Bergelson, David (Rafailovich) 1884-1952 (Dovid Bergelson)
BERGELSON, David (Rafailovich) 1884-1952 (Dovid Bergelson)
Original name, Dovid; born August 12, 1884, in Okhrimovo, Ukraine; executed by Russian KGB, August 12, 1952; son of a wood merchant; children: Lev (son). Religion: Jewish. Hobbies and other interests: Violin.
Nokh Alemen, [Vilna, Lithuania], 1913, translation by Bernard Martin published as When All Is Said and Done, Ohio University Press (Athens, OH), 1977.
In a Farqrebter shtot (title means "In a Backwards Town"), 1913.
Midas Hadin (title means "Measure of Justice"), [Kiev], 1926.
Penek (novel), 1932.
Bam Dnieper (title means "At the Dnieper"), [Moscow, Russia], 1936.
Arum Vokzal (novella, title means "At the Depot"), 1909, published as Autour de la Gare, L'age d'homme (Lausanne, Switzerland), c. 1982.
Opgang (novella), 1919, translation by Joseph Sherman published as Descent, Modern Language Association of America (New York, NY), 1999.
Birobidzhan (short stories, title means, "The Jewish Autonomous Region"), [Moscow, Russia], 1934.
Ha-Nasikh reuveni: Maohazeh be-arba ma arakhot, Sifriyat po alim (Tel Aviv, Israel), 1978.
Na Dnepre: Roman, Rasskazy: Perevod s evreaeiskogo, Sov. Pisatelss (Moscow, Russia), 1983.
The Stories of David Bergelson: Yiddish Short Fiction from Russia (short stories), translated by Golda Werman, Syracuse University Press (Syracuse, NY), 1996.
Also author of theatrical works Ihk vel lebn, 1941, and Printz Reuveni, 1942.
David Bergelson is best remembered for his moody, Yiddish fiction set in turn-of-the-century Europe. In a series of novels and short stories, Bergelson explores the social and psychological worlds of European Jews: his early work deplores the loss of commitment in the shtetl, or village, while his later work promotes the possibilities of Communism. A Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism reviewer explained: "His work from 1926 onward reflected his increasing enthusiasm for the new Communist system in Russia; and in the view of many critics, his tendency toward propaganda blunted the impact of his later writing." Nevertheless, Bergelson's musical, erudite Yiddish earned him the praise of many critics, and he was generally considered among the foremost Yiddish stylists.
Bergelson's father, a wood merchant, died when Bergelson was only nine years old, but by then he had already instilled in Bergelson a deep interest in Jewish literature. The Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism writer explained: "In his late teen years, he lived with older brothers in Kiev, Odessa, and Warsaw, and augmented his religious education in the old Testament and Talmud with readings in Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish literature." Bergelson practiced writing early; by age twenty-three, he had already composed his first important work, a short story entitled Der Toyber ("The Deaf One"), later the basis for a play.
In Der Toyber, a working man hides his deafness by pretending to hear what others say. After a fall, however, he learns (or thinks he learns) that his employer has assaulted his daughter. When she commits suicide, he plots impotently against his employer. Charles A. Madison suggested in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism: "Written in the wake of the abortive revolution of 1905 and amid widespread restlessness, the story stresses the abuse and exploitation of the poor by the callous rich, but intimates that workers are developing a spirit of rebellion—even though in the futile and stuttering manner of the deaf one." A Soviet Literature critic remarked similarly: "His first short stories were published in the dark days of reaction that followed the defeat of the Russian revolution of 1905 and describe the life of the nouveaux-riches and their hangers-on in remote provincial towns, their cynical double dealing in human feelings and relations, stagnant traditions which corrupt the human soul."
Two years after this story was completed, Bergelson published his first novel, Arum Vokzal. Though publishers initially rejected the manuscript, Bergelson managed to see his work into print by paying for some production costs himself; the novel, a critical success, catapulted his long career. Arum Vokzal tells the story of Rubinshteyn, who fails at business and love. Eventually, he winds up in a shack near the depot, where he dreams away his existence in bitterness and confusion. Critics praised the novel for its beautiful prose and perceptive treatment of faithlessness. According to an excerpt from Yiddish Literature, one reviewer called Bergelson "an artist of both wisdom and talent, with a style of his own, with his own view of the world." Another reviewer commented, "Arum Vokzal has a mood, a feeling—and it is difficult to grasp its origin, its magic." Bergelson's work was often praised for its brilliant evocation of mood. The author once explained, "This is how I write: First is born the mood of the story together with the main character (the latter almost always not quite clearly) and so affects the soul that it becomes almost unbearable … With the mood comes a strange yearning for that aspect of the world which brings in the protagonist and the mood. My entire aim thereafter is to express this mood together with the life and events which occur around it and (if one might say it) in it."
In Nokh Alemen, Bergelson explores an overarching mood, this time through the story of Mirel Hurvitz. Mirel is a refined but poor girl forced by her parents to marry a wealthy dolt; disenchanted, she rejects her husband and loses footing in her society. Madison described the novel as "sensitively impressionistic in treatment, acutely psychological in character analysis, almost Chekhovian in mood," and added: "In [Mirel's] failure is reflected the dispirited and doleful attitude of the Jewish youth in Russia after the failure of the 1905 revolution." Bergelson himself wrote of the novel: "The book is Jewish. I love it and it seems to me to have a soul. At the end one may become reflective, but one can also take the Book of Psalms and pray for the souls of both Gdaliah and Mirel." The novel has long been considered a sort of moody masterpiece—a Yiddish Madame Bovary but because Yiddish is difficult to translate, it has not found a worldwide audience. Golda Werman remarked in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism: "Yiddishists consider [Bergelson] the successor to the three classic modern Yiddish authors—Mendele Mocher Sforim, Sholem Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz—but, unlike them, Bergelson wrote for a cultured, highly educated audience, not for the masses. …No translation can do justice to the moody, dark atmosphere created by Bergelson and the language he uses to further his aims; there is no strict counterpart in English to the compelling music of Bergelson's Yiddish."
During World War I, Bergelson's writing career slowed. He explained: "During the war I wrote almost nothing for a variety of reasons: the war oppressed me, and it seemed as if belles lettres had become superfluous. There was also no possibility of publication, as the Czarist government had stopped all Yiddish printing. I was not even in the mood to complete things I had already begun. This general crisis made me feel that with Departure I would write my last book, that I had no more to say, no more to write."
Following the war, however, Bergelson became more involved with the Communist cause, which is reflected in his work. For example, in the two volumes of At the Dnieper: Young Years (1940), Bergelson focuses on the youth and vigor of Penek Levin, who gradually learns about the class inequalities of his social world. In Penek and At the Dnieper: Young Years, Bergelson traces Penek's development in a quasi-autobiographical, episodic narrative. Madison commented: "From a fictional standpoint the first volume is undoubtedly a major novel. Bergelson occasionally writes with the prejudice of a propagandist. The narrative as a whole, however, sparkles and soars with overriding fictional excellence. As Niger has pointed out, the propaganda passages become like driftwood on a floating expanse of intense creativity."
Following the outbreak of World War II, Bergelson's efforts to evoke optimism wavered. After his arrest in 1948, he was tortured before the KGB executed him on his sixty-eighth birthday. Moreover, the Nazi movement wiped out many of the world's Yiddish speakers, rendering Bergelson's literature inaccessible to all but a few. Nevertheless, those who can read Bergelson's evocative fiction attest to its worth.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bergelson, David, The Stories of David Bergelson, translated by Golda Werman, Syracuse University Press (Syracuse, NY), 1996.
Hopper, Stanley Romaine, editor, Spiritual Problems in Contemporary Literature, Harper & Brothers (New York, NY), 1957.
Madison, Charles A., Yiddish Literature, Frederick Ungar Publishing Company (New York, NY), 1968.
Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, vol. 81, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Rivista, December, 2002, Daniela M. Kromer, "David Bergelson, Between Tradition and Revolution."
Soviet Literature, September, 1947, "Selections from a Jewish Classic Writer," pp. 63-64.*