Hekher fun der erd (Higher Than the Earth), by Der Nister (Warsaw: Progress, 1910). Illustration by Depner. (Joe Fishstein Yiddish Poetry Collection, Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University Library)

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Der Nister

(“The Hidden One”; pseud. of Pinkhes Kahanovitsh; 1884–1950), Yiddish writer. Der Nister was born in Berdichev, Ukraine, where he received a traditional Jewish education. In his adolescence he began reading Russian literature and studied secular subjects. His elder brother Aharon, who became a Bratslaver Hasid, had a significant influence on him; his younger brother, Motl (Max), became a sculptor and well-known art dealer in Paris.

Pinkhes Kahanovitsh began his career writing Hebrew poetry, none of which was published. To avoid military service, he left Berdichev around 1905 and lived for several years within the borders of Russia under semi-legal conditions; his status there suggests one possible explanation for his choice of pseudonym, with which he debuted in Yiddish with his short book Gedankn un motivn: Lider in proze (Ideas and Motifs: Prose Poems; 1907). The term nister, however, is also redolent with kabbalistic and esoteric Jewish thought.

From Der Nister in Berlin to Abraham Liessin, editor of the Yiddish-language journal Tsukunft, in New York, ca. 1920s, enclosing a piece for publication, demanding that Liessen publish it, "notwithstanding your American amoretsim [know-nothings] . . . They don't understand? They will LEARN to understand." Yiddish. (YIVO, RG 201, F763 Der Nister) RG 201, Abraham Liessin Papers, F763 Lestschinsky. (YIVO)

Der Nister’s first publication placed him thematically and stylistically at the margins of the mainstream in Yiddish prose. The work consists of two short texts, Der letster mentsh (The Last Man) and Miriem (Miriam), which attempt to depict in stylized and at times artificial language the metaphysical categories of beginning and end, birth and death. The narrator in these works draws upon a wide range of cultural associations, many far removed from the Jewish sphere; in fact, Miriem is considered the first substantial effort in Yiddish literature to address the theme of Christianity.

Der Nister’s second prose collection, Hekher fun der erd (Higher than the Earth; 1910), continued in the same thematic direction, emphasizing a dualistic, mystical thought pattern. In his third short book, Gezang un gebet (Song and Prayer; 1912), he turned to poetry; this text placed Jewish motifs at its center, reflecting the influence of the romantic, elegiac moods that characterized much contemporaneous Yiddish poetry.

Der Nister’s early work grappled with a wide array of themes and styles: biblical and Hasidic motifs, lyrical natural descriptions, and realism. He never republished these early works. His associates in the literary world were part of the Kiev group of Yiddish writers including Nakhmen Mayzel and Dovid Bergelson. Der Nister did not, however, share an artistic credo with them beyond the general conviction that Yiddish literature should appeal to the intellectual rather than the popular reader. This group of writers wished to claim Y. L. Peretz as their leader, even as they realized that their literary approach differed. Ideologically, Der Nister was close at this time to Labor Zionism and Territorialism, although he apparently never participated in these movements’ political activities.

Der Nister’s literary experiments reached a turning point in 1913 when he published the story “A mayse mit a nozir un mit a tsigele” (A Story with a Hermit and a Goat) in Eastern Europe’s leading Yiddish journal, Di yudishe velt. From then until 1929, fantasy tales served as a center of his creativity. In his personal life, the years before World War I and thereafter were marked by constant wandering and a quest for economic support. The years 1918–1920 found him in Kiev, where he was active in the Kultur-lige, collaborating particularly in its literary publications. Der Nister’s creativity in the field of Yiddish children’s literature began with the booklet A mayse mit a hon; dos tsigele (A Story with a Rooster; the Goat), published in 1917 with illustrations by Marc Chagall. He then wrote Mayselekh in ferzn (Stories in Verse; 1918, with subsequent editions) and translated works of Hans Christian Andersen.

After a year in Moscow, where he was part of the Moscow Circle of Yiddish Writers and Artists, Der Nister left Russia in 1921 and traveled to Berlin. There he published a two-volume collection of fantasy stories, titled Gedakht (Imagined; 1922–1923). The stories are modern stylizations of the folkloric fairy tale: the hero, who lives with an awareness of his status as a chosen one, sets off on a quest in a fantastic, strange world (on the road, in the desert, in the woods), where he must overcome temptations in order to achieve his goal and reach a transcendental truth. In comparison with the folkloric fairy tale, in which the hero must overcome external foes, Der Nister’s stories emphasize the power of the protagonist to maintain his internal faith to triumph over doubts concerning the value of the mission with which he is entrusted. The style and motifs of these stories create an artistic synthesis between cultural worlds: usually the heroes carry no identifying Jewish markers, but Der Nister’s use of language reflects a modern, stylized Yiddish, bearing traces of the biblical style, as well as using the specific linguistic formulas of the Yiddish folktale.

Di mishpokhe Mashber (The Mashber Family), by Der Nister. (Moscow: Emes, 1939) (YIVO)

In 1926, Der Nister returned to the Soviet Union and settled in Kharkov. At first he was able to continue writing his fantastic stories, which were collected in the Soviet edition of Gedakht and in the book Fun mayne giter (From My Estates; 1929). Yet his stories from the 1920s became increasingly ambiguous in theme and style. The dualistic element in these works becomes sharper, while the tendency to efface the line separating dream and reality—as well as the line separating the identities of various characters, who merge with one another—becomes more prominent. Der Nister’s proclivity to weave a story within a story gives his tales from that decade a baroque, stylized effect, with emphasis on nonrational elements. The internal relations among symbols become increasingly complex, and the possibility of explaining them in a coherent manner becomes correspondingly more difficult. This period of his creativity was sealed with the story “Unter a ployt” (Under a Fence; 1929), which unfolds as an ambiguous self-reckoning. The story depicts a sharp contrast between the hedonistic and erotic attractiveness of popular mass culture and the narrator’s consciousness of his aloofness, until he arrives at the painful recognition that he has betrayed his mission.

A debate raged in the Soviet Yiddish literature of the era between critics who maintained a sharply negative approach to the ideological significance and artistic techniques of Der Nister’s work and others who attempted to stress its aesthetic significance. By 1929, the pressures of the party on literature made it impossible for Der Nister to continue writing his fantastic-symbolist stories. Deprived of the opportunity to pursue his previous artistic path, Der Nister entered a difficult period. He began to write sketches, which he included in his book Dray hoyptshtet (Three Capitals; 1934), as well as children’s literature and translations, to which he brought to bear his refined sense of language. In the 1930s, he probably also wrote the novel Fun finftn yor (In the Fifth Year), published posthumously in 1964. Using a polished literary technique, this work depicts the events of the years 1904–1905 in a provincial Jewish city based on Berdichev. The plot is built, however, on the flat model of a romance, suggesting a transparent parallel between the romantic and erotic awakening of the positive characters and the ostensible victory of the revolution.

In the mid-1930s, Der Nister embarked on a new artistic path and began a historical novel, Di mishpokhe Mashber (The Mashber Family), the work that together with his fantasy stories must be considered his most significant contribution to Yiddish literature and among the most important prose works of Soviet Yiddish literature. The first volume of the novel was published in Moscow in 1939, and the positive critical response it received stimulated the author to continue with its broadly conceived plan. The full version of the second volume, however, was never published in the Soviet Union. Thanks to contacts with the outside world established during World War II, it was published in New York in 1948.

Di mishpokhe Mashber was conceived as a historical novel taking place in the 1870s in an unnamed provincial city in the Pale of Settlement, modeled after Berdichev. The theme allowed Der Nister greater artistic license while still enabling him to fulfill the demands of Soviet literary criticism. Documentary realism—a defining trait of modern Yiddish prose from its origins, with an aim to immortalize artistically a world in the process of disappearing—comes to the fore in Der Nister’s novel in his broad descriptions of the Jewish city in fixed routines, especially in economic activities. In this regard there are two intertwined thematic strands, which Yiddish prose had usually figured in one cluster: the fate of the family and the theme of crisis and decline.

In reality, Di mishpokhe Mashber is not a family saga employing a lengthy time sequence. The work is concerned with only one generation, and it depicts the tensions between diametrically opposed approaches to life among representatives of a single family in a limited chronological framework. The protagonist illustrates the expansive life of a Jewish bourgeois who tragically culminates his life with a conclusion of crisis and death. Der Nister’s technique allows the main character to seem a genuinely typical protagonist, whose fate is intended to embody his socioeconomic circle in accordance with the norms of realism or socialist realism; the character is, however, permeated with a tragic consciousness, which challenges the accepted Soviet standards of how to shape “positive” and “negative” characters. His companions are his two brothers: one embarks on a spiritual and religious search among the Bratslaver Hasidic sect, which at the time was weak and persecuted, while the other finds himself perpetually on the verge of mental illness. The complicated relationships among the three brothers create an ambiguous opposition in the novel between body and spirit, between the protagonist who ostensibly represents the socially accepted norm and his companions, the marginal figures, each of whom goes his own idiosyncratic way.

During World War II, Der Nister was a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Evacuated to Tashkent, he wrote a series of stories about the Holocaust. Only some of these were published in his lifetime in the Soviet Union. Indeed, his wartime and postwar writings were permeated with strong nationalistic feelings. His booklet Korbones (Victims), published in Moscow in 1943, consists of three stories, each of which is designated “an incident in currently occupied Poland.” Most of Der Nister’s Holocaust stories were collected in book form only after his death: Dertseylungen un eseyen (Stories and Essays; New York, 1957) and Vidervuks (Regeneration; Moscow, 1969). The fact that many of them take place in Poland gave Der Nister license to describe an entrenched Jewish lifestyle, and to introduce nationalistic Jewish touches with an intensity that would have been unthinkable against the backdrop of Soviet reality. The conventional narrative tone prevalent in these stories strongly suggests that in living in the Soviet Union in 1942–1943, Der Nister had not realized the unique character and scope of the Holocaust in its full weight; it is quite possible, however, that their distanced, epic tone must be considered an effort to avoid the highly rhetorical, sentimental note that characterized a large part of contemporaneous Soviet Jewish literature.

For the most part, Der Nister held himself aloof from the diminishing Jewish cultural work in the Soviet Union in the late 1940s. According to the recollections of Jewish literary refugees who were acquainted with him at that time, Der Nister in private conversations would keep as far from the official ideological line as possible under the prevailing circumstances. In 1947, he accompanied a group of Jewish settlers to Birobidzhan, where he tried ardently to strengthen the national character of the Jewish Autonomous Region. He was arrested during the liquidation of Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union, and died in a prison hospital in 1950. A selection of his work in Hebrew translation with a substantial introduction by Chone Shmeruk was published in Jerusalem in 1963. Der Nister’s fantasy stories and Di mishpokhe Mashber have been translated into Hebrew, English, French, and German.

Suggested Reading

Delphine Bechtel, Der Nister’s Work, 1907–1929: A Study of a Yiddish Symbolist (Berne, 1990); Avraham Novershtern, “Igrotav shel Der Nister el Shemuel Niger,” Ḥuliot 1 (Winter 1993): 159–244; David G. Roskies, A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), pp. 191–229; Chone Shmeruk, “Der Nister: Ḥayav vi-yetsirato,” in Ha-Nazir veha-gediyah, by Der Nister, pp. 9–52 (Jerusalem, 1963); Chone Shmeruk, “Der Nister’s ‘Under a Fence’: Tribulations of a Soviet Yiddish Symbolist,” in The Field of Yiddish, 2nd coll., ed. Uriel Weinreich, pp. 263–287 (The Hague, 1965).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1226, Yidisher Kultur Farband (New York), Records, 1906-1976; RG 201, Abraham Liessin, Papers, 1906-1944.



Translated from Yiddish by Marc Caplan