1880 - Born in Poland
1910 - moves to U.S.A, becomes a citizen
A financially fortuitous marriage allowed him to devote all his energied to his writings.
1957 - died London
(There is an excellent brief biography on Yivo, there is a link at the close of this post.)
“The Jewish Soldier”, originally appearing in Forward in December, 1914, is the third short story by Shalom Asch upon which I have posted. In April of last year i read his very moving story set in a concentration camp, written in 1948, “Jew’s Eye”. Last Month I posted on his well known set between the wars in Warsaw story “Kola Street” about social conflicts among Jews. (My post has a link to a podcast.). Today’s story, “A Jewish Soldier” is truly a masterpiece.
One day in 1914 or so all the young men of a small Polish town are, without notice, drafted into the Russian Army, to flight for the Czar against the Germans and Austrians. They receive uniforms but no training. Jews were discriminated against legally and subject vicious treatment by Russians. The central character and narrator sees a group of Russian soldiers trying to force a Jewish soldier to eat pork. The young man rescues him. He falls in with other Jewish soldiers. One is an intellectual and tells the others that Jews are actually stateless with no reason at all to die for Russia or any other country. He tells them they are being used by the Czarist state which cares less than nothing about them.
Like all soldiers before the battle, they think about their fsmilies or girlfriends. Asch does a brilliant job creating the pre-battle atmosphere. As they march forward, they pass through a battle ground, they must step over dead bodies and dying men. The narrator tries to comfort a badly wounded soldier who begs him to get word to his mother with his dying words. He begins to hear cannon fire, all around him men are being blown to bits. In an amazing sequence, brought on by patriotism and religious impulses, he grabs a flag from a fallen man and charges the enemy. He winds up a hero. To me Asch’s depiction of battle from the point of view of the foot soldier is on a par with The Red Badge of Courage ond All Quiet on the Western Front.
I do not wish to deprive other first time readers of the great power of the close of this thstory. It is a great classic anti-war story. Published in Poland or Russia in 1914 instead of in Forward in New York City it would have earned Asch a trip to Siberia.
I resd this story in s wonderful anthology of Yiddish short fiction,
Have I Got a Story for You - More than a Century of Fiction from the Forward edited by Ezra Glinter with an introduction by Dana Horn was a 2016 finalist for the Jewish Book of the Year. Founded in New York City in 1897, Forward is the most renowned Yiddish newspaper in the world. For generations it has brought immigrants news of their homelands, recipes, as well as lots of information about how to get along in America. It also published many works of Yiddish language fiction by some of the greatest writers in the language.
(You can learn about the history of Forward on their website
This story alone is worth the cost of the book for anyone into quality short fiction, not just Yiddish culture.
From the Yivo Encyclopaedia of Eastern European Jews
There are three other stories in the collection about Jewish soldiers and I hope to read them this month.