With his flowing white hair and eyes sunk deep in his time-worn face, Josef Burg looks like an Old Testament prophet. At 92, he is the last pre-war Yiddish writer still working in eastern Europe. “To be the last of your line is a terrible thing,” he tells me in German. “I am the child of my times. And they have been the worst times in history, especially for Jews. I have lived through it, so I must write it down.”
When Josef Burg published his first short story in 1934, Yiddish was one of the great literary cultures of the region. Today, he says, there is a handful of writers from those times still living in eastern Europe but most stopped working long ago. Burg, who lives in the western Ukrainian city of Chernovtsy, defied his failing sight and continued to publish a Yiddish newspaper, the Tschernovitzer Bleter, until 2003. A few months ago, he produced a book of short stories but he fears blindness will soon prevent him writing or reading.
While Burg has written essays about Nazi and communist terror, his best-known works are short stories about rural Jewish life before the second world war in the region around Chernovtsy, a lost world of woodcutters, farmers, craftsmen and village labourers. His work has been translated from Yiddish into Hebrew, German and other European languages, but only fragments exist in English.
Until 1939, Chernovtsy, better known by its German name of Czernowitz, was a centre of Jewish life in eastern Europe. It was a handsome city of shops, hotels, theatres, restaurants and booksellers, inhabited by Jews, Germans, Romanians, Poles, Ukrainians and others.
Old Czernowitz was crushed by the second world war and its subsequent incorporation into the Soviet Union. The large Jewish population was killed, deported or, later, encouraged to emigrate. By the time Ukraine emerged as an independent state in 1991, there was only a handful of Jewish pensioners left.
They inhabit a city with its architecture mostly intact. The crumbling Habsburg facades are being restored. The magnificent Moorish-style palace of the former Orthodox archbishop is now a university. The main streets are still laid with Austro-Hungarian cobblestones. Burg still walks occasionally in his neighbourhood. “It was here that I talked with my friends, here that I shared a drink or two and here that I fell in love.”
He was born in 1912 in the nearby small town of Wischnitz (now Vinnytsya) and moved with his family to Czernowitz in 1924. He wrote his first stories in the 1930s in the columns of the weekly Tschernovitzer Bleter. Amid growing anti-Semitism, many Jews emigrated, but Burg’s family stayed.
When the Nazi armies approached Chernovtsy in 1941, Burg fled east. Near Kiev, German warplanes bombed his train and he and many others ran into the fields. “When I got up I saw that the people on my left and right and in front of me and behind were all dead. I survived without a scratch.”
In the Soviet Union, Burg’s socialist ideals evaporated in the grim reality of communist life. He saw how Stalin made Jews the target of a postwar terror campaign that culminated in the execution of scores of Jewish writers in 1952.
In the slow thaw after Stalin’s demise, Burg was eventually permitted to return to Chernovtsy. But it was not until the 1970s that Yiddish writers could again publish their work in the Soviet Union. The Tschernovitzer Bleter only re-emerged after Ukrainian independence.
By then it was too late to save authentic Yiddish culture, says Burg. Yiddish-speakers had either emigrated or turned to Russian. He speaks Russian with his wife and daughter, who knows only a few words of Yiddish. His granddaughter, who lives in Germany with her children, knows none. “It is no longer language with deep roots,” he says.
Burg’s stories are suffused with longing for the time before the Holocaust. He recalls wandering in the woods near Chernovtsy long after the war looking for the mill where his first love once lived. She had been killed in an anti-Jewish attack. He does not say when, or by whom; he simply describes how he found her body: “She lay at the edge of the forest beside two thin dead birch trees, standing like a pair of extinguished candles.”
As we part, he insists that I take a copy of the last edition of the Tschernovitzer Bleter. He says with a smile: “It is not enough to write. You have to have readers.”
For German-speakers, the most accessible collections of Josef Burg’s work are “Ein Verspatetes Echo”, a bilingual German-Yiddish edition (P. Kirchheim, Munich, 1999) and “Sterne Altern Nicht”, in German only (Boldt Literaturverlag, Munich, 2004), both available from www.amazon.de
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