Hidden Master

By Allan Nadler
Thursday, August 25, 2011

The saddest saga in Jewish literary history involves some 500 Soviet Yiddish artists who were stolen away by Stalin's henchmen in the late 1940's.  Accused of a variety of heresies against the doctrine of "socialist realism" demanded by Soviet cultural commissars, they met a tragic fate after twenty years under a relentlessly repressive regime whose creation they had greeted with utopian fervor. 

Today, precious few of these martyred Yiddish cultural figures are remembered. The exceptions—they include Dovid Bergelson, Itsik Fefer, Dovid Hofshteyn, Leib Kvitko, and Peretz Markishwere convicted of treason in a notorious public show trial and murdered on August 12, 1952. Their cruel fate is mourned annually on the anniversary of the "Night of the Murdered Poets." 

But the most profound, original, and enigmatic of the martyred Yiddish authors is not in their company.  That man, Pinkhes Kahanovitch (1884–1950), had perished in a Soviet prison hospital more than two years earlier.  In a painful irony, his omission from the list is consistent not only with his nom de plume, Der Nister (the hidden one), but with his painstakingly private personality, ideological reticence, and the often maddeningly impenetrable nature of his writing.

Like so many of his Yiddish literary colleagues, the Ukranian-born Der Nister  moved back to the Soviet Union (in his case, from Berlin) during the halcyon decade following the Bolshevik Revolution, when secular Yiddish culture, along with Russian literature and art, underwent a remarkable renaissance. In 1926 he settled in Moscow, where he was initially caught up in the political idealism and literary flowering of the early years of the communist experiment. The greatest symbolist in the history of Yiddish literature, Der Nister studiously avoided any explicit evocation of either Soviet ideology or strident Jewish nationalism.  Alas, his caution was to no avail.

Aside from several anthologized stories, Der Nister's vast body of work remains likewise hidden. He is best known to English readers for his magisterial, unfinished family epic, Di Mishpokhe Mashber (The Family Mashber), in which he managed to conceal a rich, moving, and discreetly sentimental portrait of the religious and ideological tumult within one Jewish family in the Ukrainian town of "N" (commonly identified by critics as Berditchev, the author's place of birth). The opus includes a penetrating portrayal of Hasidic life unique in Yiddish literature (the author's older brother, Aaron, became a devout Bratslaver in his youth).  But Der Nister hid his nostalgia and conflicted affections for the lost world of his childhood by opening his masterpiece with an ideologically "correct" (and almost certainly disingenuous) assessment of its necessary demise and of his own role in exposing its depravities to the younger generation for the sake of "progress":

In depicting these physically extinct and spiritually dead Jewish rascals, I have made every effort to avoid becoming entangled with them, or to mourn their demise. On the contrary, I have shown their inevitable march to the abyss and their necessary extinction. 

Der Nister's complexly layered allegories and fantastical characters never achieved the popularity of the creations of Mendele Moykher Sforim, Sholem Aleichem, and I.L. Peretz. By the Soviet censors, meanwhile, his writings were barely tolerated, and that toleration came to a crushing end with the publication of Under a Fence, a parable of the degradation of scholarship and the fettering of literary freedom under Communism.

Given the inaccessibility of most of Der Nister's massive oeuvre, a new translation of a collection of seven short stories written during World War II is most welcome. Translated by Erik Butler, the collection includes three of his most realistic, thematically Jewish, and devastating stories. All recount the noble but terrible fate of unforgettable Jewish characters in Nazi-occupied Poland. One, a reclusive scholar, is so stunned by the cruelty meted out against him by a Nazi officer that he is transformed from a shy, bookish and pious Jew to a rabid dog; another loses his youngest daughter to a transport of Jewish girls doomed to serve as "white slaves" to Nazi officers; a third leads a march of women on a Friday evening, defiantly shouting the blessings for candle-lighting before being gunned down into a trench.

Of the remaining stories, three offer a more morally intricate portrait of the commonly denounced Jewish leaders who were duped into serving in the despised Judenraten (Jewish Councils), whose naïveté eerily calls to mind that of their creator in returning to Communist Moscow two decades earlier. Meylekh Magnus is an epic tale of a shy, eccentric Yiddish scholar, who, having lost everything dear to him, survives in a bunker thanks only to the patronage and genuine heroism of his town's Judenrat chairman. Flora is structured on the loving diary entries of the daughter of a widely despised Judenrat chair; they serve not only to justify his choices but to transform him into a heroic figure.

Though the stories all end tragically, they are uplifting in their evocation of the resilient spirit of the doomed Jews of Poland. The most beautiful and truly hopeful of these seven harrowing tales is the one from which the collection takes its title: in Yiddish, Vidervuks (regeneration).  The story is that of two Russian Jewish neighbors' heartbreaking wartime loss of their only childrena harrowing echo of Der Nister's loss of his only daughter during the siege of Stalingrad. Although neighbors, the protagonists avoid contact until their devastating losses, their tragedies leading each to adopt a Jewish child from the "old country." In bringing up these children, both experience a renewed connection to their own Jewish childhood, and most of all to Yiddish:

When Dr. Zemelman remembered that the boy had a language of his own (which he himself had used at home, with his parents . . . ), he spoke to him, seeing his own shortcoming: "Moishke, speak as you like, as is comfortable to you" because he, Dr. Zemelman understood his language well enough. Then, the boys' eyes lit up like those of someone from whose tongue a chain had been undone. And a stream of words rushed out . . . . so that it delighted Dr. Zemelman, and even wildly sojust the sound of that strangely personal language which had been preserved by the people from whom he had been torn.

It is hard to imagine sentiments more at odds with the blanket condemnation of the obsolete Jewish world found in Der Nister's preface to The Family Mashber. It is the "survivors of the sword" from that doomed world who give fresh life to a Russian Jewry that had brutally torn itself from the bosom of its people.

Erik Butler's felicitous translation captures the unique tone of Der Nister's prose better than any previous rendering in English. Unfortunately, this welcome new volume lacks a proper historical contextualization. Butler's afterword, Der Nister and the Art of Concealment, is largely beside the point; far from concealed, these particular tales are the most straightforward and boldly Jewish of Der Nister's works. It is that unprecedented identification with his fellow Jews that calls out for elucidation.

Indeed, the war years and their immediate aftermath engendered a short-lived but powerful alliance between the Soviet regime and its Jews, united against the common fascist enemy in Nazi Germany. Only in this brief period did Soviet Yiddish writers freely express their Jewishness, producing workslike Itsik Fefer's stirring poem, Ikh bin a Yid! ("I am a Jew!")that, as soon as life reverted to the Soviet norm, would be used against them in the show trials that brought about their executions. And it was in this same brief Jewish spring that Der Nister, who had all but abandoned a life of literary integrity, took up his pen again to create these unforgettable and haunting tales of the tragic fate of Polish Jewry.

Allan Nadler is a professor of religious studies and the director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University. He is currently serving as the Norman and Gerry Sue Arnold Distinguished Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston.

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