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

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Savvy Media Ltd: Media Sales executive - Crawley

£25k + commission + benefits: Savvy Media Ltd: Find a job you love and never h...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Solicitor NQ+ Oxford

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CORPORATE - Corporate Solicitor NQ+ An excelle...

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible