Yiddish literature can be seen as a three-legged stool: hard, homey and supported by its three “grandfathers.” There is the corrosive anticlerical satirist who called himself Mendele Mokher Sforim (Mendele the Book Seller); the self-invented, deceptively artless and universally beloved folk author Sholem Aleichem; and the Warsaw writer of Hasidic allegories I.L. Peretz. But there was once a fourth, or rather the promise of a fourth: Dovid Bergelson (1884-1952).
Unlike the grandfathers, Bergelson did not write for a popular audience so much as a cultivated Yiddish-speaking elite–at least at first. And, no less than his readers, Bergelson was a complex amalgam of the provincial and the cosmopolitan. Born to a prosperous Hasidic family in a Ukrainian shtetl, he attended a traditional religious school but received a secular European education from a tutor. His parents died when he was a boy. From the age of 14 he was raised in the households of elder brothers who had left their small town for the booming, increasingly Jewish cities of Kiev, Odessa and Warsaw.
Bergelson emerged as an artist in the aftermath of the failed 1905 revolution in Russia, and although his early work is not overtly political, it is characterized by a crepuscular melancholy. Like more than one Jewish author of his generation, he wrote first in Hebrew and Russian before switching to Yiddish, his native tongue, to address the twilight of the Yiddish world. Readers accustomed to Sholem Aleichem’s sturdy village archetypes or Isaac Bashevis Singer’s studied supernaturalism may be surprised by Bergelson’s decomposing milieu. His setting was the shtetl, well into its decline by the early twentieth century; his characters are largely secular, frustrated young people who struggle with their sense of futility and dream of escape.
Yiddish literature has naturally had a strong Russian component. Sholem Aleichem learned from Gogol. Jacob Gordin, the first serious Yiddish dramatist, was devoted to Tolstoy. Bergelson, for his part, studied Chekhov. He was the first Yiddish author concerned with individual psychology, and his impressionist prose was no less modern. An exacting and self-conscious stylist, Bergelson was a poet of subtle emotional atmospheres and a master of musical repetitions. Although his moods range from wistful to hopeless, he anticipates Saul Bellow in his irony, his predilection for ineffectual intellectuals and his fondness for Talmud-schooled internal dialogues.
Published in 1909, “At the Depot”–which concerns the business and other failures of an overeducated and “superfluous” young man–was instantly acclaimed by Yiddish critics. The 1913 novella Departing is the tale of a young man’s suicide, and of its ripple effect on the shtetl. Bergelson’s masterpiece, Nokh Alemen, a novel featuring a doomed, dreamy young woman as its antiheroine, was published on the eve of World War I. It was translated in 1977 as When All Is Said and Done, but its title might just as well be rendered as The End of Everything.
Like one of his characters, Bergelson succumbed to depression and wrote little during the war; in 1917, however, he became something of an organizer, founding the Yiddish Culture League in Kiev to encourage Modernist Yiddish literature and avant-garde Jewish art. In the spring of 1921, he joined the émigré exodus to Berlin–which included the cream of Russia’s Yiddish writers, among them Peretz Markish, Der Nister and Leib Kvitko. Although the city was Bergelson’s base for a dozen years, he traveled widely, sometimes for months at a time, in Denmark, Romania, the Soviet Union, the United States and Poland.
Everywhere he went, Bergelson wrote and edited, publishing stories and filing dispatches in the Yiddish press. He was likely the best-known (and certainly the best-paid) Russian Yiddish writer of the 1920s, which partly accounts for the enormous stir he caused among the Yiddish intelligentsia with his 1926 pro-Soviet essay “Three Centers.” Bergelson had recently revisited his homeland and was deeply impressed by the official status and state subsidies that Yiddish now enjoyed. It was not the United States, where, he believed, Jews were crassly assimilating, or Poland, where Jews remained mired in underdevelopment, but the Soviet Union that offered the best prospects for Yiddish literature. Bergelson’s political allegiances switched accordingly. He broke with New York’s Daily Forward and became a correspondent for the Communist Yiddish press in both Moscow and New York.
Once “in harness”–as he named his new journal–Bergelson experimented with overtly political (and politically correct) subjects. Set during the Russian Civil War, his 1925 novel Divine Justice has a heroic Soviet security officer as its protagonist. At the Dnieper, published in 1932 as the first installment of a never-finished trilogy, was even more Socialist Realist in its quasi-autobiographical account of a Jewish boy’s political education.
Bergelson returned home in 1933, the same year the Nazis came to power in Germany and the Soviet Union released its lone Yiddish-language talking picture– the story of a Russian Jewish worker who leaves America to build socialism in Magnitogorsk, directed from a screenplay by his friendly rival Markish. Soon after, Bergelson toured the new Jewish “autonomous region” of Birobidzhan in southeast Russia and published a wildly enthusiastic book about his trip. “The snow has ceased to fall and the wind has died down,” he wrote. “And the sun…. The sun, above you, below you, on the hillocks and in the sky, so bright–could it possibly be any brighter?”
At 50 Bergelson became a true believer. He sought a Russian readership and was perturbed to be passed over for the honors bestowed on other Yiddish writers–Markish was awarded a Lenin Prize in 1939! Bergelson participated in the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee during World War II, and his work took a turn that would later be deemed “nationalist.” He was arrested in January 1949, along with 143 other Jewish writers, as part of Stalin’s postwar “anti-cosmopolitan” campaign, most of whose victims were Jews. A month later, Yiddish literature itself was effectively banned. On August 12, 1952, after a secret trial, Bergelson was shot.
Although Bergelson left a substantial oeuvre, only his prerevolutionary work has appeared in English, with the exception of The Jewish Autonomous Region, a pamphlet put out by Moscow’s Foreign Languages Publishing House, in which Bergelson enumerates the accomplishments of Jews under the Soviets and extols the beneficial effects of this Far Eastern settlement. Shadows of Berlin, a slender collection of stories edited and translated by Joachim Neugroschel, extends the writer’s English-language career into the 1920s.
In a sense, Neugroschel (a distinguished translator who has included Bergelson stories in several previous anthologies) invents a new writer–Bergelson the Berliner. While in the German capital, Bergelson wrote mainly of the Russian Civil War’s impact on the shtetl or, alternately, on the relocation of Jewish families to the newly Sovietized cities. The three collections he published during this period include only seven stories actually set in Berlin. Neugroschel has gathered these, adding the unanthologized feuilleton “For 12,000 Bucks He Fasts Forty Days: Scenes of Berlin,” one of the last pieces that Bergelson would publish in the Forward.
Bergelson lived in Germany during the period of hyperinflation and failed revolution, naked cabarets and marching Brownshirts, the prelude to Hitler’s seizure of power. But the writer was more focused on the apocalypse that had already happened than on any impending disaster; the stories in Shadows of Berlin revolve almost exclusively around those dislocated and disoriented Jews who flooded the city’s east end in the early 1920s. “Sisters,” in which an unmarried medical student intervenes in her younger sibling’s romantic fantasies, and the lesser “Blindness,” about an unhappy wife who initiates a relationship with a sightless veteran she meets in a park, are psychological studies reminiscent of, if less nuanced than, prerevolutionary Bergelson. The strongest stories are dense and allusive evocations of Jewish time travel, conjoining metropolitan realities with memories of the shtetl and biblical scenarios.
“The Boarding House of the Three Sisters” describes an ironic idyll (“Mohamed’s paradise!”) populated by fantasy-prone Jewish émigrés and presided over by three beautiful houris–one of whom plays the piano to produce “fading heartache notes as if from the Jewish prayer for the dead.” The protagonist of “Old Age” is an old and pious Jew, newly arrived from “a little Ukrainian ghost town” where he had been held in high regard–that is, before the Great Wind swept the old life away. His children have installed him in their Berlin apartment. There he sits and studies, and Bergelson likens his humming to a trapped bee banging against a double window.
For the old man, Berlin–which he experiences only as the sound of people in the street–is Nineveh, the city God wished to destroy and to which he dispatched his unwilling prophet Jonah. Thinking of this, the old man remembers his own terrible sin (described by Bergelson with elliptical precision): “At that very moment, the war had broken out….” The woman whom he had wronged “vanished, as if swallowed up by the sea,” and, in allowing himself to be brought to this Nineveh, he realizes that he has fled from God, just like Jonah.
“For 12,000 Bucks He Fasts Forty Days” extends this sense of guilt. In his too scanty introduction, Neugroschel suggests that Bergelson’s story is a riff on Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist,” first published in Berlin in 1922. Maybe so, but it may also be a response to those living skeletons who, sitting in glass cases, fasted for the entertainment of diners at fashionable Berlin restaurants. Where Kafka was writing about himself, Bergelson used this grotesque spectacle to satirize the ascetic tradition within rabbinic Judaism and thus to question the purpose of Jewish suffering. “These fasts have brought no new Torah from Mount Sinai, nor have they prevented the destruction of Europe’s ‘Temple,'” he writes–unless, of course, as the shtetl skeptic the narrator remembers from his childhood always maintained, the fasts themselves were a fraud.
Bergelson also ponders Jewish pain as experienced in the savage pogroms of the Russian Civil War. In the caustic “Two Murderers,” Zarembo–an émigré Cossack whose gang plundered and murdered Jews throughout Ukraine–winds up boarding with a widow whose beloved pet is the most infamous dog in Berlin, having ripped out the throat of an 8-month-old infant. Tenant and landlady barely understand each other, but as her “curious rattling in German” reminds him of the Jewish women in the shtetls he pillaged, so the story of her killer dog awakens memories of the massacres. Misunderstanding his crude German, the landlady imagines Zarembo is telling a story like hers. She forgives him, as she has her dog.
Even more unsettling is “Among Refugees,” written in 1923 and anthologized, along with a number of Civil War tales, in Bergelson’s 1928 Storm Days. A young Jew with a crooked left cheek and eyes that burn like memorial candles shows up on the writer’s doorstep, introducing himself as “a Jewish terrorist.” He has arrived in Berlin, by way of Palestine, from a pogrom-devastated shtetl and found himself sharing a rooming house with a Zarembo-like pogromist whom he has decided to kill.
“Among Refugees,” Neugroschel points out, anticipates the actions of Sholem Shwartsbard, the Jewish assassin who shot Szymon Petlura, exiled president of the independent Ukraine, on a Paris street in 1926. But Bergelson’s slant is not political. Most of the story is given over to the would-be terrorist’s convoluted memories and disassociated consciousness: “It wasn’t I who had those thoughts, it was someone else.” Rejected by his fellow refugees–instead of giving him a gun, they arrange for him to meet a psychiatrist (with unfortunate results)–this tormented refugee among refugees decides to make his case to a writer. Writers, he explains, “present their nation to the world.”
Did Bergelson view his work in these terms? Or was it his mission to present the world to his nation? Which was where? The grandfathers addressed an audience that was inexorably losing its grandchildren. A writer appears only once more in Bergelson’s Berlin stories. “One Night Less,” strategically placed last by Neugroschel, recounts an unrecognized poet’s lurching nocturnal excursion through the hallucinatory streets of the German capital. This is the story in which Berlin has the most presence–and, no less significantly, the impoverished young poet is only a poet.
Disheveled, grandiose Max Wentzl does not seem to be a refugee, nor is he identified as a Jew. He has no family and only one friend, a painter as obscure as he. He is too poor to afford a prostitute, but he is not a communist. He is simply a writer, albeit one with Bergelson’s voice. He has no readers, but a critic (now dead) told him that his poems were great, adding–as if to fool history’s evil eye–“I’m afraid to say ‘brilliant.'”