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Bercovici, Israil

(1921–1988), Yiddish poet, playwright, translator, literary historian, and journalist. Israil Bercovici (Yid., Yisroel Berkovitsh) was born in Botoşani to a poor family and had to earn his own living as a teenager. He was self-taught and studied foreign languages on his own, becoming fluent in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Romanian. He also acquired a thorough literary and humanistic cultural foundation independently.

In 1941–1944, Romania entered World War II as an ally of Germany. With anti-Jewish legislation then in force, Bercovici was assigned to hard labor detachments stationed in Moldova and Bessarabia. After the Soviet army occupied Botoşani in April 1944, he worked for the local administration, and also joined the Jewish Democratic Committee, a group closely allied to the Communist Party. When Bercovici moved to Bucharest in 1945, he became a major activist in the Yidisher Kultur Farband (YKUF), a group promoting Yiddish language and culture as well as the left-wing ideology that favored “popular democracy.” The group was also critical of Zionism and the State of Israel.

In 1951, Bercovici graduated from the Higher School of Literature of the Writers Union (he had become a member of the union in 1949). In 1948, he served as an editor—and from 1949 to 1953 as editor in chief—of the Yiddish publication YKUF-bleter. He also worked at the Radio Broadcasting Station of Bucharest, first as a member of the Yiddish editorial board and as an editor in chief. Beginning in 1955 and lasting until his retirement in 1982, Bercovici was the literary secretary of the Jewish State Theater in Bucharest, which he in effect managed with its director, Franz Auerbach. From 1969 to 1972 he also edited the Yiddish and Hebrew sections of the Revista cultului mozaic (Periodical of the Mosaic Religion), published by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania.

Gradually distancing himself from the radical convictions of his younger years, Bercovici dedicated himself to preserve Yiddish culture in Romania and Eastern Europe, this despite dwindling numbers of Jews. He used his talent, aesthetic taste, and organizational skills in the service of the Jewish State Theater, which enjoyed great success in the 1960s and 1970s and toured Germany, Israel, and the United States. It was also thanks to Bercovici that this theater developed into a complex institution, with its own acting school and an ambitious program that disseminated Jewish literary values.

Inspired by the conception of the theater as a center of cultural creativity for the East European Jewish community, Bercovici in 1976 published a monograph on the history of the Jewish theater in Romania, titled Hundert yor yidish teater in Rumenye, 1876–1976 (One Hundred Years of Yiddish Theater in Romania, 1876–1976; a larger and revised version appeared in Romanian). He intended to expand this work into a general history of Jewish theater, but the project was left unfinished.

Bercovici also published articles on Yiddish culture and literature, and he lectured in Romania, Poland, France, Belgium, the United States, Canada, Argentina, and Australia. He wrote several volumes of Yiddish poetry (In di oygn fun a shvartser kave [In the Eyes of a Black Coffee], 1974; Funken iber doyres [Sparks over Generations], 1978; Fliendike oysyes [Flying Letters], 1984), in which critics discovered, in addition to his ability to reinterpret traditional topics in an original way, a deep sensitivity to the miracle of simple things filtered through a sense of irony and intellectual refinement. In 1976, he was awarded a prize by the Writers Union of Romania, which was followed in 1982 by one from the Romanian Academy, and, finally, in 1984, by the Vaysenberg Prize of the World Jewish Congress.

Suggested Reading

Yisrael Berkovitsh (Israil Bercovici), Hundert yor yidish teater in Rumenye, 1876–1976 (Bucharest, 1976); Elvira Grözinger, Die jiddische Kultur im Schatten der Diktaturen: Israil Bercovici—Leben und Werk (Berlin, 2002); Eliyahu Shulman, “Israil Bercovici, loreat fun der Weisenberg-Premye,” Forverts (23 November 1984).



Translated from Romanian by Anca Mircea