My Lexicon - Mikhoel Burshtin (Bursztyn)
Born in Plonsk, 1896. Lived in Warsaw. Since 1939--Soviet Union.
When you pick up a lexicon or literary anthology and leaf through the index, reading some biographical information about those therein described, you will surely and always notice that almost every writer has completed secondary education (mitlbildung). More than half have gone through higher education (hoykhe bildung), and the exceptions, those writers without any official education, stand in stark contrast to the majority. The exact opposite is true for us Yiddish writers, at least until recently. Despite this, it is often said that the Jewish people have not had an illiterate for thousands of years, every Jew can at least read the prayer book (yeder yid ken lekolhapokhes davenen). And every Yiddish writer at least went to kheyder. And kheyder, too, is a kind of high school (gimnazyum), yeshiva--a university. Perhaps it is so, but the yeshiva and the kheyder are agoraphobic (veltfremde) schools, and they cultivate a lopsided intelligence--for there is no input from the secular, the worldly.
Although the golden age of Yiddish literature had as its leaders such educated men as Peretz and Mendele--Mendele understood the natural sciences better than ten doctors--they nonetheless lacked official degrees--and the literature they molded tended to attract simple people. The official intelligentsia preferred the vaunted halls of other literatures.
Only recently has this changed; or, more precisely: M. Burshtin has only recently changed it--he is a writer of the contemporary style.
Reading one of M. Burshtin’s books, I always get the impression that their events are set behind a scrim so that the voices will arrive to the reader already muffled. Even when cannons fire in his books, and his most recent book is a constant bombardment (Goyrl (Fate) is a war novel, after all), it still feels as if the cannonballs are wrapped in cotton padding. What is the source of this impression? Perhaps it is his characters, they are always (so far, at any rate) people with one foot out the door, people who have already said farewell to the lion’s share of their lives.
Perhaps this is a personal impression based on the personality of the author. He is such a modest, quiet man, like an aristocrat brought low (nobeler yoyred) in a dingy hospital for the poor. This comparison is a bit brutal and it is very aggressive--so I will offer it here together with an apology, but I will not renounce it.
Burshtin is blond, gentle, quiet, and a highschool teacher. He sometimes visited my office in Warsaw. He would sit there for a quarter of an hour before you even noticed him, then he would give you a quarter of an hour to talk to other people, and only after you talking to him for another quarter of an hour would the fact that he was the author of “iber di khurves fun ployne” (Over the Ruins of Ployne) emerge from his thick quiet. That book was his first decisive and successful step into Yiddish literature. It is always a coup when a writer resembles their work.
And that was my impression of him until I properly talked the matter over with myself.
Although someone speaks quietly--very, very quietly. As quiet as the stretching of a string...
And although the tension in the string grew with every line of dialogue--of the guest, of the man he visited--the two of us stretching the string were certain that it would not break.
Burshtin knows the limits of his art, and he knows how to live within them.
His arrival in Yiddish literature did not happen in the prime of his youth. Perhaps he had already tasted the vaunted halls of Gentile editors--and perhaps--and this is more plausible--he had made it to the other side of that familiar trial (protses), of wanting to escape his own people, his own language--in the halls of his own soul. But the sudden appearance of M. Burshtin types among their fellow Jews (amkho) was characteristic of the last few years before the Second World War. They were brought in by a wind, blowing them back with frost and fury, back from foreign nations. And the wind howled: home (aheym) --
And it wasn’t great at home. And that was expressed in my conversation with M. Burshtin. It was characteristic--and that is why it warrants so many words. His long-drawn face--without a smile, his gray-green eyes, never wanting to meet yours--and in his speech there was always a sense of complaint against his new friends, of superiority over us--which will now remain forever. This one has no sense of language, that one hasn’t a bit of sense, the third is talentless, the fourth tactless, the fifth ought to write poems, and the sixth--nothing but dramas. And everything-- so quiet, so, so quiet.
If a writer resembles their protagonists--and here I am speaking only of Burshtin’s very first work--that is a coup.