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Back from the Shadows

Dovid Bergelson’s skepticism served him poorly in life but sublimely in art

Boris Fishman
June 17, 2005


In 1907, a 23-year-old writer from Kiev named Dovid Bergelson decided to send fragments of his latest work, an impressionistic account of shtetl life titled At the Depot,” to I.L. Peretz, the eminence grise of Yiddish letters. Peretz did not respond, so Bergelson boarded a train for Warsaw, where he sought out Peretz and regaled him with the story in person. Peretz was impressed.

Bergelson did not lack for confidence. Born into a wealthy family in rural Ukraine, he spent his youth studying Hebrew religious works and Russian literature, dabbling as a writer in both languages before taking up Yiddish. I would prefer to be first in Yiddish than second in Russian,” he confided to Shmuel Niger, an eminent Yiddish literary critic.

Yiddish was the right instrument for Bergelson, who plied it to become its greatest modernist. The Shadows of Berlin, a collection of short stories Bergelson wrote about his voluntary exile in the city in the 1920s, and published this month by City Lights Books in a translation by Joachim Neugroschel, confirms that status. A product of the backward, clannish shtetl, Bergelson believed it had no place in the rapidly modernizing world of pre-revolutionary Russia, but he was equally doubtful of the unsavory spectrum of radical revolutionaries who wanted to replace the monarchy. Bergelson’s skepticism of ideology served him poorly in life (it claimed his life, in fact) but sublimely in art. Bergelson’s constitutional pessimism made for a literary style acutely attuned to the psychological dislocations of the modern age.

No language was better suited to this endeavor than Yiddish, as no language’s literature was less burdened by history. A pedestrian counterpart to Hebrew, the sacred language of Scripture scrupulously defended from contamination, Yiddish lived on the street, a ductile argot unguided by precedent. It graduated to literary maturity only in the 1880s, a mere generation before Bergelson’s arrival on the scene.

It had been long enough for him to reject the prevailing literary style, the folksy, forgiving emotionalism of Mendele Moykher Sforim and Sholem Aleichem, as well as the tendency of Yiddish literature in general to heroize the old shtetl’s resignation, endurance, and woe. The shtetl had changed.

Soon after assuming the throne in 1855, Czar Alexander II had eased restrictions on Jewish residence, schooling, and commerce in the Pale of Settlement, generating significant economic opportunity for the Jewish community, but his assassination in 1881 reversed many of the reforms. Battered by pogroms and economic stagnation, the shtetls of the Pale languished.

This atrophy was the lifeblood of Bergelson’s fiction. He portrayed it like no Yiddish writer before him. His language was Yiddish, but his style was Russian. Like the nouveau riche Jews of the period, their social climbing arrested by the new repression, Bergelson looked beyond rather than within; his writing recalled Tolstoy’s plotting, Chekhov’s introspection, and Andrei Bely’s Symbolist experiments of perspective. The result was a modernist style informed by an anxiety about the degeneration of the familiar world. He was ‘gray’ Bergelson,” says Seth Wolitz, a Bergelson specialist and professor of Yiddish literature at the University of Texas at Austin, invoking Moshe Kulbak, a Yiddish poet who coined the moniker. He saw only ruins.”

After meeting Peretz, Bergelson published several short works to increasing acclaim, but it was his novel After All Is Said and Done (1913) that anointed him the vanguard voice of Yiddish fiction. The story of well-educated and independent Mirel Hurvitz, who is stymied by her disorientation in a Jewish society now governed by the self-interest and decadence of the parvenus who benefited from Alexander II’s economic reforms, it gave Bergelson’s programmatic skepticism its most resonant expression. Mirel, Yiddish literature’s first emancipated woman, is an emblem of Jewish society unmoored. She tries to determine a path in life and establish her feelings for a variety of suitors, but stumbles in a fog of indecision.

Lionized by the petit-bourgeois strivers he savaged in the novel—Bergelson was as worldly as they wished to become—the work perfected his trademark style, a psychological impressionism that subordinated meaning to mood. In a world where the significance of events and behavior is impossible to determine or control, his characters function according to half-understood motivations, which they communicate in half-spoken words. The narrator appears to know no more than they do.

The Revolution seemed to usher in a more benign period than gray Bergelson” had anticipated. The Ukrainian Parliament committed significant funds to Yiddish education, and Bergelson became a leader of the Yiddish Kultur-lige, a powerful institution devoted to promoting Yiddish culture. The Russian Civil War soured that goodwill, however, and pogroms proliferated. Bergelson barely survived one himself, though an unpublished manuscript of his perished. In 1921, he moved to Berlin, following in the footsteps of many fellow Yiddishists sympathetic to the egalitarian ideals of the Revolution but wary of its violence.

Despite Berlin’s hyperinflation, Bergelson lived comfortably, thanks in part to the hard currency he received from contributions to American publications such as the Jewish Daily Forward, but he felt disconnected from the disintegrating culture that informed his work back home. Bergelson, who had never visited Western Europe, was awestruck by Berlin’s energy and sophistication, but also found it impersonal and foreign, a place where, in the words of the Yiddish mystical writer Der Nister, the Jewish intellectuals are left without roots, [and] rot.”

In The Shadows of Berlin, the city is oppressively busy, at once enslaved by capitalist routine and self-interest and released into decadence by the abandon of the interwar years. In For 12,000 Bucks He Fasts Forty Days,” for instance, depraved Berliners turn an act of atonement into a carnival amusement, taunting an emaciated boy under glass with sausages and beer.

Stylistically, the stories recall After All Is Said and Done. In Among the Refugees,” a perturbed young émigré, his whole body [like] the gray dust on the far roads of small towns,” reels from the dislocation of exile until he decides to murder a notorious Ukrainian pogromist hiding in Berlin. For unexplained reasons, however, the only life the young man can end is his own. In Blindness,” another émigré, burdened by the dispossessions of exile, succumbs to grief, the concrete causes of her decline as unspecified as the way she dies.

The language is brilliant—Shmuel Niger compared Bergelson’s words to pearls strung on a silken thread,” according to scholar Joseph Sherman—but the stories are a distinctly cerebral pleasure, their mood a greater priority for the author than storytelling or character development.

By the mid-1920s, Bergelson was beginning to realize that he would have to act on his disenchantment with Berlin. The Deutschmark was stabilized in 1924, greatly increasing the cost of living, and right-wing extremism grew more menacing. Bergelson considered leaving, but his options were limited. Yiddish culture in Poland, for which he always maintained a tribalist disdain, was, in his view, conservative and obscurantist, its literature compromised by commercial considerations. Palestine was a Zionist pipe dream where Yiddish was a lingua non grata. America was the land of assimilation, where Yiddish was destined to fade.

In Stalin’s Soviet Union, on the other hand, Yiddish seemed to be flourishing, with theaters, schools, and publications subsidized by the state. It was mainstream to go back to Russia in the mid-1920s,” Gennady Estraikh, author of the recently published In Harness: Yiddish Writers’ Romance with Communism, says. To become pro-Soviet in the 1920s didn’t mean you had to be a Communist.” At the same time, according to Seth Wolitz, the rise of Stalin meant that exiles had to come home, or become suspect.” Bergelson, who still loved to be liked,” in Estraikh’s words, was assured that he would be received like a legend, with a lavish apartment and income. His lingering anxiety about the Bolsheviks’ unscrupulous rule notwithstanding, he decided to yoke himself to the Soviets.

On March 2, 1926, Bergelson published a letter in the Moscow Yiddish daily Der Emes (The Truth) declaring himself a pro-Soviet writer who had sinned by abandoning the Soviet Union. For all its bombast, this was a cautious confederacy—Bergelson was still uncertain and wanted to buy time. In the letter, he added that his betrayal meant that he had to serve a penitential sentence abroad before receiving the privilege of return. He spent the next seven years casting around for destinations, visiting Denmark and the United States and ultimately dismissing the former as a poor incubator of Jewish culture and the latter as a variation on the capitalism of Berlin.

He returned to the Soviet Union in 1934; the decision would soon come to seem like a tragic miscalculation. By the early 1930s, ideological calcification had established socialist realism as the only acceptable method of Soviet literature. In the purges toward the end of the decade, Yiddishists made natural victims—their devotion to Jewish culture made their loyalty to the Soviet Union suspect.

Initially the troubles did not directly affect Bergelson. He was celebrated, his writing regularly reissued. The price he paid was his integrity. Bergelson’s pro-Soviet work, which tended to explore the nexus of Jewishness and Soviet Communism, never lost the equivocality and pensiveness of his earlier output, but, having had to make room for propaganda, never fully resembled it either. The Revolution discredited the petit bourgeoisie, whom Bergelson skewered with such skill and which constituted his core audience, and he didn’t really know how to depict the smiling worker. But he tried. He regularly revised his output to accord with Stalin’s ever changing dictates, made all the customary denunciations of the West and bourgeois Yiddishists in Poland and the United States, and sang the glories of the proletariat. As Shmuel Niger put it in a 1934 review of Birebidzhaner, a boosterish evaluation of the Jewish Autonomous Region in the Soviet Far East, Bergelson, whose previous work was usually an act of hatred,” in this novel, learns to love.”

Bergelson couldn’t love enough. Though World War II postponed the campaign to suppress Soviet Yiddish culture, it was revived soon afterward. In January 1949, Bergelson was arrested on trumped-up charges, as were dozens of other Yiddishists. After a show trial in the summer of 1952, Bergelson was shot, along with 12 others, in the basement of Moscow’s Lubyanka prison. Execution day, August 12, was his 68th birthday.

Boris Fishman is the author of the novels Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, A Replacement Life, and Savage Feast, a family memoir told through recipes.

Boris Fishman is the author of the novels Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo and A Replacement Life, and Savage Feast, a family memoir told through recipes.