Broken Heart / Broken Wholeness: The Post-Holocaust Plea for Jewish Reconstruction of the Soviet Yiddish Writer Der Nister

Broken Heart / Broken Wholeness: The Post-Holocaust Plea for Jewish Reconstruction of the Soviet Yiddish Writer Der Nister


Ber Kotlerman
with a foreword by Zvi Gitelman

Series: Jews of Russia & Eastern Europe and Their Legacy
ISBN: 9781618115300 (hardcover)
Pages: 300 pp.
Publication Date: March 2017

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In the summer of 1947, three years before his death in a labor camp hospital, one of the most significant Soviet Yiddish writers Der Nister (Pinkhas Kahanovitsh, 1884–1950) made a trip from Moscow to Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region in the Russian Far East. He traveled there on a special migrant train, together with a thousand Holocaust survivors. The present study examines this journey as an original protest against the conformism of the majority of Soviet Jewish activists. In his travel notes, Der Nister described the train as the “modern Noah’s ark,” heading “to put an end to the historical silliness.” This rhetoric paraphrasing Nietzsche’s “historical sickness,” challenged the Jewish history in the Diaspora, which “broke” the people's mythical “wholeness.” Der Nister formulated his vision of a post-Holocaust Jewish reconstruction more clearly in his previously unknown notes (“Birobidzhan Manifesto”), the last that have reached us from Der Nister’s creative legacy, which are being discussed for the first time in this book. Without their own territory, he wrote, the Jews were like “a soul without a body or a body without a soul, and in either case, always a cripple.” Records of the fabricated investigation case against the “anti-Soviet nationalist grouping in Birobidzhan” reveal details about Der Nister’s thoughts and real acts. Both the records and the manifesto are being published here for the first time.

Ber Kotlerman is Associate Professor at the Department of Literature of the Jewish People, Bar Ilan University, where in 2011–14 he served as Academic Director of the Rena Costa Center for Yiddish Studies. His fields of interest include Jewish history in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Far East, Yiddish and Hebrew literature, Jewish theater and cinema. He is the author of Disenchanted Tailor in “Illusion”: Sholem Aleichem behind the Scenes of Early Jewish Cinema (Bloomington, IN, 2014), The Cultural World of Soviet Jewry (Raanana, 2014), In Search of Milk and Honey: The Theater of “Soviet Jewish Statehood” (Bloomington, IN, 2009), and Bauhaus in Birobidzhan (Tel Aviv, 2008); the editor of Mizrekh: Jewish Studies in the Far East, 2 vols. (Frankfurt am Main, 2009 and 2011), Yiddish Theater: Literature, Culture, and Nationalism (Ramat Gan, 2009); and the co-editor of Around the Point: Studies in Jewish Literature and Culture in Multiple Languages (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2014)


Finally, Der Nister Gets a Gravestone by Ber Kotlerman and Alexandra Poljan in Forward (September 7, 2017)

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Kotlerman’s book not only vividly recounts Der Nister’s experiences in Birobidzhan but also provides the first English translations of the powerful, moving essays he composed while travelling on the eshelon from Vinnytsia, as well as a substantial excerpt from the hitherto unexamined six thick volumes of Russian transcripts of the subsequent trumped-up ‘Birobidzhan Affair,’ in which Der Nister, Emiot, Kerler, and others were accused of being Jewish conspirators. … [Kotlerman] clearly demonstrates that Der Nister went from being a reclusive, secretive symbolist who kept as far from politics as he could to being a fearless champion of Soviet Jewish nationalism, while taking on an increasingly public role as a kind of secular tzaddik, who blesses, consoles, and advises all who come to him for counsel.
— Allan Nadler, Drew University, Jewish Review of Books (Summer 2019)
This book makes a contribution to the study of minorities in general, and Jews in particular, during the early years of the Soviet Union. It is also of use for those interested in issues related to the relationship between writers and Soviet authorities in this period.
— Ayse Dietrich, International Journal of Russian Studies

Table of Contents

Foreword by Zvi Gitelman
Note on the Translation and Transliteration
Acronyms and Abbreviations


Part One: Der Nister’s Journey from Moscow to Birobidzhan
A Wedding on a Migrant Train
Der Nister’s Images and Impressions
      “With the Second Echelon”
      “With the New Settlers to Birobidzhan”
A Man Dieth in a Tent
Russian-Jewish “Hybridization”
Comfort Ye My People
Real Action

Part Two: Investigation Case No. 68
Der Nister Affair
Accused in the Case
Detention Order: BUZI MILLER, June 6, 1949, Birobidzhan
Interrogation Records
      Defendant HESHL RABINKOV, July 23, 1949, Khabarovsk
      Defendant BUZI MILLER, August 5, 1949, Khabarovsk
      Defendant BUZI MILLER, August 29, 1949, Khabarovsk
      Defendant BUZI MILLER, September 17, 1949, Khabarovsk
      Defendant ITSIK FEFER, June 30, 1949, Moscow
      Defendant BUZI MILLER, October 1949, Khabarovsk
      Defendant BUZI MILLER and Defendant HESHL RABINKOV, October 28, 1949, Khabarovsk (Confrontation)
      Defendant LUBA VASSERMAN, July 12, 1949, Khabarovsk
      Arrestee GRIGORI FRID, April 4, 1938, Minsk (Testimony)
      Defendant LUBA VASSERMAN, August 17, 1949, Khabarovsk
      Defendant SHIMEN SINIAVSKI-SINDELEVICH, October 25, 1949, Khabarovsk
      Defendant FAIVISH ARONES, November 21, 1949, Khabarovsk
      Defendant FAIVISH ARONES, November [22–29?], 1949, Khabarovsk
      Defendant FAIVISH ARONES and Witness ALEKSANDR DRISIN, November 29, 1949, Khabarovsk (Confrontation)
Resubmission of the Indictment: Defendant BUZI MILLER, December 15, 1949, Khabarovsk
The Sentence: BUZI MILLER, May 31, 1950, Moscow (Excerpt)
The Early Release: BUZI MILLER, December 27, 1955, Moscow, (Excerpt)

Appendix: Der Nister’s “Birobidzhan Manifesto” (Yiddish)