A Note on Bergelson's Obsolescence
To begin with, this story was one of many Bergelson published in the twelve years, between 1921 and 1933, during which he lived in Berlin. For all the literary commitment to the ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution that speaks so loudly from his post-1920 writing, Bergelson was obviously not physically committed to building socialism in the emerging Soviet Union. A mere four years after the Revolution he deliberately chose to leave Russia and live abroad. Only Hitler's election as Reichskanzler in 1933 and the ensuing rise of Nazi violence against Jews forced him to leave Germany. Moreover, before he finally returned to Moscow, he tried to settle in Denmark. Returning to the USSR thus appears to have been a last resort for him, and it is often noted with some astonishment that for a writer so closely identified with the Soviet Union and its cause, Bergelson was actually the last to return there of all those Russian-born Yiddish writers who had left the country after the Revolution.
The ambiguity so apparent in his personal uncertainty about where he really wanted to live and work is mirrored in the themes Bergelson tried to develop in his Ã©migrÃ© fiction. While it may pay lip-service to Communist ideology, the psychological and emotional centre of these stories lie elsewhere, in a landscape shaded by an omnipresent awareness of the Jewish past.
The dichotomy that appeared to separate being a Communist from being a Jew was bridged for Bergelson and other members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAFC) after Germany forced Russia into war. Only then, it would seem, did Bergelson clearly feel that total commitment to the Soviet cause was at one with his concern for the integrity and survival of the Jewish people. His work during the war tends to support this assumption. In 1944, as part of the propaganda work undertaken by the JAFC to drum up greater international support for the Soviet war effort, Bergelson wrote a play entitled Prince Reuveni on commission from the Moscow State Yiddish Theater (GOSET) that drew on events in Jewish history to glorify the victory of heroic Jews, united in brotherhood with non-Jews, over a savage common enemy. This play was never performed in the USSR, however. Although it went into immediate rehearsal in November 1944, and remained in rehearsal until the closure of GOSET €“ a copy of the script was found on Mikhoels's desk immediately after his murder €“ permission for its public performance was never granted by the Soviet censorship. By the time the war ended, the unashamed call to Jewish national consciousness expressed in Prince Reuveni was no longer useful to Stalin, and was therefore forbidden. Yet the play, published in New York in 1946, offers testimony of a different kind about Bergelson's personal loyalties.
At his trial, in admitting that he had been guilty of "Jewish nationalism" and attempting perhaps to mitigate his culpability, Bergelson spoke at some length about his upbringing in a strictly observant Hasidic home, where Torah and Talmud were the staple texts of his education, and the punctilious observance of Jewish Holy Days was engrafted into his being. This is how Bergelson presented part of this formative experience to the court:
Q: To what do you plead guilty?
A: To running away from the Soviet Union and towards nationalism. €¦ I was raised in a spirit of strict nationalism. I was completely surrounded by this until I was seventeen years old. When I was a child, I did not have a single Russian book. I was eleven or twelve years old when I somehow read syllables in Russian, working from the title pages of the Talmud, which, as required by law, contained the names of each book spelled phonetically in Russian. Most Jews, artisans included, studied the Talmud. Some knew more than others. I remember one saddlemaker who would explain quite intricate matters each Saturday when the Jews gathered in the synagogue. Those who didn't know or could not make sense of them on their own would gather in the synagogue, and between the two prayers, the one before evening and the evening prayer [minkhe and mayrev], he would read from the Talmud and explain passages. There is a day that falls in August when the Temple of Solomon was burned [The fast of Tishe b'Av, on the ninth day of the month of Av in the Hebrew calendar, usually falls in early August in the Western calendar]. On this day all Jews fast for twenty-four hours, even the children. They go to the cemetery for an entire day and pray there "together with the dead." I was so immersed in the atmosphere of that temple being burned €“ people talked about it a great deal in the community €“ that when I was six or seven years old it seemed to me that I could smell the fumes and the fire. I tell you this to indicate the extent to which this nationalism was engraved in my mind.
[Testimony of David Bergelson, in Rubenstein, J. and Naumov, V.P. (eds.) Stalin's Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001), pp.150-51].
The vividness with which Bergelson evokes this childhood memory and the power it exercised over him goes well beyond being simply the articulate description one might expect a gifted writer to give. In the very act of apparently denouncing the "evil effect" this training in "Jewish nationalism" had on the consciousness of a young Jewish boy by "reactionary bourgeois" parents, what is significantly revealed is an ineradicable bond with the very traditions he is now trying, under duress, to abjure. It is interesting to consider why a Jew on trial for his life would choose to elaborate so extensively on the atmosphere of Tishe b'Av to a hostile Gentile judge ignorant of Jewish law and custom. Why, of all possible annual Jewish Holy Days, would he elect to depict the fast of Tishe b'Av, which commemorates the Destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of the Jewish people after the sack of Jerusalem? On the surface, Bergelson is obviously seeking to depict, and disparage, the most extreme manifestation he can think of to illustrate "nationalism" in the Jewish religious tradition, but at the same time he is obviously well aware that Jewish national mourning on this day is as much an expression of religious as of political loss. Why not alternatively denigrate, if one must speak ill of some part of Jewish life, the atmosphere of another festival €“ the Passover Seder, for example? Or the twenty-four hour liturgy of Yom Kippur? Or the joyfulness of Sukkot with its exotic custom of blessing Levantine fruits and leaves? Is Bergelson's only intention in choosing Tishe b'Av the fact that only this fast day fully bespeaks Jewish "nationalism"?
Given the extent to which Yiddish writers in the USSR, like their Russian-language counterparts, had been increasingly compelled to deploy Aesopian language in their work in order to escape, as far as they could, the prohibitions of the Soviet censors, it is quite possible to read Bergelson's testimony here both as an encoded equation of Bolshevik with Roman hegemony and repression, and as an encoded assertion of pride in being Jewish, a pride that, at one moment in the trial, manifested itself explicitly in Bergelson's response to the overt Jew-hatred that increasingly emerged during the hearing. Having just defended the phrase "Brother Jews" which, during the war, had been approved by the State and had been used as one of the JAFC's chief rallying cries to world Jewry, Bergelson countered the presiding judge's accusatory interrogation with the remark, "There cannot be anything criminal in the phrase €˜I am a Jew' (a reference to the title of one of Fefer's poems that had been cited as supposedly conclusive evidence of "nationalist guilt"). If I approach someone and say, €˜I am a Jew,' what could be bad about that?" (Ibid., p.158)
The story "Altvarg", translated here as "Obsolescence", reveals the same kind of ambivalence evident in so many events in Bergelson's personal life. On the surface, especially towards this story's end, it seems to be simply a conventional piece of proletarian propaganda €“ the "obsolete" observant old Jew Moshe Greivis, mumbling and swaying over his "thick yellowed old holy book," is seemingly an embodiment of the parasitical, impotent and reactionary past; his guilt feelings appear selfish and above all worthless; he is one of the living dead. The scene closes with this superfluous old being trying to shut out a world to which he can make no contribution, while outside the bustle of the new dawn conveys thousands of enthusiastic workers to factories where they will spend purposeful days in productive labour. On this obvious level, readers are invited to side with joyful workers against the despicable irrelevance of one guilt-stricken old man; to celebrate the mechanized transport that hurries a new generation willingly to their life-affirming work in industry and away from a leeching class enemy whose self-centered preoccupations express a death wish. If this were the only thing the story offered, it would certainly support the critical opinion that has for years maintained that after the Revolution Bergelson made his talent subservient to political indoctrination.
To side with this judgment would demand entirely overlooking the precision with which Bergelson writes, however. The extent to which he furnishes his pious old Jew with Torah learning and bits of devotional literature reveals the author's personal familiarity with these sources; his intertextual narrative evocation of the Biblical story of Jonah, several times repeated, equivocally reflects as much on the moral condition of the new world as on old Greivis's personal moral turpitude. The gulf that separates what Greivis knows he should do from what he fails to do highlights the eternal validity of the ethical teachings of Judaism, which no social theories can ever render obsolete. This story, in short, can be said to exemplify what might be called affirmation in denial, in exactly the same way as Bergelson's court testimony affirms in the very act of denying.
Moreover this short story displays no diminution of Bergelson's characteristic insight and sensitivity, particularly in his portrayal of women. His presentation of Greivis's unfortunate second wife is a clear illustration. Nameless and practically featureless, she emerges from the shadows cast by the hostile perception of others as a lost and helpless being, reified and shunted about by callous step-daughters and indifferent husband, lost in an alien environment, and clinging pathetically to the only contact she has with some kind of reassuring reality through her short-sighted, compulsive scrutiny of her "very own" silver spoon. Today one may find ridiculous the tale's overdriven depiction of galvanic factory workers striding buoyantly out into the New Dawn to build a collectivized Utopia, but one can hardly overlook the compassion evoked for a silent, ethereal woman who is casually picked up and then thrown carelessly aside like a piece of merchandise by unfeeling people. One may not share Bergelson's idealized socio-political vision, but there is nothing either immature or romanticized about his understanding of human selfishness, expressed here, as always in his writing, in tightly disciplined, allusive Yiddish prose that few of either his Yiddish contemporaries or his successors could match.
(Dr Sherman is the Woolf Corob Fellow in Yiddish Studies at the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University. Please read his wonderful translation of Bergelson's Obsolescence.)
Originally published in the journal Midstream (Vol. 38, No. 5 (July/August 2002), pp.37-42).