Page 129 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 38

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PATTERSON / YOSEF HAYYIM BRENNER
1 1 9
lay shattered and in ruins. T he vast wave o f emigration westwards
was in full spate, and B renner had every reason to flee from a life
which had become intolerable.
Although raised in a strictly pious if poverty-stricken home,
B renner gradually lost his faith, and became estranged from
religion and family. His own experience o f the conflict between
faith and reason is reflected th roughou t his writings, as his char­
acters try to reconcile themselves to the harsh reality o f a life
without God. In his late teens he jo ined the Bund, the Jewish
social-revolutionary party, and for a time edited its illegal Yiddish
paper,
DerKamf.
But disenchanted with doctrinaire Marxism, he
transferred his allegiance to Zionist ideology, while remaining
critical of its shortcomings. Nevertheless, the friendships he had
formed among the Bundists were his salvation.
Drafted into the Russian Army, where he suffered acute h a rd ­
ship and humiliation, B renner deserted (after two years’ service)
at the outbreak o f the Russo-Japanese war. He was soon ap ­
prehended by the police and, as was standard practice in Russia,
sent in convoy from prison to prison for identification in his home
town. Fortunately, he was rescued in dramatic fashion by two
members of the Bund at the risk o f their own lives, and smuggled
across the bo rde r into Germany.
B renner later used his experiences in two works o f unusual
interest. The First entitled
One Year
is a detailed account o f what it
meant to be a Jew in the Tsarist army in the early years o f this
century. T he
second , From Aleph to Mem,
describes the months he
spent in Russian prisons after his desertion. Both documents
contain a wealth o f fascinating sociological material, and the
pene trating insight and power o f observation would more than
justify translation. As in the case o f so much o f B renner’s writing,
parochial experience is raised to the b roader human plane, and
the interplay o f environment and character exerts a powerful
appeal. T he actual escape from Russia provided the material for a
third, much sho rter story entitled
Impressions of a Journey,
which
conveys the tension and the te rro r o f illegal bo rder crossings, an
experience shared by so many would-be em igrants at tha t time.
MOOD OF DESPAIR
When B renner arrived in London in 1904 his literary repu ta ­
tion had been established by a volume o f short stories and a novel,