(1897–1945), Yiddish novelist and short-story writer. Born in Błonie (Yid., Bloyne) near Warsaw, Mikhoel Burshtin moved to Warsaw in 1912, where he attended high school and studied to be a teacher of history and literature. He first published in Yiddish around 1930, and his earliest book, Iber di khurves fun Ployne (Over the Ruins of Ployne; 1931), received positive reviews from Yiddish literary critics. He contributed to the Warsaw Yiddish dailies Haynt and Moment, as well as the New York newspaper Forverts, the monthly Di tsukunft, and other publications.
Burshtin’s novel Bay di taykhn fun Mazovye (By the Rivers of Mazovia; 1937) enhanced his reputation as a writer. He also published a third novel, Goyrl (Fate; 1936), and a volume of short stories, Broyt mit zalts (Bread and Salt; 1939). He was active in the Landkentenish and wrote articles for its organ.
At the beginning of World War II, Burshtin escaped to Soviet-occupied Białystok as part of the stream of refugees from Warsaw. Soviet Yiddish literary circles gave him a warm reception, publishing Bay di taykhn fun Mazovye in Moscow in 1941 in an edition with radical revisions made by the author himself, in order to meet Soviet censorship requirements. He was caught in Kovno (Kaunas) when war broke out between Germany and the Soviet Union, and was confined to the ghetto there with his wife and child. According to his wife’s later accounts, Burshtin continued to write while there, starting a novel about Jewish life in Poland before the war. All of his writings from the ghetto period have been lost. In 1944, he was deported to the Dachau concentration camp, where he died.
Burshtin’s literary oeuvre attempts to convey the wide range of experiences of the Jewish community in Poland. His novels and novellas are built on the interplay of several main characters, each representing a different cultural or ideological alternative, with the narrator striving to maintain a balance among them. Plot plays a secondary role in Burshtin’s works, with emphasis placed instead on a broad range of loosely associated characters. His language reflects the specific local color of Polish Yiddish within the boundaries of the standard literary language.
Burshtin’s narratives focus on external and internal factors that contributed to the crisis in the shtetl, but his artistic success was uneven. Goyrl, set in the years just prior to World War I, centers on a stratum of extremely wealthy and assimilated Jews who are on the verge of conversion to Christianity, and who think of shtetl life only as the object of philanthropic aid or cultural activity. The descriptions of this blatantly assimilationist circle are reminiscent at times of the style found in shund (trash) novels.
Both of Burshtin’s principal works—Iber di khurves fun Ployne and Bay di taykhn fun Mazovye—were planned as artistic anatomies of the Polish Jewish shtetl as seen from the inside during the period of crisis between the wars. The economic struggle of the shtetl is interwoven in these books with the spiritual, ideological, and political struggle between generations, between traditional and secular Jewishness, and between Zionists and Bundists. The central character of Iber di khurves fun Ployne is an “old school” Zionist whose son represents the generation of spiritually rootless youth who return to the shtetl from Warsaw. At the end of the work, when representatives of various ideological orientations meet to escort the main character on his way to Palestine, the atmosphere of crisis could not be more apparent, though the book does not end with a note of total pessimism.
Within the broad range of characters in Bay di taykhn fun Mazovye, we find on one end of the spectrum the figure of the deracinated, melancholic intellectual who returns to the shtetl from the big city, and on the other end, a folksy Jew using salty language and spirited humor. This book appeared in the period of the heightened anti-Jewish atmosphere that characterized the situation in Poland after the pogrom in Przytyk in 1936. In fact, it closes with a description of a pogrom, written in camouflaged language out of fear of censorship. Nevertheless, the book, like Iber der khurves fun Ployne, ends on a note of optimism.
The main features of Burshtin’s works are their thematic richness, fragmentary composition, and blend of journalistic and fictional elements. They embody the fundamental artistic and ideological tensions characteristic of Yiddish prose in interwar Poland.
Chone Shmeruk, “Responses to Antisemitism in Poland, 1912–1936: A Case Study of the Novels of Michal Bursztyn,” in Living with Antisemitism: Modern Jewish Responses, ed. Jehuda Reinharz, pp. 275–295 (Hanover, N.H., 1987); Yehiel Yeshaia Trunk, Di yidishe proze in Poyln in der tkufe tsvishn beyde velt-milkhomes (Buenos Aires, 1949), pp. 87–96.
Translated from Yiddish by Yankl Salant