Seven Tales of Jewish Life Before, During, and After Nazi Occupation

Der Nister

translated from the Yiddish by Erik Butler
Northwestern University Press 2011 [1969]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2014
The stories in Regrowth are set before and during the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe, the murder of most of its Jews and the destruction of its Jewish communities. Written between 1942 and 1946, they capture the raw immediacy of events that have just happened or are still happening.

Most of the stories are broadly biographical, following an individual from childhood through to death. Two of them have female protagonists. Her father having paid the penalty for resigning from the ghetto's Jewish Council, the young Flora eventually escapes and joins a partisan group. And the widow and matriarch Rive Yosl Buntsies is one of the forces that holds her community together, providing a moral centre both in the good times and then as destruction falls on them.

The other protagonists are mostly scholars of one kind or another, with the earlier parts of the stories covering their efforts to find a place for themselves in society. Meylekh Magnus' life has its ups and downs, but he is lucky enough to be protected by his supporters right to the end, even finding a disciple to publish his work after his death. And "An Acquaintance of Mine" is the story of a more marginal scholar whose obsession with one of his pupils, a girl from a bourgeois family, casts a pall over his whole life.

There is a recurring focus on relationships between parents and children. Meyer Landshaft's attempt to protect his favourite daughter proves his undoing. And "Regrowth" itself is about the adoption of orphans by a widow and a widower who have lost their own children. (Der Nister himself — real name Pinchus Kahanovich — lost a daughter in 1942 in the siege of Leningrad.)

The story climaxes often come in incidents of humiliation and reactions to those, most notably in the short "Heshl Ansheles". But the responses of Der Nister's characters span the gamut of heroism and compromise, resignation and resistance, defiance and withdrawal, and he makes no judgements about that. In places they have a hint of stereotype about them, but they draw on a diverse array of models and there are always some surprises to them, with hidden depths to Der Nister's portraits.

This edition comes with a useful afterword "Der Nister and the Art of Concealment", providing both some broad context and some analysis of themes, but the stories can stand by themselves.

May 2014

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%T Regrowth
%S Seven Tales of Jewish Life Before, During, and After Nazi Occupation
%A Nister, Der
%M Yiddish
%F Butler, Erik
%I Northwestern University Press
%D 2011 [1969]
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9780810127364
%P 300pp