Dovid Bergelson (1884–1952), Yiddish novelist and dramatist. Born in Okhrimovo, Ukraine, to a wealthy family, Dovid Bergelson received a traditional Jewish education in heder and a general education through private tutors. His parents died while he was a teenager and he was raised under the supervision of his older brothers. He settled in Kiev in 1903, where he remained with some interruptions until 1921; and in that city he was both a witness and a central participant in its transformation into an important center of modern Yiddish culture.
Nokh alemen (When All Is Said and Done; 1913) is Bergelson’s most important contribution to the creation of the modern Yiddish novel, and in this sense was a great critical success. The central figure, Mirl, moves through the work propelled by her vague wish to discover the significance of her life, a goal that remains unrealized. Her heightened awareness distances her from her philistine surroundings, but her intellectual horizons limit the possibilities for her to create a rich internal world. Her erotic attractiveness, which distinguishes her from most characters in contemporary Yiddish and Hebrew literature, further emphasizes her failure to realize her emotional yearning. The novel’s symmetrical structure, which leads the heroine from the shtetl to the big city and back, underscores the fact that Mirl feels at home nowhere. She is estranged from the traditional Jewish life of the shtetl, but the fact that she is a woman diminishes the full extent of her uprootedness: not subject to the time-bound commandments that obligate men, she is able to avoid a dramatic break with Jewish conventions. Both traditional and modern Jewish family life are intolerable to her, but at the same time it is clear that she will not find a place in the company of modern intellectuals. Ultimately, she arrives at a point of total existential aloneness. One of the strongest stylistic features of the novel is the limited role of dialogue and the heroine’s speech, which is usually conveyed indirectly in third person. This contributes to creating a world of distance and alienation.
The extremely difficult circumstances of the first years in Bolshevik Russia drove Bergelson into exile, part of an emigrant wave that included other important writers and artists. In 1921, he settled in Berlin, where in 1922 he published the first edition of his collected works, in six volumes. He began contributing to the Forverts, based in New York, in which he published mostly stories but also journalistic reports, as well as a biting attack on the Evsektsiia, which he accused of spiritual narrow-mindedness.
In 1926, a dramatic change occurred in Bergelson’s perspective on Jewish life in the Soviet Union, which came to overt expression in the journal In shpan, under his editorship (only two issues were produced). There Bergelson published a programmatic article titled “Dray tsentern” (Three Centers), analyzing the prospects for modern Yiddish culture and literature in its main centers (the United States, Poland, and the USSR), and concluding that only the Soviet Union offered the possibility for a wider development of Yiddish literature and culture. Bergelson had by then visited the Soviet Union to renew contacts with its cultural leaders. He resigned from the Forverts and moved to the Communist daily Frayhayt (later Morgn-frayhayt).
Bergelson was active in the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and coedited the literary section of its organ, Eynikayt (Unity). He shared the fate of the committee’s members, some of the most renowned figures in Soviet Yiddish letters among them. Arrested at the beginning of 1949, he was charged with “anti-Soviet crimes.” After several years of torture in prison, and a monstrously orchestrated trial, Bergelson, along with the majority of his codefendants, was sentenced to death. The sentence was carried out secretly on 12 August 1952, in Moscow. Details of the fate of the murdered Yiddish writers and intellectuals were gradually made known only years later, and the date 12 August became a day of remembrance for the destruction of Yiddish literature and culture in the Soviet Union.
More on Bergelson at Tablet Mag.