Josef Burg: One of Europe's last surviving Yiddish authors

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The Independent Online

The award-winning Yiddish author Josef Burg was one of the few remaining known Yiddish authors in Europe. He was born near Chernivtsi, which before the First World War was known as Czernowitz in German and Yiddish, the capital of the Bukovina region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a focal point of Yiddish language and literature. Burg, the son of a river lumber worker, was born in neighbouring Wischnitz, the family moving to Czernowitz when he was 12. Educated at the Jewish school and teachers' training college in Czernowitz, he studied German in Vienna, 1935-38. He published his first story in 1934 in the Yiddish newspaper Chernovitser Bleter.

Having been born a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he automatically became a Romanian in 1919 when the area was awarded to Romania as part of the First World War settlement. Language skills were crucial in a mixed area like Bukovina and Burg spoke Yiddish, German, and Romanian, and later Russian and Hebrew. According to the Romanian census in 1930, 8.7 per cent of the population spoke Yiddish as their mother tongue, the main language groups being Romanian, Ukrainian and German.

The German occupation of Austria, in 1938, ended Burg's career in Vienna and he returned to Czernowitz. More political change followed in 1940 when Stalin ordered the Red Army to occupy Bukovina. But Burg was soon on the move again, as in June 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.

Burg lost his entire family in the Holocaust. His father died before the Germans arrived; his mother was murdered by the Germans. His brother was killed in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side. Like his brother, he was sympathetic to Communism and fled to the Soviet Union.

There he worked in the so-called Volga German Republic, but weeks later, in August 1941, Stalin abolished the republic and deported its population. Burg worked as a teacher, returning to Czernowitz in 1959. From 1961 his stories were published in the Yiddish journal ssowetisch hejmland and later in the US, Israel and Poland.

In 1980 his Dos leben geit waiter ("Life goes on"), published in Moscow, marked the beginning of his second life as a writer with his works appearing in Germany, and invitations to read his work in Germany and Austria. His Über Jiddische Dichter, Erinnerungen ("About Yiddish Writers, Memories"), was published, in Germany, for his 95th birthday as part of a series of booklets called Der Erzähler Josef Burg ("The Storyteller Josef Burg") and translated from Yiddish.

In Irrfahrten: Ein ostjüdisches Leben, (2000, "Misguided Wanderings: An Eastern Jewish Life"), he revealed his disillusionment with life in the Soviet Union. The title, Ein Stück trockenes Brot: Ausgewählte Erzählungen ("A piece of dry bread: selected stories", 2008) says much about his life and why he was grateful to have lived into his 90s. It is about a survivor of the Babi Yar Massacre of over 33,000 Kiev Jews in 1941. Later, Gypsies and others were murdered there.

Burg received several awards including Israel's Segal Prize for Yiddish writing. In 2007, he was presented in his home in Chernivtsi with the highest award for science and art from the Austrian government. A few weeks earlier, Otto Habsburg-Lothringen, son of the last Austrian emperor and also born in 1912, went to see him. In May 2009, he received the Austrian Theodor-Kramer-Preis. He was also the recipient of German, Swedish and Ukrainian awards.

David Childs

Josef Burg, writer: born Wischnitz, Austrian Empire 30 May 1912; died Chernivtsi, Ukraine 10 August 2009.