Arrested in 1949 on charges of “anti-Soviet crimes,” the great Yiddish author Dovid Bergelson was sentenced to death and executed by firing squad in 1952. Bergelson had fled the Soviet Union in 1921 for exile in Berlin, but in 1926 began to take a more pro-Soviet stance, arguing that the USSR was the best place for Yiddish culture to flourish, and he moved to Moscow in 1934. Dara Horn writes:
[In the 1920s], Stalin’s effort to brainwash ethnic minorities involved the Soviet government’s financing of Yiddish-language schools, newspapers, theaters, and publishers, to the extent that there were even Yiddish literary critics who were salaried by the Soviet government. During World War II, Stalin used these loyal Jews to his advantage by creating a “Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee,” a group of Jewish celebrities, including Bergelson, tasked with drumming up money and support from American Jews for the Soviet war effort. After the war, Stalin announced that the committee he himself had created was actually part of a vast Zionist conspiracy. Bergelson and his co-defendants endured three years of torture in prison before pleading guilty to the crime of “nationalism” (read: Judaism). He was executed along with a dozen other Jewish luminaries.
For Horn, Bergelson’s work, and especially his 1913 novel Nokh alemen (rendered into English as “The End of Everything”)—which she deems one of the greatest of all Yiddish novels—can’t be entirely separated from his fate. The work tells the story of Mirel Hurvits, a “beautiful and intelligent young woman” from a respectable family who, indolent and self-absorbed, suffers from ennui and dissatisfaction with shtetl life as she moves through a succession of boyfriends:
Bergelson’s works were celebrated for being very “European” rather than “Jewish,” comparable with Chekhov rather than Sholem Aleichem. . . . The End of Everything . . . has been called the “Yiddish Madame Bovary,” and the comparison captures not only its heroine’s dissatisfactions but also Bergelson’s mastery of narrative indirection. . . . But that comparison belittles Bergelson’s originality by suggesting that a woman’s desires and small-town tedium are also Bergelson’s main subjects. Ostensibly they are, but the stakes are a lot higher when one is depicting a Russian shtetl in 1913, after decades of failed promises of Jewish emancipation and brutal anti-Semitic attacks, than they ever were for depicting small-town France. Suffice it to say that no one felt the need to execute Flaubert. . . .
The End of Everything is not so much about Mirel [as it is about] the end of East European Jewish life—and that fact places The End of Everything on the near end of a several-thousand-years-long chain of dead cities that precede it. All of the community’s motivations in the novel appear to Mirel, and perhaps to the reader, to be tedious conventions of bourgeois life. But those conventions—the imperative of marriage and child-rearing, for instance, or the emphasis on money as a means of risk-avoidance, or the traditional pieties maintained even by nonbelievers—are, in the context of Jewish culture, not merely examples of bourgeois pettiness that any individual might do without. Instead they are the cornerstones of a vast national project of preservation in exile. . . .
Bergelson, otherwise a master of subtlety, doesn’t hesitate to hit us over the head with this. The book ends with Mirel weeping in the night with no one to comfort her, deliberately recalling biblical accounts of Jerusalem’s destruction. Mirel goes into exile [from her shtetl] the day after Tisha b’Av, the summer fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temple. The novel’s most powerful literary predecessor isn’t Madame Bovary. It’s Lamentations. Which means that, horrifically, The End of Everything and the end of Bergelson are not so different after all.