Josef Burg, born 1912 in Wyschnyzja, a small town in the Bukovina, at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now belonging to the Ukraine, reached an almost biblical age. He died 2009 at the age of 97 years in the nearby town of Tschernowzy (Czernowitz).
Czernowitz, his home for most of his life, once housed a vibrant German-speaking Jewish community. Czernowitz not only had one of the best universities in Austria-Hungary and an excellent German theater, it had also dozens of newspapers and literary journals. It was, according to the poet Paul Celan who was born there, a place where people and books lived. It is therefore not surprising that Czernowitz was also the home of important German poets like Celan himself, Rose Ausländer, Immanuel Weissglas, Alfred Gong, and several others.
Josef Burg was one of the last of this generation of authors. But contrary to the above mentioned poets, Burg wrote mainly prose – and he wrote exclusively in Yiddish, not German. Yiddish, the traditional language of Eastern European Jews is derived from Medieval German (Mittelhochdeutsch) but has absorbed many Hebrew, Slav, and recently English words. By the educated Western European but also by most Zionist Jews, Yiddish was considered as ‘jargon’, a ‘wrong’ German, a dialect of the uneducated and backward people from the ghettos of Eastern Europe. But this point of view doesn’t do justice to this language – it is rich, colorful, even juicy, and it has produced many eminent writers and an extremely interesting literature. Josef Burg was one of the last authors to write in this language.
In one of his short stories A loschn beazmoj (A language of its own), Burg is describing the surprising reactions of his environment towards Yiddish: as a student in Vienna just before the Anschluss in 1938, he is witnessing how a Jewish student from the East is earning verbal abuse and even open hatred from his Jewish colleagues from Vienna – just because he is addressing them in his native language (which for sure all of his colleagues at least understood).
A short time later the narrator is congratulated by his professor for his excellent German. When the professor asks the foreign student what his native language is, he answers: “Yiddish, Herr Professor!”. The professor, probably a conservative Austrian aristocrat reacts not like the student expects:
I remark that he wants to say something. Maybe the hackneyed “Yiddish is spoilt German”. But he looks at me vividly. Warmth and a certain hesitation are in his gaze. And he says something unexpected. Simple, pure and full of expression: “Yiddish, young friend, is a language of its own.”
(Ich bamerk, as er grejt sich epess sogn. Efscher doss ojssgedroschene “Jidisch is a fardorbn dajtsch!”. Nor er kukt af mir zudringlich. Sein blik is erwoss farzojgn un warem. Un er tut umgericht a sog. Poscher, rejn un saftik: – Jidisch, junger frajnt, is a loschn beazmoj!)
The stories in Josef Burg’s collection of stories A farschpertikter echo (A belated echo) are grouped in three thematic chapters. One is consisting of childhood memories from his poor shtetl and its lumberjacks and rafters. The second deals with the life of the survivors and their attempts to find back to some kind of normality, which for most of them is impossible (Burg for example was the only surviving family member – he lost 50 relatives in the holocaust). And the third is focusing on the time of the persecution.
All of these stories leave a strong impression on the reader. That is partly because of the backdrop of these stories: the genocide. But it is also because of the art of Josef Burg. He leaves everything superficial out and is concentrating on the essential: the fate of the people he is describing, their hopes and fears, their rare joys and frequent sorrows.
In jene teg (In those days) is a good example. On five pages only, Burg is describing the fate of a man he knew in Vienna in 1938. The crippled Galician Jew is like the narrator a regular guest in the Cafe Central, a popular meeting point of intellectuals, writers and artists. The man with the hunchback is one of these luftmentschn that are such a familiar view in many Yiddish stories: someone with an unidentifiable profession (this one seems to be a photographer and a poet, but it is doubtful how he can survive from this almost non-existing income), origin and future, living on the edge of destitution.
The friendly and very modest behavior of this Quasimodo make the narrator curious and he is finally befriending this man. But he is too shy and modest to recite his own poems, as much as the narrator insists. After the Anschluss and the introduction of the “racial” laws in Austria, the Cafe Central has closed its doors for the Jews and on a last occasion before the narrator leaves Austria (he is a foreigner and therefore lucky to find a way out of the mousetrap which Vienna has become for local Jews), he is meeting his friend a last time and his friend is finally giving him a notebook with his poems:
“You wanted my poems? Here you are…Maybe they prove to be useful for you…for sure not for me anymore.”
(“ir hot gewolt majne lider?…Ot hot ir sej…Efscher wet ir sej kenen ojssnuzn…Ich – schojn sicher nit.”)
Some years later, the narrator learns about the fate of his friend from another emigrant: the poet was hiding in a chest, but found while sleeping by the SS. They buried him alive. The manuscript with the poems is handed over to a Jewish publisher in Prague who is later also to become a victim of the Nazis. The notebook is lost without a trace.
“Maybe one day you will remember me!”
(“Efscher wet ir amol mich dermonen!”)
Josef Burg remembered him. And we need to be grateful for this work of a great writer.
Josef Burg: A фаршпэтиктэр эхо: дэрцейлунген, новелес, фарцейхенунген, Sovetskij pisatel, Moscow 1990
Josef Burg: A farschpetikter echo / Ein verspätetes Echo, P. Kirchheim, München 1999
Translations from Yiddish to English in this blog by Thomas Hübner
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