Toward the AbyssTablet May 27, 2008
One day in 1934, Pinchus Kahanovitch, a fifty-one-year-old Ukrainian writer of Yiddish stories, fairy tales, and criticism, decided he did not want to disappear. Within a group of novelists and short story writers that included David Bergelson, Peretz Markish, and Moyshe Kulbak, Kahanovitch had been something of an idol, having published in the great Y.L. Peretz’s journal, Yudish, in the 1910s under the pen name Der Nister (meaning “the Hidden One”). The novelist Israel Joshua Singer later recalled a visit to Kiev around 1920 in which a member of the Culture League announced during a meeting that, “had writers of the whole world been given a chance to read Der Nister’s work, they would have broken their pens.”
The clique’s reverence, however, provided little insurance for Der Nister in the Soviet Union of the mid-1930s. The Soviet government looked suspiciously on any group that set itself apart from the main social body. Though the government officially acknowledged Yiddish—mainly to show a peaceable face to the international community—as the language of a Jewish minority, libraries were throwing out Yiddish books, Yiddish schools and institutes were being shuttered, and newspaper presses stopped. In 1934, Der Nister my explained to his brother in a letter, “The writing of my book is a necessity; otherwise I am nothing; otherwise I am erased from literature and from life.”
The book Der Nister labored over would not be a revolt against the modern Yiddish literary tradition, but revolutionary in its adherence to that tradition during a time when Yiddish culture was under attack. That book, The Family Mashber, was conceived as an epic tale of at least three volumes, relating how a generally happy, successful Jewish family in the Polish-Ukrainian town of N (actually Der Nister’s hometown, Berdichev) lost that happiness completely within one short year in the 1870s.
At least that is how the book ends now.