Di yidishe gas (The Jewish Street), no. 1 (1993), Moscow. (YIVO)

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Vergelis, Arn

(1918–1999), Yiddish poet, novelist, and editor. Born in Lubar, Ukraine, Arn (or Aron) Vergelis received a secondary Yiddish education in Birobidzhan, where his family lived from 1932. He was noted as a local talent in 1934 when his poems began to appear in the newspaper Birobidzhaner shtern (Birobidzhan Star) and the almanac Forpost (Outpost). Upon graduating from a Yiddish school in 1936, he was sent to Moscow to continue his education at the Yiddish department of the Pedagogical Institute. Vergelis graduated in 1940—the same year in which his first book was published. That year, he also joined the Writers Union, and was drafted into the Russian army.

Vergelis served in the army until the end of World War II, when he returned to Moscow. In addition to heading the Yiddish radio program for audiences abroad, he became secretary of the Yiddish section of the Writers Union and joined the editorial board of the literary almanac Heymland (Homeland). After Vergelis published his book Birobidzhaner dor (Birobidzhan Generation; 1948), Shmuel Halkin praised him as a “full-blooded poet,” although Halkin found the “rational sobriety” of some of the poems puzzling. Following the suppression of Yiddish culture in the late 1940s, Vergelis briefly edited a Moscow factory newspaper.

Vergelis joined the Communist Party in 1955. His Russian book Zhazhda (Thirst; 1956) included translations of the works of 22 Yiddish poets. His cultural-political prominence was highlighted in 1959, when the publication of a collection of Sholem Aleichem’s stories, prefaced by Vergelis, marked a renewed acceptance of Yiddish literature. In his poem “Ekzotishe tayge” (Exotic Taiga; 1960), Vergelis presented himself as a product of Birobidzhan-based Soviet Jewish nation building—a muscular Jew from the Far Eastern frontier, rather than a weakling from a shtetl. He was appointed editor of the journal Sovetish heymland (Soviet Homeland) in 1961.

Apart from lyric poetry and numerous Yiddish translations of Russian poetry, Vergelis also wrote political verse. Thus, inspired by Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem “Nasledniki Stalina” (The Heirs of Stalin; 1962), Vergelis published his own anti-Stalinist poem, “Der onheyb un der sof” (The Beginning and the End; 1963), in Sovetish heymland. However, few connoisseurs appreciated him as a talented poet, translator, and editor. He was widely regarded as a diehard Stalinist and the embodiment of the anti-Jewish policy of the Soviet regime.

From 1970, Vergelis was actively involved in anti-Zionist campaigns in the Soviet media. He attracted particular hostility when émigré writers brought the image of Vergelis as an alleged KGB informer to the West. Inside the Soviet Union, Yiddish writers such as Yoysef Rabin and Rivke Rubin broke with Vergelis when he turned Sovetish heymland into an anti-Israel forum. Meanwhile, he was the sole editor in the post-Holocaust Yiddish literary world who seriously endeavored to foster young literati, including prose writer Boris Sandler and poet Lev Berinski.

On many occasions, Vergelis traveled abroad, where he argued that the Soviet Union remained the most fortunate place for Jewish life. He sought to capitalize on his international contacts, and aimed to create a structure resembling the pre-1948 one: an umbrella organization similar to the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, controlling Yiddish publications, education, and theater. Instead, however, the Kremlin in March 1982 formed the purely propagandist Anti-Zionist Committee of the Soviet Public, in which Vergelis did not play a leading role.

In his articles, Vergelis divided the whole of Yiddish literature into “progressive” and “anti-Soviet and reactionary.” He maintained that the aim of contemporary Yiddish literature was to present its Jewish heroes in the context of real life in society. He once boasted that his poems contained as much politics as the newspaper Pravda. At the same time, he devised plots that were contrived rather than realistic in his novels, Di tsayt (Time; 1981) and Der hiter ba di toyern (Guard at the Gate; 1987), both of which featured stilted characters in implausible situations.

Later in life, Vergelis was not keen to emphasize his Birobidzhan origins and never revisited the Soviet Jewish “national home,” although in his poem “A gezang tsu Birobidzhan” (A Birobidzhan Hymn; 1970) he vowed to “come again and again” to his Far Eastern homeland. He theorized about the Soviet “Jewish street,” populated by people whose identity was determined by ancestry rather than religious behavior. In his poem “Ver iz a yid” (Who Is a Jew), published as part of his 1976 collection of travelogues, he formulated his vision of modern Jewishness:

A Jew is the one who no longer wears tsitses

and does not know what a long caftan is.

We recognize him because of his manners

and his parentage preserved in him.

A Jew is the one who does not ask, “Who is a Jew?”

and is himself organically Jewish.

After 1991, when Yiddishism formed a basis for cooperation between Vergelis and his former ideological opponents, he renamed his journal Di yidishe gas (The Jewish Street) and stubbornly produced it until the end of his life.

Suggested Reading

Gennady Estraikh, “Aron Vergelis: The Perfect Jewish Homo Sovieticus,” East European Jewish Affairs 27.2 (1997): 3–20.