soul. The criticism by the Bal-Makhshoves and his ironic relationship to Russians and his fighting attitude toward the Russian intelligentsia upset us, his nephews. We had close and cordial connections to the Russian young people. We knew the charm of Korolenka's personality and we endeavored to bring our uncle together with him; Korolenka was an active member of the above-mention society of M. Gorky.

Korolenka knew of [our uncle's] polemic and learned that the Bal-Makhshoves was [at that time] a close neighbor of his and eagerly wanted to see him. The meeting took place and after a long conversation the Bal-Makhshoves became softer and in a better mood.

However, this mood did not last long with the Bal-Makhshoves and he quickly again fell into a deep depression. The Russian Revolution that so encouraged and inspired Russian Jewry did not draw him out of his melancholy. He did not believe

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in it [the revolution]. He was disappointed in it from its first day and he looked on in pain at the revolution, which absorbed its own talk that had no way for it to build and create. This mood of his found its expression in a series of articles that he published in the Petrograder Togblat [Petrograd Daily Newspaper] and which, after his death, appeared in the volume, Untern Rod [Under the Wheel]. The Balfour Declaration extracted him from his depression for a short time. He felt as “a citizen of a nation” and in the surrounding ruin he saw a beam of light for the Jews of a life's hope that would come true.

 

D.

The Bal-Makhshoves felt new strength during his return to his old home. He arrived in Lita from Russia at the very beginning of 1921. Here he found a lively Jewish environment, great hope from the newly organized Jewish community and a warm, lively relationship to him, not only from his landsleit [people from the same town], but from Lithuanian Jews who developed a sincere love for him during the years he spent with them. From all corners of the world threads of warmth and love began being extended to him. Writers, young and old, from various nations, greeted him at his arrival and literally flooded him with their works, which had been published in the meantime, waiting for his criticism. The creations of Leivik [pen name of Leyvik Halper], of whom he heard from afar, were a particular revelation to him.

That same year [1921] the Bal-Makshoves traveled to Western Europe after an interval of many years. He traveled first to Carlsbad to the Zionist Congress.

In a mood of inner renewal, he traveled to Berlin, which then was a kind of newly arising center of Jewish literature and art.

The Bal Makhshoves very quickly was tormented again by his old depression that had poisoned his honeymoon with the Russian Revolution several years earlier.

In his despondency and in his illness, he was drawn back to his old home, not just by the wish to be in a family atmosphere and to end his Bohemian, lonely existence, which he had maintained during recent years; he also strove to again make contact with the lively, Jewish masses, to be close to those for whom he was

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active, to have lively stimulation from them, whic was so lacking in cold and unfamiliar Berlin and in the even more unfamiliar Wiesbaden, where he lived for many months.

However, his return trip to Kovno was his last trip, a trip from which one does not return…

 

E.

The road of life of the young sister, Ester Elyashev, went differently. Her older brothers had to fight a stubborn fight against their parents for the opportunity of a methodical education. Ester did not have to carry out this fight. The road had been laid out by her older brothers.

She grew up in a warm environment, the pampered youngest child in her home, in student circles and abroad – the youngest sister of a brother who was the center of an interesting society. Their material situation permitted her to commit herself to the Torah of Moses. Many years after graduating from university she lived in the atmosphere of tireless and constant studies. In her Petersburg era she worked with great diligence with [Borukh] Stolpner on the Philosophic Dictionary for Brockhaus and Efron. She also used her vigor in the area of literary criticism from a special philosophical standpoint. [I] record here her great work in Russian, The Idea of Creative Consciousness in Ibsen in the Russian anthology, Art Old and New.

In Peterburg, she was given the possibility of showing her strengths in the area of Jewish higher education in the Institute of Higher Jewish Education under the leadership of Shimeon Dubnow. The atmosphere of deep intellectual culture and the very friendly relationship among a group of coworkers at the institution connected her for her entire life with the idea of spreading special Jewish higher education among the young people. And later, she devoted her strength to the accomplishment of those ideas in Lithuania.

Right at her return to Lithuania at the end of 1921 she devoted herself to the matter of the “higher circles” in Kovno. She was the living spirit of the institution. She drew to it all of the significant scientific forces who were in Lithuania, such as Shimshon Rozenbaum, Max Soloveitchik, Professor Y. Grosman, Z. Kalmanovitch and many others, if even only temporarily.

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She dreamed about the possibility of building a true Jewish University in Eastern Europe. She imagined that Kovno and, Lithuania that surrounded it, which once had drawn young Jewish men from all corners of Russia to its yeshivus [religious secondary schools] as a center of Jewish learning, could now become a center of Jewish learning in the modern sense that would draw to it Jewish young people who strove for pure knowledge.

Many dreams were woven in Lithuania Minor. It was thought that in many respects that here something bigger could be built, something exemplary. The majority of dreams faded away with the smoke: national autonomy, a Jewish ministry and the dream of a Jewish hochschule [institution of higher learning, such as a college or university] in Lithuania also had a similar fate. Instead, the only thing that remained was a folks-univerzitet [people's university]. Ester Elyashev also was the central figure in it and she devoted her full strength to it, but without that exciting enthusiasm that can develop only among people who are the conscious that they are creating their life's work.

The great cultural drive, the effervescent enthusiasm of the cultural worker found another solution. Ester Elyashev devoted herself to her literary criticism with its particular original approach. She approached literary creations with the full armament of her type of philosophical education. After the death of the Bal-Makhshoves, she devoted herself to literary criticism with a special fervor. Deeply thought-through studies by Ester Elyashev about Jewish and non-Jewish writers enriched the Jewish reader.

 

F.

The road of life began easy and fortunate for Ester Elyashev. However, life was not friendly to her for long. A road of suffering was prepared for her and after reaching her best years she felt its heavy destiny. Her first marriage was not happy and ended quickly. Then a difficult illness tormented her and often paralyzed her strength. At age 40, she already was a broken person. The zest for her cultural and literary

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activity often made her forget her physical suffering and her fate as a lonely woman. She did her literary work with real mystical ecstasy.

Her acquaintance with Johannes Weisbart took place in the last era of her life. An accidental acquaintance of two lonely, culturally thirsty people in a similar spiritual world at the regional congress in Konigsberg. Weisbart became her second husband. He became a proper pious convert under her influence. The assimilated German Jew, who had no connection to Yidishkeit [Jewish way of life], developed a love of Yiddish and Jewish culture and as very few of the German Jews did, grew close to the Jewish way of life of Jewish Kovno, with its language and its mentality.

The connection that illuminated Ester Elyashev's last years also did not bring her any joy. Her husband quickly manifested a severe emotional illness and Ester, herself weak and sick, had to dedicate all of her strength to save him, but without success.

After his death, still lonelier, she was completely broken physically without those closest to her around her. Just then, her internal cultural fervor strongly exploded and she and those who saw her truly marveled at the bubbling enthusiasm of the great cultural excitement, with the submersion into herself, in the deepest roots of the problems that always kept her busy.

She remained devoted to her home city. One of the few members of the Jewish intelligentsia she was not drawn to the luster of the European cities after the First World War. Although she drew her entire spiritual nourishment from them she stubbornly remained in her Kovno for the entire time. Here she created her most significant work; here she actually began generally to write in Yiddish; here she came to her [eternal] rest a short time before the tragedy for Lithuanian Jewry. Fate that was so often so hostile and hard to her did its last bitter favor for her. It fortunately protected her from the cruel hell that came like a great, indescribable misfortune to the Lithuanian Jews.

Translator's footnotes:

  1. The author of this article spelled his name above as Elyashiv. He used the spelling Elyashev in the text of the article. Return
  2. The Bal-Makshoves is the pen name of Dr. Israel Isidore Elyashev, know as the first Yiddish literary critic. Elyashev introduced the great Jewish writers such as Sholem Aleichem, Mendele Mocher Searim, Y.L. Peretz, Sholem Asch and Chaim Nachman Bialik to a wide audience of readers. Return

 

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