“The end,” declares a poet to a prostitute on the sidewalks of interwar Berlin, “isn’t interesting, it’s ugly, disgusting.” But the poet is boring and broke and the girl isn’t listening, so it doesn’t matter that he’s talking about his poem on “the Truth of Berlin,” or that he hasn’t yet written a word. The end hovers everywhere over Dovid Bergelson’s Berlin stories, translated from Yiddish and collected as Shadows of Berlin. Awful ironies and bad ends abounded for Bergelson, who fled Ukraine for Germany to escape the pogroms, then left Berlin in 1934 only to be killed 18 years later on Stalin’s orders, part of a purge of Yiddish intellectual culture by the regime Bergelson had hoped would be its salvation.
Shadows of Berlin is set in the breach between disasters, when an exile community of Russian Jews was briefly permitted to thrive in Germany. It’s a familiar world seen from an unfamiliar angle, Walter Benjamin’s peripatetic Weimar Berlin with the smells of the shtetl stuck in its nostrils. In one deeply creepy tale, a drunken cossack, who years before had “plundered and massacred Jews” throughout Ukraine, listens lustfully as his buxom landlady tells him with pride how her dog killed an infant out of jealousy. In another, a self-professed “Jewish terrorist” finds himself in the same rooming house as the infamous pogrom leader who murdered his grandfather, but can find no one to help him avenge his death. Traces of Kafka crop up (a hunger artist fasts in a café), as do lonely boarders, an unhappy woman’s notebook discovered in a drawer, and all the contents of an exile’s valise: nostalgia, solitude, poverty, and regret. Even in translation, the rhythms of Bergelson’s Yiddish ring through the repeated refrain: “It was too bad . . . much too bad. . . . “