(1898–1937), Yiddish literary scholar and critic. Maks Erik (Zalmen Merkin) was born in Sosnowiec to a well-to-do family and received a Jewish and general education in Russian and Polish schools. In 1921, he completed Polish military service and began studying law. In the years 1922–1923 and 1925–1926, he taught Yiddish literature and Polish studies at Yiddish high schools in Vilna.
In 1918, Erik began to publish articles in Yiddish about Yiddish literature, contemporary European writers, and issues concerning literature in general. In the 1920s Literarishe bleter and other publications in Poland printed his comprehensive articles on Dovid Bergelson, Moyshe Kulbak, Yoysef Opatoshu, and other Yiddish writers, as well as others in which he blurred the boundary between critical analysis and manifesto, such as “Di shprakh funem yidishn ekspresyonizm” (The Language of Yiddish Expressionism; in the journal Albatros, edited by Uri Tsevi Grinberg). His first book, Konstruktsye-shtudyen (lit., Construction Studies [i.e., Textual Studies]; 1924), provides a broad textual analysis of Y. L. Peretz’s two main plays Di goldene keyt (The Golden Chain) and Bay nakht afn altn mark (At Night in the Old Marketplace). Later, Erik also wrote the first textual analysis of Sholem Aleichem’s Menakhem-Mendl.
From the mid-1920s, Erik researched mainly old Yiddish literature (up to the end of the eighteenth century), a topic that led to his most substantial contributions to the field of Yiddish studies. His book, Vegn altyidishn roman un novele (On the Old Yiddish Novel and Novella; 1926), which deals with old Yiddish prose, was a forerunner of his essential work, Geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur: Fun di eltste tsaytn biz der haskole-tkufe (History of Yiddish Literature: From Earliest Times to the Haskalah Period; 1928). This latter work was the first attempt at a synthetic history of older Yiddish literature. In order to study the relevant materials firsthand, Erik took a lengthy trip to the libraries of Western Europe.
Erik divided old Yiddish literature into two main periods, the “shpilman [troubadour] period” and the “muser [ethical] period.” In this schema we can distinctly see traces of the cultural-ideological approach that emphasized the tension between traditional yidishkayt and secular tendencies in Yiddish literature, and which sought to emphasize and focus on the supposedly secular element. These concepts, for example, served as the foundation for the volume in Yisroel Tsinberg’s Di geshikhte fun der literatur bay yidn (The History of Jewish Literature) that deals with old Yiddish literature. Erik’s notion of the character of the Jewish shpilman, which he presented as a prototype of the modern secular Yiddish writer, was indeed very similar to the contemporary image of the modern Yiddishist intellectual. His hypothesis—that there indeed existed a Jewish shpilman—garnered criticism even during his own time and has been refuted in more recent studies.
In 1929, Erik settled in the Soviet Union. He shared the belief that had captivated a part of the radical Jewish intelligentsia that modern Yiddish culture would flourish there. The fact that Erik had been active in the Left Po‘ale Tsiyon party, however, was a significant stumbling block for him in his new milieu. He had first settled in Minsk, but because of the dogmatic atmosphere prevalent in local Yiddish cultural circles, he moved to Kiev in 1932. In both cities he was a leader in the local Jewish research institutions and taught Yiddish and world literature at local Jewish institutes of higher learning.
Due to political conditions in the Soviet Union, Erik had to almost completely renounce his scholarly interest in old Yiddish literature. He concentrated instead on the Haskalah period, a field palatable to Soviet ideology and in which he became quite productive. Among his most significant texts in that area are the volumes he edited, Di komedyes fun der berliner ufklerung (The Comedies of the Berlin Enlightenment; 1933) and Geklibene verk (Selected Works) by Shloyme Ettinger (1935). Erik’s book Etyudn tsu der geshikhte fun der haskole (Studies toward the History of the Haskalah; 1934) deals with the Haskalah in Germany and Galicia. In collaboration with Ayzik Rozentsvayg, he also wrote the textbook Di yidishe literatur in 19tn yorhundert (Yiddish Literature in the Nineteenth Century; 1935). Erik explored modern Yiddish literature as well, writing a book about Sholem Asch (1931) and producing scholarly articles about Sholem Aleichem and other Yiddish writers.
Erik fell victim to the first wave of persecution of Jewish cultural figures in the Soviet Union. He was arrested in 1936 and exiled to a camp, where he died in 1937.
Sh. Niger, Yidishe shrayber in Sovet-Rusland (New York, 1958), pp. 144–188; Jacob Shatzky, “Maks Erik,” Zamlbikher 8 (1952): 41–54; Y. Tsinberg, Kultur-historishe shtudyes (New York, 1949), pp. 314–328; Chava Turniansky, “Maks Erik,” Bay zikh 13–14 (May 1979): 67–74.
RG 500, Alexander Pomerantz, Papers, 1920s-1960s.
Translated from Yiddish by Yankl Salant