Jewish Studies David Bergelson
Harriet Lisa Murav
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0187


David Bergelson (b. 1884–d. 1952) was the most important Yiddish modernist prose writer of the 20th century. His innovations in style, character, and especially atmospherics, or “mood,” earned him immediate praise from literary critics, who saw him as the first Yiddish modernist. The fates and feelings of his characters, the settings, and his elliptical, decentered style reflect a unified artistic emotion, the highlight of his fiction. Bergelson wrote short stories, novels, essays, plays, and articles for newspapers and journals, including Eygns, Milgroym, and In shpan, which he founded and edited. Bergelson’s oeuvre can be divided into his Kiev period (until 1919), during which he wrote the novels The End of Everything and Departure, his self-imposed exile in Berlin (1921–1933), and the Soviet period (1934–1952). The Berlin exile was a time of great creativity, as well as a political turning point. Bergelson rather ambiguously proclaimed his turn to communism in 1926. This ideological turn, and the tragedy of his death (he was one of the prominent Soviet Yiddish writers killed on Stalin’s orders on August 12, 1952), has until recently overshadowed engagement with his literary work. Reappraisals of his literary creativity as a whole, and especially after his self-proclaimed turn to communism after 1926, are changing the overall evaluation.

General Overviews

A very brief discussion of the overall trajectory of Bergelson’s work is provided by Liptzin 1985. An understanding of Bergelson’s importance as a leading intellectual figure in Yiddish circles and in the Soviet Yiddish establishment can be gained from Estraikh 2005 and Estraikh 2015. Sherman 2007 provides a basic discussion. For his imprisonment and secret trial, see Rubenstein and Naumov 2001, Murav 2018, and Schur 2018.

  • Estraikh, Gennady. In Harness: Yiddish Writers’ Romance with Communism. Judaic Traditions in Literature, Music, and Art. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005.

    Examining Bergelson’s early years in Kiev through his time in Berlin, with a particular focus on the shift toward communism, this work embeds Bergelson in the literary circles, movements, and conflicts of his time. See pages 14–17, 34–36, 82–88, 140–142.

  • Estraikh, Gennady. Evreiskaia literaturnaia zhizn’ Moskvy 1917–1991. St. Petersburg, Russia: Evropeiskii Universitet v Sankt-Peterburge, 2015.

    No other source provides as detailed a discussion of Bergelson’s literary life in Moscow after his return to the USSR in 1934. In Russian. See pages 79–85, 162–166.

  • Liptzin, Sol. A History of Yiddish Literature. Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David, 1985.

    Provides informative context useful for an appreciation of the specific nature of Bergelson’s prose. See pages 196–199.

  • Murav, Harriet. “The Judgments of David Bergelson.” East European Jewish Affairs 48.2 (2018): 174–187.

    DOI: 10.1080/13501674.2018.1492822

    Situates Bergelson’s testimony in light of his 1929 novel Judgment.

  • Rubenstein, Joshua, and Vladimir Naumov. Stalin’s Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Annals of Communism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.

    Contains a transcript of part of Bergelson’s interrogation and testimony at his secret trial. See pages 144–159.

  • Schur, A. “Jewish in Form, Socialist in Content? Jewish Identity and Soviet Subjectivity at the Trial of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.” East European Jewish Affairs 48.2 (2018): 149–173.

    DOI: 10.1080/13501674.2018.1492824

    Analysis of Bergelson’s testimony at the secret trial of 1952.

  • Sherman, Joseph. “David Bergelson.” In Writers in Yiddish. Edited by Joseph Sherman, 19–28. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2007.

    A clear overview of the author’s major contribution to Yiddish literature.

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