Plumbing Berlin for Yiddish Fiction


By Nathaniel Popper

Published July 29, 2005, issue of July 29, 2005.

The Shadows of Berlin:

The Berlin Stories of Dovid Bergelson

By Dovid Bergelson,

Translated by Joachim Neugroschel

City Lights Publishers, 120 pages, $14.95.

* * *

Berlin’s role as the capital of Nazi Germany has crowded out most other memories of the city’s 20th-century Jewish history. In the 1920s, though, the city was a place of refuge for Yiddish intellectuals and writers from the East, many of whom had been uprooted from their homes by the pogroms unleashed by World War I and the Communist revolution.

Among those who came to Berlin was Dovid Bergelson, a Yiddish writer from the Ukraine who turned his newfound city into the setting for many of his short stories. Today Bergelson is best known, if he is known at all, for his novels about the slow decline of life in the shtetl. Bergelson’s early novels — including “Descent” and “After All Is Said and Done” — made him a star of his contemporary Yiddish literary world. But his slow, simmering style has worked less well with contemporary audiences, making him a forgotten member of the constellation of Yiddish literary masters that is now said primarily to include S.Y. Abramowitsch, I.L. Peretz and Sholom Aleichem.

Among the overlooked elements of Bergelson’s work has been his output from Berlin. The translator Joachim Neugroschel has culled the stories that take the city as a backdrop, and has provided a seamless new translation showcasing Bergelson’s consistently level style. The new book offers a chronicle of the refugees and migrants who found their way to Berlin, like moths to a flame — none with any apparent intention of being there. The confusion and aimlessness of these wanderers is not a subject to inspire grand, moral epics, and this suited Bergelson, who was a master of subtle atmospherics and internal monologues — the tools of the modernist. These works are less like stories and more like delicately arranged dioramas, displaying the tattered surroundings of a single character as he broods silently.

In this transitory world, the primary set piece is the boarding house, and one of the most masterful stories dissects a house run by three sisters. The boarders all harbor romantic longing for the sisters, and they pay exorbitant fees for shabby rooms and the opportunity to be close to the objects of their affections. The sisters, though, are still connected to husbands lost somewhere in the East. Nothing is ever consummated, and everyone goes on longing for something that is unattainable. The rare break in the quiet interactions comes when a stranger rings in the middle of the night: It is feared that one of the husbands has come, but it turns out to be an unknown who is sent away.

These are slight stories in which the mundane elements are drawn with exquisite detail. They are constructed like the sisters’ boarding house: “Everything you see around you elicits both suspicion and doubt that the entire boarding house has been arranged deliberately to elicit some kind of suspicion, and then the thought crosses your mind that you may be mistaken.”

One particularly confounding story follows a young Jew who has discovered he is living in the same boarding house as a man who led pogroms. The young Jew — who remains nameless, in one of many Kafkaesque touches — decides to avenge the Jewish deaths. We watch the young man work

through every detail of the assassination in feverish monologues, but the story cuts off before we can learn if the grim mission was accomplished.

Bergelson was one of many modernist writers who worked to disrupt conventional narrative styles. But there is something about these stories that gives a more powerful and unique explanation for the seemingly rudderless narrative method that Bergelson chose. Almost all the migrants and refugees in these stories were fleeing pogroms and revolution that put an end to the known formulas that had previously determined the flow of life. In the story “Old Age,” the “old, pious Jew” Moyshe Grayvis “mused about Russia and about the great wind that had blasted there — a great and strong wind…. It rends mountains and breaks the rocks into pieces.”

In the Old World, where all these characters had been raised, the steady continuity over generations meant that the past bled easily into the future. The pogroms disrupted that reliable movement and the future came to seem a much more contingent thing. The antagonist of the final story, Max Wentzl, explains to a prostitute the view looking forward: “The end isn’t interesting, it’s ugly, disgusting. Like the end of a man, like the end of our planet, where you and I are living. The end doesn’t exist, and that’s why it’s an invention, a lie.”

These stories are so valuable because they convey, with the subtlest of brush strokes, a milieu that is lost to us now — overshadowed entirely by the Holocaust. The inescapable message from Bergelson, though, is that even at that time, it was a world defined by loss — people running away from destruction, haunted by the images they fled.

Despite his modernist tendencies, Bergelson never felt comfortable in the modernity and rampant capitalism of Berlin, which is easy to see in the anomie in his characters. He made frequent promises to return home and finally did in 1934, where he put his writing at the service of the communist regime. This did not save him in the end. He was executed in 1952 with 12 other Yiddish intellectuals in the final year of Stalin’s life.

With our hindsight, it’s easy to read the bleak coloration of Bergelson’s stories as a prognostication of the intolerant doom that awaited the Jews of Europe at the time Bergelson was writing. The city that emerges from these stories, though, is not an intolerant place. At this oft forgotten moment, right before the deluge, Berlin was a place where anything went — the amoral capital that Hitler intoned against, and that made him want to move his capital to the South, in Bavaria.

In Bergelson’s Berlin, antisemitism is not a factor, except with the pogromists who also sought refuge in the city. No one is paying enough attention to notice anyone else’s ethnicity — they’re too busy brooding. But with its licentious ways, Berlin is killing what the pogroms could not. Pious old men are turned into lustful peddlers. A fasting rabbi is transmogrified into a young man who will earn “12,000 bucks” if he makes it through 40 days without food — he is allowed only seltzer and cigarette smoke.

With the estrangement produced by the past and the city itself, the only story that does not fit into this collection is “Sisters,” which also happens to be the only one looking at an established Berlin family. The story takes place on a sunny day, with the two sisters planning for the future, studying for medical school exams and meeting men. These are not acts that seemed conceivable among the community of refugees and struggling artists. For them, the future did not exist, at least not in any palatable form. It so happens they were right.

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