The Magazine

On the Brink

A haunted vision of a people in extremis.

Feb 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 22 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
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The great tragedy of Yiddish literature is that, at the very moment when it was blossoming into modernity in all genres, its writers, audience, and cultural matrix were completely destroyed by the double knockout punch of German and Soviet anti-Semitism.

Photo of Pinhas Kaganovitch

Pinhas Kaganovitch

One of the most extraordinary Yiddish writers was Pinhas Kaganovitch (1884-1950), better known under his pseudonym Der Nister (the hidden one). On the cusp of destruction he produced works of stunning psychological, stylistic, and metaphorical complexity. His one full-length novel, The Family Mashber (1939/48), masterfully translated into English by Leonard Wolf, was reissued four years ago to great critical acclaim and created interest in Der Nister’s work. Hence it is with gratitude and pleasure that one welcomes Erik Butler’s scrupulous and caring (if not always felicitous) translation of Vidervuks, rendered as Regrowth, a volume of very late stories, published in Moscow in 1969 almost two decades after Der Nister’s death.

The subtitle, “Seven Tales of Jewish Life Before, During, and After the Nazi Occupation,” indicates the slice of history in which these stories are located. Two of the stories, written in 1942 and set in Poland as the Germans were implementing the Final Solution, had already appeared in Moscow in 1943 in a small three-story booklet, entitled Korbones (Victims). 

The remaining five stories, written between 1944 and 1946, were not published during the author’s lifetime, perhaps because they were so unapologetically Jewish. They made clear that the Germans had singled out the Jews in particular for total destruction (Soviet propaganda played down the fate of the Jews during World War II), and they urged survivors and Soviet-assimilated Jews to rededicate themselves to the community of Jews. This is most notably the case in the title story, in which two highly educated and assimilated Soviet Jews each adopt a Jewish orphan. Through children’s retelling of their fates during the destruction of their communities, the adoptive parents reconnect to the Yiddish language and to repressed memories of Jewish communal life that they now long to regain.

But just what such a regained Jewish life would actually entail, the stories do not flesh out. And it cannot be inferred from the pre-1939 Jewish communal life depicted in the stories, because that communal life appears to be barely functioning. We do not see the hustle and bustle of mercantile, cultural, or religious life; rather, we are thrown into a world that appears arrested, static, airless, in decline. It is populated by a gallery of highly idiosyncratic characters: introverted, studious, totally unproductive and socially isolated, and yet exquisitely sensitive to what they ought to do. It is a world so close-knit, so in sync with what it is to be a human being, that tiny gestures can take the place of talk. In their ethical refinement, Der Nister’s loony characters are so utterly compelling that one must admire them.

Rive Yosl Buntsies refuses to remarry after her empty but studious husband flickers out. She becomes an eccentric who raises orphan girls and sees to it that the poorest bodies are buried with proper ritual. When she is deported with a slew of women she unites them in a last welcoming of the Sabbath ceremony on the brink of the ditch into which their slain bodies will fall in a jumble.

Meylekh Magnus is scarred by two unlucky love affairs and becomes a studious recluse, a scholar of Yiddish linguistics. He finally marries, but his wife dies in childbirth, leaving a son, whom Meylekh raises with great care. When the Nazis arrive, Meylekh and his son are herded into the ghetto. The son joins the resistance and is killed; Meylekh insists on accompanying his son’s body to its burial place outside the ghetto. The scene when Meylekh, disguised as a gravedigger, accompanies the hearse in which his son’s body lies (without a coffin) on the long ride to the cemetery is one of the most moving in all of Yiddish literature. Meylekh’s pain gets the better of him and he climbs into the hearse: “And what the driver had never seen the livelong day—or any other day—he now saw: the father lying down next to his son, as if he were still alive.”