Page 124 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 37

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EMANUEL S. GOLDSM ITH
Sholem Asch
On the Occasion of the Centenary of His Birth
I
n
t h e f i r s t
half of the twentieth century, Sholem Asch (1880-
1957) was the most popular Yiddish author in the world. His
works were cherished by millions of Jews who read them in the
Yiddish original and by millions of non-Jews who read the
numerous translations that appeared in virtually every European
tongue. No Yiddish writer before Asch had ever achieved such
worldwide recognition. Copies of Asch’s books were widely dis­
seminated in the towns and cities of Europe and America. They
could be found on the farms and collective settlements of Eretz
Yisrael and, during the Holocaust, were smuggled into the con­
centration camps and death factories.
In his immortal Holocaust poem,“The Song of the Slaughtered
Jewish People,” the poet Yitzkhok Katzenelson bewails his people
who are now only “in Bialik’s poems and in the books of Sholem
Aleichem and Sholem Asch.” The poignancy of these words recall
the intimate relationship that existed between the Jewish masses
and Asch. To them both his name and his writings were sacred. In
addition, by familiarizing non-Jewish readers with Jewish themes
and with the Eastern European Jewish milieu, Asch helped pave
the way for the worldwide recognition and awarding of the Nobel
Prize for Literature to another Yiddish writer, Isaac Bashevis
Singer.
It was Asch’s devotion to his people throughout his lifetime that
served as the motivation for his publication of a series of works,
beginning with
The Nazarene
in 1939, designed to bring attention
to Christianity’s debt to Judaism.
The Nazarene, The Apostle, Mary,
What I Believe
and
One Destiny
appeared, however, at a time when
European Jewry was being annihilated throughout Christian
Europe and caused many Jews to view Asch as a renegade and an
apostate. Yet even this vehement and unfortunate controversy
could not completely erase Jewish esteem for Asch. His works had