Skip to:

Introduction to Migrants by M. Y. Berdichevsky

Published on 
August 15, 2021

            On 17 October 1905, the Russian emperor, Tsar Nicholas II, seemed to bow to an ongoing revolt by issuing a manifesto which offered civil rights, voting, and other trappings of constitutional order. It was not long, however, before a violent crackdown began. Right-wing militias and drunken mobs, exploiting anti-Semitism as well as local economic and social tensions, scapegoated the Jews as a visible minority whom they saw—rightly or wrongly—as sympathetic to the revolution. A wave of brutal pogroms swept cities and market towns in the Pale of Settlement. Jews who could escape found themselves on their way to western Europe, America, Argentina, and Palestine, where aid organizations or family networks might offer travel expenses, work, or a place to stay. At a transit point—Breslau, a cosmopolitan city in the eastern Prussian Empire—a few of these reluctant migrants crossed paths with one of their generation's greatest writers: the "Jewish Nietzsche," Mikhah Yosef Berdichevsky.

            This series of monologues is the sole result of their encounter to have been published in the author's lifetime. It appeared as an eight-part numbered series in summer 1906, under the title "Migrants" (Emigrantn), in the Yiddish newspaper Togblat in Lwów (Lemberg), the capital of Galicia. (Individual titles, most likely the author's own suggestions, were added in later editions of his collected Yiddish prose.)

            When Berdichevsky heard, overheard, read about, or invented the voices in these monologues, he had recently settled in Breslau with his new wife, Rachel. For four years in Breslau (1902–6) he had been trying to reconnect with the world of his youth as the son of a small-town Hasidic rabbi in Podolia, Ukraine. To Berdichevsky—under the influence and encouragement of Sholem Aleichem—returning home also meant returning to the Yiddish language, in which he produced over five hundred pages of eclectic short texts during a burst of creativity (even as he continued to pen copious fiction, essays, and imaginative scholarship in Hebrew and German). In one sense, he portrays these migrants as emissaries from the vanishing world of his boyhood. Estranged as this Germanized, goateed rebel may have seemed to the Jews of the Pale, they recognize him: "You're one of our own, I know you are," says one, and another, "You have a Jewish soul yourself." He, in turn, identifies with them.

            Yet in another sense, having been made famous for his polemical exchange with Ahad ha-Am about Jewish national identity, Berdichevsky saw the pogroms as a symptom of cultural and political decline. Both an inspiration for Zionists like Ben-Gurion and harshly critical of organized Zionism, his position on Jewish nationalism was far from straightforward. To see "life as it is" was the true imperative, he wrote in his private journal, rather than to choose between the equally misguided paths of autocracy and revolution. Together with his published essays, his journal in the year following the October Manifesto (written in his adopted language, German, but published in selected Hebrew translation by his widow, Rachel) reveals just how much these migrants give voice to his own untimely meditations.

            Over a year before publishing these monologues, Berdichevsky had penned a biting Hebrew essay in the January 1905 issue of the prominent Warsaw journal Ha-tsefirah, "On the Question of How to Set the Exodus of Wanderers in Order" (Le-she’elat siddur yetsi’at ha-nodedim). There, he argued that the significance of the pogroms had been overlooked by Zionist leaders and philanthropists alike. The real question, he insisted, was whether Jews could finally reject the condition of exile itself. Was exile simply a state of being, the lot or bad "luck" of Israel, as the speaker of VIII would have it? Did Jews still believe in exile and the end of exile—that is, the arrival of a messiah beyond the secular age, when they might hope to ultimately transcend their bad luck? If so, then the nation would have to remain content with temporary and material "solutions" of wealthy elites and Zionists, handing out meager aid to each packed train of migrants "like a man whose garment has been torn and who sews it up with a scrap from the corner of the very same garment." But if Jews could reject their belief in exile, as he advocated, then the solution to their plight must be universal and permanent—not only territory of their own but a redefinition and renewal, a "transvaluation," of Jewishness itself.

            Where was this transvaluation headed? What did Berdichevsky view as authentic Jewishness? His dialectical negation of alternative positions was clear and sharp-tongued, but his answers were vague. In true romantic fashion, he argued for an organic link between people, religion, language, and land. Any Jewish identity which broke this bond he subjected to harsh criticism. He attacked German Zionists for knowing less of the Bible than their Christian neighbors; a visit to the local headquarters of the Jewish community, perhaps for financial reasons, put him "in a foul mood for the rest of the day." (In these asides, he closely resembles the speaker of I.) He shook his head at Russian Jews, freshly arrived from the pogroms, when he heard that they were buying jewelry for their wives in the Breslau branch of the Brandeis bookshop. He heaped even more scorn on socialism and liberal politics than he did on the tsar's cold-blooded government; inverting the "opiate of the masses" trope, he called socialism "a new church which destroys all spiritual culture." Russian Jews who called for revolution, he held, risked "shattering the very ground beneath their feet." The conservatism of the speakers of these monologues, far more concerned with their day-to-day survival and with remaining Jewish than with the youth and their hotheaded ideals, echoes Berdichevsky's middle-aged, hypersensitive, often ailing persona in his Breslau years. Whereas he did imagine the Jewish small towns and villages of the Pale as, perhaps, the only historical exception to his romantic rule that "one nation cannot live within another"—that Jews could not survive in exile, "neither here nor there"—recent events had destroyed even that haven. Like "children of a single vindictive father," Jews in exile, wherever they might be, existed in a constant state of "fear and trembling" (the major theme of II).

            From these parallels between the author's public writings and his private, aphoristic reflections, we can see that his role in these monologues goes far beyond neutral reportage of ongoing persecution or mere personal identification with these migrants from the Pale. It represents a political reflection on the exilic condition and its aftermath, as the impossibility of keeping faith with the dialectics of exile and redemption dawns upon the supposedly "simple" (poshet) migrants in these monologues.

            Of course, their voices are anything but simple. In addition to nods to Bialik's famous pogrom poem, "In the City of Slaughter" (1904), such as the injunction to "Go, go to a shtetl they've plundered" in VI (and perhaps the allusion to "feathers" in II), the speakers of these monologues perceive events through an intricate lattice of intertextual correspondences. Some such correspondences are explicit in the text: both II and VIII read the pogroms in terms of curses inflicted by God for violating the covenant, just as I and III feature heavily ironized allusions to the would-be pogrom in Esther. Others are implicit: "crumpling ["picking up"] a sheet of paper," a peculiar simile for a pogrom in V, may allude to a memory of the Destruction of Betar that the speaker has just cited (Talmud Gittin 58a), where schoolchildren are said to have been wrapped and burned "in their scrolls" by the Romans.

            Such moments of self-critical Jewish intertextuality—a special challenge for the translator—display the author's idea of Jewish transvaluation at work on the page as these "simple" speakers stare at fresh horrors in light of old paradigms and struggle to come up with answers. The author's own answers remain as vague as ever, but their questions are heartbreakingly clear. Suspended between temporary homes and a national identity, Berdichevsky's migrants carry no more—but also no less—than their culture: a textual heritage which helps them to articulate their questions as a settled faith in exile slips away.