Shadows of Berlin by Dovid Bergelson
In Among Refugees, one of the strongest stories in Dovid Bergelson’s haunting short story collection, The Shadows of Berlin, a schizoid Jewish terrorist tells the narrator:
Writers, I thought, were the conscience of the nation. They are its nerves. They present their nation to the world. People read a writer’s works because they want to learn how the nation lived at his time. And so I’ve come to you. I’ve told you everything. And now that I’ve told you everything, you are responsible as I am and even more because you are a writer.”
Set in Berlin on the edge of World War II, many of these stories first appeared in the 1920’s, chronicling the lives of families who had survived the pogroms of Eastern Europe and fled to Germany, forming Jewish communities burdened by sadness and rage, victims of purges and exile. It is no mystery why Bergelson chose to write these tales in a simple, accessible style, telling his stories in a voice reminiscent of the early rebbes from the shtetls – a conversational Yiddish full of humour, irony, and melancholy. This is how, he knew, his communities had survived through centuries, how Jewish stories transported truths and horrors from generation to generation. This manner, relaxed and warm – as if the narrator was speaking to a room of casual listeners – can easily make the spirits and echoes underneath Bergelson’s work inaudible and invisible to the modern reader.
In Bruno Schultz’ work, hallucinatory, surreal images serve to convey the threats of impending annihilation around his community. For Schultz reality alone could not express artistic and personal consciousness of these menacing elements. Bergelson’s otherworldliness is quite different. It flows upwards from undercurrents of old Hebrew parables from the Torah.
Equal strands of imagination and power are in these Jewish writers, but for Bergelson, the scriptures allowed reality a spiritual, moral dimension. The ancient Jewish myths were all-embracing, comforting; they offered meaning, irony, and paradox as well as morality.
Reading Bergelson was such a delight for me, especially for this reason. In a complex way, his work testifies to the possibilities of substance and content creating their own heightened, supra-realism. His work does not rely on form alone, or stylistic bravado to move us to places which are both passionate and metaphorical. Instead, the currents of Biblical allusions, the dip into ancient Judaic parables, enchants us, makes his work much more than a realistic retelling. His humour relieves us, removes any burden that his work might be too moralistic, or self-righteousness to appreciate.
In a story about a man and his divorce from a “cold woman”, Bergelson introduces us to the voice of the guilty husband, who is also contemplating the world of Berlin outside his window. It is set in the time of the greatest anti-semitism in Germany, just before Hitler’s rise to power. Bergelson puts this consciousness in the mind and heart of a Jew, but this same Jew is guilty, too, of cruelty and indifference, towards the wife he sent away because she didn’t fit in and “belong” with his family. Bergelson introduces the Biblical parable of Sodom and Gomorrah – a chilling analogy for the silence around the Berlin city, the diffidence and compliance of the city’s citizens. In the original parable, it is a “woman cry” which expresses the fall of reason and compassion and humanity. But in Bergelson’s retelling, the wife of the main character is mute, in fact it is her very muteness which drives the main character to expel her, her inability to cry. We are sympathetic with the man’s frustration and loneliness trying to make a marriage out of such muteness and yet, we also see his passivity as a kind of cruelty, however in the service of preserving his family. It is a woman cry, or a woman’s inability to cry that marks the corruption of the spirit and soul of a man and his country. In this way, too, Bergelson brilliantly places ideas about men and women, gender and war. In another story, the significance of women is expressed by another ironic parable. A story happens around three beautiful sisters who appear to lure paying boarders into their rooming house by seducing the clients into believing they will have a chance to sleep with each sister. Of course, the men rent rooms, eagerly expecting to be the sisters’ next lover. They overhear sounds of ruckus lovemaking through the walls and wait for their turn. Only at the end do we discover all three sisters actually sneak out at night to sleep with their own husbands and that the lovemaking the clients overheard was completely fake and staged by the sisters – their beauty, only used to provide an income for beleaguered bank accounts during a time of tremendous poverty for Jews. The feminist themes, fresh and daring for Bergelson’s time, may sound familiar to us now, but even our familiarity doesn’t detract from the lasting power of these themes.
Bergelson was a master storyteller, a writer who can delight and create humour, even in the throes of social tragedy and suffering. The wonder for me is how Bergelson manages to do this without becoming heavy-handed. How did he so skilfully and seamlessly call on such sounds and images to make their ancient presence heard again, and forge through our modern instruments of language?
For me, these are the elements of Bergelson’s brilliance: waves of meaning subtly gripping us with a lack of melodrama or artifice; a softness, conversational easy-goingness in the voice; the use of realism as a means of telling, but achieving a supra-realism through allusions to the Torah and hence a subterranean foundation from the scriptures. Though written in naturalistic prose, the work is, nonetheless, spiritually magical and transformative.
This was a slim, but miraculous volume, from a writer less known that he should be or deserves. Perhaps it was because he devoted his writing to a social responsibility, an almost rabbinical commitment to the future reader, and a truthful portrayal of the “nerves” of his times that his work still illuminates and engages us fully. But I think, also, there is an infinite stretch of imagination and history underneath his work which reaches further than the period he describes. His accessible style might be too easily overlooked in our post-modernist period of structuralist values, which too favour form over content, but I doubt that his genius will ever fade from posterity.