In an article commemorating Jean-Paul Sartre written shortly after his death, Lili Berger emphasized his role as a writer engagé and observed: “Yes, he made mistakes, but what active person has not?” This description could easily fit Lili Berger herself. A prolific literary critic and essayist who wrote fiction, short stories and novels, Berger was also politically engaged. She wrote to educate, instruct, expose and memorialize.
Lili Berger was born on December 30, 1916 to an observant Jewish family in Malken (Ma?ki), near Bialystok. Her traditional Jewish education included three years at a Hebrew school, after which she attended the Polish-Jewish Gymnasium in Warsaw. After graduating Berger went on to study pedagogy in Brussels. In 1936 she settled in Paris where she taught at a Jewish supplementary school and became involved with the Jewish left. She married Louis Gronowski (Lulke Grojnowski), a leader of the Jewish Communists in charge of the Jewish section of the MOI (Main-d’oeuvre immigrée), a network created to mobilize immigrant workers. During the war, they both assumed key roles in the French Resistance in German-occupied Paris. As head of the MNCR (Mouvement national contre le racisme), Lili Berger was active in rescuing Jewish children from deportation.
At the end of 1949, when Poland came under Communist rule, Berger and her husband returned to Warsaw. Like other Jewish intellectuals, they saw an opportunity to create a “progressive” Yiddish cultural life in the land of their ancestors. In Poland Lily Berger began publishing articles and stories in both Yiddish and Polish. In 1953 her first book appeared, a Yiddish translation entitled Briv fun toytn-hoyz (Letters from Death Row), the letters of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. It was followed by a collection of literary criticism, a novel and a collection of short stories. Berger also published two books in Polish—one about the Jewish resistance movement in France and the other a collection of essays and sketches entitled The Vietnamese People in Struggle.
Post-war Poland quickly proved to be a dangerous place for writers and especially Jews, who in 1967, following the Six Day War in Israel, were again seen as a fifth column. Along with thousands of other Jews, Berger was forced to leave Poland in 1968 during the great exodus which she bitterly refers to in her writing as the trikener pogrom, the bloodless pogrom.
Settling in Paris again, she resumed her literary activity, writing for the Naye Prese and, later, for the monthly journal Ofsnay and the weekly Di Vokh. Her work appeared in various Yiddish publications in Israel, South Africa, Mexico and the United States. She also published books of selected essays and stories and a historical novel about Esther Frumkin for which she received a prize from the Jewish P.E.N. club in New York. Printed by Yiddish publishing houses in Paris, Tel Aviv and Buenos Aires, her books received awards internationally.
The subjects of Berger’s numerous articles and essays were often writers and artists. The list includes Franz Kafka, Janusz Korczak, Simone de Beauvoir, Chaim Soutine, Chana Orloff, Vasili Grossman and scores of Polish Jewish writers who wrote in Polish or in Yiddish. She considered it her duty to write about the creative and courageous people whom she had known personally, who had experienced the horrors of the Holocaust or the Soviet Gulag and faced further ordeals in post-war Communist Poland. These pen portraits are not exhaustive treatments, but painted in broad strokes interwoven with personal recollections, information and ideas. Her work is full of valuable historical detail. On the other hand, while providing fresh insights, Berger, as a true artist, often leaves her readers with unanswered questions to reflect upon and ponder. One certainty, however, emerges from her work written after her disillusionment with the new Poland: the centrality of the State of Israel in Jewish life.
Similarly, her fiction deals with the various aspects of the Polish Jewish experience in the twentieth century. Her stories are peopled by characters scarred by the Holocaust: a middle-aged Parisian couple who had met in a DP camp; a fifteen-year-old Polish Catholic girl who discovers that she was born a Jew; an elderly Jew married to the French woman who had risked her life to save his; a young man who rejects his parents for hiding their Jewish identity in post-war Poland.
Having survived the death of her husband in 1987, Lili Berger continued to write, publish and receive literary awards. She died in Paris on November 27, 1996.
SELECTED WORKS BY LILI BERGER
Ekhos fun a vaytn nekhtn (Echoes of distant times). Tel Aviv: 1986; Esseyn un skitsn (Essays and sketches). Warsaw: 1965; Fun haynt un nekhtn (Today and yesterday). Warsaw: 1965; Fun vayt un noent (From near and far). Paris: 1978; Geshtaltn un pasirungn (People and events). Paris: 1991; In gang fun tsayt (In the course of time). Paris: 1976; In loif fun tsayt (In the passage of time). Paris: 1988; Nisht farendikte bletlekh (Incomplete pages). Tel Aviv: 1982; Nokhn Mabl (After the flood). Warsaw: 1967; Oif di khvalyes fun goyrl (On the waves of destiny). Paris: 1986, Opgerisenne Tsvaygn (Broken branches). Paris: 1970.
Gryn, Ber. Morgn Frayhayt, July 16, 1967; Emiat, Israel. Forverts, February 9, 1975; Forman, Freida, et al., eds. Found Treasures. Toronto: 1994; Kagan, Berl. Leksikon fun yidishe shraybers. New York: 1986; Domankievich, L. Tsukunft. May–June, 1971; Roitman, Efraim. Israel Shtime. Tel Aviv: November 1976; Shulshteyn, Avraham. Dort. New York: November 1974; van Tendeloo, Dorothée. “Paper Treasures: An Introduction to the Life and Work of the Yiddish Novelist, Literary Critic and Essayist Lili Berger (1916–1996).” Unpublished M.A. thesis, London: 2000.
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Felsen, Vivian. "Lili Berger." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 22, 2020) <https://qa.jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/berger-lili>.