DER NISTER (November 1, 1884-June 4, 1950)
The pseudonym of Pinkhes (Pinye) Kahanovitsh (Kaganovitsh), the prose author and poet, he was born in Berdichev, Ukraine. Many years later, he established a worthy monument to the city of his birth, painting it with all the details in his novel Di mishpokhe mashber (The family Mashber). Although it was at this time (1939) that Der Nister published the first part of Di mishpokhe mashber, there were already sufficient numbers of classical works which depicted Jewish town and villages, among them Berdichev, yet this was a new and significant word and an artistic discovery. Der Nister descended on one side from scholars and mystics, and on the other side from simple village Jews, toilers. He received a traditional Jewish education, studying in religious primary school and in synagogue study hall. He studied Russian language and literature with a private tutor. He became for a time a teacher of Hebrew. He lived for twelve years under a foreign name (he was “unregistered”), and because of this suffered greatly (perhaps because of this he assumed the name “Der Nister” [the hidden one]). He began writing early in life, and his work developed under the firm influence of Hassidism, from old religious culture in Hebrew, from Kabbalah, and from medieval legends, but also from modern Russian and Yiddish literature, especially from symbolism.
He debuted in print in 1907 with a short volume entitled Gedankn un motivn, lider in proze (Ideas and motifs, prose poems), which drew to this beginning author the “attention in literary circles of an original, though immature, style and daring quality of the motifs” (Zalmen Reyzen). Who was he, “the hidden one”—a modernist, who imitated the decadence and lived with mystical sensations, symbolist visions, and phantasms? Perhaps he was an artist searching for an answer to the complex questions of the day, and this searching carried him into the world of the fantastic, full of legend and tales far from real life? The haziness that accompanied all of these very questions dissipated among his readers thanks to Der Nister’s subsequent work: Hekher fun der erd (Higher than the Earth) and Friling (Spring) (both, 1910) and the poetry collection Gezang un gebet (Song and prayer) (1912), in which the author expressed the intention to introduce elements of Jewish mysticism into Yiddish fiction. He also published a series of shorter fictional works in: Literarishe monatshriftn (Literary monthly writings) (Vilna, 1908); G. Gorelik’s Der idisher almanakh (The Jewish almanac) (Kiev, 1909); and Y. L. Perets’s anthology Yudish (Yiddish) (Warsaw, 1910); among others. Several years later he published Mayselekh in ferzn (Stories in verse) (1918), which readers greatly admired and was included in dozens of school readers.
During the time known as his “Kiev period,” Der Nister was particularly prolific, when (after Dovid Bergelson) he was the most important representative of Yiddish prose in Ukraine. He contributed to a variety of literary publications at that time, such as the anthologies Eygens (One’s own) and Oyfgang (Arise). Around 1920 he was living in Moscow, and he spent a certain period of time in the exemplary Jewish children’s colony of Malakhovke (Malakhovka), near Moscow. He then left Russia, lived in Berlin and Hamburg, published a series of new pieces in: Shtrom (Current) in Moscow; Dorem-afrike (South Africa) in Johannesburg; Sambatyon (Sambation) in Riga; Milgroym (Pomegranate) in Berlin; and Chaim Zhitlovsky’s Dos naye lebn (The new life) in New York. Together with Moyshe Lifshits (Livshits) and Leyb Kvitko, he compiled the collection Geyendik (Going), published by the Jewish Section of the Commissariat for the People’s Education (Moscow, 1923), 71 pp. A collection of his writings in two volumes, entitled Gedakht (Imagined), was published at this time in Berlin.
In 1928 he returned to the Soviet Union and settled in Kharkov—with Leyb Kvitko, Dovid Bergelson, Perets Markish, and others who had spent a bit of time abroad. In Kharkov in 1929, he brought out another collection of his own writings, Fun mayne giter (From my estates), and a second edition of Gedakht. If he had earlier dispensed with the real and the worldly, and with a zest for far-off fantastical worlds, thus with more profound language and abstract visions which were charming with a folkishness and romantic sensibility, he now described in semi-mystical, semi-prophetic imagery which reflected the new course of mankind—toward beauty, justice, and social equity. Before the Revolution and after, until 1929, he published visionary and semi-visionary works in an original style, with an innovative artistic means. Until that point, he devoted himself to “Higher than the Earth” pieces (as they were dubbed following the title of his early booklet), with lyrical, mystical, and folkloric tales and stories. While these were enriched by the Russian symbolist writings, mainly it was Jewish mysticism and Hassidism. “He wanted,” wrote Shmuel Niger, “to add the exoteric (nigle) in Yiddish literature to the esoteric (nister)…. He is in essence, and not only in style, symbolic, secretive, hidden.” An exception was his work Dray hoyptshtet (Three capitals), written in a more realistic style, in the genre of “sketches.”
New, vulgar sociological winds, however, were beginning to blow in the USSR, and the unclear images with which Der Nister’s Gedakht and Fun mayne giter was full began to arouse sharp criticism. With one voice, they accused him of pantheistic mysticism and ethnic restrictedness, especially as he was from the very beginning of his career a symbolist, and symbolism, which did not accord with “socialist realism,” was declared in the Soviet Union to be a frowned upon creative method. He had great difficulty living through these attacks. Realism was not absolutely alien to him, and when he mastered this approach entirely, he magnificently demonstrated it in Dray hoyptshtet, which took the reader through an entirely real world—Moscow, Leningrad, Kharkov, where the past, the historical, would naturally mix with the present, the new men. Historical and contemporary eras received uniform artistic embodiment. A historical epic was permeated with philosophical generalizations of the concrete historical depiction.
Later literary criticism divided Der Nister’s writings into three periods: the first was the decade on the eve of the Revolution, 1907-1917, when he was taken with symbolistic visions; second was comprised of the ten years after the Revolution, 1918-1928, when he composed primarily symbolist prose; and third, the last two decades of his creative life (1929-1949), when he was appreciated as one of the most prominent masters of realistic prose in Yiddish. This final period was crowned with the novel Di mishpokhe mashber in which he reached the highest level of mastery both in describing the broad imagery of life in the embodiment of generalized artistic images, types, and characters, as well as in the elasticity and transparency of language full of rich psychological inflections, laconic and aphoristic, and at the same time fascinatingly narrated to a full measure.
At the start of WWII, he was evacuated to Tashkent, and he wrote a series of war stories which were included in his books: Korbones, dertseylungen (Victims, stories), Heshl ansheles, dertseylung vegn eynem a fal inem itsikn okupirtn poyln (Heshl, son of Anshel, a story of a case in contemporary occupied Poland), and others. After the war he returned and settled in Moscow, where Shloyme Mikhoels offered him a room in the building housing the theater. He continued work on subsequent portion of Di mishpokhe mashber. He interrupted his work when the first postwar group with Jewish immigrants departed Moscow for Birobidzhan. He joined them, spent a lengthy period of time in Birobidzhan, and after the trip published in the newspaper Eynikeyt (Unity) an immense report on his encounters along the road and at the scene.
The destruction of Yiddish culture in late 1948 did not evade him. He was arrested with all the other Yiddish writers. It was reported that, when one dark night the police came for him, he quietly met them and said: “I have long waited for you and am prepared to share in the destiny of my comrades and friends.” And, when they began searching through his manuscripts and books, he remarked with a bitter smile: “My writings? I did not write them for you, so don’t go searching for them; you won’t find them….” In fact they discovered no remaining, unpublished works, although such writings did exist. Years later, first in 1964, the journal Sovetish heymland (Soviet homeland) in Moscow published chapters of his unfinished novel Fun finftn yor (In the fifth year ), which he wrote in the late 1930s, with commentary by the literary critic Leyzer Podryatshik who prepared the manuscript for publication. Ber Borokhov was one of the heroes of the novel—he is called “Borekh-Ber.” Where the third part of the novel Di mishpokhe mashber was to be found remains unknown to this day. The great Yiddish writer-martyr Pinkhes Kahanovitsh, known as Der Nister, passed away in the prison hospital of a camp in the settlement of Abez, in Komi-Kant in the far north, in the year following his arrest. According to Sheyne-Miriam Broderzon, he was operated on in a Soviet prison-camp hospital and died shortly afterward in 1950 or 1951. According to the Soviet Kratkaya entsiklopediya (Short encyclopedia) (vol. 6, p. 643), he died on June 4, 1950. His wife, Lena Singalovska, an actress from the former Kiev Yiddish theater, was also sent into exile. She was freed in 1956.
His books include: Gedankn un motivn, lider in proze (Vilna, 1907), 23 pp.; Hekher fun der erd (Warsaw: Progres, 1910), 54 pp.; Gezang un gebet (Kiev: Kunst farlag, 1912), 84 pp.; Mayselekh in ferzn (Kiev, 1918), 48 pp., second edition (1919), third enlarged edition with drawings by Marc Chagall (Warsaw: Kultur-lige, 1921), 60 pp., fourth edition (Berlin: Shveln, 1923), 60 pp.; A bobe-mayse, oder di mayse mit di mlokhim (An old wives’ tale, or a story with the kings) (Warsaw, 1921), 78 pp.; Motivn (Motifs), a collection (Kiev: Lirik, 1922); Gedakht (Berlin: Jüdischer literarischer Verlag, 1922-1923), 2 vols., 243 pp. and 187 pp., cover design by Y. Tshaykov (republished in Kiev, 1929, 341 pp.); Fun mayne giter (Kharkov: Ukrainian State Publishers, 1929), 231 pp.; Dray hoyptshtet (Kharkov, 1934), 272 pp.; Di mishpokhe mashber, part 1 (Moscow: Emes, 1939), 412 pp.; Korbones, dertseylungen (Moscow: Emes, 1943), 72 pp.; Di mishpokhe mashber (New York: IKUF, 1943, 1948), 440 pp.; Der zeyde mitn eynikl (The grandfather with the grandchild) (New York: IKUF, 1943), 62 pp.; Heshl ansheles, dertseylung vegn eynem a fal inem itsikn okupirtn poyln (New York: IKUF, 1943), 30 pp.; Inem okupirtn poyln (dray faln) (In occupied Poland, three cases) (Buenos Aires: IKUF, 1945), 61 pp.; Di mishpokhe mashber, part 2 (New York: IKUF, 1948), 446 pp. (according to a number of reports, Der Nister left behind a sequel volume to Di mishpokhe mashber); Dertseylungen un eseyen (Stories and essays) (New York: IKUF, 1957), 296 pp.; Vidervuks, dertseylungen, noveln (Regrowth, stories, novellas) (Moscow: Sovetski pisatel, 1969), 262 pp.; Di mishpokhe mashber (Moscow: Sovetski pisatel, 1974, 1985), 598 pp.—in comparison to the New York edition of 1948, this Soviet edition left out the final six chapters of the second part. In Hebrew: Bet mashber, roman histori, part 1 (The family Mashber, a historical novel), trans. Ḥ. Robinzon and Sh. Naḥmani (Merḥavya: Hakibuts haartsi, hashomer hatsair, 1947), 430 pp.; Bet mashber, roman histori, 2 vols., trans. Ḥ. Robinzon and Sh. Naḥmani (Merḥavya: Sifriyat poalim, 1963), 423 pp. and 471 pp.; Hanazir vehagediya, sipurim, shirim, maamarim (The Nazirite and the goat, stories, poems, essays), trans. Dov Sadan, foreword by Chone Shmeruk (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1963), 329 pp.; Flora (Flora), with five other stories, trans. Aharon Vaisman, with a biography of Der Nister (Tel Aviv: Ḥava, 1961), 183 pp. Works for children: A mayse mit a hon, dos tsigele (A story with a rooster, the little goat), with drawings by Marc Chagall (Vilna: B. A. Kletskin, 1917), 31 pp.; Mayselekh (Stories) (Kiev, 1918), 48 pp.; Mayselekh in ferzn (Kiev, 1919), 48 pp.; Dray mayselekh (Three stories) (Kharkov: Kinder farlag, 1934), 32 pp.; Tut dem hezl vi di tseyn (Kharkov-Odessa, 1935), 12 pp.; Mayselekh (Stories) (Odessa, 1936), 32 pp.; Zeks mayselekh (Six stories) (Kiev: Ukrainian State Publishers for National Minorities, 1939), 47 pp. And, items reworked for children: Kinder-dertseylungen (Children’s stories) (Kharkov: Ukrainian State Publishers for National Minorities, 1935), 72 pp.; Dos vintsh-fingerl (The wishing ring) (Kharkov-Odessa, 1936), 90 pp. His translations include: Hans Christian Andersen, Mayselekh (Kiev, 1919), 318 pp.; Andersen, Hans der nar (Hans the fool) (Kiev: Kiever farlag, 1919), 35 pp.; Andersen, Dem meylekhs nay kleyd (The emperor’s new clothes) and other stories (Kiev, 1919), 36 pp.; Andersen, Dos tenenboyml (The little evergreen) (Kiev: Kiever farlag, 1919), 36 pp.; Andersen, Di vilde shvanen (The wild swans) (Kiev: Kiever farlag, 1919), 44 pp.; Andersen, Andersons mayselekh (Andersen’s stories) (Warsaw: Kultur-lige, 1921), 93 pp.; Aleksandr Arosev, Ersht nit lang (Not long ago) (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1927), 135 pp.; Aleksey Tolstoy, Vasili sutshkov (Vasily Suchkov) (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1927), 65 pp.; Lev Tolstoy, Khadzhi murat (Hadji Murat) (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1928), 184 pp.; Émile Zola, Koylngreber (Coal miner [original: Germinal]) (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1930), 414 pp.; Ivan Kulyk, Vos hot getrofn mit vasil rolenko? (What happened to Vasyl Rolenko?) (Kharkov-Kiev: Ukrainian State Publishers for National Minorities, 1933), 71 pp.; A. Razumovskii, Der revkom in vistenish (The revolutionary committee in the wasteland) (Kharkov: Ukrainian State Publishers for National Minorities, 1934), 212 pp.; Jack London, Di shtim fun blut (The sound of blood [original: The Call of the Wild]) (Kiev: Ukrainian State Publishers for National Minorities, 1935), 206 pp.; Ivan S. Turgenev, Mumu (Mumu) (Odessa: Kinder farlag, 1935), 85 pp.
“Der Nister,” noted Bal-Makhshoves, “with his tales for children and adults in both prose and verse, demonstrated…such ordinariness with regard to his artistic means and such picturesqueness of the world of his story, that they reference here and there the masterful primitiveness of art. With Der Nister, the world of the Jewish story becomes…a purely Jewish creation for itself, permeated by a distinctively ethnic, mystical form and saturated in a distinctively Jewish story of local color.” For his own part, Shmuel Niger wrote:
He wanted to go further and dig into the treasure of the heritage, such as Perets, Berditshevski, Yude Shteynberg, and others. They opened for the Yiddish word the sources of Hassidism. He conjured and bewitched the secrets and allusions of Kabbalistic mysticism. He saturated his “motifs,” images, and stories with the symbolism and perennial language of the Zohar [central text of Kabbalah] and similar religious texts…. He sought the naïveté of folk creation to unify the wisdom of the kabbalists and his own wisdom…. Unlike Y. L. Perets, he did not make stories out of Hassidic or simple folktales, but just the opposite—he recounted semi-realistic tales so that they became stories, legends, tales of wonder…. His ambition was to be our generation’s Rabbi Nakhmen of Bratslov [the Braslaver Rebbe]…. The difference between Der Nister’s earlier stories and Di mishpokhe mashber lies primarily in that each of them was a sequel to Rabbi Nakhmen’s fantastic imagination, while the family chronicle often reads to us as a transformation of the same Rabbi Nakhmen’s semi-realistic stories. It was not for no reason that the Braslaver Hassidim occupy such a major place in this book. Nor is it for no reason that they fill their material needs and spiritual comfort, their torn clothing and full hearts. And not only for them in Di mishpokhe mashber, but for their Rabbi Nakhmen as well. He is there, too. He lives in Der Nister himself. He assists him in being the sole Soviet writer who blessed the old (Braslaver) Jewishness, although he came (in the foreword and in the first chapter) to condemn him. To be sure, the Soviet Der Nister could not bless poor Hassidic people, without condemning Hassidic and other rich men. He can do no better than show us the moral wealth of the joyous paupers, where he should not portray, in contrast, the spiritual poverty of the gray and despondent rich. Without this bit of “class struggle,” it would be difficult for him to render his historical novel an expression of “socialist realism.” Behind the material “poor and rich,” however, there hides for Der Nister, as is always so, a spiritual “poor and rich,” and he does not idealize “poor” in general; he paints with quiet sympathy only those often willingly poor folk who are rich in spirit, in wisdom, or in fantasy. He placed the Braslaver Hassidim higher than all the other Berdichevers—the “one and one-half or two quorums of craftsmen and mainly paupers” not because they were craftsmen or paupers (he already had enough poor people who were part of the Berdichev underworld), but because they consented, as he expressed it himself, “there was nothing whatsoever like them” (p. 87) and they were like nothing else—not as the average “proletarian writer” would consider it his duty to speak—because they were fooled, embittered, and enslaved more than all the others—and therefore because both the rich and the poor who listen to their environs excelled to no end in humanity, courtesy, and friendship.
Leyzer Podryatshik noted as follows:
The new elements of style which largely distinguish the novel Fun finftn yor from Di mishpokhe mashber do not signify that the author has digressed from his earlier artistic style. The theme and the idea of the work necessitated for him a new lexicon and a new descriptive method. In Di mishpokhe mashber the author adhered to the well-known method of “paint, painter, and be quiet,” all the time being certain that the tendency would grow out of the tried and true painting itself—that is, from the internal logic of destiny itself. In his work Fun finftn yor, Der Nister appears as an active and immediate participant in the events. He is passionate, militant. In the replicas, journalistic deviations, and characteristics of the images, the ideological positions of the author are emphasized, as are his links to the “historical process.”…. All the components of the novel, the composition, action, and authorial deliberation are subject to the humanistic and social ideas of the author…. The novel Fun finftn yor is more than a literary-artistic monument which has miraculously survived. This is an important historical and human document…. The novel Fun finftn yor shines a light back retrospectively on his [Der Nister’s] entire creative path and helps elucidate his innovative and complex artistic way.