The Corridors of Berlin: Proximity, Peripherality, and Surveillance in Dovid Bergelson’s Boarding House Stories

Marc Caplan, Tandetnik Professor of Yiddish Studies at the Johns Hopkins University


This presentation will consider the boarding-house (pension) stories that the Yiddish modernist Dovid Bergelson (1884-1952) wrote in Berlin during the 1920s as a specific locus and generic designation for his narrative representation of urban space. Focusing primarily on the short stories Tsvishn emigrantn ("Among Refugees"), In pension fun di dray shvester ("In the Boarding House of the Three Sisters"), Tsvey retsokhim ("Two Murderers"), and Altvarg ("Old Folks"), this essay will consider the contradictions of the pension as a social structure constituted through the provisional intimacy of strangers, at once public and private, embedded within an urban, metropolitan culture, yet called into existence by the rootlessness and dislocation of transient masses. In Tsvishn emigrantn, in particular, the dislocations of the protagonist¹s residence in the same boarding house as an alleged pogromist contrast purposefully with the narrator¹s settled existence in a private home, just as the contingent nature of the protagonist¹s living arrangements correspond schematically to his social marginality and his psychological instability.

 

As Bergelson demonstrates throughout these stories, the pension bespeaks a fundamentally different spatial poetics from other collective dwellings such as the hotel or the apartment house; precisely in its artificial and transitory merging of pre-modern domestic arrangements with the characteristic impermanence of urban modernity, it is the ideal setting for stories describing the spiritual, psychological, and linguistic homelessness of displaced East European Jews living in Weimar-era Berlin.

 

 

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