Refusing to Pander to the Bolsheviks, a Great Soviet Jewish Writer Still Hoped for a Better Soviet Jewish Future

July 1, 2019 | Allan Nadler
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In 1947, resuming an initiative that has begun much earlier, Stalin sent over 10,000 Jews from the war-ravaged western part of the USSR to the Jewish Autonomous Region of Birobidzhan, a remote and inhospitable region wedged between Siberia and Manchuria. Among the 1947 contingent was the poet and writer Pinḥas Kahanovitsh, known by his pen name Der Nister (the Concealed One), whose writings from those years have recently been published in English translation by Ber Kotlerman. Allan Nadler, in his review, contrasts Der Nister to his contemporaries:

The single most distinguished Yiddish writer who advocated for a Soviet Jewish cultural, but not national, home during [the early 1930s] was David Bergelson, [who] visited Birobidzhan briefly in 1932. Although he never returned, he became one of its most influential enthusiasts, writing ecstatically about the hypnotizing effects of the deep blue northern skies, beautifully rugged mountain ranges, and seemingly endless vistas of her plains. What he chose not to do was look down to notice the deep muds that remained after the savage winters, the brutally humid summers, or the alternating floods and droughts which doomed the hard work of the idealistic Jewish farmers on Birobidzhan’s kolkhozy, or collective farms.

This was the poisoned literary fruit of either shameless propagandizing or fear of execution. . . . One of the greatest writers in Yiddish literary history had tragically become one of Stalin’s most useful of Jewish idiots. Bergelson published two “manifestos” proclaiming his loyalty to Birobidzhan, which he extolled as a “gift from Stalin, the Jews’ best friend.”

Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s there really was only one great Soviet Jewish writer who neither praised nor ever mentioned the Jewish Autonomous Region: Der Nister. Known for his political caution and his literary art of concealment, Der Nister shared neither the cravenness nor the cowardice that were tragically on display in the show trials and executions, culminating in August 1952 with the executions of all the remaining members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. And yet, in the bitterest of ironies, Der Nister had been arrested well before the massive sweeps of 1949, precisely for his late-life enthusiasm for the revival of the frozen Birobidzhan project and his fearless insistence on turning it into one of the two Jewish national centers that would realize his ideal for a post-Holocaust reconstruction of the “broken wholeness” of his people, as he put it, “ours over here, and theirs over there.” There, meaning the young state of Israel.

Der Nister was reported to have died in a Soviet prison camp, somewhere on the edge of the Arctic Circle, in 1950. David Bergelson and others who had cravenly made peace with [the regime] were executed two years later in the “Night of the Murdered Poets.”

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