(Joseph-Leib, Arye) Ludovic Bruckstein
July 27, 1920 – August 4, 1988
The writer Ludovic (Joseph-Leib, Arye) Bruckstein was born on the 27th of July 1920, in Munkacs, then in Czechoslovakia, now in Ukraine. He grew up in Sighet, a small town in the district of Maramures, in the Northern region of Transylvania, a town well known for its flourishing pre-war Jewish community and Hassidic tradition. In Sighet, before the Second World War, Ludovic Bruckstein’s father, Mordechai, owned a small factory producing walking canes that were exported to various European countries. The family business also exported medicinal plants that grow in Maramures, and were collected by the peasants in villages around Sighet.
The Bruckstein family has a distinguished lineage of Hassidic rabbis and writers. The great-grandfather of Ludovic Bruckstein, Chaim-Josef Bruckstein was among the first chassidim, a follower of the Baal Shem Tov, and wrote a book called “Tosafot Haim”, while his son, and heir to the rabbinate of Pistin, Israel-Nathan Alter Bruckstein wrote two books called “Minchat Israel” and “Emunat Israel”. (Leibi Bruckstein was very proud of this lineage, and wrote about the history of the family in a short-story that appears in his book “The Destiny of Yaacov Magid”, published in Tel Aviv, first in Romanian, in 1973, then in Hebrew translation, in 1977).
Bruckstein began to write while still in high school. After graduating from Sighet’s “Comercial High School”, he planned to study law in Switzerland however political situation was not such that plans of any sort could be carried out: these were the late thirties, in a very troubled Europe! Bruckstein therefore postponed his studies and joined his father’s business.
From 1939 on, the darkness fell on Europe, and in the spring of 1944, after a period of increasingly severe racial persecutions and laws against the Jews, and after spending a few months in the Sighet ghetto, the Bruckstein family, father, mother and four children, were deported, along with all the Jews of the town, to Auschwitz.
In Auschwitz Leibi Bruckstein got the prisoner I.D. number A37013 (and ever since, he wondered whether 13 was a lucky number for him, or not!). One year later, after being transferred from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belzen, and then to forced-labor camps in Hildesheim, Hanover, Gross-Rosen, Wolfsberg, Wüstegiersdorff, (where the deportees repaired during the day railroads that were efficiently bombed, night after night, by the Allied Air Forces, in sisyphean work that killed most of them), Leibi Bruckstein was liberated in May 1945, by the soldiers of the advancing Soviet Army. After barely surviving very common, “post-freedom” typhus disease, Bruckstein returned to his home in Sighet, to find out there that the only other survivor in his family was his younger brother, Israel. The brothers decided to emigrate to Palestine, but Leibi Bruckstein married Csoppy (Shaindl) Czick (then almost 17 years old, and also a survivor of the camps) and the young couple stayed behind due to her severe illness (TB). Then, while Csoppy was in a sanatorium in Cluj, the iron-curtain fell, and, the option to emigrate was not real anymore. For Bruckstein, a very active period of work in communist Romania, as a playwright and journalist, started.
For a brief period of time, in Sighet, Bruckstein edited a Yiddish newspaper called “Our Life” (Unzer Lebn), and in 1947 he wrote a play, describing a Sonder-kommando revolt (based on a true event!) in Auschwitz. The play, titled “The Night Shift” (Nacht-Shicht), written in Yiddish, was presented in Romania by both the Bucharest and Iassy Yiddish theaters, from 1948 to 1958, with great success. Following this, Bruckstein was invited to study literature at the Bucharest University, in a special program for writers, a school where he met all the important literary figures of post-war Romania. He became a member of the Writer’s Union, and edited the drama section of its official newspaper, and lectured on Aesthetics at the “I.L.Caragiale”, Theater Art Institute of Bucharest University. However, life at the center of activities, often requiring deep political involvement, and later, also publishing anti-Zionist propaganda articles, was not to his liking. Bruckstein returned to Sighet, effectively a self-imposed exile, and became the director of the local Art School.
From the provincial town of Sighet, in the North of Transylvania, he could continue his writing for the Yiddish Theater in Romania (becoming their only serious post-war playwright) and enjoy the perspective of the Literature and Art world from far-away!
From 1950 till 1967, Ludovic Bruckstein wrote about twenty plays that were presented with success, by several theaters in Romania, some of them being also translated and staged in Hungarian, German, Russian and Estonian. In the late sixties, Bruckstein started to write short-stories too. These appeared in various newspapers and journals in Romania. A collection of his short-stories from this period, called “Museum of Wax Figures”, (“Panopticum”, in Romanian), was published in Bucharest in 1969. Over the years, Bruckstein was awarded the V. Alecsandri prize for one of his plays, The Writer Union’s prize, the Collectivization medal, for a play called Land and Brothers, describing a (true) murder trial of a peasant who killed his brother in a dispute over a strip of land, and the “National Order of Labor”, one of the highest distinctions of the Romanian state.
During the 60’s thoughts of emigration to Israel started to preoccupy him again. The revelations of the atrocities of the Stalinist era, the Six-Day War in Israel, and the steadily worsening political situation in Communist countries, but mostly worries about the future of his adolescent son, helped put this topic high on his agenda. In 1969, exploiting a slightly more relaxed political atmosphere in the early years of Ceausescu’s Romania, Bruckstein was allowed to visit “the West”, and during a trip to Israel he met his brother for the first time since 1947. In late 1970 he officially applied for an emigration visa, together with his wife, son and mother-in-law. After one and a half year of refusal, a very difficult period of time when he had to resign from his job and had to endure being treated as a high-profile traitor of the Communist cause, the Romanian authorities finally yielded to some pressure from Israel and granted him and his family the permit to leave.
In Israel, Bruckstein made his home in a suburb of Tel Aviv, and took a job with an Israeli investment/development company. In his new home country too, he did not want to get directly involved with the various newspapers published in Romanian, Hungarian or Yiddish, because of his great reluctance to deal with the “medium of journalists and their petty politics”. He continued to write, mainly short stories, and those appeared in various newspapers in Romanian, Hungarian, Yiddish and some of them even in Hebrew translations. He founded, together with a few friends, the Romanian section of the Writers’ Union in Israel, and was quite active within this framework, until it too became politicized, and then he slowly retired from activity there. He was a member of the Yiddish and Hebrew Writers’ Union too. Interestingly, while the authorities in communist Romania declared him “persona non grata”, and made him disappear from the official Arts and Literature scene in the country, he remained a member of the Writer’s Union of Romania for all his life!
In Israel, over the years from 1972 till 1988, Bruckstein wrote, published and sold (reasonably well, to the large Romanian speaking community in Israel), seven books in Romanian, printed by his own publishing house, called PANOPTICUM Press. The books were: The Confession (a novel, 1973), The Destiny of Yaacov Magid (seven short stories, 1975), Three Histories (three short historical stories, 1977), The Tinfoil Halo (short stories, 1979), As in Heaven, so on Earth (short stories, 1981), Maybe Even Happiness (short stories, 1985), The Murmur of Water (short stories, 1987). His book, The Trap (two novels) appeared posthumously in 1989. Four of these books were also translated into Hebrew and appeared in the prestigious publishing houses, Sifriat Hapoalim (The Confession, 1975, The Destiny of Yaacov Magid, 1977 and Maybe Even Happiness, 1989) and Ekked (Three Histories, 1983). In Israel, Bruckstein won the Jerusalem-Brickman Prize, the Zion Prize and the Jewish Agency’s Literature Prize for his work.
In January 1988 it was discovered following an illness which at first seemed to be a common cold that Bruckstein is dying of cancer. In the few month that remained for him to live, he completed work on a short novel, entitled The Trap, the story of Ernest, a young Jewish student from Sighet, who went into hiding in the mountains surrounding the town, when anti-Semitic persecutions began. From his hiding places he witnessed the fate of the Jewish population of the town until they are all sent away, in May 1944, in four long cattle-train transports to Auschwitz. Shortly thereafter, the Russian soldiers liberate the town, and Ernest eagerly returns to his parent’s house. However the Russians, suspicious of a young man that suddenly appears in town, out of nowhere, arrest him and exile him to a prisoner camp in Siberia! Critics saw in this last novel of his an allegorical rendering of the situation of many Jews, who, like himself, after World-War II, readily joined the “World-Wide Communist Revolution” to avenge the atrocities of Nazism, only to find themselves trapped in cruel, dictatorial regimes that became suspicious of them and refused to allow their assimilation and integration, quite like the regimes before the war. Ludovic Bruckstein died on the 4th of August, 1988.
Bruckstein’s works, novels, stories and plays, deal with the sometimes cruel, sometimes comic, but mostly indifferent fate of simple people whose lives are under the control of highly unpredictable forces. He describes their lives with understanding, compassion and forgiveness, smiling to the petty worries and the often meaningless and pointless activities people take so seriously, while unaware or disregarding very real, existential dangers. He belongs to a generation so well described by the writer Czeslaw Milosz, in his book “The Captive Mind”: “Not many inhabitants of the Baltic States, of Poland or Czechoslovakia, of Hungaria or Romania, could summarize in a few words the story of their existence. Their lives have been complicated by the course of historic events”. However, in spite of the complications and tragedies, the many disappointments and missed opportunities of his own life, Ludovic Bruckstein looked at the world with humor and optimism, and a great capacity to understand and smile at it.
Starting from 2005, Bruckstein’s entire prose work was translated into Hebrew by the writer Yotam Reuveni, and these works are being published in a series of books at Nymrod Press in Tel Aviv.
In the Press