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.”

Kaganovitch wrote at the end of a long line of literary self-criticism. No literature was as merciless toward its own people as Yiddish literature, beginning with the satires of Sholem Yankev Abramovitch (aka Mendele Moykher Sforim), which faulted the Jews for being backward, self-satisfied, hypocritical, unproductive, exploitative shnorrers, all the way to the novels of Isaac Bashevis Singer, which fault the Jews for self-indulgent sensuality. It’s a literature of relentless self-examination because it was clear to all that, by the 1880s, the traditional world of Eastern European Jewry was falling apart. Under the dual impact of violent anti–Semitism and huge economic stress, religion lost its grip on the Jews. The young moved toward Zionism, nationalism, socialism, communism; those not given to idealism moved to America.

Der Nister was in the thick of it all. Born in Berdichev, where his brother fell in with the Bratslaver Hasidim, he became a writer of mystical Hebrew poems and symbolist Yiddish stories. He lived in Kiev during the Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war, in Moscow during the famine, and in Berlin during the Roaring Twenties, producing refined poems, stories, and works for children. In 1926 he moved back to the Soviet Union, because that is where his readers lived.

In 1929, the party began to exert pressure on all writers. Socialist Realism was the order of the day, and Jewish particularism was no longer tolerated. Der Nister’s fantastic symbolism and literary aestheticism were damned as bourgeois decadence. In response, he developed a highly idiosyncratic style, fully displayed in his epic The Family Mashber, in which he hid his metaphysical thoughts that required symbolist modes of expression behind the realistic façade of a story, in the style of Buddenbrooks, about a family’s decline.

The stories in Regrowth, written while Kaganovitch was at work on his epic, are cast in the same pseudo-realist style that conceals Jewish metaphysical depths for those who can unravel the clues. One of the easier ones is “Meyer Landshaft.” When the Germans invade Meyer’s home and line up its inhabitants, men on one side, women on the other, a contest ensues between the father and his youngest daughter over who gets to sacrifice himself for the other. At the core of the story is Meyer’s sharpening of knives, which the Germans interpret as a threatening act but for Meyer recalls Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. In due course the story reveals itself as a symbol of Meyer’s masculinity, which he feels is dulled when his daughter saves him by using her blossoming sexual allure. The story turns out to be a King Lear tale about a father’s inability to release his daughter into freedom because he knows it’s a freedom that will kill her.

On the surface, Der Nister’s stories here depict the defeat of a tired, worn-out super-refined ethical culture by a horde of brutes. The destruction of the Jews is child’s play for the brawny Germans. But underneath the surface of the setting, where the author explores the Jews’ relation to each other, and the cultural resources they can draw on in their response to destruction, Der Nister assesses the ethical and intellectual legacy that has been bequeathed to him as a writer at the end of a long line of Jewish thought. The upshot is simply expressed at the end of the title story: “to be mindful of the commandment of growth and regeneration. [And] then he resolved to appear with clear words and .  .  . to pronounce what until now he has half concealed.”

For his commitment to the Jews expressed in his fiction, Pinhas Kaganovitch was jailed in 1949 and died in a Soviet prison hospital in 1950.

Susanne Klingenstein is a lecturer in the Harvard/MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.