Review of Dovid Bergelson’s “Die Welt möge Zeuge sein”: Erzählungen

Carmen Reichert

Dovid Bergel­son. Die Welt möge Zeuge sein”: Erzäh­lun­gen. Edit­ed by Sabine Koller and Alexan­dra Polyan. Berlin: Suhrkamp | Insel, 2024. 458 pp. 29,95€.

Despite his great importance for Yiddish literature, Dovid Bergelson is still almost unknown to German readers. While Bergelson’s works have been relatively extensively translated into Russian and English, the ones from his late creative periods, in particular, have not yet been accessible in German. The anthology Die Welt möge Zeuge sein (May the World Bear Witness) presents a selection of texts by Bergelson, ranging from his early stories from the Ukrainian part of the Russian Empire to his wandering years, in Germany and the US, and his late works back in the Soviet Union before his execution in the so-called “Night of the Murdered Poets” in 1952.

If at all, Bergelson is known in German as a modernist author for his early stories, such as “Der Taube,” “Am Bahnhof,” and the novel “Ende vom Lied,” which were accessible in translation by Alexander Eliasberg, from the 1920s, reprinted in the 1980s. 1 1 David Bergelson, Das Ende vom Lied (Berlin: Jüdischer Verlag, 1923); David Bergelson, Am Bahnhof: und andere Novellen (Berlin and Vienna: Verlag Benjamin Harz, 1927); David Bergelson, Leben ohne Frühling (Berlin: Aufbau Verlag, 2000). All translated by Alexander Eliasberg. Since the 2000s, several translations of short texts especially of Bergelson’s Berlin period have appeared. 2 2 David Bergelson’s work appears in Der Galaganer Hahn: Jiddische Kinderbücher aus Berlin; Jiddisch und Deutsch, translated by Andrej Jendrusch (Berlon: Edition Dodo, 2003). With the new volume, German readers can now gain insight into the full range of Bergelson’s work, including not only texts that originate from his Berlin period, but also those documenting the Shoah in Ukraine as well as the struggle to remember the Shoah in the culture of the Soviet Union.

The volume includes a total of 15 texts: 13 stories, one speech, an excerpt from a drama, and an original text in Yiddish, the tale “Onhejb Kislev Tar’at (Beginning of Kislev 5679) about the pogroms in Ukraine. The editors present the texts chronologically according to their time of creation and divide Bergelson’s work into four creative periods, subdivided according to his places of residence and the political conditions of his work: 1. Bergelson’s early years, 2. Revolution. Civil War. Emigration, 3. Soviet Union. The 1920s-1930s, 4. Second World War. Shoah. An epilogue following the four chapters contains a quote from the interrogation protocol before Bergelson’s execution by the Soviet state, affirming his commitment to Yiddish. The chronological arrangement of the texts and their assignment to the biographical and historical-political conditions make it easier for present-day readers to place the texts in their historical and literary context.

This volume is a collaboration of several translators. Peter Cormans, Susanne Klingenstein, Sabine Koller, and Janina Wurbs have all contributed to it. Collaborations are a trend that seems to be catching on with the academization of translation work. 3 3 The translators group “di kalyastre” in Düsseldorf is even working as a team on the individual texts, see: Lawrence Rosenwald, “A Field Report on Process and Result in the Translation of Yiddish,” in Kleine Sprache – Weltliteratur. Jiddisch und Übersetzung, edited by Efrat Gal-Ed und Daria Vakhrushova (Berlin and Düsseldorf: De Gruyter and Düsseldorf University Press, forthcoming). The challenge of translating from Yiddish into a different language is evident in one of Bergelson’s stories itself. “Witness,” which is one of the volume’s most significant revelations, tells the story of a young woman who translates the Yiddish report of a Holocaust survivor into Russian. When she asks if her translation correctly reproduces his words, the survivor answers: “What can I tell you...? The sufferings were in Yiddish....”

In the afterword, the editors offer a brief overview with a precise and apt placement of Bergelson’s work in the history of time and literature. They face a challenge in bringing together the great arc of suspense that describes Bergelson’s literary development:

How can this be reconciled: We read through the work of an author who develops his unmistakable melancholic, modernist style in the early phase and thus revolutionizes Yiddish literature; who, after years of (aesthetic) searching in emigration, inscribes himself in the increasingly clichéd and stereotypical Socialist Realism; who, in doing so, makes every effort to make his literary individuality compatible with the system that negates precisely this individuality to the point of death.” (Afterword, p. 351)

This difficulty is also evident in the design of the volume. The blurb identifies Bergelson as a “key figure” in Yiddish literature, while the cover image shows him quite privately with his son Lev and his toys, indicating a bourgeois existence. The title “May the World Bear Witness,” in turn, refers to Bergelson’s important role as a witness to the Holocaust but can also be related to his murder under Stalin.

Bergelson’s most famous story, “The Deaf Man,” which opens the volume, attempts to narrate the decline of the shtetl from the perspective of a deaf man, and to capture an aspect of the human condition of modern man during a time of flux and lost stability. This story points far ahead of its time. The motif of physical disability, which leads to a very specific perception of the world, was to accompany Bergelson into his late work, including in the story “Yahrtsaytlikht.”

Critics in German-Jewish periodicals praised Bergelson’s “lyrical realism” early on. Bergelson is still perceived today as a talented narrator of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Unlike the “classic” Yiddish writers, Y.L. Peretz and Sholem Aleichem, Bergelson confronts his readers also with symbolism and forms of altered perceptions. With his early work, Bergelson established his fame as a modernist narrator, influenced by Flaubert and Chekhov, among others.

Throughout his entire oeuvre, there is also an unmistakable, gentle humor that reads more as a fraternization with his protagonists than as distancing, more of a laughing with them than a laughing about them. His mockery repeatedly targets modern technology, as in the story “Selik Broder,” in which the deaf-mute worker studies the machines of his bed factory and describes the Western, ‘class-hostile’ machine as follows:

One of them is a foreigner, a ‘bourgeois,’ manufactured in Germany - to this day she looks a little bewildered here, as if something were running counter to the family honor.”(Selik Broder, p. 262)

Many of Bergelson’s protagonists are people from the margins of society: idiosyncratic anti-heroes, self-confident or lonely women, and the physically disabled. They testify to a strong awareness of the people who were born into less fortunate circumstances than the author, who came from a wealthy family. Bergelson’s sympathy for socialism was later to become an important reason for his return to the Soviet Union, in addition to the Yiddish-speaking readership there.

His years of exile also took him to Berlin for a few years. The story “Blindness,” which centers on an aging Jewish emigrant from Eastern Europe and a blind German, can also be read as a documentation of a cultural contact guided by illusions. With “Onhejb Kislev Tar’at,” the only text in the volume printed in both translation and the original Yiddish, Bergelson’s first literary publication from the Berlin period is made accessible again. It is dedicated to the pogroms in Ukraine under the Russian Empire. As the editors explain, they consider this tale as Bergelson’s most dense one.

The late Bergelson was almost unknown in German until now. The texts included in the volume, which were written after the emigration period and back in the Soviet Union, offer a good introduction to his later creative periods. German readers now also get to know Bergelson as one of the first authors to document the Shoah in the Soviet Union. The texts also testify to the challenging attempt to locate the Jewish tragedy within the tragedy of society as a whole. This is particularly evident in the story “Witness,” in which a sympathetic non-Jewish woman who has herself lost relatives in the war and a sole survivor who witnessed the murder of a million people in the death camp confront each other. She is willing to hear the survivor’s story and write it down in Russian. Although the story addresses the limits of the translatability of the Jewish experience, it also establishes a socialist myth of the elective affinity of the victims of National Socialism who are conjoined in fate.

Bergelson’s rehabilitation took place soon after Stalin’s death and enabled his further reception in Russia. As the editors rightly note, his work is a world that has yet to be discovered in German speaking lands. Therefore, the decision to first publish an overview volume with chronological classification and contextualization was the right step to take. Together with the editors, we can hope that works will soon follow that will explore and appreciate Bergelson’s literary achievement in its modernity, its humor, and its devotion to people who perceive the world differently — not only through Bergelson’s role as a witness but also through his literary modernism.

Reichert, Carmen. “Review of Dovid Bergelson's "Die Welt möge Zeuge sein": Erzählungen.” In geveb, May 2024:öge-zeuge-sein.
Reichert, Carmen. “Review of Dovid Bergelson's "Die Welt möge Zeuge sein": Erzählungen.” In geveb (May 2024): Accessed Jun 16, 2024.


Carmen Reichert

Carmen Reichert is the director of the Jewish Museum Augsburg Swabia since 2022.