Josef Burg, Who Wrote About Jewish Life, Dies at 97
By DENNIS HEVESI
Josef Burg, who as one of the last Yiddish authors in Eastern Europe preserved vestiges of a once-vibrant culture in fictional reflections on Jewish life, from the ghettos of the cities to the remote shtetl villages of the Carpathian Mountains, died on Aug. 10 in Chernovitsi, the city where he grew up in what is now Ukraine. He was 97.
His death, which was not widely reported in English until last week, was confirmed by Itzik Gottesman, associate editor of The Forward, a weekly published in Yiddish and English in New York, who knew Mr. Burg. Republished in German in recent years, his early works found a new audience in Germany and Austria and won him a wide following.
“Josef Burg was the last Yiddish writer from the generation before the Holocaust to remain in the Ukraine,” Mr. Gottesman said on Thursday, “and he valiantly strove to perpetuate Yiddish language and culture there.”
“His writings,” Mr. Gottesman continued, “capture the multifaceted, multicultural history of the Jews in the Bukovina region during most of the 20th century and reflect the unique journey of a Yiddish writer in a city with fewer and fewer Jews.” In an interview with The New York Times in 1992, Mr. Burg called himself “the last of the Mohicans of the great Yiddish tradition in Czernowitz” — referring to his city as it was known when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Although Yiddish was his beloved mother tongue, Mr. Burg was fluent in the spectrum of languages that reflected the war-torn history of his homeland. After World War I, the Bukovina region was ceded to Romania. At the end of World War II, northern Bukovina, including Chernovitsi, its capital city, was annexed by the Soviet Union.
For centuries, Chernovitsi had been a focal point for German and Yiddish literature, theater and higher education. Until 1941, more than a third of its population was Jewish. Then the Nazis arrived. Though no other members of his family survived, Mr. Burg escaped to the Soviet Union, where he lived for nearly 20 years.
“Burg was a very unusual figure because he was an embodiment of several cultures,” Gennady Estraikh, a professor of Yiddish studies at New York University, said on Thursday. “His first language, of course, was Yiddish, but he also knew Hebrew, and his German was excellent. Then he lived for decades in a Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking environment. He combined all those influences in his work.”
The author of more than a dozen books and many more short stories published in periodicals, Mr. Burg wrote of the daily lives of his neighbors — their virtues, their foibles, their toil at sometimes dangerous jobs — often with a gentle irony and a poetic touch.
One of his first books, “On the Cheremosh River,” tells of lumberjacks and river rafters ferrying timber downstream through the eastern Carpathians; his father was a rafter. Mr. Burg often wrote about life in mountains, about Jews and non-Jews.
Josef Burg was born on May 30, 1912, in Vizhniza, a town near Chernovitsi. The family moved to the city when Josef was 12. He was educated in Jewish schools and then at a teachers’ college. His first story was published in the Yiddish newspaper Chernovitser Bleter.
In 1935, Mr. Burg went to Vienna to study German, while continuing to write. That stay ended in 1938, when Austria was annexed to Germany and Mr. Burg fled back to Chernovitsi. Two years later, Stalin ordered the Red Army to occupy the Bukovina region. When the German army invaded in 1941, Mr. Burg escaped again, into the Ural Mountains of the Soviet Union.
Mr. Burg’s father had died before the Germans arrived. His brother was killed in the Spanish Civil War.
“My mother was murdered by the Germans, buried alive,” he said in 1992. “I thought the stones would cry under my feet when I returned.”
Drafted into the Red Army, Mr. Burg spent the war years in forced labor because, as a Jewish intellectual, he was considered too great a security risk to stay in the army. After the war, he remained in Russia, working mostly as a teacher. In 1959, he returned again to Chernovitsi, where he revived Chernovitser Bleter, the newspaper that had published his first short stories. A collection of stories about his years in the Urals, “Life Goes On,” was published in Moscow in 1980.
Mr. Burg never expected to see his early books in print again. But a letter arrived in 1989 from a graduate student in Vienna asking permission to translate his first Yiddish novels into German. The researcher had found single copies of his works in Austria’s national archives. They were published again and became a phenomenon.
“He was making very little money, and all of a sudden the German literary world discovers him in the 1990s and many of his works are translated into German,” Mr. Gottesman said. “He becomes a literary star in Germany and Austria.”
Mr. Burg published several new books in his later years. In “Misguided Wanderings: An Eastern Jewish Life,” he described his disillusionment with life in the Soviet Union. His last book, “A Piece of Dry Bread,” told of a survivor of the Babi Yar massacre of more than 33,000 Jews outside of Kiev in 1941.
Israel awarded Mr. Burg its Segal Prize for Yiddish writing in 1992. In May, he received Austria’s Theodor Kramer Prize. A street in Vizhniza, his birthplace, is named for Mr. Burg.
Asked, in 1992, why he returned again and again to his homeland, he said: “I love Bukovina, the rustle of its woods, the river that sang my lullaby. I cannot be other than myself.”