DER NISTER (November 1, 1884-June 4, 1950)
The pseudonym of Pinkhes (Pinye) Kahanovitsh (Kaganovitsh), he was born in Berdichev, Ukraine. On one side he descended from scholars and mystics, and on the other side from simple village Jews, toilers. He studied in religious primary school and in synagogue study hall. He was under the firm influences of Hassidism and later became 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. 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 beginner the “attention in literary circles of this original, though immature, style and daring quality of the motifs” (Zalmen Reyzen). He later published a series of 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. At that time he also published two other books, Hekher fun der erd (Higher than the Earth) (Warsaw, 1910) and Gezang un gebet (Song and prayer) (Kiev, 1912), in which the author expressed the intention to introduce into Yiddish fiction parts of Jewish mysticism.
Covers of Hekher fun der erd (left) and Gezang un gebet (right)
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 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—with L. Kvitko, D. Bergelson, Perets Markish, and others who had spent a bit of time abroad. From that point in time, Der Nister published numerous significant works, of which Di mishpokhe mashber (The family Mashber) later became a foundational work in Yiddish literature.
Cover of Der mishpokhe mashber
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.” At the start of WWII, he was evacuated to Tashkent, and he wrote a series of war stories which were included in his collections. After the war he returned and settled in Moscow, where he continued work. He made a trip to Birobidzhan, from which he sent enthusiastic reportage pieces. He also wrote numerous, beautiful children’s stories and also translated some ten volumes by famous writers. In late 1948 the destruction of Yiddish culture did not avoid him. He was arrested with all the other Yiddish writers. He allegedly greeted the police with: “I have long waited for you and am prepared to share in the destiny of my comrades and friends.” 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, 1910), 54 pp.; Gezang un gebet (Song and prayer) (Kiev, 1912), 84 pp.; Mayselekh in ferzn (Stories in verse) (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 (From my estates) (Kharkov, 1929), 231 pp.; Dray hoyptshtet (Kharkov, 1934), 272 pp.; Di mishpokhe mashber, part 1 (Moscow, 1939), 412 pp.; Korbones, dertseylungen (Victims, stories) (Moscow, 1943), 72 pp.; Di mishpokhe mashber (New York: IKUF, 1943, 1948), 440 pp.; Der zeyde mitn eynikl (The grandfather with the grandchild) (New York, 1943), 62 pp.; Heshl ansheles, dertseylung vegn eynem a fal inem itsikn okupirtn poyln (Heshl, son of Anshel, a story of a case in contemporary occupied Poland) (New York, 1943), 30 pp.; Inem okupirtn poyln (dray faln) (In occupied Poland, three cases) (Buenos Aires, 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, 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 (Petrograd, 1917), 31 pp.; Mayselekh (Stories) (Kiev, 1918), 48 pp.; Mayselekh in ferzn (Kiev, 1919), 48 pp.; Dray mayselekh (Three stories) (Kharkov, 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, 1939), 47 pp. And, items reworked for children: Kinder-dertseylungen (Children’s stories) (Kharkov, 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, 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, 1919), 36 pp.; Andersen, Di vilde shvanen (The wild swans) (Kiev, 1919), 44 pp.; Andersen, Andersons mayselekh (Andersen’s stories) (Warsaw, 1921), 93 pp.; Aleksandr Arosev, Ersht nit lang (Not long ago) (Kiev, 1927), 135 pp.; Aleksey Tolstoy, Vasili sutshkov (Vasily Suchkov) (Kiev, 1927), 65 pp.; Lev Tolstoy, Khadzhi murat (Hadji Murat) (Kiev, 1928), 184 pp.; Émile Zola, Koylngreber (Coal miner [original: Germinal]) (Kiev, 1930), 414 pp.; Ivan Kulyk, Vos hot getrofn mit vasil rolenko? (What happened to Vasyl Rolenko?) (Kharkov-Kiev, 1933), 71 pp.; A. Razumovskii, Der revkom in vistenish (The revolutionary committee in the wasteland) (Kharkov, 1934), 212 pp.; Jack London, Di shtim fun blut (The sound of blood [original: The Call of the Wild]) (Kiev, 1935), 206 pp.; Ivan S. Turgenev, Mumu (Mumu) (Odessa, 1935), 85 pp. In Sovetish heymland (Soviet homeland) in Moscow (January-February 1964), there was published a work that Der Nister left unpublished: the novel Fun finftn yor (From the year 1905), which he wrote in the late 1930s. The literary scholar Leyzer Podryatshik prepared the manuscript for publication. Ber Borokhov was one of the heroes of the novel—he is called “Borekh-Ber.”
“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 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 Der 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 Der 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 Der 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.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 2, with a bibliography; Sh. Roznfeld, in Di tsukunft (New York) (June 1914), pp. 662-67; A. Zaretski, in Shriftn (Writings) (Kiev, 1928), pp. 130-47; Khatskl Dunets, Far magnitboyen fun der literatur (On the great works of literature) (Minsk, 1932), pp. 29-30; A. Abtshuk, in Di royte velt (Kiev) (May 1932), pp. 147-48; Y. Dobrushin, in Literarishe bleter (Warsaw) (March 19, 1937); Dobrushin, in Eynikeyt (Moscow) (June 28, 1942); A. A. Roback, The Story of Yiddish Literature (New York, 1940), pp. 239-40; Moyshe Kats, in Morgn-frayhayt (New York) (September 19, 1943); Meylekh Ravitsh, in Di tsukunft (July 1944); Ravitsh, in Keneder odler (Montreal) (September 20, 1948; June 14, 1964); Y. Y. Sigal, in Keneder odler (December 15, 1944; October 5, 1953); Y. Emyot, in Eynikeyt (July 8, 1947), republished in Di goldene keyt (Tel Aviv) 43 (1962); Emyot, In mitele yorn (In middle age) (New York, 1963), pp. 7-14; Emyot, in Forverts (New York) (December 29, 1963); P. Novik, Eyrope tsvishn milkhome un sholem (Europe between war and peace) (New York, 1948), p. 350; Gitl Mayzil, in Di goldene keyt 2 (1949); Mayzil, in Al hamishmar (Tel Aviv) (Sivan 21 [= June 9], 1958); Y. Botoshanski, in Di naye tsayt (Buenos Aires) 120 (1950); D. Tsharni (Charney), Vilne (Vilna) (Buenos Aires, 1951), p. 187; Dr. A. Mukdoni, in the anthology Lite (Lithuania) (Buenos Aires, 1951), pp. 1080-88; Mukdoni, in Di tsukunft (November 1957); Shmuel Niger, in Tog (New York) (March 23, 1941; March 30, 1941); Niger, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (New York) (October 1965; November 1965); Niger, in Zamlbikher (New York) 8 (1952), pp. 64-84; Niger, Yidishe shrayber in sovet-rusland (Yiddish writers in Soviet Russia) (New York, 1958), pp. 368-80, 473-74; Elye (Elias) Shulman, “Vegn di likvidirte yidishe shraybers in rusland” (On the liquidated Yiddish writers in Russia), Fraye Arbeter-shtime (New York) (July 18, 1952); Bal Makhshoves, Geklibene verk (Selected works) (New York: L. M. Stein Library, 1953), pp. 109-10; Y. Gilboa, comp., Geḥalim loḥashot (Whispering embers) (Tel Aviv, 1954); Ben-Tsien Kats, in Hadoar (New York) (Sivan 16 [= May 27], 1956); Dr. Shloyme Bikl, in Di goldene keyt 29 (1957); Bikl, Shrayber fun mayn dor (Writers of my generation) (New York, 1958), pp. 287-304; Bikl, in Di tsukunft (October 1962); M. Elboym, in Forverts (January 13, 1958; August 17, 1960); Sheyne-Miriam Broderzon, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (June 23, 1957); Y. Yanosovitsh, Mit yidishe shrayber in rusland (With Yiddish writers in Russia) (Buenos Aires, 1959), pp. 213-49; N. Mayzil, Der nister, zayn lebn un shafn (Der Nister, his life and work) (New York, 1956), 30 pp.; N. Mayzil, Dos yidishe shafn un der yidisher shrayber in sovetnfarband (Jewish creation and the Jewish worker in the Soviet Union) (New York, 1959), see index; Chone Shmeruk, in Molad (Tel Aviv) (1959); Shmeruk, comp., Pirsumim yehudiim babrit-hamoatsot, 1917-1961 (Jewish publications in the Soviet Union, 1917-1961) (Jerusalem, 1961), see index; Hersh Smolyar, in Yidishe kultur (New York) (April 1959); Y. Shternberg, in Sovetsh heymland (Moscow) 3 (November-December 1961), p. 123; Y. Rapaport, in Di goldene keyt 43 (1962); Al. Pomerants, Di sovetishe haruge malkhes (The [Jewish writers] murdered by the Soviet government) (Buenos Aires, 1962), pp.25, 116, 189, 427, 487-88; B. Ts. Goldberg, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (October 28, 1963); K. A. Bertini, in Haarets (Tel Aviv) (January 31, 1964); L. Hes, in Morgn-frayhayt (March 8, 1964); Kh. Holtsman, in Al hamishmar (April 17, 1964); Sh. Belis, Portretn un problemen (Portraits and problems) (Warsaw, 1964); Y. Lvovski, in Sovetish heymland 6 (1964), pp. 139-44; Dov Sadan, Toyern un tirn, eseyen un etyudn (Gates and doorways, essays and studies) (Tel Aviv, 1979), pp. 43-68.
[Additional information from: Berl Kagan, comp., Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers) (New York, 1986), col. 391; and Chaim Beider, Leksikon fun yidishe shrayber in ratn-farband (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers in the Soviet Union), ed. Boris Sandler and Gennady Estraikh (New York: Congress for Jewish Culture, Inc., 2011), pp. 249-53.]
 Translator’s note. Di mishpokhe mashber translated into English by Leonard Wolf as The Family Mashber (New York: New York Review Books, 2008), 688 pp. There are also French, Hebrew, Spanish, and Russian translations. (JAF)
 Translator’s note. Translated into English by Erik Butler as Regrowth: Seven Tales of Jewish Life before, during, and after Nazi Occupation (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2011), 300 pp. (JAF)