1902 – 1989
Esther Rosenthal-Shneiderman, a Yiddish educator, journalist and memoirist, was born in Czestochowa (Poland) in 1902 and died in Jerusalem in 1989. After receiving her primary education at a Russian elementary school and passing external examinations for gymnasium (secondary) education, she studied at the Warsaw University and worked as a teacher in the left-wing educational network of the Central Yiddish School Organization, Tsisho. As an activist in the underground revolutionary movement, she was sent by the Communist Party of Poland to the Soviet Union, where she arrived in March 1926. During the next decade of her life she worked predominantly together with Josef Liberberg, director of the Kiev-based Yiddish academic center, known in the 1930s as the Institute for Jewish Proletarian Culture (IJPC). In 1934, when Liberberg was transferred to Birobidzhan to chair the Soviet (council) of the Jewish Autonomous Region, Rosenthal-Shneiderman, a close friend of her charismatic superior and his family, also moved to Birobidzhan. There she met her husband-to-be, a left-wing educator from Lithuania, Nisn Rosenthal (1898–1970), who came to the Soviet Union as a political emigré. After World War II Esther and her husband lived in Kiev, from which they repatriated to Poland in March 1958. In 1962 they settled in Israel.
During the Soviet period of her life, Rosenthal-Shneiderman combined academic, pedagogical and political activities. She was the head of the communist party organization at the IJPC, a graduate student and later a research fellow at its Pedagogical Section, and a lecturer at the Kiev Teachers Training Institute. In the early 1930s she emerged as an editor of children’s periodicals—Yunger shloger (Young Shock Worker, 1931), and Oktyaberl (Child of the October Revolution, 1932)—and an author or co-author of several textbooks for Soviet Yiddish schools. After returning to Poland in 1958, she wrote textbooks for local Yiddish schools. During the mass purges of the late 1930s she and her husband miraculously escaped being sent to labor camps. Nonetheless, Liberberg’s arrest and execution in 1936, together with Stalinist repressions of Yiddish cultural activists before and after World War II, caused the radical ideological transformation of Rosenthal-Shneiderman: the communist firebrand became a bitter critic of the Soviet regime and its nationalities policy.
In Israel she took an active part in postmortem examination of Soviet Yiddish cultural history. The three volumes of her books Oyf vegn un umvegn (On Main and Circuitous Roads, 1974, 1978, 1982; published in Hebrew in 1978–1989 as Naftule derakhim) and Birobidzhan fun der noent (Birobidzhan from Close Up, 1983, in Hebrew: Birobidz’an mi-karov, 1990) intertwine personal memoirs with the results of her research work at the Hebrew University’s Center for Research and Documentation of East European Jewry. Together with similar memoirs published in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s—most notably Vu bistu, khaver Sidorov? (Where are You, Comrade Sidorov?, 1975), Fun ineveynik (From Inside, 1978) and Oyf der letster pozitsye mit der letster hofenung (At The Last Position with the Last Hope, 1982) by the Polish and Soviet Jewish communist functionary Hersh Smolar—they provide panoramic, insightful portrayals of Soviet Yiddish academic and cultural circles.
Rosenthal-Shneiderman’s books concentrate on personalities and events in Ukraine and Birobidzhan. She often appears only as the narrator or even a detached observer rather than a protagonist in the tragic story, which began with the unprecedented, state-sponsored Yiddish culture construction and ended with its almost total liquidation. For instance, Rosenthal-Shneiderman describes Liberberg’s rise to the top academic position on the Soviet Yiddish Olympus, his wars of attrition with Jewish functionaries in Moscow and Minsk, his 1928 attempt to organize a visit of the émigré Jewish historian Simon Dubnow (1860–1941) and his other steps to expand the IJPC into the most significant center for Yiddish scholarship. In the early 1930s, he tried to move this center to Birobidzhan. Some of the invited literati even entertained the notion that the Birobidzhan population would in the not-too-distant future speak a uniform Yiddish language rather than pristine dialects. Moreover, such people as Rosenthal-Shneiderman regarded themselves as pioneers of the first Jewish state which, they believed, would ultimately grow into a populous, highly-developed Soviet republic—the spiritual center for all Jewish proletarians and a convincing alternative to the Zionist project.
Rosenthal-Shneiderman’s reckoning with history is not necessarily objective. The ambitious functionary Liberberg, for instance, appears in her books as an embodiment of the communist ideals of her youth, the antithesis of the party boss of Birobidzhan, Matvei Khavkin, whom she stereotyped as an upstart primitive bureaucrat. For all that, her documented memoirs constitute an important source for students of Soviet Jewish life. Inter alia, Rosenthal-Shneiderman’s writings contain unique portraits of such personalities as the historians of Yiddish literature Meir Wiener and Max Erik, the proletarian writer and critic Abraham Abchuk, and the linguists Nokhum Shtif and Elie Spivak.