Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies

A Refugee's Cry: Brenner's "The Way Out"

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies

A Refugee's Cry: Brenner's "The Way Out"

Article excerpt

This year a different thing happened ... This year Brenner was not read in the same way. When I walked into the classroom it felt as if I was joining a mourning session, but without knowing if we were there to give or accept condolences. The class was like an inflamed wound, painfully shocked by every contact with the text (Hess 2002).

This was how Tamar Hess described her Hebrew University students' reaction to Brenner at the opening of a session devoted to Brenner at a colloquium on Modern Hebrew Literature held at Brandeis University in the fall of 2002. (1) Her words were greeted with silence. The ensuing discussion (2) on Brenner's works showed that these feelings were indeed real. In retrospect it would appear that Brenner had become very relevant in these times.

Yosef Haim Brenner, born in Ukraine in 1881, is one of the prominent voices and the outstanding writers of the second Aliya. With pessimism, and often with despair, he described, in his stories, novels and essays, his doubts concerning the Zionist enterprise in the Land of Israel. As a child, Brenner received Eastern European Jewish education. As a young man, however, he became active in the Jewish labour movement, leaving Russia for London where he worked in a printing shop, founded a Hebrew language periodical, and joined Po'alei Zion, a socialist-Zionist movement. Brenner settled in Palestine in 1909, worked as a simple labourer for a brief period, and then became an editor, writer and translator. He was murdered in the prime of his life by Arabs during the riots against the Jewish settlers in May 1921.

Brenner's works are characterised by a direct and "un-literary" style which reveals authenticity, psychological insights and satirical elements. Refraining from editorial and authorial comments, Brenner aspired to bring his sharp criticism and his troubled intensity by introducing only the facts--the people and their experiences (Alter 1975:141).

Much has been written about Brenner's contributions to Hebrew literature; his rich writing has constantly been a source of new insights. Yet the emotional impact and the relevance of his works to contemporary readers remained a mystery.

In what follows I shall analyse a single story by Brenner, "The Way Out," focussing on the ethical issue it raises. After a short introduction and review, necessary to recall a few themes and techniques of the story, I shall attempt to point to the special elements that make it relevant and meaningful to contemporary readers. The analysis of the story, and the presentation of these elements, may provide indications of the nature of Brenner's writing in general, and suggest an interesting way to understand it.

1. Background

"The Way Out" is a short story, first published in 1919, which describes a single event. It presents no panoramic view, nor are the lives of the characters depicted in any detail. It has a single focus, and makes one specific point, so that it hits the reader with full force. However, in a complex way, which will be discussed later, the story raises a wide range of feelings and attitudes.

The story was apparently written between 1917 and 1918, in the second half of World War I (Brenner 1978:1822). The British army was nearing the Land of Israel from the south, from Egypt, and in April 1917 the Turks evacuated the Jewish civilian population of Tel Aviv and Jaffa, so that they became "displaced persons." Most of these people moved northward, to locations such as Petach-Tikva, Kefar-Sava and Hadera. Following the so-called "Jaffa expulsion," a "committee" was set up for the purpose of taking care of the displaced. By December 1918 the entire southern part of the country, including Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, were already in British hands, whereas the Jewish settlements to the north of the frontline were still under Turkish rule. Many of the displaced were located not far from the front.

"The Way Out" takes place in a colony where a group of refugees arrives. …

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