(Joanna Neborsky)
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Yiddishist Torn

Lost Books

Stephanie Butnick
August 12, 2011
(Joanna Neborsky)

“Lost Books” is a weekly series highlighting forgotten books through the prism of Tablet Magazine’s and Nextbook.org’s archives. So blow the dust off the cover, and begin!

Today we celebrate Dovid Bergelson, who was born on this date in 1884 and executed on the very same day 68 years later. The confident writer, who at 23 tracked down I.L. Peretz in Warsaw (from Kiev!) and wowed him with his literary tales of shtetl life, embraced the Yiddish language and used it to skillfully describe the multitude of changes facing Jews in the Pale of Settlement. When the English translation of Shadows of Berlin, a collection of Bergelson’s short stories, was published in 2005, Boris Fishman declared it a “distinctly cerebral pleasure.”

Reflective of the disconnect Bergelson felt living in the vibrant yet isolating metropolis, the stories emphasize the similar tensions between old and new, familiar and foreign that Bergelson’s work had come to embody. “This atrophy was the lifeblood of Bergelson’s fiction. He portrayed it like no Yiddish writer before him,” Fishman wrote. “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.”

Unfortunately, the very pessimism and critical apprehension of change that informed Bergelson’s work would ultimately presage, eerily so, his untimely death. Though he lived peacefully and prolifically upon his 1934 return to the Soviet Union, Bergelson was among the dozen Yiddishists arrested in January 1949 and shot dead on his birthday in 1952.

Read Back from the Shadows, by Boris Fishman

Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.