Jewish cultural figures who would become members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee signing an appeal to world Jewry to support the Soviet war effort against Nazi Germany, Moscow, 1941. (Front row, left to right) Dovid Bergelson, Solomon Mikhoels, and Ilya Ehrenburg; (second row) David Oistrakh, Yitskhok Nusinov, Yakov Zak, Boris Iofan, Benjamin Zuskin, Aleksandr Tyshler, Shmuel Halkin. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Martin Smith)

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Bergelson, Dovid

(1884–1952), Yiddish novelist and dramatist. Born in Okhrimovo, Ukraine, to a wealthy family, Dovid Bergelson received a traditional Jewish education in heder and a general education through private tutors. His parents died while he was a teenager and he was raised under the supervision of his older brothers. He settled in Kiev in 1903, where he remained with some interruptions until 1921; and in that city he was both a witness and a central participant in its transformation into an important center of modern Yiddish culture.

Bergelson began writing in Hebrew, but his early writings were never published. He switched to Yiddish around 1907. His first novella, Arum vokzal (At the Depot; English translation in A Shtetl and Other Yiddish Novellas, ed. Ruth R. Wisse [1986]) appeared in Warsaw in 1909 and received favorable notice from leading Yiddish critics such as A. Vayter and Shmuel Niger, the latter of whom gave his review the title “A nayer” (A Newcomer).

Arum vokzal introduced a new thematic and stylistic norm to Yiddish prose: the loose story line includes no notable incidents, and the emphasis is placed on the atmosphere in which the protagonists live, one of resignation and making peace with the inevitability of leading a gray life undistinguished in all respects. The narrative depicts a mercantile culture far removed from engaged intellectual aspirations and interests, yet the portrayal of the central character and his companions strongly resembles the world of the tormented intelligentsia typical of Hebrew fiction at that time. The train station itself, around which the characters circle, becomes a symbol of estrangement, and the fact that the story takes place at the margin of the shtetl permits the narrator to move those figures and motifs of traditional Jewish life, which were typical of contemporaneous Yiddish fiction, to the background. Arum vokzal creates a virtuosic harmony between theme and style because the style parallels the static nature of its plot, the slow rhythm of its sentences, and the hypnotic repetition of words and phrases. For these reasons, Bergelson’s debut novella must be considered the first significant manifestation of impressionism in Yiddish prose.

From Dovid Bergelson in Bobroisk (Bobruisk), Russian Empire (now Babruysk, Bel.), to Shmuel Niger in Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg, Rus.), 14 January 1917. He has sent Niger his chapters and wants to know if they arrived. He has been traveling in the southwestern region of the Russian Empire and has some observations: "I think that if another nation besides the Jewish people was so replete with both ugliness and beauty it would interest us and draw us no less." After the war, he thinks, many Jews will convert or be forced to convert [and become communists?]. Older people will be reluctant but when their children start to hate them, they will lose their confidence and forsake religion. He also has high hopes for Yiddish literature. In his travels, he has discovered many new talents, including a young poet in Crimea, and a writer, [Nokhem?] Oyslender, in Kiev. "Something is sprouting, something is coming." Yiddish. RG 360, Shmuel Niger Papers, F91. (YIVO)

This style marks Bergelson’s greatest contribution to Yiddish literature in the first decade of his career and is also evident in such stories as “Der toyber” (The Deaf Man; 1910) and “In a fargrebter shtot” (In a Backwoods Town; 1914; English translation in A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, ed. Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg [1990]), which maintain a more realistic tone and with respect to their motifs are closer to the expected themes of contemporaneous Yiddish prose. The hero of “Der toyber” is a worker who becomes estranged from his surroundings because of his handicap, and is therefore unable to lead his social protest to its hoped-for resolution. The fact that the more pointed conflict in the story “In a fargrebter shtot,” between a group of modern intellectuals in a shtetl and the traditional Jews around them, has an overtly economic character is intended to emphasize the intellectual and emotional emptiness of the new generation, which has abandoned its youthful ideals and is engaged in a cynical pursuit of their monetary and erotic desires.

Nokh alemen (When All Is Said and Done; 1913) is Bergelson’s most important contribution to the creation of the modern Yiddish novel, and in this sense was a great critical success. The central figure, Mirl, moves through the work propelled by her vague wish to discover the significance of her life, a goal that remains unrealized. Her heightened awareness distances her from her philistine surroundings, but her intellectual horizons limit the possibilities for her to create a rich internal world. Her erotic attractiveness, which distinguishes her from most characters in contemporary Yiddish and Hebrew literature, further emphasizes her failure to realize her emotional yearning. The novel’s symmetrical structure, which leads the heroine from the shtetl to the big city and back, underscores the fact that Mirl feels at home nowhere. She is estranged from the traditional Jewish life of the shtetl, but the fact that she is a woman diminishes the full extent of her uprootedness: not subject to the time-bound commandments that obligate men, she is able to avoid a dramatic break with Jewish conventions. Both traditional and modern Jewish family life are intolerable to her, but at the same time it is clear that she will not find a place in the company of modern intellectuals. Ultimately, she arrives at a point of total existential aloneness. One of the strongest stylistic features of the novel is the limited role of dialogue and the heroine’s speech, which is usually conveyed indirectly in third person. This contributes to creating a world of distance and alienation.

In the years leading up to World War I, Bergelson was preoccupied primarily with his literary career, and the fact that he lived in Kiev placed him at the margins of the Yiddish literary scene. His most important contribution in this respect was his brief tenure in 1913 as literary editor of Di yudishe velt, the most important Yiddish journal of its time, published in Vilna. Bergelson’s social and cultural activism intensified after the Revolution of 1917, until 1920, when Kiev was briefly the center of a broadly expansive Yiddish cultural project. Bergelson was active in the Kultur-lige and served as an editor of the literary miscellany Eygns (1918, 1920), in which he published the two works that close the first period of his creativity: Yoysef Shur (first published as In fartunklte tsaytn [In Dark Times]; English translations in Ashes out of Hope, ed. Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg [1977], and The Shtetl, ed. Joachim Neugroschel [1989]) and Opgang (English translations in The Stories of David Bergelson, translated by Golda Werman [1996], and Descent, translated by Joseph Sherman [1999]). In a critical essay, he also expressed his opinion that in revolutionary circumstances literature could not articulate the dynamic and fluid in a suitably artistic manner.

A gathering of Jewish intellectuals in Kulautuva, Lithuania, 1920 or 1921. Those identified in the photograph include journalist Reuven Tsarfat (2, in fedora); Bal-Makhshoves (4, wearing white boater); Dovid Bergelson (6, on ground with his head on his neighbor’s knee), his wife (10, seated, second from left), and son (5, small child to Bergelson’s left); Zelig Kalmanovitch (7, with striped tie, center); Jakob Lestschinsky (8, to Kalmanovitch’s right); and Nokhem Shtif (9, to the left of Bergelson’s wife). (YIVO)
Yoysef Shur, the first part of an incomplete novel, distinguishes itself in Bergelson’s oeuvre by emphasizing the tension between Jewish worlds, between the traditional lifestyle of the shtetl and the cultural circles of the modern bourgeoisie in the major city of Kiev. Opgang, by contrast, plays out against the backdrop of shtetl life. The shtetl in this work, however, serves merely as a setting for the internal quest of the central figure, who returns to his hometown to better comprehend the spiritual struggle of his best friend, who has probably committed suicide. The internal dialogue that the living character conducts with his departed friend portrays in a lyrical discourse of unspoken allusions his own vacillation between opposing drives, between a death wish that holds him in its clutches and the hope of finding a way in the world that will satisfy him intellectually and emotionally. Although Opgang was intended as only the first part of a longer work, it ends nonetheless with a profound conclusion in which each existential possibility confronts the other in a highly suggestive manner. Opgang must be considered to embody the thematic and stylistic essence of Bergelson’s first creative decade, and together with Nokh alemen it should be counted as a milestone in the development of Yiddish prose.

The extremely difficult circumstances of the first years in Bolshevik Russia drove Bergelson into exile, part of an emigrant wave that included other important writers and artists. In 1921, he settled in Berlin, where in 1922 he published the first edition of his collected works, in six volumes. He began contributing to the Forverts, based in New York, in which he published mostly stories but also journalistic reports, as well as a biting attack on the Evsektsiia, which he accused of spiritual narrow-mindedness. In comparison with his previous works, Bergelson’s stories from the 1920s are characterized by more diverse themes, a more realistic tone, simpler language, and often a lightly humorous tone. The fact that these stories were printed in a daily paper was undoubtedly the reason for these characteristics; Bergelson greatly reworked the stories when he published them in book form. A second edition of his collected works, assembled in eight volumes, appeared in Vilna between 1928 and 1930. Some of the stories from this period are set in the metropolis of Berlin. The spiritual and social isolation of their protagonists is even more pronounced than in Bergelson’s earlier prose; some of the stories attempt a close identification with the spiritual problems of the hero, while others create a delicate tension between an internal, often muted tragedy and an elegant and somewhat distant narrative style. (A selection of these stories appears in English in the volume The Shadows of Berlin, translated by Joachim Neugroschel [2005].)

In 1926, a dramatic change occurred in Bergelson’s perspective on Jewish life in the Soviet Union, which came to overt expression in the journal In shpan, under his editorship (only two issues were produced). There Bergelson published a programmatic article titled “Dray tsentern” (Three Centers), analyzing the prospects for modern Yiddish culture and literature in its main centers (the United States, Poland, and the USSR), and concluding that only the Soviet Union offered the possibility for a wider development of Yiddish literature and culture. Bergelson had by then visited the Soviet Union to renew contacts with its cultural leaders. He resigned from the Forverts and moved to the Communist daily Frayhayt (later Morgn-frayhayt).

Bergelson’s support of the Soviet Union provoked a powerful reaction in the Yiddish press. The most significant artistic embodiment of his new attitude was his novel Mides hadin (A Stern Judgment), set in a border town in Communist Russia during the civil war. The panoramic description of shtetl society plays a much greater role in this novel than in any work from Bergelson’s earlier period, but the central character is an outsider, a Russian commissar, a non-Jew, who has come to install the “new regime” in the shtetl and faces resistance from its residents. He is characterized by strong ideological convictions, marking a departure from Bergelson’s previous protagonists, although in light of the character’s isolation from his surroundings and his loneliness, he can be considered a dialectical incarnation of these earlier characters.

Soviet Yiddish writer Dovid Bergelson on a visit to New York at a party in the Shalom Aleichem Houses in the Bronx, with other Jewish intellectuals, including Isaac Raboy, Menachem Boraisho, Yohanan Twersky, and Malka Lee, 1930s. (YIVO)

In the context of his ideological shift, Bergelson reworked his story “Der toyber,” which is actually the only text from his early period that hinted at the potential for social protest, and he wrote the drama Di broytmil (The Bread Mill), in which this protest receives overt expression. Although Bergelson continued to identify closely with the Soviet Union, he was in fact the last of his cohort to return there, arriving only in 1934. He settled in Moscow, and became a major and recognized figure in Soviet Yiddish cultural life.

Between 1929 and 1932, Bergelson wrote the first volume of his large-scale novel Bam Dnyeper (By the Dnieper), which represents a sharp reversal of his previous style. This work portrays on the widest canvas the traditional Jewish life of the Ukrainian shtetl at the end of the nineteenth century; the author focuses his attention on the life of the folk, and the style and language of the narrative are used to reflect spoken Yiddish. In contrast to Bergelson’s previous characters, who are estranged from their surroundings or distance themselves from them, the most important trait of the child Penek, the protagonist of Bam Dnyeper, is the openness of his senses, which are ready to absorb a wide range of impressions from the world around him. This world unfolds in two circles: Penek’s wealthy family, which he despises, and the world of ordinary Jews, which fascinates him. The vehemently negative attitude of the child to his immediate family suggests that the book was written with deliberate ideological biases. This tendency becomes even more overt in the second volume of the novel, written in the Soviet Union (published in 1940), in which Bergelson, in characterizing Penek’s adolescence, shows his conformity to the Communist Party line of socialist realism.

Bergelson’s works written in the Soviet Union bear witness to a continuous process in which the general situation of the country and the particular circumstances of the Jewish community gradually narrowed his artistic horizons. Tendentious leanings dominate his work about Jewish colonists in Birobidzhan: Birobidzhaner (1934), and Tsvey veltn (Two Worlds; 1947–1948). His stories about World War II, which were published in book form in 1947, are characteristic of contemporaneous Soviet Yiddish literature. The distinctive scope and character of the Jewish catastrophe is neutralized because of received Soviet dictates, which mandated that the recovery of physical and spiritual equanimity would lead Jews to overcome the horror of the Holocaust. Bergelson was thus compelled to characterize the ways in which his characters readjust to normalcy. In several of these stories, the process by which previously alienated Jewish intellectuals awaken to Jewish identity takes center stage.

Birobidzhaner, by Dovid Bergelson (Moscow: Farlag Emes, 1934) (YIVO)

During World War II, Bergelson wrote Prints Reuveyni, a work that is exceptional in his career: a historical drama in blank verse, in which the central characters are messianic figures. In accordance with accepted Soviet ideology, one would expect such a drama to give its blessing to an active character, a fighter, but this work places martyrdom at its center. The play was to be produced at the Moscow State Yiddish Theater under the direction of Solomon Mikhoels, but the production was canceled because of its putative Jewish nationalist theme.

Bergelson was active in the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and coedited the literary section of its organ, Eynikayt (Unity). He shared the fate of the committee’s members, some of the most renowned figures in Soviet Yiddish letters among them. Arrested at the beginning of 1949, he was charged with “anti-Soviet crimes.” After several years of torture in prison, and a monstrously orchestrated trial, Bergelson, along with the majority of his codefendants, was sentenced to death. The sentence was carried out secretly on 12 August 1952, in Moscow. Details of the fate of the murdered Yiddish writers and intellectuals were gradually made known only years later, and the date 12 August became a day of remembrance for the destruction of Yiddish literature and culture in the Soviet Union.

Suggested Reading

Shlomo Brianski, D. Bergelson in shpigl fun der kritik, 1909–1932 (Kiev, 1934); Dafna Clifford, “Dovid Bergelson’s Bam Dnieper: A Passport to Moscow,” in Politics of Yiddish, ed. Dov-Ber Kerler, pp. 157–170 (Walnut Creek, Calif., 1998); Yekhezkel Dobrushin, Dovid Bergelson (Moscow, 1947); Leo Kenig, Shrayber un verk: Etyudn un shtrikhn (Vilna, 1929), pp. 70–72, 172–185; Mikhail Krutikov, Yiddish Fiction and the Crisis of Modernity, 1905–1914 (Stanford, Calif., 2001); Nachman Mayzel, Forgeyer un mittsaytler (New York, 1946), pp. 304–341; M. Mizhiritskii, Dovid Bergelson (Kiev and Khar’kov, 1935); Samuel Niger, Shmuesn vegn bikher (New York, 1922), pp. 137–161; Samuel Niger, Yidishe shrayber in Sovet-Rusland (New York, 1958), pp. 282–341; Avraham Novershtern, “Hundert yor Dovid Bergelson: Materialn tsu zayn lebn un shafn,” Di goldene keyt 115 (1985): 44–58; Joshua Rubenstein and Vladimir P. Naumov, eds., Stalin’s Secret Pogrom (New Haven, 2001), pp. 144–159, 451–455; Ruth Wisse, “Vegn Dovid Bergelsons dertseylung ‘Yoysef Shur,’” Di goldene keyt 77 (1972): 133–144.



Translated from Yiddish by Marc Caplan