This article originally appeared in the Yiddish Forverts.
The classic Yiddish writer, Sholem Asch, whose serialized stories once graced the pages of the Forverts, has become a familiar name as of late, thanks to the new theatrical production of his novel about a Jewish brothel owner, “God of Vengeance” and Paula Vogel‘s acclaimed drama about the controversy surrounding the play‘s lesbian scene in its 1923 debut, “Indecent”.
Although Asch‘s penchant for controversy is well-known (he also offended many readers with his trilogy about Jesus and Mary), a handwritten letter by his wife — recently obtained by the Forverts — indicates that Asch could also be disturbingly cold-hearted.
In the letter, dated November 10th, 1945, with Sholem Asch‘s name and his Stamford, Connecticut, address in the heading, his wife, Mathilda, responds to a letter from the US military, informing her husband that the orphaned children of his younger brother Melach had miraculously survived the Holocaust and were looking for a home with relatives in the US. The names of his two nephews aren‘t mentioned.
Mrs. Asch lists a number of reasons why she and her husband couldn‘t take in Melach‘s children. “We emigrated very early after our marriage,” she writes, “and had very little occasion to meet and know even the nearest of our relatives. We knew that Melach Asch had children, boys and girls, but we did not know their first names.” She does confess that her husband had likely met the children upon his visit to Lodz, Poland, where Melach had lived for most of his life and had worked in the family butcher business and livestock trade, “but he does not remember them distinctly.”
Further, she describes Sholem‘s poor health at 65 years of age: ”My husband is very tired lately, has a high blood pressure, and the doctors told him to take [it] easy and not to excite himself with all the worries,” and in any case, “Melach’s family is only a small, small part of his family, as his father had nine children from the second wife, Asch’s mother.”
She reports that she is doing what she can for their nephews: “I sent a package of food yesterday as you advised… I am sending to many relatives packages of food.” She says that she couldn’t send clothes because they live too far from the city, and she complains that upon her doctor’s advice, she mustn’t work too hard now. In any case, soon they will be moving south ”as the climate here is very raw for me and my husband.” Maybe, after settling down in the south, her health would improve and she would be able to send them clothes, too.
Towards the end of the letter, Mrs. Asch apologizes for not doing more for their relatives; explains how large their families are from both sides; and ends the letter with: “I assure you that we would do our utmost if we could. We are barely keeping our soul and body together. We are weak and got old and tired, and Mr. Asch is working very hard. Thanks again, we are yours truly, Mathilda Asch.”
Could it be that Sholem Asch, living comfortably in America, did, in effect, reject his young relatives who had just experienced the Nazi horrors?
The letter was recently discovered by Michael Stillman, a Jewish resident of Waccabuc, New York, as he was looking through his late father’s memorabilia of the World War II period. The letter by Mathilda Asch was addressed to his father, Aaron Stillman.
In an interview with the Forverts, Michael Stillman explained that his father had served in the U.S. army during the war and participated in the liberation of Dachau. Bilingual in Yiddish and English, he was asked to help survivors connect with their relatives in America, with the expectation that the American relatives would take them in, at least temporarily.
Michael Stillman found the content of the letter very troubling, and described the behavior of Mr. and Mrs. Asch as “inhumane and heartless.”
But Sholem Asch’s great-grandson, the BBC journalist and Yiddish scholar David Mazower, urged people to give Mr. and Mrs. Asch the benefit of the doubt.
“Sure, they don’t make a good impression here but I’d caution against quick judgments… It’s one piece of a much bigger jigsaw,” Mazower told the Forverts. ”It’s quite likely that Sholem and Madzhe, or Mathilda, had minimal contact with Melach and his family since their childhood together in Kutno, and quite possible that they really didn’t know the names of Melekh’s children by 1945.”
Mazower knows of only one photo of the two brothers together in Poland from the mid-1930’s.
He said that Melach had seven children. His wife, Shifra, and their four daughters were all killed in Auschwitz. But one of Melach’s other sons, Paul Asch, did survive the Holocaust, settled in Boston, and was in touch with Mazower. Paul Asch had came to America in January, 1948, and told Mazower that it was Sholem who had sent him the papers. Paul always seemed proud of his uncle and didn‘t seem to bear any grudge against him.
Sholem Asch was already financially supporting several relatives, including his own three adult children, and had supported Mazower’s own mother after she was evacuated to the United States in 1940 and lived with her grandparents. As a result of the war, Asch had also lost his main sources of income in Poland and Germany.
“To top it off, Sholem and Mathilda really weren‘t in the best of health,“ Mazower said. A campaign mounted by his former boss, Forverts editor Abe Cahan, against Asch for allegedly trying to convert the Jews to Christianity, didn’t help either, Mazower added.
In short, a letter that seems scandalous at first glance, needs to be seen through a historical lens. One could argue that had American society in general, or the American government in particular, done more to assist the European refugees, the entire burden wouldn‘t have lain on the shoulders of their aging relatives in America.
And yet, one wonders whether this in itself should excuse Mr. and Mrs. Asch from turning away their young relatives immigrating to America to rebuild their lives out of the ashes.