From Israel Aksenfeld to Friedrich Gorenshteyn
Courtesy: Mikhail Krutikov
The rise and fall of Berdichev´s not typical, but very characteristic Jewish community, to use the characterization given by the economic historian and demographer Jacob Lestshinsky, is one of the most fascinating pages of Russian Jewish history. In 1789 this small town, one of many properties of the Polish magnate count Tyszkiewicz, was the home of mere two thousand Jews and did not differ of dozens other “shtetlakh” of the Volhynian region. During the following seventy years the Jewish population of Berdichev have grown more than ten times, and reached nearly fifty thousands by 1861. This made Berdichev the second (after Warsaw) biggest Jewish city in the Russian Empire and the only large town where Jews made up the overwhelming, over 80% majority, of the population. The growth was caused by the migration of Jews from the “shtetlakh”, attracted by economic prospects of the burgeoning town, which by the middle of the nineteenth century became the major center of grain trade, money-lending and small manufacturing in Sothwestern Russia. The development of railroads undermined the unique commercial position of Berdichev and strengthened its competitors Odessa and Warsaw; as a consequence, Berdichev`s Jewish population fell to nearly 40 thousand by the end of the nineteenth century, which indicates the outward migration of Jews from the town. In the early XXth century Berdichev regained part of the attractiveness for Jewish migrants as a new center of leather and fancy-goods manufacturing. World War I, the October Revolution of 1917 and the Civil War of 1918-1921 again diminished the Jewish population of the town. (1)
In contrast to such old and respectable East European Jewish centers as Warsaw and Vilna, which never failed to fascinate Jewish imagination, Berdichev has disappeared from today’s Jewish cultural horizon. This is even more surprising considering the great significance of Berdichev for the development of Yiddish literature. As a symbolic Jewish town Berdichev owes its literary reputation to the “Grandfather of Yiddish Literature” Sholem Yankel Abramovitch (Mendele Moykher Sforim). Berdichev serves as the prototype of the fictive town of Glupsk, the focal point of the universe created by Abramovitch in his four most famous novels and one play, which belong to the most significant achievements of nineteenth-century Yiddish fiction. The town makes a cameo appearance already in the first modern Yiddish novel “The Headband” written by Israel Aksenfeld sometime between 1820´s and 1840´s, but remained unpublished until 1862, i.e., about two years before the publication of Abramovitch´s Yiddish novel “The Little Man”, The action in Aksenfeld´s novel takes place during the Napoleonic War of 1812-1814, when Berdichev was in the beginnings of its spectacular rise.
Aksenfeld´s depiction of Berdichev is brief and fragmented, but it catches important features of the town´s character in a fashion that suggests the future symbolism of Mendele (2). The purpose of Aksenfeld´s didactic novel is to demonstrate the advantages of the enlightened culture of the European Jewry over the medieval life of Russian Jewry. Berdichev signifies in this straightforward scheme the lowest depth of Jewish backwardness, the place where the old idiocy can be found in its most concentrated form. Aksenfeld presents the town as an oversized “shtetl”, in which the negative aspects of the “shtetl”, such as backwardness and insularity, reach grotesque proportions, while the positive features, warmth and closeness of “shtetl” life, disappear altogether. Berdichev is overcrowded with Jews desperate for money; their presence is visible, audible and palpable. Everybody is vigorously pursuing his or her own interest and paying no attention to anyone else. This negative image of the Russian-Polish overgrown “shtetl” is contrasted by the German-Polish city of Breslau which Mikhl visits as a contractor for the advancing Russian army in the pursuit of Napoleon. Breslau serves for Aksenfeld, as the positive model for Russia´s Jews.
A city with no mud, no holes, no bedraggled people, everyone dressed like a lord, clean and lovely. Even the stairs leading to large buildings are scoured, and none of the shopkeepers yells: “Come on in! What are you buying?!”
Even more miracles. Supposedly, ten thousand Jews live in Breslau, and Mikhl had not seen a single one – like a Jew in Nosuchville or in Berdichev – until he inquired and found out that the Jews also dressed like lords (3)
Jews in Breslau mix so well with the middle-class German population that they become completely invisible. “Shtetl” newcomers bring disorder, poverty and tension to Berdichev; the settled Breslau Jewish community projects order, prosperity and stability. The blending of Jews into the cosmopolitan European milieu is a realization of the ideal of the Jewish Enlightenment, formulated in 1862 by Y. L. Gordon in his memorable Hebrew lines: “Be a man in the streets and a Jew at home. A brother to your countryman and a servant to your king” (4).
Maskilim, the champions of enlightenment, were not the only party to utilize Berdichev’ s commercial character for the purposes of their propaganda. Hasidim, their opponents on the traditionalist side, were no less keen to use commercial metaphors in their critique of Jewish materialism and selfishness. The famous hassidic teacher Levy-Yitskhok Derbaremdiker, who served as the Berdichev rabbi from 1785 until his death in 1809, skillfully incorporated images and ideas from new business culture into his didactic stories and parables in order to get his message across to the audience of Berdichev tradesmen. One of the stories that circulated among his followers provides an interesting insight into the peculiar business culture of Berdichev.
Once a petty broker noticed in one corner of the marketplace a wagon full of some goods that nobody wanted to buy. Then he saw another wagon in another corner in a similar situation. He inspected the quality of the merchandise and realized that if the sellers swapped their places, each of them could sell the other’s goods with profit. But he knew that the merchants would not listen to him, because they did not recognize him as a real broker. So he went to a well-known rich broker and suggested the deal to him. The rich broker liked the idea and they agreed to split the commission fee. But when the deal was completed the rich broker refused to honor his word. The deceived man complained to the Rabbi, who summoned the rich broker and told him the following parable:
” I am also a broker of some kind between The Holy One, Blessed be He, and the people of Israel. My business is to bring the virtues of Israel up to heaven and to deliver the plenitude of well being down to earth. Once I noticed that Israel had three articles, which were of no use to them, and could only do them harm: sins, transgressions and crimes (hataim, avonot, ufshayim). In heaven, on the other hand, I saw three other articles that they didn’t need there: forgiveness, mercy and redemption (slikhah, mekhilah, vekapparah). So I tried to arrange an exchange between the two parties. When I came up to His Holy Name, He suggested that I talked to Israel first, but when I spoke to them, they didn’t want to listen to me and said that they liked their sins and wanted to keep them. So I promised them that The Holy One would add something to the above articles. I tried hard to convince them, until I succeeded, and then I went up again to The Holy One to ask for an addition. I noticed three more articles that they didn’t need up there: children, life and wealth, and I asked The Holy One to give them to Israel, and He granted my request. Before I left Him, He asked me: “Levy Yitskhak! I see how hard you try for Israel, tell me, what will be your commission fee?”. I replied: “I don’t take anything from Israel, but I hope to receive my payment from You”. He then said to me: “this will be your payment: when they ask you for the additional articles – children, life and wealth – that I gave you according to your request, you may give or take them, to whom and from whom you wish.”
Having told the parable, the Rabbi turned to the rich broker: “Now, if you do as I say, you will have your life, if not – the other way around.” The man became angry and walked away, but when he came home he fell ill and was close to death. Only then he sent to the Rebe to ask for forgiveness and fulfilled his obligation to the poorer broker. (5)
This hassidic parable captures the character of Berdichev Jews: active, industrious and persistent, but also unreliable, selfish and stubborn. Contrary to the maskilim, the hassidic rabbi did not criticize the foundations of Berdichev commercialism, but presented himself as a rather unusual member of the trader’s community, whose business is to mediate between God (characteristically endowed with the qualities of a benevolent Polish landowner) and Jews (his agents). Levy-Yitzkhok’s goal was not to modernize the old medieval order, but to restore the ethical foundations of the old social and religious order.
These two cameo pictures capture the atmosphere of Berdichev in the early nineteenth century. The town’s development reached its peak in 1850’s and this is the period which Abramovitch depicts in his series of Yiddish novels of the 1860’s – 1870’s, which began with the publication of ” Dos kleyne mentshele” (A little man) in 1864. Dan Miron believes that the roots of the image of Glupsk (Fooltown), as Berdichev is mockingly named in the works of Mendele-Abramovitch, are to be found in the two fictive towns Ksalon (a Biblical name which also has a connotation of “foolishness”) and Tsalmona (another Biblical name suggestive of “darkness”) in Abramovitch’s Hebrew novel “Limdu Hetev” (Learn to Do Well, 1862). Ksalon is a qiet little provincial town populated by naïve and backward people, which never overgrows its limits. The big and dark Tsalmona bears more similarity with Berdichev-Glupsk. It is a dangerous place for a naïve newcomer who can easily fall victim of its criminal underworld. On the other hand, like any imigrant city, Tsalmona offers opportunity and hope. All characters who have achieved material and social success in this town are not natives, which is also characteristic of Glupsk. (6) But apart from Ksalon and Tsalmona, Glupsk has another literary precursor in the fictive town of Glupov (Fooltown), a creation of the Russian writer and journalist Mikhail Saltykov (who wrote under the pen name N. Shchedrin. (7) Glupov first appeared in a series of satirical feuilletons published in the influential radical Russian journal “Sovremennik” in 1861-1862, when Abramovitch was working on his first Yiddish novel. In these Glupsk feuilletons Saltykov presents a satirical caricature of a typical Russian provincial town aloof to the challenge of modernization created by the Great Reforms of Alexander II.
Saltykov’s anonymous ironic narrator has some similarity with the figure of Mendele Moykher-Sforim, the fictive author/editor/narrator in the Yiddish novels by Abramovitch. Both know their respective towns intimately well and identify to some extent with the inhabitants, but are at the same time keenly aware of the provincial limitations of Glupov/Glupsk and keep distance from them the narrators’ attitude fluctuates between sentimental nostalgia and biting satire. They function as mediators between the backward world of their provincial towns and the educated urban readership. Unlike Glupsk, Glupov is an abstract concept with no prototype among real Russian provincial towns, even though the Tver’ gentry, where Saltykov lived at that time, accused him of libeling their town. (8) During 1860’s the image of Glupov evolves from a rather benign satire of provincial manners into a sharp grotesque symbol of the whole history of the Russian Empire. This latter Glupov of “A Story of a Town” (1869) has already little in common with Glupsk, which remains the representation of the mid-nineteenth century Berdichev.
The structure of the image of Glupov in Saltykov’s early feuilletons can offer some clues for understanding Abramovitch’s artistic method. As the names of both towns suggest, the main characteristic of the inhabitants of both Glupov and Glupsk was their “foolishness”, which implies not so much stupidity as backwardness, inability and unwillingness to reform their life according to the modern ideas of progress. The physical appearance of the towns has some common traits. In Glupov, ‘dung lies in large heaps on the main square; packs of dogs wander in the streets, ready to tear apart anybody who is “indiscret”; taverns are stinky and disgusting; dealers overcharge and sell foul merchandise…’ (9) Glupsk, as seen by the traveler Benjamin the Third, presents a similar picture: ‘Arriving by the Teterevke Road, you must indulgently cross a large bog, then a second, and then a third and largest, into which, to put it baldly, empty the sewers and chamberpots of Glupsk, bringing with them all the town has to offer’ (10). The business culture of Glupsk does not differ from that of Glupov:
Here are the shops with their shelves of goods, and especially, with their odds and ends of cloths, lace, ribbons, satins and furs that are Glupsk’s famous discount fabrics, so called because its tailors disdain to count them as the customer’s when they are left over from what he has paid for. Around them noisily swarm a solid mass of Jews, pushing, pushed, and poked by carts and wagons…(11)
Glupov and Glupsk are situated on rivers, Big Glupovitsa and Pyatognilovke respectively, which affect the lives of their inhabitants. Both rivers dry up during the summer, and both issue forth characteristic smell. ‘Some local researchers believe that some kind of special vapor came from Big Glupovitsa and had a soporific effect on the Glupovites’, writes Saltykov.(12) The rivers have important function in the legendary past of the towns. Glupov had not real history; instead it possessed a myth of origin. It was once called Umnov (Clever-town), but when Jupiter visited it, he felt so depressed under the influences of he river’s vapor that he ordered the town’s name to be changed to Glupov. Glupsk according to its mythology, was founded by the Jewish merchants who were forced to leave India and made their way up by Pyatognilovke, once a mighty river ‘which in those days discharged into the sea’ (13)
The application of Saltykov’s satirical technique of mock mythology to the particular case of Berdichev enables Abramovitch to achieve a degree of abstraction, while remaining within the limits of mimetic realism. Glupsk is an important artistic device in his critique to Jewish life during the radical period of the 1860’s and 1870’s. The differences between the satiric functions of Glupov and Glupsk are indicative of the ideological positions of the two writers. Saltykov uses Glupov for the dual purpose of unmasking the stupidity of the ruling authoritarian regime and criticizing the passivity of Russian people. From a soft caricature of the Russian province, Glupov gradually develops into a powerful political symbol of darkness of Russian history. The target of Abramovitch’s social critique of the 1860’s is not Russia’s political regime and society -which he view positively in that time- but those aspects of Jewish life, which hold Jews back from becoming integrated into Russian society. Gupsk represents the traditional Jewish political body in its most concentrated form, where the idiocy of the Jewish society is most obvious. As Miron points out, this critique is directed first of all against the ‘foolishness’ Glupsk futile commercialism: ‘The idleness and helplessness of the “shtetlakh” people were camouflaged beneath the semblance of fierce and aimless activity pursued by people who were to busy to rationalize their efforts. These people were not really examples of “Homo economicus”, since they based their adventurous commercialism on conjecture and make-believe rather than on rational considerations such as the profit motive.’ (14) This unproductive economy determines the town’s character: ‘Glupsk parades itself as a city but is actually an overgrown “shtetl”. In Glupsk, the connection between cause and effect, effort and product, gesture and response, has been severed. People run but they do not get anywhere; they buy and sell but they do not prosper; they act but they do nothing’. (15)
Abramovitch manages to achieve a high degree of abstraction and generalization in his image of Glupsk as ‘overgrown shtetl’, while at the same time creating ‘a pertinent commentary on the development of Berdichev’. (16) The clearest geographical allusion to Berdichev is the name of the Glupsk river Pyatogniliovke. The rela name of the Berdichev river Gnilopyat has comic connotations (it is a combination of two words meaning ‘rot’ and ‘heel’) which suits well Abramovitch’s satiric toponymics. The river is the only element of the Glupsk landscape with a clearly defined spatial position. Other Berdichev landmarks, such as the medieval fortress, the cathedral and the Carmelite convent as well as the new big synagogue, are barely mentioned in numerous depictions of Glupsk. The town structure is represented as a bewildered maze of big and small streets, as deliberately designed to create a sense of disorientation. Houses and people in Glupsk have two faces: they may look nice and decent but turn out to be deceitful and nasty. Abramovitch focuses on the feverish movement created by intense business activity, almost ignoring the immobile elements of the cityscape. This is how Hershele, the hero of The Magic Ring, sees Glupsk for the first time: ‘From all sides are coming wagons, carriages, carts, they run into each other, get stuck, and cursing, screaming, arguing is heard up to the seventh heaven’ (Fun ale zaytn forn boydn, beydlkh, furlekh, a teyl farploten, farhakn zikh mit di reder, a teyl mit di dishles, un zidlerayen, geshrayen, gevaldn biz dem zibetn himl). (17) The author’s goal is not to provide an ethnographic or historical depiction of Glupsk-Berdichev, but to create a symbolic form for representation of the negative aspects of the Russian Jewish reality of his day. To do so, he has to minimize the specific and highlight the typical.
The position of Glupsk within the space of Abramovitch’s fiction reflects its intermediate place between myth and reality. As Miron points out, Glupsk belongs simultaneously to two worlds, as the center of the fictive Jewish universe consisting of economically dead “shtetlakh’ and villages such as Kabtsansk (Pauperville) and Tuneyadovke (Parasiteville), Glupsk is a magnet, which attracts all dynamic people driven by need and hunger from these depressed places. Seen from the ‘shtetl’ vantage point, Glupsk is a metropolis offering exciting and dangerous opportunities. This is how Hershele explains Kabtsansk economy in the first edition of Abramovitch’s novel: ‘In Kabtsansk there is no sustenance for them, except from begging one from another. They derive their whole livelihood from Glupsk. Some women bring to Glupsk chicken, eggs, goose fat and thread for sale. Some men go there to become teachers or teacher’s assistants, charity recipients, respected Jews or just to sit in study houses (melamdim, belfers, mekablim, sheyne-yidn un batlonim). Before High Holidays everybody goes to Glupsk , to serve as prayer leaders (baley-tfiles) in synagogues. Also servant girls and wet nurses leave Kabtsansk in great numbers. On Hanuka and Purim almost all inhabitants go to Glupsk to collect charity.’ (18)
But viewed from the perspective of contemporary urban reader, Glupsk is a provincial town located on the periphery of the modern world of cities like Kiev, Odessa and Warsaw with their modernized Jewish communities. Just as for Aksenfeld the opposition between the ‘overgrown shtetl’ Berdichev and the European town of Breslau signified the contrast between backward Russia and civilized Europe, so does the contrast between primitive Glupsk and sophisticated Odessa (in Fishke the Lame) or Kiev (Dnieprovits in The Travels of Benjamin the Third) mark the watershed between the mythological past and the realistic future of Russian Jewry. Particularly interesting in this respect is the opposition between Glupsk and the neighboring town of Z. (Zhitomir, a relatively small town and the administrative center of the Volhynia gubernia) in the second edition of The Magic Ring. The town of Z. Is not just a cosy, clean and green provincial capital, its Jewish community is dominated by Jews of a kind unknown in Glupsk. The honest and wealthy ‘aktsiznikes’ (holders of a liquor license) are by virtue of their closeness to the Russian authorities, the harbingers of economic and social integration of Jews in Russian society who spread enlightenment through their material support of the enlightenment and education.
The satiric image of Glupsk of the 1860’s becomes softer in the later version of Mendele’s novels . Now sentimental nostalgia is added to the satire, Glupsk becomes the Jewish town par excellence, the natural habitat of Jews, where they can live according to their customs, without the false pretense of European civilization. Glupsk is the real homeland, for which many ‘civilized’ Jews are longing in their hearts. To quote Fishke, the people of Glupsk were Jewish ‘To the core top to bottom. Inside and out’ (19) Glupsk casts a powerful spell over the souls and bodies of its children, even if they try to forget it. Someone born and raised in such a place can never fully adjust to a different more modern environment, and will forever remain a ‘Glupsker’. Similar nostalgic elements can be detected in the early Saltykov’s feuilletons, but they disappear in the later “A Story of a Town”. The two aspects of Glupsk, its vulgar commercialism and its intimacy, remain the dominant features in representations of Berdichev by other writers as well.
An interesting counterpart to Mendele’s novels presents the detailed description of Berdichev by the editor of the Odessa Hebrew magazine ‘Hamelits’ and the first Yiddish newspaper ‘Kol mevasser’ Alexander Zaderbaum, who in 1869 undertook the first fact-finding expedition to Berdichev. As enlightened positivist, he believed the national character of Russian Jewry was determined by the conditions of their life. He visited the town for two weeks with the purpose of studying its history, trade, social scene and customs, so that he could present to his readers a model of Jewish life in the south-western area of Russia. (20) To his surprise Zederbaum found very little documental evidence about Berdichev history; local Jews, almost newcomers, seemed to have very little interest in the past of their town. The town appeared to the visiting journalist as a big mechanism, which keeps its population in constant motion through a complicated system of gears. Another surprise was the absence of any rational cause of the feverish ‘spirit of speculation’ which permeated the town. Berdichev was not a port neither a birder town; it had no industry, no historical significance or administrative importance; in fact, until recently (1846) it had the status of ‘mestechko/shtetl’. And yet this ‘Jerusalem of three gubernias (Kiev, Volhynia and Podolia) became the undisputed Jewish metropolis of the region and the purest representation of Jewish national character, since all other religious groups had very little presence in the town life. Berdichev struck the visitor as an overpopulated (its Jews lived in 968 houses), dirty, and dilapidated town, often devastated by fires. Only the small central part had some planning, whereas the rest of the town presented, a maze of little streets and alleys, where ‘the mud had not yet dried up since the first Shabbath, and the smell betrayed that Adam had been here even before he tasted the fruit from The Tree of Knowledge'(p. 5)
The business activity culminated in two big annual fairs, where Ukrainian peasants and Polish gentry traded with Jews horses, livestock and wool for necessities and luxury articles. The fairs laid foundation of money-lending business, for which Berdichev became famous throughout Russia. Most of the Jews, however, ‘lived from the air’ by assisting to broke a deal here and there. Zederbaum comes to the conclusion that, in the absence of a detectable local history and traditions, the main factor determining the character of this ‘meeting place of speculators’ was the desire for money. Most of Berdichev population did not come there to stay but only to earn some money and then return home. The community lived from day to day, without any sense of past or future. Rabbi Levi-Isaac was the only religious authority to leave his mark in Berdichev, which since his days remained predominantly Hasidic. Hasidism, divided into many competing streams with intense messianic expectations, could not, according to Zederbaum, facilitate the development of stable centralized religious or social institutions that would ‘represent the community’ of this prosperous town.
Zederbaum visited the big synagogue, built as recent as the 1830’s, and found it completely unsatisfactory. He disliked its undignified architecture and position in town, but was mostly appalled by its decoration, which violated his religious feelings. Among pictures of the zodiacal signs on the vault he not only saw forbidden by Judaism human images as the representation of the Twins, but also discovered ‘plainly a naked girl’ portraying the Virgin. No more appropriate were the pictures of klezmer instruments adoring the western wall of the women’s section: ‘It is a shame and a disgrace to see in the synagogue pictures of a violin, a basso, a clarinet, a flute, a drum, with little marshalik’s drum-sticks for beating the rhythm during the procession from the weeding canopy, as if they were a sign over a house of a klezmer or a manufacturer of musical instruments.’ (p. 22). Noise and disorder during the service completed the negative impression from the visual survey. To Zederbaum’s astonishment, the Shabbath Torah reading was divided not into traditional seven, but into thirty ‘aliyot’ (reading portions), apparently with the purposeof soliciting a contribution from each man called to the Torah (p. 24). Needless to say, the budget of the congregation was never made public, as it was the case with all communal organizations in the city. The religious life in Berdichev was concentrated in numerous small Hasidic houses of various branches, which the author could enter only on the first day of his visit, before he became suspected of being a government inspector incognito.
On the positive side were the modern choral synagogue, patronized by the enlightened bourgeoisie and some artisans, and the community hospital, located in a former palace of prince Radziwill. Zederbaum found both institutions clean, orderly and well kept. But his overall impression was that of disorganization and waste of resources. Berdichev’s character was defined by a combination of ‘seize the day’ spirit and the absence of historical awareness on the one hand with stubborn devotion to outdated institutions and customs on the other. Zederbaum believed that the cause of all communal problems lied in the lack of centralization and internal divisions, and proposed a reform of the communal life along three lines: concentration of religious life around the central synagogue; introduction of early professional training and general Russian education along with the modernization of the traditional Jewish education; replacement of the meat tax with a property tax levied on house owners. As a positivist thinker, he applied a biological metaphor: ‘in case of disease, be it in the human or in the communal body, the main thing is to know what kind of illness it is and in which member of the body it is located; then a doctor kind find means to cure it. The only obstacle can be a distorted organization, which prevents normal blood circulation and causes fever; but as soon as one improves the organization with the help of an appropriate medicine, the life streams restore its regular circulation, and all members receive fresh nourishment from it.’ (p. 83) Zederbaum believed that a reformed Berdichev community would serve as a model for the whole Russian Jewry.
Sholem Aleichem visited Berdichev in search for material for his ‘Jewish novel’ about the legendary klezmer musician Stempenyu. In 1988 he wrote to the historian Simon Dubnov: ‘My God, what a wealth of material Berdichev has to offer to a painter like myself! A pity I am too busy and cannot stay longer in this Jewish Paris.’ Further in the letter he expresses his idea of creating a series of novels imitating Émile Zola ‘Les Rougon -Macquart’, (21) which he wanted apparently to be set in the ‘Jewish Paris’. And yet Sholem Aleichem never created his literary Berdichev as he did with his native ‘shtetl’ Voronke, which served as the prototype of Kasrilovke or with Kiev, the fictive Yehupets. Perhaps the reason was that he never stayed in Berdichev for very long and could not therefore capture the unique atmosphere of the town. Berdichev appeared in many Sholem Aleichem’s works as a code name for certain associations, but it did not lead an independent existence.
We shall not leap from the 19th century Yiddish classics to the Soviet time. In the late 1920’s the young Soviet Hebrew author Zvi (Grigorii) Preigerson wrote a series of symbolist stories ‘Travels of Benjamin IV’, which were published in various Hebrew periodicals in Europe and Palestine. The title of the series clearly refers to the satiric novel of Mendele, but their modernist style and the figure of the main character make them more similar to Y. L. Perets ‘Impressions of the Province Journey’. The narrator poses himself as a successor of Mendele’s fictive character and undertakes a journey, through ‘shtetlakh’ of Volhynia and Podolia in the time when the last remnants of communal and economic independence are about to disappear under the pressure of the new totalitarian regime. Having seen decay and desolation caused by the Civil War, economic and political restriction, he comes to Berdichev full of hope: ‘As I came to Berdichev, I said to myself: Here it is, the only place of our honor. Here shall we see and make certain that there still are Jews in our Land of Soviets’ (22). But Berdichev disappoints the traveler: all Jews whom he meets there are preoccupied with non-Jewish activities and speak a non-Jewish language. Finally in the middle of a dark, cold and windy night Benjamin indeed meets two Jewish gangsters, who invite him to join a ‘minyam’, the quorum of ten men necessary for communal prayer. He finds himself at a wedding party, but is so disgusted by the obscenity of the guests’ behavior that tries to dissociate himself from them and from Jewish people. He cries out in despair: ‘Jews! I’ve deceived you! I’m a real goy by birth, and your wedding isn’t valid, it’s all a mistake!’ But the drunken guests do not take him seriously, and he himself is too drunk to leave, so the party goes on. . In the morning again the streets are full of hurrying Jews in pursuit of their business. Berdichev leaves no hope for the narrator to find in this big world ‘a resting place for a little man who only needs a little slice of prosperity and a drop of happiness.’ (23) Preigerson draws upon the Yiddish and Hebrew classical tradition of Mendele and Perets for dealing with an entirely new situation of the Soviet Union, and his Berdichev retains the same symbolist potential of Glupsk: an alienating place with double-face dangerous inhabitants only to happy to make use of a naïve newcomer.
For the Russian writer Vassilii Grossman(1905-64) Berdichev had much more positive connotation; the town ‘was the thread that knit all the tangles of (his) life’, as his biographers John and Carol Garrard tell us. (24) Born in Berdichev, Grossman made his literary debut in 1929 in a Moscow magazine with a sympathetic depiction of his native town in an essay ‘Berdichev for Real-No Kidding’ (25) In 1934 he published a short story ‘In the Town of Berdichev’ (26) which attracted praise from such different writers as Isaac Babel, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Maxim Gorky. (27) Berdichev also figured in Grossman’s first novel ‘Stepan Kolchugin’ (1937-40). During the war Grossman was among the first Soviet journalists to discover the overwhelming scale of the Holocaust tragedy. His mother perished in the Berdichev ghetto; the collected documental evidence about the massacre of Berdichev Jews, was to be included in the ‘Black Book’, which Grossman edited with Ilya Ehrenburg, but the book was not published in the Soviet Union during their lifetime. Later Grossamn recreated the Berdichev tragedy in his epic novel ‘Life and Fate’.
In the story ‘In the Town of Berdichev’ Grossamn explores the familiar motif of Berdichev Jewish vitality in the new historical situation created by the October Revolution and the Civil War. The story takes place during the Soviet-Polish war of 1920-21. A female Red Army commissar is forced by nature to take a maternity leave from her service in cavalry regiment. Her commander billets her with a large and poor Jewish family, who is obviously not happy to give one of their two rooms to this large, leather-clad, masculine peasant woman. Their attitude changes however, when they see her helplessness in the face of the inevitably approaching moment of childbirth. They eventually accept her as a member of the family and take full care of her and her newborn son. For a while she seems to yield to her natural instincts and develops a hitherto unfamiliar to her feeling of love for her son and his father, who had been killed in the war. But as a result of a rapid change in the military situation, the Red Army is forced to leave Berdichev, under the pressure of the Polish advance. Even though she can easily pass for a peasant from a nearby village and wait in the hope that the Reds will soon be back again, the commissar follows her sense of duty and joins a small Red detachment in its desperate attempt to stop the Poles. As the Jewish family watches her run after the marching soldiers, the husband says to his wife: ‘That’s the kind of people who were once in the )Bund. These are the real people, Beyle. Are we people?. We are dung.’ (28) But the last word belongs to the wife who tells the husband to warm up milk and feed the baby.
This unpretentious story is remarkably daring for its time. By telling his story in the voice of an objective narrator Grossman disobeys one of the basic principles of socialist realism, which required the author to show his unequivocal allegiance to the communist ideology. Moreover, he even manages to slip in a positive comment about the Bund, an organization by that time labeled as ‘a party of the socil-traitors’. The commercial, noisy, dirty, smelly, overcrowded and so openly Jewish Berdichev, where ‘all people scream, swear, curse one another, laugh’ symbolizes life in its most direct manifestations. Berdichev instinctively mistrusts any authority, be it the Reds, the Whites, the Poles, the Ukrainians or any other military or political power. The Jewish father of the family knows this wisdom from his own sad experience: ‘ to tell you the truth…the best time for people is when one regime is gone and another has not come yet. No requisitions, no contributions, no pogroms’. The story’s conclusion leaves room for some cautious hope that things will eventually become normal again and perhaps is indicative for a short period of optimism of 1933-34.
The most complex literary portrait of Berdichev was created by the Soviet author Der Nister (Pinkhas Kahanovich) in his masterpiece of Yiddish literature, ‘The Family Mashber’. Der Nister’s portrait of ‘the town N.’, possesses both a mystical depth and a delicate finesse of detail. The image of the town, in which this monumental novel is set, not only creates the atmosphere, but also to a large extent determines the plot and characters’ development . Unlike chaotic Glupsk, the town of N. has a well-organized structure, which incorporates not only streets and buildings, but also people. The novel opens with a detailed depiction of the three concentric rings which constitute the city: ‘First ring: the marketplace at the very center. Second: surrounding the market, the great city proper with its many houses, streets, byways, back streets, where most of the population lives. Third: suburbs.’ (29) Each ring has its distinct physical, social, and spiritual physiognomy, which shapes the collective personality of its inhabitants. The main conflict between the material and the spiritual unfolds at several levels, each having its correlation in the town’s landscape.
Unlike most of his predecessors, Der Nister does not employ the intimate narrative manner. His narrator is not a city insider and not even a contemporary of the described events, but a keen and objective outside observer not susceptible to natural limitations of time and space. This narrative technique originates in the modernist tradition of I.L.Peretz and is reminiscent of such works as the play ‘A Night in the Old Marketplace’ or the novella ‘In the Dead Town’. The Stranger who observes the city in Der Nister’s novel, is capable not of only seeing the bustling daily life of the marketplace, ‘the town’s living center’, but also of penetrating the darkness of night and observing the mysterious nocturnal aspect of the town. In contrast to the lively picture of the town in daylight, the night reveals ‘the sense of doom, of foreseen disaster, hanging over the place…over everything: over the market and especially over those synagogue structures which, though they would appear to be the guardians, would appear to be the lookouts, the caretakers of the community – were, if the truth be told, already a sight to occasional pity.’
Unlike Abramovich, Der Nister explores the unique history of Berdichev. Not the town’s capacity to generate mythology. He recreates the town with the precision of a chronicler, paying close attention to architectural details and structural aspects. Each episode has a clearly defined location, and each character’s movements through the town can be easily traced on a map. The historical reconstruction of the life in Berdichev in the 1870’s is done from a post-mortem perspective. As the narrator states in the preface and then repeats several times in the text, his novel evokes the world gone long ago and people who had since become physically and spiritually extinct. Of course, these words could be understood as lip service to the requirements of the Soviet ideological censorship, ‘the price Der Nister paid so that he could get on with the work at hand.’ (30) But by dismissing the narrator’s historical judgement one cannot fully appreciate some modernist and philosophical elements in this novel. The symbolist motif of the ‘dead town’ seen through the eyes of a stranger is of crucial importance for any serious interpretation of the novel.
The death motif that appears in the introductory survey of the town sets in motion the plot of the family novel. One morning the successful merchant Moshe Mashber makes a strange decision to purchase a place for himself in the cemetery. The depiction of his walk across the town from his comfortable house in a leafy affluent suburb to the new cemetery located near the railway track illustrates Der Nister’s technique of charging landscape with symbolic meaning. From the bridge which connects the suburb with the center, Moshe sees the town divided into dark and light: ‘one bank of the river lay still dark and sleepy, like a silent herd, while the other side was already sunny’. The contrast between darkness and light, death and life, past and future determines the conflict of the novel. The seemingly prosperous and lively commercial town is doomed to be destroyed by the forces of history and to disappear in the night of the past. Future belongs to the primitive underclass, which populates the ‘third ring’, the sandy area beyond the geographical, social and cultural borders of the town defined by the middle class residential and business quarters. Those people are the keepers of the hidden ‘lightning’ , which will one day erupt in a storm , ‘if not today, then tomorrow or the day after that.’ Unlike the two central rings, the third ring has no visible structure: ‘no signs of a street, no hint of a sidewalk, permanently filthy, muddy. And there no grass ever grows.’ People who live there are not subject to the town’s jurisdiction: ‘their customs are the same, but their laws are not those of the town.’ Now they live in the state of moral and physical degradation, but ‘anyone with a keen eye might even then have been able to see the seeds of the future floating in the air.’
Even though the traditional elements of urban landscape such as the marketplace, synagogues and cemeteries play an important part in the novel, they do not demarcate the area of its main conflict. For that purpose Der Nister uses a relatively new principle of space organization, which has appeared in Yiddish literature in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1905. Sholem Asch was the first Yiddish novelist to portray, in his novel “Meri” (1912), a Jewish town in terms of the sharp contrast between the well-to-do central part where the physical order reflects social stability, and the poor suburbs where anarchy breeds in the maze of dirty valleys. A similar picture of a town deeply divided in two parts both socially and geographically appears in the memoirs about 1905 by Sofia Erlich-Dubnova, the daughter of the famous Russian-Jewish historian Simon Dubnov. Der Nister applies this structural division retrospectively to the Berdichev of the 1970’s; this kind of spatial organization did not exist, for example, in the novels of Abramovich written in that period. The ‘third ring’ is the breeding place not only of social discontent, but also of religious heresy. The group of Bratslav hasidim, which consist of the porest and most desperate men of the ‘third ring’, is represented by the author as a proto-communist commune: ‘among them money passed from hand to hand, from wallet to wallet.’ The Bratslav community is too poor to afford to keep a synagogue of their own, and use the old and half-ruined ‘Living Synagogue’ at the entrance to the old cemetery in the center of the town. This synagogue is called ‘Living’ ‘because no one wanted to refer to a synagogue as ‘Dead”, explains the narrator. Thus a traditional element of landscape acquires a new meaning within the dialectic relationship between life and death, the novel’s leading theme.
History manifests itself through the slow but steady decline of Bredichev’s economy. The crisis caused by a draught only aggravate the difficult situation of the Polish gentry and nobility after the defeat of their 1863 anti-Russian rebellion. Wealthy Jewish moneylenders with close ties to Polish nobility also suffer from this crisis, as the story of Moshe Mashber’s bankruptcy demonstrates. The decline of the Berdichev marketplace goes hand in hand with the strengthening of the town’s periphery, which finds its expression in a sudden revival of desolate old corners, of the town. The revival is brought to the town by the antagonist of Moshe Mashber, the mysterious wanderer Sruli Gol, who goes from one desolate place to another, until he finally comes to the half-ruined synagogue at the old cemetery and makes it into the center of the new Hasidic group. In the middle of the novel Moshe’s brother Luzi, who converts into the Bratslav Hasidism under Sruli’s influence, has a mystical vision of a magnificent and sinful town that refuses to recognize the Messiah in a beggar at its gate. This town resembles Berdichev at the height of its commercial activity, even though the original ancient legend, on which the vision is based, refers to Rome:
And now it is fully daylight. There is movement from the town and movement to it of people from distant villages, merchants, secondhand -clothing dealers, soldiers, clippers, tax collectors, slaves, tumblers, beggars, and every variety of whore, some more, other less, highly painted, who have been sent from the most distant parts of the country in anticipation of night pleasures still to come; and everyone, those leaving the town and those coming toward it, becomes aware that there is a man sitting at the city’s gate. His features are radiant, but his clothing is ragged and his body is covered with sores. He has not been permitted to enter the town and tonight, as on every other night, he will sit here before the gate. And everyone, as if by prior agreement…every stops and, as if it were a debt he was paying, spits at him and on his wounds.
This vision of pursuit of pleasure and material interest during the day is contrasted by night, which is the time for search consolidation:
Night. Darkness. And one can sense that in the dark, people are searching without being able to find each other, but they feel a certain consolation because, though they are distant, yet they can sense each other’s presence and they know that the place is swarming with people searching for each other.
Der Nister’s historical Berdichev has little in common with the mythological Glupsk of Mendele, it is closer to Rome and Jerusalem. But unlike these eternal cities-symbols, Berdichev is a product of the concrete Eastern-European history and will be destroyed by the forces of the same history. Unfortunately, Der Nister was not able to complete his novel, and it remains to guess how he would create a connection between the growth of the hasidic dissidents and the emerging revolutionary movement.
What can be with all probability the concluding chapter in the literary history of Berdichev belongs to the contemporary Russian author Friedrich Gorenshteyn (born in Kiev in 1934, presently living in Germany). His play ‘Berdichev’ (1975) (31), defined by the author as ‘Drama in Three Acts, Eight Scenes, and 92 Scandals’, has over 30 characters and covers the time span from 1945 to the early seventies. Each scene focuses on a moment in the private life of a Berdichev Jewish family which unfolds against the historical background marked by the events such as the first post-war autumn in 1945, the Hungarian uprising and the Sinai campaign in 1956, the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the beginning of the Jewish mass emigration to Israel in the early 1970’s. The main protagonist is a colorful Berdichev character, the vulgar and aggressive Jewish woman Rachel Kaptsan who tries to rule in her extended family consisting of two daughters, nephew, brother and sister – the only survivors of the war. She trusts nobody and is prepares to lie, flatter or intimidate so long as it suits her interests. As time goes on, however, her influence and importance diminish, which allows the younger characters to go about their business largely ignoring the scandalous aging woman.
Rachel speaks a Russian which is actually Yiddish translated word by word. Her speech is expressive but limited because she can only operate with idiomatic Yiddish clichés. Rachel and her brother could do well in the prewar Berdichev where they became Party members and managed to place themselves in important positions in the state-controlled commerce., but after the war the native knowledge of Russian becomes a precondition of social success. Rachel is increasingly marginalized, being gradually reduced to the role of acid observer and commentator. The author mercilessly reveals every unpleasant aspect of Jewish existence in the Soviet Union, such as antisemitism, fear, frustrated ambitions, intellectual snobbery, provincial arrogance. He seems to have no hope that people who grew up in such conditions could retain any sense of dignity. Rachel Kaptsan might be ridiculous and even repulsive, but the next generation is even worse because in their desperate drive to success they abandon their Jewish identity. They try to eradicate all trace of their Jewishness in order to demonstrate their loyalty to the regime: they bribe officials in order to change the Jewish patronymics in their passports, write and recite patriotic verses, and one character even attempts to enlist in the Soviet Army to fight against Israel in Sinai. The latter episode is a grotesque reversal of the enthusiastic support of Israel by many Soviet Jews in 1948, when a number of Jewish men openly expressed their wish to fight in the Israeli Army (32).
Rachel is inseparable from Berdichev, its landscape and history: ‘I am moving nowhere…Let them who have big money go…I love Berdichev…Oy, vey’z mir… I’ve got a pension from the Soviet State’. Her Jewishness goes hand in hand with her loyalty to the Communist Party which she is always ready to show off at any suitable moment: she demonstratively keeps portraits of Lenin and Stalin in her room long after Stalin’s death, disapproves of Khruschev’s liberalism and loudly condemns Hungarian ‘traitors’ in a conversation with Soviet Army veterans. She protests only once, when a senile retired colonel loudly pronounces in the middle of the public commemoration of the Victory Day at the communal grave that ‘here lie members of all nationalities except the Zhids.’ Rachel makes a public scandal: ‘Bastard… My husband was killed in the war, and this man says such things. Bastard. Counterrevolutionary.’ The ‘Moscow Jew’ Avner Ovechkis is disgusted by this scandal: ‘A terrible scene… When Jews, especially the Berdichev ones, begin to react to the word Zhid, it comes out even worse than when someone uses this word… It is so scandalous.’ This episode demonstrates a moral superiority of the vulgar Berdichev Jew over the refined Moscow intellectual type, the complete reversal of the nineteenth century maskilic stereotype.
Gorenshteyn is attentive to the topography of the town, but, unlike Der Nister, he singles out the least glorious landmarks, such as the ninety-year-old water-tower described as ‘a two-story building in the style of the 1950’s, blocking the view’, or a dreadful ‘gray brick house with belly-like bourgeois balconies’, in which the Cheka shot people and buried their bodies during the civil war. All traces of the old glory of the town are erased: the magnificent cathedral where Balzac married the Polish countess Evelyna Ganska has been converted into a children sports school. Ovechkis tells a joke about a French delegation’s visit to Berdichev: ‘ They went into the tower in the center of the town, and it turned out to be a water-tower. Imagine, the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the water-tower in Berdichev. There was a plumber there who had no idea about Balzac. He thought Balzac was a Berdichev Jew, and these were his relatives who came to visit him.’ The old cemetery in the center of the town, the gathering place of the Bratslav hasidim in Der Nister’s novel, has been transformed into a park named after the Ukrainian national poet Shevschenko.
For Rachel’s nephew Vilya, who has moved from Berdichev to Moscow, Berdichev is more than just a backward provincial town. He shares his feelings with Ovechkis:
I haven’t been here for fifteen years, and now, as I walked here, I thought to myself: what is Berdichev? And I have understood that Berdichev is an ugly shack built of the wreckage of a great temple for protection from cold, rain and heat (…) To someone from the capital city this ugly shack of Berdichev seems a real heap of rubbish, but if you try to take it apart, you will discover that this dirty, covered with slog stairs leading to the rickety door of this hut are made of beautiful marble slabs, on which once walked the prophets and stood Jesus of Nazareth. You will never feel this in Moscow apartments.
Ovechkis replies that his only desire is to run away and hide from this ‘hut’, but Vilya believes that the situation of Jews in the world is too insecure, and they cannot afford to separate one from another, no matter how disgusting the fellow Jews may appear. Thus Berdichev grows into a symbolic representation of the condition of Exile. It is a dump of history and yet this is the only link that holds Jewish people together and connected with their past.
Gorenshteyn’s play echoes many of the themes from the works of his predecessors. Some of the satiric effects call forth associations with the early Yiddish comedy of the Haskalah. The meaningful names of the characters in’Berdichev’, such as Kaptsan (pauper), Bronfenmakher (liquor-maker), Ovechkis (little sheep’s) Svinarets (from pigsty) and Mamatyuk (connotation with cursing) work as powerful characterizations. Rachel’s speech is constructed similar to that of the satiric characters in the Yiddish works of Wolfssohn, Aksenfeld and Ettinger. Its power of expression and satiric effect come from the idiomatic richness of colloquial Yiddish, which is masterfully rendered into ungrammatical Russian. Her manipulative character and rude manners make her similar to the protagonist of the classical Yiddish comedy ‘Serkele’ by Shmuel Ettinger. The younger characters, in their turn, speak a grammatically correct but shallow and unidiomatic Russian which has its parallel in the strongly Germanized Yiddish used by the positive characters in ‘Serkele’ and eighteen-century German-Yiddish comedies.
In the aesthetic system of the Haskalah an idiomatic Yiddish speech represented the low ‘shtetl’ culture, while German signified the high values of the new urban culture. In contrast to this positivist scheme, Gorenshteyn’s play has no positive alternative to Berdichev’s provincialism. The geographical division remains the same: Berdichev remains the same backward town, while Moscow and even Zhitomir are places of education and culture -Rachel´s daughter graduates from the Zhitomir Teachers’ Institute, while her nephew moves to Moscow -but culture and education do not lead to moral improvement and open no bright future for Russian Jewry. The smooth and opportunistic Russian-speaking Jews without pride and identity turn out to be the morally inferior to the primitive but wholesome Berdichev Jews. Berdichev is dying away, and with it are going the last genuine Jews, in whose place come faceless surrogates.
Unlike Der Nister, Gorenshteyn does not use a voice commenting on the events directly, but he makes it quite clear for the reader of the play (it is hard to imagine this play on stage) that this is the end of Berdichev. Whereas Der Nister still leaves a possibility of revival coming from the marginalized underclass, Gorenshteyn’s Berdichev has exhausted its potential. The skeptical author does not believe in the emigration option either. Rachel reacts to the news about her cousin’s leaving for Israel with her characteristic bluntness; ‘Ay, why shall we talk about him…I don’t think about him even when I am sitting on the toilet…Let him go…I’m not going anywhere.’ The old Berdichev dies and with it die the last authentic Jewish Jews.
Throughout its rich literary history the image of Berdichev has become an epitome of provincialism, materialism but also of authentic Jewishness. As long as the ‘shtetl’ was alive, this ‘overgrown shtetl’ was its most prominent representation. In the time of optimistic hope in enlightenment and progress Berdichev was a popular target of maskilic satire. This in many respects unique town possessed a strong potential for creation of mythological satire of the whole ‘shtetl’ culture. Its reputation will probably forever bear the satiric stamp of Abramovitch’s Glupsk, Berdichev’s most powerful fictional representation. In the following period of political reaction and growth of sentimental populist feelings among Jewish writers and intellectuals Glupsk came to represent also some positive aspects of traditional Jewish life style, such as its warmth and intimacy. Der Nister powerfully transformed this mythological image into a representation of the dramatic historical fate of Jews in exile. Finally, Berdichev became a symbol of the historical dead end, the ultimate stage of destruction of Jewish life both by the external factors such as the Soviet regime and the Holocaust, and by internal degradation and assimilation. The last powerful representation of Berdichev by Gorenshteyn evokes some achievements of Yiddish literature, even though it is unlikely that this Russian writer himself was familiar with this tradition. With the real ‘shtetl’ gone Berdichev has quickly faded away from Jewish collective imagination. Unlike other East-European towns and ‘shtetlakh’, Berdichev does not reappear in contemporary Russian-Jewish imagination as a place of happy childhood, spiritual harmony and beauty nor does it attract immigrants and their descendants in search of their spiritual roots. So far the revival of historical and imaginative interest in Jewish Eastern Europe has bypassed Berdichev.