#100PENMembers No.69: Sholem Asch

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.’ 

PEN Past and Present: PEN and Refugees

Last year PEN launched its Make Space campaign, to help to support and advocate for refugees, Senior Research Associate Katherine Cooper explains why this is a natural choice for an organisation which has always advocated for refugee rights…

In October 1938 following the Munich Pact in which Chamberlain and the allies gave away large amounts of the Czech Sudetenland to Germany, English PEN President Storm Jameson wrote to English and International Secretary Hermon Ould.

She noted her own shame at her government’s complicity in a deal which she felt let down Czechoslovakia, abandoning it to the Nazis and wondered what PEN might do to help the inevitable flow of refugee writers fleeing Nazi censorship and persecution.

‘It is money that the Czechs want’ she noted, and with that she and Ould began the Refugee Writers Fund.

Since Hitler came to power in 1933, Ould had been receiving letters from beleaguered writers enquiring about passage to England and assistance that PEN could provide once there.

At the Dubrovnik conference of that year, International President H.G. Wells had kicked out the German PEN for their lack of action to defend these writers, many of whom were Jews.

But by 1938 things were intensifying and the PEN offices were struggling to process requests for help to escape the continent and letters asking for references and employment ideas from writers who had made the journey to the UK already.

Ould, Jameson and others from the Executive Committee of English PEN began to write to members asking for contributions to the Fund, which would help to pay for visas, for travel and for staff at PEN to process the paperwork.

They also wrote to publishers and newspapers. One of their appeals in 1940 was entitled, ‘To the Conscience of the World’ foregrounding the importance that they attributed to the fates of these refugee writers.

To the COnscience

Image ‘To the Conscience of the World’ courtesy of the Harry Ransom Centre, University of Texas.

Janet Chance and Doreen Marsden were taken on to work solely on the fund as PEN began to advise the British government on refugee writers.

By 1940 the Fund began to focus on providing  weekly maintenance payments or one-off payment to help writers to buy paper, typewriter ribbons and to pay translators in order to continue their work in the UK.

The fund helped hundreds – even thousands – of writers to escape Europe and to make a living in the UK and led directly to the foundation of the Writers in Exile Centre after the war.

It began a long history of helping refugees, which PEN continued throughout the Cold War and wars of independence throughout Africa and Asia.

The Make Space Campaign is a clear continuation of PEN’s work to recognise the needs of refugees but also its belief that literature represents not only an opportunity for catharsis and coming-to-terms for individual refugees but also a point of collective and regeneration for society as a whole.