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Berger, Lili

(1916–1996), Yiddish novelist and critic; resistance fighter. Lili Berger (née List; “Lili Berger” is a pseudonym) was born in Malkin, in the Białystok region of Poland. Brought up in an Orthodox Jewish family, she attended Hebrew school for three years and also received a secular education at the Polish Jewish secondary school in Warsaw. In 1933, Berger moved to Brussels and studied pedagogy. Three years later she joined the growing number of Polish Jewish refugees in Paris and soon married Louis Gronowski, a leading figure in the Jewish section of the Communist Party.

Before World War II, Berger worked for various Yiddish journals, including the daily Di naye prese, the weekly Di vokh, and the monthly Afsnay. She also taught at Yiddish supplementary schools. Her professional interest in pedagogy later inspired her to write about renowned Jewish educators; these figures appear in several short stories, a play about Janusz Korczak (Der letster tog [The Last Day]; 1978) and a novel (Nisht farendikte bletlekh [Unfinished Pages]; 1982) about Bundist leader Ester Frumkin (Khaye Malke Lifshits).

During the Nazi occupation of France, Berger and her husband, like many other Jewish Communists in France, were active in the Jewish resistance; she herself led a small autonomous cell within the Communist Party. From 1942, Berger was head of the National Movement against Racism (MNCR). In 1949, she returned to her native Poland, and in Warsaw published her first three books: a collection of short stories, a collection of essays, and a novel. The short stories, titled Fun haynt un nekhtn (From Today and Yesterday; 1965), drew predominantly on Berger’s own experiences of the war in France and its aftermath in Eastern Europe. In Eseyen un skitsn (Essays and Sketches; 1965) she criticized works of Polish, French, Swiss, and Yiddish fiction and reflected on the role of literature.

Berger passionately believed in the dream of Jewish reconstruction in the Communist state. Her ideological conviction outlived that of many others, and she did not leave Poland until the late 1960s. “Di papirene oytsres” (Paper Treasures), written immediately upon her return to France in 1968 and published in the collection Ekhos fun a vaytn nekhtn (Echoes of a Remote Past; 1993), is a thinly disguised autobiographical account of a writer having to choose a small number of manuscripts to take with him when he is forced to leave Poland. The story, while focusing on dilemmas faced by an individual, powerfully reveals Berger’s own mixed emotions toward that historical moment when the curtain was about to fall on Jewish culture in Poland.

Berger’s literary career gained great momentum after she settled in France for the second time. Though she published two books in Polish, most of her writing was in Yiddish. There she produced three novels, several collections of short stories and essays, a play, and translations into Yiddish from French and Polish. She also contributed widely to Yiddish magazines and participated in Parisian Yiddish circles until her death.

Suggested Reading

Louis Brunot, Le dernier grand soir: Un juif de Pologne (Paris, 1980); Berl Kagan, “Berger, Lili,” in Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers, cols. 104–106 (New York, 1986); Irena Klepfisz, “Queens of Contradiction: A Feminist Introduction to Yiddish Women Writers,” in Found Treasures: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers, ed. Frieda Forman, Ethel Raicus, Sarah Silberstein Swartz, and Margie Wolfe, pp. 21–58 (Toronto, 1994); Annette Wieviorka, Ils étaient juifs, résistants, communistes (Paris, 1986).