Simon Dubnow - Life and Career

Life and Career

Simon Dibnow was born Shimon Meyerovich Dubnow (Шимон Меерович Дубнов) to a large poor family in the Belarusian town of Mstsislaw (Mahilyow Voblast). A native Yiddish speaker, he received a traditional Jewish education in a heder and a yeshiva, where Hebrew was regularly practiced. Later Dubnow entered into a kazyonnoe yevreyskoe uchilishche (state Jewish school) where he learned Russian. In the midst of his education, the May Laws eliminated these Jewish institutions, and Dubnow was unable to graduate; Dubnow persevered, independently pursuing his interests in history, philosophy, and linguistics. He was particularly fascinated by Heinrich Graetz and the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement.

In 1880 Dubnow used forged documents to move to St Petersburg, officially off-limits to Jews. Jews were generally restricted to small towns in the Pale of Settlement, unless they had been discharged from the military, were employed as doctors or dentists, or could prove they were 'cantonists', university graduates or merchants belonging to the 1st guild. Here he married Ida Friedlin.

Soon after moving to St. Petersburg Dubnow's publications appeared in the press, including the leading Russian–Jewish magazine Voskhod. In 1890, the Jewish population was expelled from the capital city, and Dubnow too was forced to leave. He settled in Odessa and continued to publish studies of Jewish life and history, coming to be regarded as an authority in these areas.

Throughout his active participation in the contemporary social and political life of the Russian Empire, Dubnow called for modernizing Jewish education, organizing Jewish self-defense against pogroms, and demanding equal rights for Russian Jews, including the right to vote. Living in Vilna, Lithuania, during the early months of 1905 Russian Revolution, he became active in organizing a Jewish political response to opportunities arising from the new civil rights which were being promised. In this effort he worked with a variety of Jewish opinion, e.g., those favoring diaspora autonomy, Zionism, socialism, and assimilation.

In 1906 he was allowed back into St Petersburg, where he founded and directed the Jewish Literature and Historical-Ethnographic Society and edited the Jewish Encyclopedia. In the same year, he with Israel Efrojkin founded the Folkspartei (Jewish People's Party), which successfully worked for the election of MPs and municipal councilors in interwar Lithuania and Poland. After 1917 Dubnow became a Professor of Jewish history at Petrograd University.

He welcomed the first February Revolution of 1917 in Russia, which brought the long anticipated liberation of the Jewish people. Yet he felt uneasy about the increasing profile of Lenin. Dubnow did not consider such Bolsheviks as Trotsky (Bronstein) to be Jewish. "They appear under Russian pseudonyms, because they are ashamed of their Jewish origins (Trotsky, Zinoviev, others). But it would be better to say that their Jewish names are pseudonyms; they are not rooted in our people."

In 1922 he emigrated to Kaunas, Lithuania, and later to Berlin. His magnum opus was the ten volume World History of the Jewish people, first published in German translation in 1925-1929. "With this work Dubnow took over the mantle of Jewish national historian from Graetz. Dubnow's Weltgeschicht may in truth be called the first secular and purely scholarly synthesis of the entire course of Jewish history, free from dogmatic and theological trappings, balanced in its evaluation of the various epochs and various regional groupings of Jewish historical development, fully cognizant of social and economic currents and influences... ."

During 1927 Dubnow initiated a search in Poland for pinkeysim (record books kept by Kehillot and other local Jewish groups) on behalf of the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut (YIVO, Jewish Scientific Institute), while he was Chairman of its Historical Section. This spadework for the historian netted several hundred writings; one pinkes dated to 1601, that of the Kehillah of Opatów.

In August 1933, after Hitler came to power, Dubnow moved to Riga, Latvia. There his wife died, yet he continued his activities, also writing his autobiography Book of my Life. Then in July 1941 Nazi troops occupied Riga. Dubnow was evicted, losing his entire library. With thousands of Jews he was transferred to the Riga ghetto. According to the few remaining survivors, Dubnow repeated to ghetto inhabitants: "Yidn, shraybt un farshraybt"' (Yiddish: "Jews, write and record"). He was among thousands of Jews to be rounded up there for the Rumbula massacre. Too sick to travel to the forest, he was executed in the city on December 8, 1941. Several friends then buried Simon Dubnow in the old cemetery of the Riga ghetto.

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