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Creative freedom and the party line: the case of Dovid Bergelson.

Dovid Bergelson (1884-1952) is widely recognized as perhaps the finest prose stylist in Yiddish literature, yet the major part of his work remains relatively unknown to an English readership. First, it is difficult to capture in English translation the nuances and rhythms of Bergelson's prose, which depend on such delicate effects as the choric repetition of key words and phrases and the deliberate use of passive voice and indirect speech. Moreover, especially in the work he published before World War I, Bergelson repeatedly explored the deepening decay of the Eastern European shtetl, a view of the Old Home that sentimentalists did not find congenial. Finally, for at least a decade before he returned to settle in the USSR in 1933, he wrote fiction that increasingly came to seem propagandistic. As a result, many readers in the West maintained that Bergelson had sold his talent to the Communist Party.

Certainly it was true that Bergelson got caught up in the workings of the Party machinery. He was called to public account at a "reception" given in his honor in Moscow, in October 1926. There, as reported in the pro-Communist New York Yiddish daily Morgn-frayheyt (Tomorrow's Freedom) on October 8, 1926, Bergelson was denounced for specific "errors" of ideological thinking. (1) Among the revisions to his "outmoded" thought demanded of him were that Bergelson acknowledge the "emptiness" of all his earlier literary work, and that in all his future creative work "he must unite himself with the working masses and with the Communist reality." The ideologue and critic, Moyshe Litvakov, a prominent member of the Yevsektsia and the editor of the Yiddish daily Der emes (The Truth), insisted that Bergelson "must admit that he has remained backward, retarded." Obliged to humble himself before this onslaught, Bergelson publicly declared that "the instructions that have been imparted to me on this evening, from beginning to end, I accept with love and deference." His days as a fellow-traveler were over. Believing that outside the Soviet Union Yiddish had no future, Bergelson had no alternative but to play at conformity in order to survive. Following the Party line, however tortuous and fluctuating, was the only way he believed he could cling to Yiddish culture.

As though to put his new creative commitment as well as his new Party bona fides to the test, in Kiev in 1927, Bergelson published the first edition of a new collection of engage stories under the title Shturemteg (Days of Storm). Yet again, however, his work pleased no one. Litvakov, in his review of this volume, chiefly reprehended the fact that Bergelson's talent seemed to shine best in his portrayal of characters from the destroyed world of the Jewish petty bourgeoisie, while his "Revolutionary" characters displayed unacceptable qualifies. Heroes of the Revolution, Litvakov insisted, should be endowed with every positive heroic virtue; Bergelson, by contrast, had depicted them as wavering, uncertain, filled with "sadness" in one notable instance, and generally as human as the eliminated class they had superseded.

For his part, the influential New York Yiddish critic Shmuel Niger, as sensitive to Bergelson's talent as he was outraged by Litvakov's dogmatism, exposed what he took to be the failings of both in his own review of Shturemteg. (2) He emphatically repeated his conviction that an exclusive focus on only one class would deaden new writing, while binding it to the dictates of the Party would turn literature into propaganda. Bergelson, he reminded his readers, had repeatedly condemned the old shtetl world for having "narrowed [...] the Yiddish prose writer's full range of expression, and [...] liinited his intuitive choice of types." Doubtless, Niger bitingly went on, as soon as Yiddish literature, like Dovid Bergelson himself, consented to follow the correct "interpretation" of the world given by the Jewish Communists, its writers would have the fullest range of expression -- to carry out the directives of Der emes.

Niger specifically noted that Bergelson had received a severe dressing-down from Litvakov for his portrayal of Hershl Toker, the eponymous Communist hero of one story in the 1927 edition of Shturemteg. Litvakov had strenuously objected to the fact that, in his first published version of this story, Bergelson had infused the eyes of this Communist hero with "eternal sadness," in Litvakov's view a reprehensible bourgeois trait, in the highest degree unfitting for a hero of the Revolution, whose eyes should, on the contrary, be aglow with "courage, boldness, joie de vivre." Niger blisteringly derided such crudity. Bergelson, he noted with heavy irony, "forgot that over his Communist hero, the master was not he, but the Party to which he belongs [...] so he stumbled very badly. He will know better in the future and will no longer try to shove "eternal sadness" into Communist eyes. Now he will remember that sadness is forbidden in the Soviet Union [...]." (3) Turning from his derision of Party dogma to an analysis of Shturemteg, Niger found the stories in the collection tendentious, and he deplored the extent to which Bergelson was prepared to compromise his gifts.

With the ambivalent but helpful benefit of hindsight, it is worth reevaluating the merit of Bergelson's earliest proRevolution stories. A starting-point for such a revaluation could be a close reading of the one story in Shturemteg that was singled out both by Litvakov on one hand, and Niger on the other, for especial condemnation -- the story entitied "Hershl Token"


This tale continues to arouse conflicting critical opinion. Where Litvakov denounced its "petty bourgeois" presentation, Niger found it melodramatic, with an illdefined hero and a "grotesque" villain. By contrast, in 1971, the American critic Charles Madison described it as one of Bergelson's "best civil war stories." (4)

That Bergelson himself took the criticisms of the Yevsektsia seriously is clear from the story's erratic publishing history. Although it appeared in the first edition of Shturemteg (Kiev, 1927), it was omitted from subsequent republications of this collection. Thus in the second edition of a nine-volume edition of Bergelson's selected works (Vilna, 1930), this story is replaced in the Shturemteg volume (Vol. 5) with a new piece entitled "A tsenrubldiker" (A Ten-Ruble Note). (5) However, it later came to satisfy Party ideologues, proved by the fact that it was included in one of only six Yiddish books published in the Soviet Union between 1959 and 1961. (6) Since these were the first Yiddish works allowed into print since 1948, "Hershl Toker" was making an indisputably "rehabilitated" reappearance by being specifically included in a Partyapproved volume of selections from Bergelson's entire oeuvre. (7) To have aroused so much uncertainty, this story must possess an inherent ambiguity.

Set in the autumn of 1921, the plot plays itself out after the Treaty of Riga, signed in March 1921, that settled the peace terms of the disastrous war between the Soviet Union and Poland, fought from April to September 1920. (8) Ostensibly, the story shows that though the Soviet-Polish war is officially at an end, those dedicated to world revolution admirably continue the struggle underground. Does this story merely present an uncritical picture of the Revolution? However much it appears to function one-dimensionally, the narrative is informed by a subtle ambiguity emanating wholly from Bergelson's carefully crafted style, the evocative power of which none of his critics ever denied. All Bergelson's narratives open levels of meaning that calculatedly leave the reader unable fully to understand, either because there is too much or too little to know. For all "Hershl Toker" 's apparent commitment to an approved Party position, this style remains intact.

This is evident as soon as the tale opens. As always, Bergelson uses physical descriptions of external weather conditions as pointers towards the inner life of the personages who play out the action. Having painstakingly evoked the fetid stench of the typhus-infected barrack, Bergelson metaphorically transfers its attributes to the world outside. On the surface, the opening paragraph may be read as a metonymic critique of the decaying Polish government, still in the grip of an aristocratic elite. However, it is immediately followed by a brief but suggestive passage glancing at conditions across the frontier. The Soviet Union seems to exist as a morally superior location under ethically peerless rule, but can we be certain that no muted irony informs this presentation of an equally sick and powerless vista across the border?

In considering Bergelson's revised depiction of his young Jewish revolutionary, the criticisms Litvakov leveled against the expression in this character's eyes seem, ironically enough, to have had an effect more beneficial than harmful. Originally those eyes reflected eybikn umet, "eternal sadness." In the revised version, these eyes are now full of" distance," of "pensiveness," a mood repeatedly emphasized in the first three parts of the story. What renders Hershl so abstracted? The ever-vigilant doctrinaire eyes of Litvakov may have been satisfied that Toker is pondering the glorious future of international revolution he is helping to foster, but Bergelson tends always to eschew the blatant and transparent in favor of the muted and equivocal.

Eyes -- and later candles -- become an increasingly significant thread in the tale's descriptive weave. The other pair of eyes into which Toker finds himself often staring are those of the barrack orderly. This Russian boy has "great ingenuous eyes," expressing "abstracted devotion to duty." In the degree to which the orderly's glance remains "luminous" and "pure," so in the deepening gravity of his illness Hershl's eyes become "streaming," "feverish," and "burning." This contrast may seem tendentious: the bright eyes of the barrack attendant speak first to the pensiveness in Hershl's eyes and last to their feverish dying, assuring the young Jew that despite his death the struggle will continue. But this reading is not the only one possible. The "pensiveness" in Toker's eyes and the "ingenuousness" in the eyes of the Russian boy may bespeak the idealism of youth and the promise of a glowing new future, but they may equally bespeak human doubt and mortal pain. Hershl's "pensiveness" may also reflect his sense that the hard struggle might not result in undisputed victory; the dedicated labor of the barrack attendant may also define an infinite human compassion.

The narrative's deployment of candles, both metaphorical and literal, similarly opens other interpretive possibilities. While his comrades may be scattered "like little lights" all over the world, Hersh is confined in a charnel house where the range of lights narrows rapidly. As his fatal illness intensifies, Toker sees "the small lamp suspended on a short wire from the middlemost beam" of the barrack ceiling and is left staring as "the lamp wobbled, and its flame spurted in the stray superfluities of wind." By such limited illumination, "[in] the evening, holding candles," the doctor and his nurse pronounce his death sentence. Their candles shed light not on life but on death; they flicker not for continuation but on cessation. The great light to be brought by the Revolution, it might be suggested, so far from filling the world has, by implication, here been narrowed down to a steadily dimming diffraction in a prison crowded with the mortally ill.

Death, with concomitant metaphorical connotations, pervades this story in intrusive ways, increasing the uncertainty of the "message" it is supposedly propagating. The moment at which Hersh enters the barrack that is to be his mortuary is presented in cinematographically symbolic terms. Outside, a group of peasant men and women have long been waiting to receive the corpse of one of their relatives. Eventually it is brought out, "as though at an event predestined and now come to pass." Hershl's death, we know at once, is foreordained. But if Hershl is the Revolution embodied, is it not possible that this symbol is at least as much negatively as positively loaded?

This kind of counter-reading might be regarded as special pleading for the opposite of what Bergelson consciously set out to do, namely to convince "proletarian" readers that the Revolution would emancipate all humanity. If this is all he aimed at, however, his style gets in his way.An ambivalent reading of this tale is made mandatory by an open-ended prose that, intentionally or not, expands the interpretive range of the narrative exposition.

As Niger pointed out, the Polish officer is presented as a crooked mouth, with perpetually twitching mustache and nostrils, outward signifiers of his class chauvinism and his neurotic fear. Yet is Niger correct to argue that he is more "lifelike" than the "shadowy" fignre of Hershl? The Polish officer is arrogant, self-important, and antisemitic, "effeminately powdered," despising the Russians across the border as savages set apart from his own class: "we are Europeans [...] We learn from the French, from ancient Rome." His obsession with immaculate apparel is of a piece with his contempt for the ragged revolutionaries, with his over-refined awareness "of how to drink good wine," and that "cultivated people were in general very sparing of words." He masks naked personal ambition under the pretense that his conscientiousness "had not originated solely with him, but was an attribute of his entire patrician lineage." His neurotic ftc is transmuted into a manifestation of good breeding, "as though [his mustache and nostrils] were itching but he was unwilling to scratch." All these choric interpolations tell us all the brief compass of the tale requires us to know about the class this officer represents.

The psychological depiction of Hershl Toker is hardly more detailed, yet the very vagneness that surrounds his life and motives renders him more intriguing. Superficially, Toker seems to be merely another idealistic young Jewish revolutionary, fleeing the stifling confines of the shtetl to a potentially fulfilling life. But in the fevered imaginings of his dying, it is to the shtetl that he returns, and it is for the comfort of mother and Jewish companionship that he longs. The shtetl revolutionaries recalled by Hershl's wandering memory are broadly drawn types sketched in brief sentences. But is there not something suggestively larger than endearing gaucherie embedded in the unsophisticated shoemaker Yosl's misuse of highflown Party rhetoric? (9) We may smile at the warm-hearted artisan who misuses the Party's rhetoric to affirm his loyalty, but Bergelson is unlikely not to have intended a satiric barb at the windiness in which ideology expresses itself. Again, the seemingly tendentious surface of this story is disturbed by its subtly ironic narrative technique.

Although handled with barely perceptible allusiveness, this tale's love motif serves the same purpose as the barrack orderly's fidelity -- to give a human face to the depersonalized abstraction called "the Revolution." Although Hershl does not dignify with any response the Polish officer's intuitive perception that they are lovers, in the illicitly whispered message that the girl "had truly escaped and had reached safety" and the assurance, "[i] t's not important, comrades will attend to it," the lineaments of a close personal relationship are clear. This is so even though Bergelson's need to make a affirmative political statement places the narrative emphasis on the insistence that" [what Jochebed had done] was what one should always do." Most characteristically, however, this tale is a muted expression of another form of decay, exemplifyng the way all Bergelson's attempts to render the post-Revolution world positively run aground on his abiding sense of personal displacement.


At first the Revolution seemed to offer every possibility of developing a secular Jewish-Russian culture on Russian soil. The Bolsheviks granted the Jews equality of citizenship and, by 1926, were offering them territorial as well as cultural autonomy in an ethnically diverse Union linked in socialism. As his polemical essay "Three Centers" (1926) made clear, Bergelson could never transplant himself to America; he rejected the Zionists' denial of the validity of the Diaspora and what seemed to him their exaggerated sense of national mission; as a Jewish inteligent he was repulsed by what he saw as the religious obscurantism of Jewish Poland. Only in Russia did he feel he could pursue his artistic vocation. Unlike Litvakov, however, Bergelson could not reconstruct himself.

Acutely aware of the entropy of the decaying shtetl, Bergelson lacked the mental and physical energy to do more than passively support the ideals of the Revolution that swept it away. By 1920, Bergelson was desperate to discover how to function as an artist without giving an absolute commitment to a conception of society he could never fully share. But he was trapped in an ideological system that blocked his entire artistic way forward. That he was never able to embrace the Revolution as a true believer is obvious from his rationalizations of Moscow-oriented literary dogmas. For all his attempts to present them as part of a seamless ideological whole, they simply highlighted his own equivocal position. The title he gave the cultural journal he founded in 1926 -- In shpan -- tried to balance mutually exclusive aspirations. On one hand it asserted that it was placing itself in shpan, "in harness," to pull the wagon of the Revolution, but on the other hand it asked to be allowed to pull in its own way. By 1926 this balancing act was impossible: Litvakov was applying to Yiddish literature Lenin's radical red-white binary opposition: either you are with us, or you are against us. In a condition of extremes, Bergelson was constrained to compromise himself. Hence Hershl Toker's unaccountably "sad," and later "pensive," eyes can be read as a metaphor for Bergelson's confrontation with his prospects as a writer after the Revolution.

Just as he had been unable to create any "positive" hero in his work before the Revolution, so he was incapable of creating one after it. All he could do was to create in Hershl a participant in the Revolution who goes forward always looking back, whose enthusiasm for the future is always tempered with nostalgia for the past, one whose utmost contribution to the cause of the new order is to die in its service rather than to live fully in the new world it creates. For all his strained efforts to assert otherwise, definition and vibrancy were qualifies neither of Bergelson's life nor of his fiction. Descent, decline and dissolution are what he felt and depicted best. Shturemteg could not satisfy the ideological criteria laid down by Litvakov because in wholly representative Bergelson fashion, its chief characters, so far from overcoming insuperable obstacles, find themselves instead lost in marshes, stranded in forests, intercepted at border crossings, cut off in the countryside, powerless to fire revolvers -- all confirmation that Bergelson could not alter his personal and artistic vision. Trying to satisfy both Niger and Litvakov, Bergelson pleased neither. Fully understanding Bergelson's ambivalent position, both directed the full force of their censure on him, because both sides of the ideological divide coveted Bergelson's gifts. That these were gifts worth coveting, even Bergelson's most compromised work clearly proves.


(1.) The salient details of this report from Morgn-frayheyt are cited, with comment, in Niger, Sh., Lezer, dikhter kritiker: geklibene shrifin, Vol. 1, (New York, 1928), pp. 120-121. All translations into English are mine.

(2.) Niger, Sh., "Di kunst-teoriye -- un di kunst fun Dovid Bergelson," Lezer, dikhter, kritiker, pp. 156-164. In this essay, Niger expands his review into an overview of Bergelson's literary theory in relation to his artistic practice. All direct quotations from this essay appear in my own English translation.

(3.) Niger, Sh., Lezer, dikhter kritiker, pp.147-148.

(4.) Madison, C., Yiddish Literature: Its Scope and Major Writers. New York, 1971, p. 437.

(5.) Bergelson, D., Shturemteg, Geklibene verk, Vol. 5, Vilna, 1930, 9 vols., 2nd ed.

(6.) See Shmeruk, Ch., "Yiddish Literature in the USSR," in Kochan, L. (ed.), The Jews in Soviet Russia since 1917, London, 1978, pp. 267-277.

(7.) Bergelson, D., Oysgevaylte verk. Moscow, 1961, pp. 545-567.

(8.) Volkogonov, D., Lenin. New York, 1994, p. 388.

(9.) Readers of Yiddish will see the adaptation my English translation makes of the malapropism on which the joke in the Yiddish text tums. In Yiddish, Yosl the shoemaker confuses the word geveynishe (commonplace) with the word geoynishe (genius-like). My translation attempts to capture the alliterative effect of the malapropism in words of related, though not exact, meaning.

JOSEPH SHERMAN, a former editor of the South African quarterly journal Jewish Affairs, is currently associate professor of English at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He has been elected to the position of Corob Fellow in Yiddish Studies at the University of Oxford, beginning in 2002. Apart from his scholarly writing, he has also translated into English Isaac Bashevis Singer's Shadows on the Hudson (New York, 1998) and Dovid Bergelson's 1920 novella, Descent (1999).
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