An Enemy of the State

[an analysis by Krystal Davidowitz]

“The Twenty-Seventh Man” was written by Nathan Englander. Never have I read, let alone heard of, Nathan Englander, but I was captivated when the story was referred to me as an “interesting read for a Jewish writer.”

“The Twenty-Seventh Man” takes place in Soviet Russia during World War II. Stalin had signed allegiance to Hitler, which included the signing of a warrant for the execution of 27 writers whom were Yiddish living in Russia. They were collected and distributed in groups of four, and put into cells that didn’t have windows. The story then focuses on the cell that holds Moishe Bretzy (poet), Vasily Korinsky (famous writer whose wife was Yiddish), Y. Zunser (Anti-Soviet writer), and Pinchas Pelovits (an unknown writer). These were the last men to be captured—Pinchas Pelovits being the twenty-seventh man brought in. After being tortured, starved and dehydrated, the four writers are lined up outside and shot in the back.

The power of an idea is incredible.

Nathan Englander is able to prove his point in his writing, and he does it with the characterization of Pinchas Pelovits.

In the story, Englander puts a lot of emphasis on Bretzy, Korinsky and Zunser. Bretzy was “a true lover of vodka and its country of origin. One would not have pegged him as one of history’s most sensitive Yiddish poets” (249). Korinsky “was a principal member of the Anti-Facist Committee” (254). Zunser was the “oldest of the group and a target of the first serious verbal attacks on cosmopolitans back in ’49” (249). Englander matches each personality to their background perfectly, and the story continues centering around their thoughts and conflict, paying little to no attention to Pelovits whose “parents never knew what label to give their son, who wrote all day but did not publish, who laughed and cried over his novels but was gratingly logical in his contact with every day world” (250). Pelovits was disregarded because he was not well known, because he was not famous, because no one had ever heard of him. He was left lying on his side, occasionally mumbling lines to a story that he was dreaming up.

How does that work? How does that characterize Pinchas Pelovits enough to make him symbolize how amazing the power of an idea is?

“I am the one who does not belong here.” This is said by Pinchas Pelovits after he is given some water toward the end. Capturing the attention of his cellmates, they finally inquire at his reason for being incarcerated with them.

“But you are not here in place of us, you are here as one of us. Do you write?”

“Oh, yes, that’s all I do. That’s all I’ve ever done, except for reading and my walks.”

“If it makes any difference, we welcome you as an equal.” Zunser surveyed the cubicle. “I’d much rather be saying this to you in my home.”

“Are you sure I’m here for being a writer?” He looked at the three men.

“No just for being a writer, my friend.” Bretzky clapped him lightly on the back. “You are here as a subversive writer. An enemy of the state! Quite a feat for an unknown” (257).


That was it. It was all Englander needed to say about Pinchas Pelovits to make his point clear. Pinchas Pelovits was an unknown writer whose voice was heard without his knowledge. Murmurs and whispers of his writing spread across Europe, like wildfire so intense that Hitler wanted him dead because of it.

Englander spent so much time focusing and characterizing all of the “famous” writers that nothing seemed to compare to Pelovits when he was described as “equal.” Passion and the love for writing and reading is what brought Pelovits to his death. His writing, unknown to most, yet adored by many, sparked a flame that Hitler needed to be distinguished.

If Englander had not put Pinchas Pelovits into the cell with Zunser and the other famous writers, the story wouldn’t have made enough impact to survive on its own.


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