Peretz Smolenskin Dies
Peretz Smolenskin. Photo: Public Domain

February 1, 1885

Russian Jewish novelist, editor and early Zionist Peretz Smolenskin dies of tuberculosis at age 43 in Italy.

Smolenskin was born in the Mogilev province of White Russia in 1842 and had a traditional Torah education. At 22, he started teaching Hebrew in Odessa, where he wrote a book of literary criticism in 1867 and published articles in the local Hebrew press. He also began work on an autobiographical novel, “The Wanderer in the Paths of Life,” about his troubled childhood.

Smolenskin moved to Vienna in 1868 to lead the Hebrew department of a large printing press. He founded and edited an influential Hebrew-language journal, HaShachar (The Dawn), and gained the status of a leading nationalist thinker. He said the Jews were a nation with a foundation in the Hebrew language and the hope of redemption. He rejected the assimilation of Jews in Western Europe and the separatism of Jews in Eastern Europe. He believed that Jews would no longer be seen as pariahs if they viewed themselves as a nation and not just a religious group.

The wave of pogroms in Russia in the early 1880s pushed Smolenskin toward a more radical Zionism. He demanded that the educational organization Alliance Israélite Universelle, for which he had investigated Jewish conditions in Romania in 1874, promote immigration to Palestine, a cause he increasingly advocated in HaShachar, and he continued attacking assimilation.

He wrote six novels, all focused on Jewish life. He finished the last, “The Inheritance,” which depicts Odessa and Romania, shortly before his death.

Smolenskin’s writings and teachings help propel Zionism after his death. In tribute to his life’s work, his remains are reburied in Israel in 1952.