MATISYOHU MIZES (MATES MIESES) (June 30, 1886-January 18, 1945)
He was born in Przemyśl, central Galicia, into a well-pedigreed family. He studied in religious elementary school and with the Przemyśl rabbi, R. Khayim-Tsvi Glazer. He received his secular education with private tutors. In 1910 he began research work at the university libraries of Berlin and Vienna. At age fifteen he published a poem in Hamagid (The preacher). He wrote hundreds of political and scholarly articles for: Hatsfira (The siren) in Cracow; Hayarden (The garden) in Stanisle (Stanislavov) in 1906; Haolam (The world); Heatid (The future); in the Hebrew encyclopedia Otsar yisrael (Treasury of Israel); and Hayom (Today); among others. As a Polish journalist, he contributed to the Lemberg press, to Cracow’s Polish-Jewish Nowy dziennik (New daily) in 1919-1920, and to the Zionist Wschód (East) and Morija (Moriya). In German he published articles in Dr. Josef Bloch’s Oesterreichische Wochenschrift (Austrian weekly) (1916-1919) and other German-Jewish and general German organs. He particularly excelled as a philologist in the field of Yiddish and as a defender and legitimator of the national-spiritual significance of Yiddish. His articles—“Bizkhut hasafa hayehudit” (For the sake of the Yiddish language) and “Od milim aḥdut bedavar hasafa hayehudit” (Further words of unity on the matter of the Yiddish language)—in Haolam (nos. 21, 22, 26 in 1907) provoked a polemic with Naḥum Sokolov in “Leshelat halashon hayehudit” (On the question of the Yiddish language) in Sh. Hurvitsh’s Heatid (no. 3 in 1910). In defending the Yiddish language, he demonstrated that it was worthy of remaining under one roof with nationalism and Zionism. He rejected the argument that Yiddish was no more than “bad German with a corrupt addition of Hebrew and Slavic: a jargon.” It was difficult for him to understand how Jews who believed in their people’s revival would deliver a death sentence to the Jewish vernacular, and he resented that the renaissance movement of our people should begin in a negative manner—“to cut off a large piece of our people’s self,” despite the fact that there is no rivalry between Hebrew and Yiddish literature. He stressed that, if Yiddish ceased to be used, it was not at all certain that Hebrew would be a national language for its future heirs. “If people who love their own folk, hold dear its past and fight for its future, it they decree a premature death to the Yiddish language and deprive our people thereby of their living language—one must not remain silent.” Mieses wrote the outline for a history of Yiddish and explained everything pursuant to a profound proficiency in language development generally and in the phenomena of Yiddish in particular. The author proved to be an expert in this field, offering citations from the finest researchers and thinkers, so that one could not dispute his argumentation. At the historic Czernowitz Yiddish Language Conference of 1908, the twenty-three-year-old Mieses excelled with a scholarly speech concerning the Yiddish language, and Y. L. Perets suggested that he publish the speech in a special pamphlet, because this was the first scholarly treatment in the field of Yiddish language research in the modern era. The surprise at the language conference was even greater when it became known that Mieses was a superb writer in Hebrew, Polish, and German and that he seldom wrote in Yiddish. When one becomes acquainted with Mieses’s philological research on the Yiddish language, one must rely on his German writings, where he proves to be a scholar of unusual scope, a researcher with phenomenal knowledge. In Yiddish, Mieses contributed: “Mit vos far a oysyes zoln mir shraybn yidish” (What letters ought we use to write Yiddish?), in Moyshe Frostik’s Kalendar (Calendar) of 1912; to Sanoker folks-fraynd (Sanok [Poland] friend of the people) and Lemberger togblat (Lemberg daily newspaper); “Perets-zikhroynes fun der yidisher shprakh-konferents in tshernovits” (Memories of Perets from the Yiddish language conference in Czernowitz), in Literarishe bleter (Literary leaves); Unzer ekspres (Our express); “Iden als aker-poyerim in mizrekh-galitsye” (Jews as farmers in eastern Galicia), in Moment (Moment), jubilee issue (1935); “Der bilbl fun kishef antkegn yidn” (The denunciation of witchcraft against Jews), in Yivo-bleter (Pages from YIVO) (Vilna) 13.1-2 (1938); “Der forvurf fun kishef oykh bay andere felker un emunes” (The charge of witchcraft among other peoples and faiths, too); “Yidn bashuldikn nisht-yidn vegn kishef” (Jews accuse non-Jews concerning witchcraft); “Di tolerants fun yidn” (Tolerance of Jews); and “Der koyekh fun sugetsye un dos ekspluatirn fremdn obergloybn” (The power of suggestion and explaining strange superstitions); among others. He published, 1937-1938, in the Warsaw-based Moment a series of articles on important writers of Jewish origin. Mieses made tremendous gains in the field of Yiddish philology. Especially interesting and original was his work, Die Entstehungsursache der jüdischen Dialekte (The origins of the Yiddish dialect) (Vienna, 1915), 120 pp., in which through a thorough analysis of the issue—the reasons for which Jews in the Diaspora have created their own languages, in particular the Yiddish language—and in light of the extremely rich materials available in general ethnology and philology, he came to the conclusion that the cause was the distinctive Jewish religion. He offered the same argument in his large work, Die Gesetze der Schriftgeschichte (Laws in the history of writings) (Vienna: Wilhelm Braumüller, 1919), 506 pp., in which he dealt with the connection between belief and writing in the life of peoples, also touching upon Yiddish writing and the Yiddish language. “Mieses’s work,” noted Max Weinreich, “is important first of all because of the immense mountain of material that he gathered. Pertinent to his theory, one soon observes, is that it is not so anomalous…not so much that faith itself should emerge as the factor that forms the language, but the isolated environment that was created through this particular belief system…. Jewish languages were, indeed, created via the restrictedness of the Jewish environment; but a question remains: how did Jews preserve their isolation, their distinctiveness, their existence—either with their faith or by other means. This ceases to be a question of philology, and it becomes a matter of Jewish history in general.” A second major work in the field of Yiddish philology (in particular, phonetics) was Mieses’s Die Jiddische Sprache, eine historische Grammatik des Idioms der integralen Juden Ost- und Mitteleuropas (The Yiddish language, a historical grammar of the idioms basic to Jews of Eastern and Central Europe) (Berlin: Benjamin Harz, 1924), XV + 322 pp. This is one of the most important works concerning the Yiddish language, rich in material on phonetics, grammatical forms, vocabulary, and borrowings from Yiddish into foreign languages, as well as historical observations, sagacious deductions on the origin and spread of the Yiddish language, and its connections to dialects of the German language. From his other scholarly writing in book form, we have: Hapolanim vehayehudim (The Poles and the Jews) (Cracow, 1905), 60 pp.; Haamim haatikim ṿeyisrael, nisayon levaer et hithavut haantishemiut hakadmonit (The ancient nations and Israel, an attempt to explain the emergence of ancient anti-Semitism) (Cracow: Hamitspe, 1909), 160 pp.; W kwestyi nienawiści rasowej (On racial issues), a rejoinder to Chamberlain’s anti-Semitic book to demonstrate the superiority of the Jewish race compared to the Aryan race (Lemberg, 1912), 128 pp.; Germanen und Juden (Germans and Jews) (Berlin: R. Löwit, 1917), 46 pp.; Zur Rassenfrage (On the issue of race) (Vienna-Leipzig: Braumüller, 1919), 182 pp.; Der Ursprung des Judenhasses (The origin of hatred of Jews) (Berlin: Benjamin Harz, 1923), 582 pp.; Polacy-Chrześcijanie Pochodzenia Żydowskiego (Christian Poles of Jewish origin), vol. 1 (Warsaw: Fruchtman, 1938). From all these works, one can see the breadth of Mieses’s scope and possibilities, a man who at age eighteen could handle nearly a dozen languages and who later evinced great proficiency and acumen in substantiating his hypotheses. “Mieses truly published,” noted Meylekh Ravitsh, “an entire four-language library of 500-page folios on language, writing, religion, what have you. And, when he became bored sitting around in Przemyśl, serving as chairman of the businessmen’s association, he moved to Warsaw and sought to settle into work for the press, writing the most sensational scholarly articles, each sensation to last at least 200 years old. He suffered greatly for these, and he was quite angry with the contemporary world for being so stupid and being so focused on today and not the day before yesterday, but it didn’t help.” During the Nazi occupation, he was confined in the Warsaw Ghetto, working on a volume on the issue of racial hatred. He died on the way to Auschwitz at the sub-camp of Gliwice.
His brother, Dr. Yoysef Mieses, was head rabbi in the Polish army; he wrote a literary-historical investigation entitled: Die alteste gedrukte deutsche Ubersetzung des judischen Gebetbuches A.D. Jahre 1530 und ihr Autor Anthonius Margaritha (The oldest German translation of the Jewish prayer book, A.D. 1530, and its author, Anthonius Margaritha) (Vienna: Löwit, 1916), 57 pp. His sister, Dr. Rokhl Mieses, wrote a dissertation on the phonetics of the Yiddish dialect of central Galicia for the department of philology at the University of Vienna.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 2; Dr. Ts. Cohen, in Poylishe idn (New York) (1942); M. Mozes, in Der poylisher id (New York) (1944); Yidishe shriftn (Yiddish writings), anthology (Lodz, 1946); Yedies fun yivo (New York) (June 1952); Getzel Kressel, in Di goldene keyt (Tel Aviv) 28 (1957); M. Ravitsh, Mayn leksikon (My lexicon), vol. 2 (Montreal, 1943), p. 379; Ravitsh, in Keneder odler (Montreal) (April 10, 1958).