Perec Icchok Lejb

Icchok Lejb Perec - Personal data
Date of birth: ca. / around 18th May 1852
Place of birth: Zamość
Date of death: 3rd April 1915
Place of death: Warszawa
Occupation: lawyer, writer
Related towns: Warsaw, Zamość

Perec Icchok Lejb (18 May 1852, Zamość – 3 April 1915, Warsaw) – lawyer, writer. 

Icchok Lejb Perec was born into a wealthy family. His father Judko came from Lubartów. In Zamość, he conducted his business affairs successfully. He married a local girl, Rywką Lewin, and started a family. As a child, young Icchok studied in the cheder and then in a yeshiva. Thanks to private lessons, he expanded his knowledge on secular topics and learned foreign languages. 

He married at the age of eighteen. He engaged in various activities to support his family – including running a brewery and renting a mill. He had no luck in business. He also failed in his private life and his marriage quickly ended in divorce.   

Perec left Zamość and worked as a private Hebrew teacher in Warsaw. There, he also undertook law courses. He returned to Zamość where he passed the law examination and opened a private legal practice. For over ten years, he ran the practice, defending both wealthy and poor clients, often workers accused of having socialist views. Perec was active in the community. This included supporting the Jewish high school and lecturing at the school for workers. In the end, the Russian authorities revoked his licence to run a legal practice. The reason was his promotion of socialism and “Polishness”.

Perec moved to Warsaw and found a job as a clerk at the Warsaw Jewish Community Council. His pro-socialist sympathies did not diminish. They even caused him to be arrest and confined, for three months, in the Warsaw Citadel. He also took up writing seriously. After his first attempts at writing in Polish (these works probably destroyed) and after in Hebrew, which appeared in the collection Sipurim be-shir we-shirim shonim (Heb. Stories in Verse and Selected Poems), Perec decided to write in Yiddish. His first work , published in Yiddish in 1888, was the poem Monish.

His apartments at ul. Ceglana 1 and then on al. Jerozolimskie, served an artistic salons. Writers and theatrical people would gather there. Perec became an authority on Yiddish literature. Young authors would come to him for his opinion and for approval from the master. By visiting Perec, careers would begin, for example, for Szalom Asz, Alter Kacyzne, Hersz Dawid Nomberg and Izaak Meir Weissenberg. Perec dreamed of achieving cultural autonomy for the Jews, with the possibility of creating works in their own language. However, he believed that it was important to maintain contact with Polish culture. For that reason, he sought to translate modern Polish literature into Yiddish. In 1908, he participated in a conference in Czerniowice, where he called for Yiddish to be given the status of a national language.

He initiated the publishing of literary anthologies of Di yudishe bibliotek (Yid. The Jewish Library – 3 volumes in 1891-1895), Literatur un lebn (Yid. Literature and Life, 1895) and Yontev bletlech (Yid. Holiday Cards, 1894–1896). To this day, Perec’s short stories - Bonche Shwajg (Yid. Bońcie Milczek) and texts published in the collection Chsidisz (Yid. Yiddish Tales), have enjoyed the greatest popularity.  

Perec also wrote for the theatre. When, after 1905, the Tsarist authorities allowed the staging of Yiddish plays, he created the drama Di goldene keyt (Yid. The Golden Chain) and then the expressionist and symbolic work Bai nacht ojfn alten markt (Yid. At Night in the Old Market Square).

Perec died in Warsaw in 1915. He was buried in the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street in Warsaw, with around one hundred people attending his funeral.

His disciples and admirers continued his work. Yiddish literature blossomed during the twenty-year inter-War period, becoming a part of European culture. After World War I, Perec became the informal patron of the Jewish Union of Writers and Journalists and his walking-stick was kept there as a relic. In the following years, hundreds of libraries, literary clubs and schools in Poland were named in his honour.

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