Suzanne Schneider: Yehuda Burla’s Beli Kokhav/Without a Star

Yehuda Burla (1886-1969) was born into a rabbinic family that immigrated to Jerusalem from Izmir/Smyrna in the 16th century. He left behind one novel (Beli Kokhav/Without a Star) and numerous short stories based on his war experience in the Ottoman army as an interpreter for a German commander.[1] Autobiographical details abound in the stories, and the figure of the narrator in each tale is usually taken to be Burla himself. Taken as a whole, Burla’s stories animate the infamous horrors of the Ottoman soldier’s life, though they also reflect, surprisingly, some positive facets of the war experience that cannot be ascertained through statistics of the dead and wounded.

Burla’s stories both confirm what is known of the Ottoman soldier’s struggle with disease, hunger, and insufficient supplies, and contribute to a greater understanding of the interpersonal relations and even acts of kindness that made the war experience whole. Thus the reader encounters the long march across the desert en route to the disastrous attack on the Suez canal in Without a Star, the squalor and filth of the Amaliya labor camp (near Hebron) in “The Soldier and the Ass,” and the young solider who shoots his own hand to escape being sent to the front in “Rescue,” all written in 1915. Yet, there is another side of this war experience that includes a shared sense of camaraderie with the Arab, Turkish, and Armenian soldiers and even an occasional kind word about their commanding officers.

As Glenda Abramson has observed in her recent survey of Hebrew literature of the First World War, Burla is distinguished from contemporary accounts written by European immigrants by the fact that his is a native’s tale. His stories are full of sympathy for the common soldier and reflect a “traditional devotion to the land, shared by the other, non-Jewish, peoples of Palestine, as their common inheritance.”[2] The horrors of the war certainly exist in Burla’s works—the apex of which is the chilling duty to kill one’s fellow man—but they are the general lot of all soldiers rather than the distinct misfortune of the Jew. It is here that Burla’s stories are most at odds with well-known accounts by European Jewish soldiers, such as Avigdor Hameiri, who served in the Habsburg army and for whom the military’s systematic anti-Semitism and arbitrary cruelty led to his alienation from his Austrian homeland and corresponding embrace of political Zionism.[3]

As a Sephardi Jew who wrote in Hebrew but displayed none of the ideological fervor associated with Zionist writers of the period, Burla has often fallen between the cracks of Hebrew literary criticism and his work, particularly his war stories, have received little scholarly attention. Indeed, the dominant forces in Hebrew literary studies have dismissed Burla as a “naïve writer, revealing none of the complexities found, for example, in the work of Agnon.”[4] While it is true that Burla’s stories are not on literary par with those of Agnon—a master modernist and Nobel laureate—Burla gives us invaluable description of an Ottoman soldier’s experience in the First World War. At the very least, the largely autobiographical nature of Burla’s stories renders them an important source for historians interested in the war in the Middle East. As literary creations, these stories may indeed be lacking, but as historical remnants of the Ottoman and Jewish past, Burla surely has much to offer.

[1] Yehuda Burla, Beli Kokhav: Roman – Sipurei milchama (Tel Aviv: Hotsa’at Dvir-Masadah, 1962).

[2] Glenda Abramson, Hebrew Writing of the First World War (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2008), 345.

[3] Avigdor Hameiri, The Great Madness, trans. Yael Lotan (Haifa: Or-Ron Publishing House Ltd., 1984).

[4] Gershon Shaked as quoted by Glenda Abramson. See: Abramson, Hebrew Writing of the First World War: 334. Avinoam Barshai, ed. Yehuda Burla: mivhar ma’amarim al yetzirato (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1975), 28.

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