Bergelson, David

views updated


BERGELSON, DAVID (1884–1952), Russian Yiddish writer. Born in Okhrimovo (Sarna), near Uman, in the Ukraine, Bergelson was the son of a pious Talner ḥasid and prominent lumber and grain merchant, who died when Bergelson was only nine; his mother died five years later. He then went to live with older brothers in Kiev, Odessa, and Warsaw. His traditional ḥeder education was supplemented by private instruction in secular subjects. In 1901 and again in 1907–08, he studied as an external student in Kiev, but failed the examinations, and then audited courses in dentistry, without taking a diploma.

Bergelson read Hebrew and Russian literature before he was in his teens, and began writing in both those languages. His early literary efforts, a Hebrew story "Reikut" ("Emptiness") and a Yiddish story "Der Toyber" ("The Deaf Man"), submitted to several periodicals, initially did not meet with success. "Der Toyber," however, was later published in the first edition of his collected works (Berlin, 6 vols., 1922–23); it was dramatized under the title Di Broyt Mil ("The Mill," 1930), and was staged with some success in both Russia and America. His first full-length work, Arum Vokzal ("At the Depot"), published in Warsaw in 1909 at his own expense, was warmly received by major critics; Bergelson thereafter wrote only in Yiddish, devoting himself to Yiddish literature and belles lettres. The novel Nokh Alemen ("After All is Said and Done,"1913) was justly hailed as a masterpiece and established his reputation as both a gifted author of prose and the leading modernist prose writer in Yiddish, whose major theme was the slow decay of the Jewish bourgeoisie in village and town.

Bergelson was very active in Jewish cultural circles and one of the founding directors of the dynamic Kultur Lige, a Jewish cultural organization established in Kiev immediately after the Russian Revolution. He coedited two of its most influential publications: the literary miscellanies Oyfgang (1919, in which his work "In Eynem a Zumer," "During One Summer," appeared) and Eygns (1920, in which his novella Opgang, "Descent," was first published).

In 1920, Bergelson moved to Berlin where he coedited the journal Milgroym with *Der Nister, and then two issues of the short-lived literary journal In Shpan ("In Harness"), the title of which suggested a new leftist political orientation. In Berlin, he also published a series of short stories dealing with the theme of exile. Writing for the New York Jewish daily Forverts until 1925, he later became a correspondent for the Moscow Emes and the New York communist newspaper, Morgn-Frayhayt. In marked contrast to his earlier views, in which he originally argued that art should not provide "naked abstractions" for propaganda purposes, his writings of this period came increasingly to identify with Soviet ideology, and in his critical writing as well as his fiction he insisted that literature should be committed to the cause of the Revolution, the Communist Party, and the interests of the proletariat. His short novels and stories of those years dealt with revolutionary themes.

Bergelson traveled widely: in 1924, through the Jewish communities of Romania, under the auspices of ORT; to the Soviet Union in 1926, where he declared himself a "Soviet writer"; to Paris; to the United States for six months during 1929 where he was able to witness at first hand the Wall Street crash and the beginning of the Great Depression; through Poland on a lecture and reading tour; and to Copenhagen for a brief stay, in 1933. In 1934, he settled in Moscow after a visit to the Jewish autonomous region of Birobidzhan. His major work of the 1930s, Baym Dnieper ("On the Dnieper"), is a modified, partly autobiographical Bildungsroman (2 vols., 1932–40). Like most Jewish and other Soviet writing of the decade, Bergelson's work adapted itself increasingly to the thematic and stylistic demands of Socialist Realism.

After 1941, and for the duration of World War ii, Bergelson was active in the Jewish *Anti-Fascist Committee; his wartime stories appeared in its publication, Eynikeyt. Two dramas, Prints Reuveni ("Prince Reuveni") and Mir Viln Lebn ("We Want to Live"), were written during this time: the first was never performed in Russia; the second was staged by the Habimah Theater in Tel Aviv. Early in 1949, Bergelson was imprisoned (apparently without trial) with other leading Yiddish writers – including P. *Markish, I. *Feffer, D. *Hofstein – and together with them was shot on August 12, 1952, his 68th birthday. A Soviet edition of selected works from his oeuvre, published in 1961, indicated the extent of his subsequent "rehabilitation."

Bergelson's early theme – the decline of individual initiative in a period of widespread stagnation – finds its precise tonal correlative in his style: indirect quotation, passive verb forms, adjectival repetition, periodic sentences, and similar devices create a fatalistic atmosphere in his fiction that subtly suggests character while foregrounding the pessimistic curve of the plot. This style persists even in his "revolutionary" writing of the 1920s, but becomes more straightforwardly dramatic in his stories about Birobidzhan and Soviet progress. His wartime fiction, collected in Naye Dertseylungen ("New Stories," 1947), shows an interesting variation of his early impressionism. Yiddish criticism considers Bergelson one of its foremost modern prose writers.


Rejzen, Leksikon, 1 (1926), 347ff.; lnyl, 1 (1956), 379–83; Y. Dobrushin, David Bergelson (1947); B. Finkelstein, in: Sovetish Heymland, 4 (1964), 148–50 (bibliography); Kressel, Leksikon, 1 (1965), 317–8; B. Harshav, et al. (eds.), A Shpigl oyf a Shteyn (1964) (complete bibliography on life and works); I. Howe and E. Greenberg (eds.), A Treasury of Yiddish Stories (1953); C. Madison, Yiddish Literature (1968). add. bibliography: A. Novershtern, in: Di Goldene Keyt, 94 (1977), 132–43; 115 (1985), 44–58; J. Sherman (ed. and trans), Opgang/Descent (1999).

[Ruth Wisse /

Joseph Sherman (2nd ed.)]

About this article

Bergelson, David

Updated About content Print Article