Sholem Asch (ahsh) was the most important novelist writing in Yiddish in the early twentieth century. He was born in 1880 in Kutno, Poland, to Moishe Asch, a businessman, and his wife, Malka Asch. The eleventh of fifteen children, he was educated in the local Hebrew school and later taught Hebrew. In 1896 his first literary sketches, written in Hebrew, were rejected by a publisher to whom he had submitted them.
In 1899 Asch moved to Warsaw, where he became the protégé of the famous writer I. L. Peretz. Following Peretz’s advice, Asch began to write in Yiddish and was soon publishing in Yiddish newspapers. In 1901 Asch was married to Matilda Spiro, and in 1902 their first child was born. In 1905 Asch brought out his first novel, The Little Town, which established his reputation as a major Yiddish writer. That year also saw the successful production of his first play. Three years later, the play The God of Vengeance brought him international fame as a dramatist. The powerful story of a Jewish procurer who cannot protect his young daughter from the evil inherent in his own occupation, The God of Vengeance was presented in Warsaw, St. Petersburg, Berlin, and New York.
Concerned about the safety of his four young children in troubled Poland, Asch moved in 1914 with his family to New York, where he continued to write and to publish plays and novels, still in Yiddish. It was to be some years before the translations of his works into English would be successfully promoted. Fortunately, Abraham Cahan, the editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, had a policy of publishing what he considered the best in Yiddish literature. Beginning with America, the tragic story of an immigrant boy who cannot adjust to life in the United States, for years Cahan serialized every Asch novel before it was circulated in book form worldwide in Yiddish and in German.
Although he had become an American citizen in 1920, Asch decided to make his permanent home in Nice, where he settled in 1925. In 1933 Three Cities became the first of his novels to become a best-seller in English translation. By 1938, however, it was becoming clear that even literary merit could not protect a Jew living in Europe, and Asch and his wife Matilda decided to live in the United States.
For three decades Asch...
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