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  • Writer's pictureCorbin Allardice

My Lexicon - Herz Bergner

Herz Bergner

1907--Redim (Radymno), a shtetl in Galicia; 1915-1918--Vienna; 1923--Warsaw; 1938--Australia.

My flesh and blood brother, fourteen years younger than me. We had another brother, a year older than me, erased his name from the book of life by his own hand, in 1921. That’s all of us. All three of us were born to redeem ourselves through the word. Our older brother wrote but he could not find his language and could not therefore redeem himself through it. He wrote in Hebrew and Polish. He did not know Yiddish--as was the style among the intelligentsia in pre-war Galicia. Later, he sought to express himself in painting and achieved a great deal, but he was not satisfied and then he was gone. His name was Moyshe. Herz, too, spent years struggling with form until he discovered--until he overcame (durkhgerisn)--his first and perfect novella “der tate un der zun” (Father and Son)--it’s a bit of a tradition among Yiddish writers for novellas about fathers and sons to lead to success...for my brother’s sake, I won’t mention all his titles here...he still has a long road before him, he has only overcome the first barriers, only taken his first step.

I remember: this was when Herz was eight years old. In Vienna. Our parents were then Flichtlinge (refugees) from the war. In 1915, Herz noticed how people were talking about my poems, poems which I myself had written...he sat down in a corner and penned his own rhyming verse in German. Drunk on achievement and first success--he was a troublemaker to begin with--he jumped up on the table and, as if the boy had lost his mind, began declaiming his creation. In the process he knocked over all the dishes, he would have overturned the kerosine lamp and started a fire, if mother hadn’t been there.

I can still see that panicked scene so clearly.

For better or worse, the word is our fate. Why exactly has this fate loomed over the provincial, petit-bourgeois family Bergner? Who can interpret the fates?

Aside from his first “poem,” Herz Bergner had the good fortune not to write any other poems. His vocation (bashtimung) is prose--naturalist prose.



Our family is a strange family. The three brothers above all. We love each other fiercely--but we almost never see each other. We yearn for each other as if we are being held together by iron pliers--but when we meet it is as if the pliers have come open, undone. I once spoke to Herz about our brother Moyshe. He lived twenty-eight and a half years. He left our father’s house in 1910--one those first heroic pioneers in Eretz-Israel. As if he had once dreamed him up, all Herz remembers is his face--and something about throwing an apple. Nothing else.

But if there was ever a shred of genius in our family--it was Moyshe’s. He, the dead man, is our moral backbone. Although this is true--Herz knows little about it. It is in him. In the respiration of his blood, in the electrons of his soul. (Science--forgive me for borrowing a few choice terms).

The first part of this text was written in 1936, the second in 1944. I have been drawing so many faces, painting them on these pages you are reading--but I cannot paint my brother’s face. More than ten years since I last saw him. He is blonde with sharp and stubborn wrinkles; our father’s face was thoroughly Semitic and our mother’s thoroughly Slavic and Herz’s face is not a synthesis of the two, but a conflict, a collision of two natures…

Herz won’t write me for six months. Suddenly a letter comes like a stone, then another letter, another stone, and then the quiet returns. He blames the world for so much--blames me too, his thousand-first complaint--why do I not blame him back…

No blame, but I make a demand of him. He is a decade and a half younger than me and he must live to write what I cannot. In me there is but the desire to write prose--in him, the talent. Like a mosquito, I want more and more from him.. I read a perfect story of his and I want a novel. May I live long enough to demand a trilogy, more, more, more. Our eldest brother Moyshe left us the reflection of his genius as an inheritance and the unrest of his soul as a will. The lines we write are like the serpents around Laocoön.

The only person in the entire world, in my entire life who I have hit is Herz. He was nine, Our sentimental father was serving in the Military; daybreak, crying, cold. In around a month I had to go serve. When I got off the train, Herz was standing on a mountain of pillows, refugee’s pillows, screaming “Father left, you’re going to leave and I will remain, the king of the house.”...I pulled the “king” down from the pillow mountain and hit him and blood issued from his stubborn, little nose. Silently, he smeared the blood over his entire face and I wept, but no tears could wash away the one blow, the only blow I have ever dealt to human flesh.


Is the above literarily characteristic for me? Is it at least personally characteristic? No. But tell me, esteemed reader, were you in my place, would you write differently? Perhaps these are lines from a diary, perhaps they are still more intimate: lines from an unwritten letter from one brother to another, whom the one loves with a fateful love and in whose talent for prose the one believes, and for whose achievements the one is still waiting: to grow more and more, to climb higher and higher.


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