This Day in Jewish History

1952: Russia Kills a Yiddish Writer Who Loved Her

David Bergelson strongly supported idea of creating a Jewish homeland in Birobidzhan, never mind that Russia's Jews couldn't farm.

A menorah dominating the main square in Birobidzhan, a town and the administrative center of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast.
Russian Wikimedia Commons

August 12 is the date of both the birth, in 1884, and death, in 1952, of David Bergelson, one of the greats of modern Yiddish literature, who strongly supported Stalin's short-lived idea of creating a Jewish homeland in Russia.

Bergelson was born in Okhrimovo, a Ukrainian shtetl, in czarist Russia. His father was a prosperous grain and timber merchant, who died when David was a young child. His mother died when he was 13.

Between them, however, they arranged for David to receive both a traditional Jewish education and a strong general one. After their deaths, David moved between the households of his various older brothers.

In 1903, Bergelson settled in Kiev, a city that became the touchstone for his ideal of Jewish life – not religiously observant but infused with expressions of Jewish culture. There he became closely associated with a group of other Yiddish writers and in 1917 founded the Yiddish Culture League, which sponsored a wide variety of events and publications in Yiddish.

Changes of heart, for no reason

The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 posed a challenge to Bergelson that came to define the rest of his life.

His passion was literature, not political ideology, but for the next 35 years he had to negotiate the minefield of an arbitrary sometimes totalitarian regime that underwent changes of heart regarding the Jews but could never acknowledge that its shifts followed no particular logic.

Bergelson's constant compromises with Soviet Communism may appear craven in retrospect, but there's something heartrending in following the lengths he went to keep himself and his family alive, and to be able to continue his life as a writer.

David Bergelson (left) with his son, Lev.
Elisheva Kitrossky

In its earliest days, the Bolshevik regime supported self-realization and limited autonomy for the various national groups within its borders. It encouraged the secular, non-Zionist Yiddish revival Bergelson was involved in, and created the Yevsektziya, the Jewish section of the Communist Party.

Bergelson was an early member of the Yevsektiya but felt uneasy in the Soviet Union and, newly married and a father, moved to Berlin in 1921. There he began writing for The Forward, the progressive-but-not-communist Yiddish paper published in New York. They paid him generously, but it wasn't a comfortable fit for him, and in 1926 he left the paper.

Stalin changes his mind

Bergelson began writing for several Communist Yiddish papers, and in a March 1926 article called "Three Centers" he examined America, Poland and the USSR as potential homes for Yiddish culture. He concluded that the best option was the latter.

Soon after he visited Moscow and signed on to a new Stalinist project: the creation of an autonomous Jewish province in the far eastern reaches of the Soviet Union – to be named Birobidzhan.

Birobidzhan was established against the advice of all the experts – the economists, agronomists, geologists and sociologists. Its economy was to be based on agriculture, even though most of the Jews who moved there had no background in farming and the soil was inappropriate for growing anything.

Bergelson visited Birobidzhan, however, and saw the future of the Jewish people – and it looked rosy. Thus he became the USSR's leading propagandist for the project.

Unfortunately, soon enough, Stalin had a change of heart and began rounding up Birobidzhan's intellectuals and shutting down its Yiddish-language institutions.

Bergelson was spared long enough to be drafted into the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which was meant to appeal to Jews worldwide, particularly in the United States, to support Stalin in his war against Nazi Germany, with which just a short time earlier he had signed a pact. With no need for equivocation, Bergelson wrote passionate statements telling the world about the Nazis' crimes against the Jews.

Only a few years after the end of World War II, Bergelson and nearly all the other leaders of the Anti-Fascist Committee were arrested on the charges du jour that constituted treason in Soviet Russia. For his part, he was picked up in January 1949 and for the next three years underwent interrogations accompanied by torture until he confessed to his crimes. He and 12 other members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were executed on what became known as the "Night of the Murdered Poets," on August 12, 1952.