Before He Became a Communist

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January 29, 2010

In 1923, ten years after it was first published in Vilna, Yiddish writer David Bergelson’s novel Nokh alemen was translated into German and published in Berlin. Upon its first appearance the novel had been hailed as a masterpiece. Abraham Cahan, the influential editor of the New York-based Jewish Daily Forward, called it “the most significant novel in Yiddish literature” and the poet Hayim Nahman Bialik pressed for its immediate translation and publication in Hebrew. On the occasion of its German translation, the book was reviewed by the German-Jewish writer Alfred Döblin (later to become famous for his experimental novel Berlin Alexanderplatz). Although Döblin acknowledged the literary merit of Bergelson’s novel, he deemed it a bastard creation – a work whose language was Yiddish but whose spirit was not. “After just a few pages,” he wrote, “one realizes that it is a transitional work, not in its origins Yiddish, even though it was written in Yiddish.”

As scholar and translator Joseph Sherman argues, however, Döblin’s criticism was unfair. Like many of Bergelson’s contemporaries, Döblin assumed that ‘real’ Yiddish literature should follow the folksy style of its 19th century origins. Bergelson’s writing, in contrast, was spare, atmospheric and highly literary – in short, almost nothing like the works of the Yiddish writers who had preceded him by a mere generation. While some saw this as a fatal estrangement from the vernacular spirit of the language, for Bergelson, radical thematic and stylistic innovations were necessary in order to address the fragmented and unstable condition of twentieth century European Jewry and the middle-class society of which it was increasingly a part. Döblin’s criticism, though not intended as such, was proof that Bergelson’s methods had succeeded. Recently translated by Sherman as The End of Everything, (and previously by Bernard Martin as When All is Said and Done), Bergelson’s novel showed that modernist Yiddish writing could not only meet the challenges of its time, but could do so along with the best of any other European literary tradition.

By the time The End of Everything appeared in 1913, Bergelson was already an esteemed writer, despite having published his first work only four years earlier. Though swift, his rise to prominence within the world of Yiddish letters was hard won. Born in 1884 in the town of Okhrimovo, Ukraine, as the youngest child in a traditional Hasidic family, Bergelson lost both of his parents by the age of 14 and went to live with his older brother in Kiev. For a few years Bergelson audited classes at the Kiev dental school, but he was academically unsuccessful and devoted himself to writing fiction instead. After trying – and failing – to write stories in Russian and Hebrew, Bergelson turned to Yiddish, the language he would champion for the rest of his life.

Yiddish, however, posed its own challenges. Although Bergelson admired the foundational Yiddish writers, he found their voluble style inimical to his own artistic needs, leaving him with virtually no literary models in his own language. To succeed as a writer he was obliged to invent a technique that drew as much on Chekhov and Flaubert it did on Sholem Aleichem or I.L. Peretz. Unfortunately, Bergelson’s unfamiliar style made it difficult for him to get published. When, in 1907, he sent portions of one of his first works, By the Depot (Arum vokzal) to Peretz for his opinion, he didn’t even receive an answer. (Later, when Bergelson visited Peretz in person, the elder writer did give Bergelson encouragement.) Eventually the novella was published in Warsaw in 1909, but only after Bergelson agreed to pay for half of the printing costs. Despite these initial setbacks, Bergelson continued to write short stories, and was soon acknowledged as a gifted young writer.

It was with The End of Everything, however, that Bergelson cemented his reputation as a leading author of Yiddish literature. The novel’s protagonist is a young woman, Mirel Hurvitz, who is the only child of a religiously pious but financially inept couple. As the story opens she has just broken off her engagement to Velvl Burnes, a dull minded but wealthy young man who is the son of bourgeois, nouveau-riche parents. Velvl is smitten by Mirel’s beauty and entranced by her elusive personality, but along with several other suitors, he ends up heartbroken. Though she is blessed with a penetrating intellect and stunning good looks, Mirel is plagued by a tragic sense of inertia, and is unable to commit herself to any particular path in life. When she finally gets married to Shmulik Zaydenovski, the son of yet another prosperous businessman, she does so only in order to save her father from utter financial collapse. The marriage is a disaster, and Mirel spends her days wandering the nearby metropolis, meeting scandalously but without pleasure with one of her earlier paramours, or lying for days in her room, refusing even to speak to her long-suffering husband.

Her character, as with many stylistic elements of the novel, bears a striking likeness to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. But unlike Mirel’s adulterous predecessor, who tries to enact her romantic fantasies through extra-marital affairs, Bergelson’s anti-heroine despairs of finding happiness in any relationship or activity. Though she senses that life has some elusory purpose in store for her, she has only a vague hope that she will ever find out what it is, or if it even exists.

In many ways, the themes of The End of Everything are of a piece with the major preoccupations of modernism: alienation, skepticism of ideology, and the failure of individuals to find a place in increasingly arbitrary societal structures. But the Jewish context of Bergelson’s work made these concerns uniquely pressing. Even as he wrote, the centuries-old patterns of Eastern European Jewish life were collapsing. While most legal restrictions against Jews were still in force, educational constraints had been eased somewhat (many of Bergelson’s characters, like himself, are able to take university courses as ‘external,’ or non-degree seeking students), and industrialization offered new financial possibilities outside of the shtetl. As many Jews moved to the cities to take advantage of these opportunities, religious beliefs and practices weakened and political ideologies such as socialism and Zionism flourished. At the same time, deeply ingrained religious habits persisted. Bergelson chronicled this pivotal moment in his work, when the old and new ways mingled freely. While few of his young characters are religious, Bergelson’s fiction is populated not just by religious parents, but also by a plethora of synagogues, schools and study halls, whose existence is taken very much for granted. Religious rituals mark lifecycle events such as birth, marriage and death, and his characters’ sense of time is still dictated by the cycle of Jewish holidays.

Unlike his predecessors, however, who immortalized the shtetl in the Jewish imagination as a place of hardship and persecution but also of communal warmth and solidarity, Bergelson entertained no such romantic notions. His towns are stagnant backwaters, whose young people either leave or resign themselves to meaningless lives of unrelieved boredom. Their inhabitants are often deluded and vain, and practice empty religious rituals. Typical is Velvl’s father – “an unlearned individual who, having acquired a veneer of refinement, had, at the age of forty-eight started regularly attending both afternoon and evening prayer services in the nearby study house,” – and his mother, “a squat, obese woman whose asthma obliged her to breathe hoarsely and with difficulty, like a force-fed goose.”

Bergelson’s writing style further conveys the paralysis and fragmentation of Jewish life both in the city and the shtetl. Prominent use of the passive voice echoes the almost pathological passivity of his characters, and the hypnotic repetition of set phrases and descriptions emphasizes the dull conformity of bourgeois life. Stunning anthropomorphized descriptions of the ever-silent landscape create a brooding, twilit atmosphere that reflects the characters’ sad, stifled lives. In The End of Everything, as Mirel walks aimlessly around the shtetl with her friend Lipkis, she reflects on the winter landscape and snow-covered houses:

“For vast distances all around, the treasures of wind were imprisoned in the gray mists hanging in the air; they grew heavier and heavier spreading over the frozen, snow-covered earth that grew dirtier from day to day. The skies were hidden, the horizon erased. The people had no sight of them and the shtetl had no need of them. Like great beasts, houses hunkered down ponderously under their heavy, snow-covered roofs and dozed in an unending reverie.

It seemed:

These houses had ears, hidden, highly attentive ears, continually listening to the great silence that bore down on everything around both from close by and from far away…

Smoke puffed from the chimney of one of the houses, but instead of rising up into the sky it sank downward, feebly described circles in the air, and finally spread itself over the snow.”

While Bergelson’s writing is frequently categorized as modernist, it also draws on his 19th century realist predecessors, taking their more experimental techniques and carrying them to greater lengths. Bergelson made extensive use of the ‘style indirect libre’, or ‘free indirect discourse’ of Flaubert, which expresses a character’s point of view through third person narration. Bergelson not only used Flaubert’s method, but developed it into a predominant mode of expression. Dialogue as well as description is often reported rather than expressed directly, blurring the distinction between the voice of the character and the narrator. This state of constant ambiguity, along with Bergelson’s haunting descriptive passages, transmits the inescapable feelings of futility and despair with which his characters struggle.

In 1913, the same year he published The End of Everything, Bergelson began writing the novella Descent (Opgang), though the latter would not be published until 1920. By that time, Bergelson’s world had gone through cataclysmic changes. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Ukraine had declared its independence from Russia and many of the restrictions against Jews were abolished. For a brief period, Jewish cultural life flourished. Bergelson was an active participant in the Kultur-lige, a pan-Yiddishist organization that oversaw all aspects of Yiddish culture in the former Russian Empire. He was also a prominent member of the less formal Kiev group, an assortment of like-minded Yiddish writers such as Der Nister, Peretz Markish, David Hofstein, and Leib Kvitko. In 1918 Bergelson got married in Odessa, with Bialik proposing the bridal toast. The Following year, renewed hostilities between White and Red forces broke out, leading to brutal pogroms against Jewish communities throughout Ukraine. After the Bolshevik victory in 1921 the Kultur-lige was brought under state control, and Bergelson moved to Berlin, where a sizable community of Yiddish intellectuals had already set up shop.

In Berlin Bergelson continued to publish short stories, and also began writing for the Forward, which provided him with a much needed source of income. In 1926, however, he broke from the Forward to write for its competitor, the communist daily Frayhayt. At the same time he wrote a penitential letter to Der emes, the Moscow Yiddish daily, pledging his support for the Soviet Union, and founded the pro-communist journal In Shpan, publishing an essay in the first issue titled “Dray tsentren” (“Three Centers”), in which he proclaimed Moscow the only viable center for Yiddish culture, dismissing both New York and Warsaw. The latter, he felt, was too provincial and mired in religious orthodoxy, while the former was given to assimilation and gave scant respect or support to its serious Yiddish writers. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, not only recognized Yiddish as the national language of the Jewish people, but also gave state support to its literary practitioners.

Bergelson’s strengthening support for communism found its way into his fiction as well as his journalism, and in 1929 he published his first overtly pro-Soviet novel, Mides-hadin (The Full Severity of the Law), which told the story of an officer in the political police whose violent acts are justified by the historical necessity of the revolution. In 1932 he followed up with the first installment of his marginally autobiographical novel Baym Dnieper (By the Dnieper), a coming-of-age novel that painted a portrait of the revolutionary as a young man, and whose second volume would appear in 1940, after Bergelson had returned, permanently, to the Soviet Union.

Like most Yiddish writers of his day, Bergelson was sincerely committed to socialist ideals, and even saw the new political order as a replacement for the old set of values that had been lost with the dissolution of Eastern European Jewish life. But as Sherman and other scholars have pointed out, the reason for Bergelson’s political conversion had less to do with his personal conviction in the Soviet Union than with his belief that it was the only place in which Yiddish culture could flourish. “All his writings from 1926 onward indicate that he was steadily becoming convinced – or urgently convincing himself – that only in the emerging Soviet Union could the growth of Yiddish literature be ensured,” Sherman writes in his introduction to Descent. “All his journalistic work from this time on vehemently expressed this conviction.”

At first, Bergelson’s belief seemed justified. Following the rise of Hitler in 1933 he left Berlin with his family, and after a brief stay in Copenhagen, settled in Moscow. At that time he was already the highest-earning Yiddish author in the Soviet Union, thanks to Russian translations of his work, and for the next fifteen years he would enjoy the comfort and prestige of a state supported writer. But despite his best efforts, Bergelson had difficulty making his new works conform to the Party’s demands for ideologically conformist, socialist realist fiction. As Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg observe in their introduction to Ashes Out of Hope: Fiction by Soviet Yiddish Writers (which includes stories by Bergelson as well as by Der Nister and Moyshe Kulbak), “Bergelson tried to produce the kind of uplifting portraits of Jewish life that were required by the Soviet regime. Many of these are characterized by the technical finish intrinsic to his work: a first-rate writer can do well what he knows in his heart he should not do at all. Yet these works do not exude inner conviction, certainly not with the strength that his earlier fiction does.”

It eventually became clear, however, that even the highest degree of political orthodoxy couldn’t save either Bergelson or Yiddish culture – with its religious roots and international reach – from Stalin’s increasingly repressive regime. As Howe and Greenberg write, “The very fact of being a Yiddish writer signified heresy and evoked suspicion. Not that the Yiddish writers were especially rebellious; far from it. It was simply that a literature extending backward to religious particularism and forward to cultural universalism was hardly the best stuff from which to forge a totalitarian mentality.”

During the Second World War restrictions on Yiddish writers eased somewhat, and Bergelson served on the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, headed by the acclaimed actor and director Shloyme Mikhoels, which aimed to rouse international Jewish support for the war effort against Nazi Germany. After the war, however, censure of Jewish cultural activity increased dramatically. Yiddish publications were shut down, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was disbanded, and hundreds of Yiddish writers were sent to the Gulag. On January 12, 1948, Mikhoels was murdered in a staged car accident on direct orders from Stalin, and just over a year later, on January 23, 1949, Bergelson was arrested along with a number of other prominent cultural figures. He languished in prison for over three years until he was shot on August 12, 1952, his sixty-eighth birthday.

Today, Bergelson’s literary legacy is the subject of some debate, a result of the political turn he took in the mid-1920s and the ideologically conforming works he produced thereafter. But there is no disagreement over the value of his earlier work, especially The End of Everything, which is a classic work of twentieth century fiction. Bergelson’s goal, early on, was to write not just Yiddish literature, but modern literature that dealt with the reality of European Jewry, and from a purely literary point of view he succeeded. But despite the acclaim with which his works were originally greeted, Bergelson has lapsed into relative obscurity compared with his more famous Yiddish forebears as well as his non-Yiddish (though frequently Jewish) contemporaries such as Isaac Babel or Joseph Roth. While today it is taken for granted that Jewish fiction can also be world-class literary fiction that is read and appreciated far beyond the boundaries of the Jewish community, Yiddish writers such as Bergelson are still treated as something of an ethnic subgenre. Hopefully Sherman’s new translation of The End of Everything will help rectify this problem; Bergelson is ripe to be rediscovered.

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