Sholem Asch was born in Poland, and became President of what was called the Yiddish PEN Club in 1930.
He was a prodigious writer, famous in his lifetime for his plays, novels and essays, as well as his representations of the Jewish migrant experience. In 1931 he was living in Paris, after periods of time spent in New York from 1918-1925, and he had just published the second and third instalments, Warsaw (1930) and Moscow (1931) of his Russian Revolution trilogy, which was translated into English as Three Cities.
The formation of Yiddish PEN had not occurred without controversy. PEN centres were created in cities, with the idea that they represented national literatures, broadly defined. The desire of Warsaw Jewish writers to create a separate ‘Yiddish’ chapter within Warsaw, however, was fuelled by their perilous position, in terms of civic and cultural rights, within the Polish state. The centre was the first to be founded on what PEN called a ‘non-territorial’ basis.
Asch was an important figure in PEN circles, not only because of he was a very active Director of Yiddish PEN, attending most Congresses in the 1930s, but also because of his testimonies of what was happening to Jewish writers in Berlin and Warsaw.
This sometimes involved an insistence upon the specific position of persecuted writers or writer refugees. He protested against the original wording of Galsworthy’s 1931 ‘Appeal to All Governments’, which was designed to be read at the League of Nations World Disarmament Conference to be held in Geneva in February 1932.
While the Appeal opposed the ‘ill treatment’ of ‘people imprisoned on political or religious grounds’, it also insisted that PEN would not ‘question the right and need of Governments to imprison such as are in opposition to their regimes’. Citing the dangerous situation of Jewish writers in Poland, and other European countries, Asch, along with a few other members, protested that it ‘implied a provisional acknowledgement of the rights of governments to imprison people on religious and political grounds’. The wording was duly amended.
Asch would continue to intervene on PEN matters. In a speech in London in the late 1930s he described how ‘my books are being publicly burnt in a certain country for no other reason except that I have committed the great crime of being born a Jew’.
For Asch writers needed to respond immediately and collectively: ‘In a time such as this we writers of books must close our ranks more firmly than ever.’