|Trans||Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften||16. Nr.||Juni 2006|
Mikhail Krutikov (Ann Arbor, Michigan)
As the point of departure I would like to mention a few points that were made in the public debate on the role of Jews in German on the eve of World War I as they were summarized by Elisabeth Albanis in her study of the early 20 th century German-Jewish culture. (1) The journalist Moritz Goldstein claimed in his influential essay "Deutsch-Jüdischer Parnass" (1912) that a full assimilation of Jews into German culture was not possible because regardless of their efforts Jews would always be perceived by other Germans as an alien element: "aber mögen wir uns immerhin ganz deutsch fühlen, die anderen fühlen uns ganz undeutsch" (79). But, Goldstein continued, despite the centuries of persecution and discrimination, Judentum and Deutschtum had become "so eng in den Wurzeln verwachsen, dass beide nicht mehr voneinander gelöst warden können." (81). Thus, he argued, the assimilated German Jews faced an impasse: feeling themselves nothing but German, they were nevertheless rejected by other, non-Jewish, Germans who claimed monopoly on Deutschtum. This led Goldstein to a pessimistic conclusion: his generation of German Jews was doomed to remain "Ewig-Halben" (82), hopelessly trapped in their "unhappy love" for Germany (83). To escape this predicament, the future generation of German Jews had to wean themselves off the German life and culture and return to their Jewish roots.
An opposite position was taken by Julius Bab in his essay "Der Anteil der Juden an der deutschen Dichtung der Gegenwart" (1911). Bab believed that Jewish participation in German culture was beneficial both for the Jews and the Germans. Jews contributed to German culture in different ways, but particularly useful was their role as cultural mediators: entrepreneurs, literary agents, translators, and critics (158-161). By using the word Mittler, Bab emphasized the connection between the mediating role which was traditionally played by Jews in European economy and their contemporary function as cultural mediators. Responding to Bab’s argument, Ludwig Strauss accused him of downplaying the specifically Jewish aspects of the creativity of German-Jewish authors and judging them according to German standards which were alien to the Jewish spirit. Calling Bab’s essay a "document of our spiritual slavery" (164), Strauss argued that the only way out of that state of slavery was the "Anschluss an die jüdische, das heisst heute die ostjüdische Kultur".(2)
Strauss’s essay, which opened the first issue of Die Freistatt, set the tone of that remarkable journal. Die Freistatt lasted slightly more than one year, from April 1913 to July 1914, and was strongly influenced by the thinking of Nathan Birnbaum, who at that point was undergoing an ideological transition from secular Yiddishism to traditional Orthodoxy. The journal saw its mission in promoting East European Jewish culture among its German readership and fighting the westernising trends in political Zionism. In his editorial statement, F. M. Kaufmann elaborated on the opposition between the "mechanical" nature of western Judaism and the "synthetic" and "organic" Eastern European Jewry. As a result, he rejected contemporary Zionism as "alien to the people" and the Palestinian project as a "phantom".(3) The future of the Jewish people, he argued, was to be determined by the Volk itself as a synthetic organism, and not by the "desires and dreams of a marginal caste" of the European Jewish leaders, Kaufmann concluded.(4)
In his reply to Strauss’s critique Bab proposed that the concept of assimilation needed to be reinterpreted in a positive sense as a "harmonisches Ineinanderarbeiten" of German and Jewish elements.(5) Bab proudly affirmed his Jewishness: "Mein Geist, der an der Gesetzlichkeit der deutschen Sprache aufgewachsen ist, ist [...] ein ‘jüdischer’"(6) But first and foremost, he said, he belonged to the humanity; both his Jewish or German identities were secondary qualities. Bab rejected Strauss’s call to go and learn the meaning of Jewishness from the Ostjuden because, in his view, it was Yiddish culture that wanted and needed a Western education, and the mission of the German Jews was to help the Ostjuden to enter the European "Kulturmenschheit", not the other way around.(7)
Gustav Landauer joined the debate and questioned Bab’s implied identification of culture in general with its particular Western form to the exclusion of other varieties of cultural expression. Landauer challenged the validity of Bab’s generalizations that were made exclusively on the basis of the German-Jewish experience, without taking into account the specific experiences of the Ostjuden or the Sefardim.(8) In a private letter to Bab Landauer expressed his own feelings more openly: "Das ist’s ja gerade, dass ich diese nichteuropäischen, orientalischen, uralten Spannungen in mir, in uns Juden gegenwärtig spüre!"(9) Landauer’s hesitation to accept the identification of the Jews with the West and his instinctive admiration of the Ostjuden, as advocated also by Strauss or Birnbaum, was part of the intellectual pattern that can be described as "German-Jewish Orientalism." On the eve of World War I the "Orientalist" discourse became popular among German-Jewish intelligentsia and was used for a variety of rhetoric purposes. For example, Jakob Wassermann differentiated between two types of Jewishness: "Der Jude als Europäer, als Kosmopolit ist ein Literat; der Jude als Orientale, nicht im ethnographischen, sondern im mythischen Sinne, als welcher die verwandelnde Kraft zur Gegenwart schon zur Bedingung macht, kann Schöpfer sein."(10) In the essay entitled "Der Jude als Orientale" which appeared as an open letter to Martin Buber in the 1913 collection Vom Judentum issued by the Prague Zionist Bar Kochba association, Wassermann elaborated on the distinction between the two types of Jewish creativity, the Literat and the "creator": "Es ist der Gegensatz zwischen Verwelkung und Fruchtbarkeit, zwischen Vereinzelung und Zugehörigkeit, zwischen Anarchie und Tradition."(11) The negative characteristics were attributed to the real West European Jewry, the positive ones to the imagined Eastern Jewish community: "Der Jude als Europäer, als Kosmopolit ist ein Literat; der Jude als Orientale, nicht im ethnographishen, sondern im mythischen Sinne, als welcher die verwandelnde Kraft zur Gegenwart schon zur Bedingung macht, kann Schöpfer sein."(12) In an essay entitled "Der Jude als Orientale," written in the form of an open letter to Martin Buber and published in the influential collection Vom Judentum which came out in 1913 Prague under the imprint of the Bar Kochba association of the Zionist youth, Wassermann elaborated on the distinction between two Jewish types, the Literat and the creator: "Es ist der Gegensatz zwischen Verwelkung und Fruchbarkeit, zwischen Vereinzelung und Zugehörigkeit, zwischen Anarchie und Tradition."(13) Wassermann imagined the Oriental Jew as a creative spirit with roots in a "authentic" tradition, as opposed to modern European Jews, mere imitators of foreign cultures: "Er ist frei, und jene sind Knechte. Er ist wahr, und jene lügen. Er kennt seine Quellen, er wohnt bei den Müttern, er ruht und schafft, jene sind die ewig wandernden Unwandelbaren."(14) But Wassermann had to admit that at present the Oriental Jew was merely a "symbolic figure," an idea rather than reality. This did not mean that as an idea it had no power: "Doch sind es nicht die Ideen, durch welche die Erscheinungen hervorgebracht werden?"(15) - Wassermann exclaimed rhetorically in the conclusion of his letter. The Orient signified for him both the past and the future, tradition and redemption, whereas Europe was associated the unredeemed present. In order to be reunited with his true self, the European Jew had to come back to his Oriental roots. This return would mean a breaking point in Jewish history, an end and a new beginning.
The symbolic marking of Jews as the "Oriental" was also part of the German Expressionist discourse. In his 1917 essay "Jüdische Dichter" Kasimir Edschmid, a leading German (non-Jewish) Expressionist critic and author, elaborated on the historic mission of the Jewish people: "Gott warf das Volk hinaus, damit es den groben Teig der stumpfen und westlichen Völker durchsäure, es aufpeitsche, vermittle, Märtyrer sei für die grossen Ideen und die neuen Gewitter der geistigen und künstlerischen Spannungen, aber es gab ihm auch die wundervollste Tragik: nie vergessen zu können, dass es aus schöner Heimat zum schweren Dienst nur ausgesandt sei, in Wahrheit aber die Sehnsucht nach der Rückkehr und der eigenen Bestimmung nie verlöre und einmal wohl bestätigt sehen würde."(16) For Edschmid, Jews represented spiritual messengers, whose eternal mission was to spread the message of transcendental idealism in the materialistic civilization of the West. Needless to say, this concept was the direct opposite of the positivist dream of acculturation that was so powerful among German-speaking Jews at the eve of World War I. In most of the cases - such as Wasserman, Buber, Landauer, even Birnbaum - the admiration on the part of German Jewish intellectuals for real or imagined Ostjuden remained rather theoretical. It did not affect the Western lifestyle of those intellectuals, let alone force them to move to Eastern Europe or to abandon German in favour of Yiddish. A rare expression in this sense was Meir Wiener, who left Europe for the Soviet Union in pursuit of a dual dream of joining the Communist utopia and reuniting with the authentic Jewish people and reinvented himself as a Yiddish writer.(17)
Born in (or near) Krakow, Meir Wiener was the eldest son of a textile businessman. His first language was Polish but he was equally fluent in Yiddish and German. He attended a Polish school and had private lessons with Rabbi Tsvi Ha-kohen Rappoport, who taught him not only the foundations of Judaism but also Hebrew language and medieval Hebrew literature.(18) At the beginning of World War 1 the family moved to Vienna; Meir obtained an exemption for health reasons from the military service which enabled him to leave Austria and to continue his education in Switzerland, at the universities of Basel and Zürich. He stayed in Switzerland until the end of the war and returned to Vienna in 1919. During that period Wiener was intensively studying medieval mystical Hebrew poetry, translating it into German, and composing his own expressionist poems in German. In 1920 he published his first books: the anthology of medieval Hebrew mystical poetry Die Lyrik der Kabbalah and a collection of his own poetry Messias. Drei Dichtungen, both in R. Löwitt Verlag.
He also contributed to German and Austrian Zionist periodicals such as Der Jude, Jerubbaal, and Esra. In an article entitled "Ziele des Zionismus", which appeared in the first issue of the Zionist youth almanac Jerubbaal, Wiener outlined his vision of Zionism, which followed in the general direction of the so-called "spiritual Zionism" of Ahad-Ha’am and Martin Buber, but in some respects he was more radically idealist. For Wiener, Zionism meant not the practical task of building a modern Jewish state in Palestine but rather the pursuit of the eternal ideals of love, dignity, and self-respect: "Having acquired Palestine, Zionism will still not have completed its mission," he wrote. "Here is just the beginning of its tasks which have been set by the holy prophets thousands of years ago; the earthly Jerusalem is the beginning of the path to the goal - to the celestial Jerusalem."(19) By rejecting political goals, Wiener transferred Zionist discourse from the area of practice into the sphere of messianic ideals:
Wir erstreben Palästina als Boden für unsere Seele, wo sie sich ihren Weg bahnen kann, den sie dann von ihrem eigenem Wesen geführt, ungehindert von schmählichen äußeren Hemmungen selber finden wird. [...] Darum wollen wir uns sammlen, in uns gehen, uns besinnen, auf unsere Seele lauschen, den uns geziemenden Boden, irdischen wie geistigen erspähen und in Besitz nehmen. [...] Auf diesem Boden, von Hemmungen unbehelligt, wird unser Blick geläutert werden, unsere Betrachtungsweise klar und einfach, offen und gütig, weil von trübenden Störungen gesichert: ohne Mißtrauen der Welt geöffnet, weil innen im Frieden einig, stark und einfältig.(20)
Wiener’s vision of Zionism was infused with ideas and images derived from medieval messianic and kabbalistic Hebrew sources, which he adapted to the post-war situation with the help of Buber’s existentialist philosophy and German expressionist aesthetics. He interpreted the messianic idea as a core element of Jewish national identity, which gave the Jewish people power to survive in the past and present and hope for the future. Messianic figures emerged throughout the Jewish history, partly fulfilling and partly failing to fulfill their promise - Esra, the Maccabeans, Jesus, Bar-Kochba. The Christian variety of messianism, according to Wiener, could not satisfy Jews because it removed the salvation from the political realm to the heaven: "Nicht Erlösung in das Himmelreich verlangten sie von ihrem Messias, politische Befreiung hatten sie im Sinne."(21)
The messianic drive did not die away in the diaspora, and produced a number of remarkable personalities, such as Sabbatai Zvi. Finally, the most recent time had its own messiah: "Als ein moderner Messias der freilich auch gescheitert ist betrachte ich Theodor Herzl."(22) Messianic personalities could be found not only among Jews; indeed, every nation had its own great personalities which embodied the "genius of the people": the Germans had their Frederic the Great and Bismark, "die Einigkeit herstellten und das Volk erlösten". German perseverance could serve as an example for the Zionist project:
Der Zionismus soll unausführbar sein? Wir haben es gelernt, sehr Vieles[,] das als Unmöglichkeit bezeichnet wurde, doch als sehr möglich und ausführbar anzusehen. Wer hätte sich den Weltkrieg möglich gedacht? Wer hatte die ungeheuere Widerstandskraft der Zentralmächte gegen eine ganze Welt voll Feinde für möglich gehalten? Alles ist möglich! Alles ist ausführbar! ‚Wenn ihr wollt, ist es kein Märchen’ sagt Th. Herzel [sic!].(23)
With the passing of time, Wiener’s understanding of Messiah loses its religious and individualist aspects, becomes more materialist, and eventually merges with the notion of the people as the collective moving force in history and culture. The conquest of chaos, an imitation of the creation in art and literature, was a central theme of Expressionism. For Wiener, literary creativity was at its core a mystical process which included as its key components creation, revelation, and redemption. An intense personal experience, Erlebnis, was for Buber an instrument of productive engaging with the world. But the intensity of personal experience alone was not sufficient for producing genuine art, as Wiener argued in his critical essays. He diagnosed the condition of his generation as "dilettantism", which resulted in the "weakness of representation". One can see traces of this weakness in the heroic character of Wiener’s messianic poetry, Diogo Pires, Herod, and Joseph della Reina. They had will and ambition, but they failed to accomplish their mission because their fantasies prevented them from seeing through the surface of things. They were unable to understand the deepest secrets of the divine creation because they could not submit their will to the Creator. Expressionism did not live up to its own mission.
On his return to Vienna in 1919, Wiener drew close to the circle of Zionist youth that was gathering around the writer Eugen Hoeflich (Moshe Ben-Gavriel) and his wife, the actress Miriam Schnabel. Among other of Wiener’s Zionist and Hebraist associates were the Zionist activist and Hebrew poet Abraham Sonne (Avraham Ben-Yitshak), the Hebrew and Yiddish author David Vogel, and Zwi Diesendruck, the translator and lecturer in Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Pädagogium. Wiener also had Yiddishist friends: the poet and journalist Melech Rawicz, the physician and poet Melech Chmelnicki, as well as the playwright and journalist Moyshe Lifshits, who was also known as a Soviet agent.(24) Wiener’s interests were not limited to Jewish culture and politics: one of his friends was Oskar Maurus Fontana, an Austrian writer and literary critic.
The detailed diaries of Eugen Hoeflich, which were published with extensive commentaries in 1999, offer a window into the everyday life of the young Zionist intelligentsia of the post-war Vienna and contain some interesting details about Meir Wiener. Drafted in the Austrian-Hungarian army at the beginning of the war, Hoeflich was sent to Galicia where he was badly wounded in July 1915. After his recuperation, in 1917 he was assigned to Palestine where he served as a liaison officer between the Austrian and Turkish military commands. He was appalled by the situation in Palestine under Ottoman rule but enchanted by the Orient. Under the impact of his encounter with non-European Jews in Jerusalem, he began to formulate that political ideology which would be named ‘Pan-Asiatic Zionism’: it combined elements of the spiritual Zionism of Ahad Ha’am and Buber with the radical ‘activism’ of post-war German expressionism.
In Hoeflich’s eclectic ideology, vague messianic sentiments were transformed into Utopian plans of evacuating Jews from Europe to Palestine. In his view, Jews had to abandon Europe and rejoin that great brotherhood of Eastern nations who were awakening from their age-long sleep and mounting resistance to aggressive and materialist Western civilization. Return to the East was essential to purify Jews from the malaise of the West, so that together with Arabs they could resist the westernization of their common homeland. There was little Hoeflich could do in practice, however, apart from entertaining Utopian dreams. Observing the world situation at the end of 1918, he recorded in his diary: "Ich setze meine letzte Hoffnung auf die Weltrevolution, die Englands Herrschaft in Palästina und den kapitalistisch-imperialistischen Einfluss überhaupt brechen will"(25)
In May 1919 Hoeflich received an offer from the Jüdischer Hochschulausschuss (Jewish University Committee, the executive arm of the Union of Jewish Students) to become the editor of a new Zionist monthly aimed at Jewish intellectuals. The choice of the title Esra makes clear the ideological orientation of the publication, the purpose of which was to ‘save for Jewry the western Jewish academic’ from the dangers of assimilation by forcing them into the direction of Jewish work. Meir Wiener became one of this periodical’s contributors along with Hugo Bergmann, Adolf Böhm, Max Brod, Albert Ehrenstein, Ernst Müller, Arno Nadel, Elijahu Rappeport, Oskar Rosenfeld, Siegfried Schmitz, Charlot Strasser, Friedrich Thieberger, Felix and Robert Weltsch. It was the last, eighth, issue, that contained what was probably Wiener’s most important contribution to Zionist journalism.
Esra was radical, if not militant, in its anti-bourgeois outlook, displaying a clear sympathy for socialism but distancing itself from Bolshevism. In a piece entitled "Bolschewismus, Judentum und dis Zukunft" Hoeflich proclaimed: "vom Bolschewismus trennt uns ebensoviel wie von jenem Judentum, das sich europäisch fühlt und europäische Maße sich zu eigen machte. Der Jude, der die Diskrepanz zwischen Bolschewismus und Judentum erkennt, wird auch die Zwiespalt zwischen Judentum und Kapitalismus, Europäismus, Merkantilismus erkennen und wird die reinsten Formen des Lebens auf der Bahn seines Volkes suchen."(26) It was the last, eighth, issue, that contained what was probably Wiener’s most significant and outspoken piece of Zionist journalism.
On 23 December 1919, Hoeflich recorded in his diary:
Gestern abends fand im Kaffe [sic! Café] Central eine Verschwörung statt. Die Verschwörer waren Meir Wiener, Mirjam und ich. Wiener brachte mir einen Aufsatz für Esra, der in ausserordentlich scharfer Weise gegen die Parteipolitik in Zionismus gerichtet ist. Plötzlich tauchte der Gedanke auf, eine Sondernummer des Esra zu machen, in der unter dem Titel "Dies ist nicht unser Weg" die paar Anständigen, Rappeport, Bernfeld, Boehm, Helene Hannah Cohn und wir zwei gegen die Zionistik auftreten sollen. (27)
The plan was realized in the final, eighth issue of the journal (January, 1920), in which Wiener’s piece, entitled "Ist dies noch Zionismus? (Notizen und Zitate)", occupied a prominent position. Official "party Zionism" had lost its spiritual dimensions and had turned into a political nationalist movement driven by practical considerations, Wiener argued. One of the reasons for the decline of spirituality in Zionism, he went on, was the triumph of the utilitarian Anglo-American variety of Zionism that had come to dominate the movement after the war to the exclusion of the representatives of the impoverished German, Austrian and Russian Jews from the position of leadership. By adopting the Anglo-Saxon commercial attitude to politics and economics, the Zionist leaders had betrayed the ideals that had inspired the youth movement, Wiener concluded in his analysis.(28)
In the final part of his article, Wiener expressed some sympathy with Soviet anti-Zionist propaganda without actually endorsing it. He quoted a Copenhagen Zionist Bureau report from Soviet Russia which mentioned an article in Pravda by Semyon Dimanshteyn, at that time the People’s Commissar for Jewish Affairs. Dimanshteyn described Zionists as military agents of British imperial policy who helped their masters to seize control over Palestine’s indigenous people, the Turks and the Arabs. While placing question marks against some points in the article that appeared totally outlandish, such as an announcement of the appointment of Ze’ev Jabotinsky as Governor-General of Palestine, Wiener nevertheless seemed to share Dimanshteyn’s overall ideological position. By juxtaposing the article from Pravda with an exchange of opinions from the Hebrew newspaper Hapo’el ha-tsa’ir regarding the need for the Zionists to use military force, Wiener drove the reader to a conclusion that the chief point of Soviet anti-Zionist propaganda was essentially valid, although some of the facts were obviously wrong. For Wiener, the militarization of the Zionist movement under the ‘Judenjunker’ Jabotinsky was a grave crime against the spiritual essence of the movement, for which, he predicted, "we will pay very dearly".(29)
Wiener saw the mission of Zionism in affirming the supremacy of spirit over matter. He rejected the slogan "Palestine by all means", regarding Palestine not simply as a Jewish territory in the British colonial empire, but as the spiritual homeland of the Jewish people. A physical return to Palestine was meaningful only inasmuch as it could lead to a spiritual rebirth. The defeat of the Central Powers in the war also meant the defeat of the German variety of spiritual Zionism, whereas the victory of the Entente meant the triumph of the Anglo-Saxon mercantilist world-view. Now that Palestine had been incorporated into the British colonial system, the Zionists had no choice but to serve their new masters and to adopt their materialist philosophy. There was no place for true Jewish spirituality in British-ruled Palestine. At the same time, Wiener placed Soviet Russia on the same side as Austria and Germany as counties representing the defeated world of idealist culture. Wiener’s criticism made no impact on his contemporaries.(30) The eighth issue of Esra turned out to be its last. It is difficult to establish when and how Wiener came in contact with Communists which culminated in his joining the Austrian Communist Party in 1925. On 12 September 1921, Wiener arranged a meeting between Hoeflich and a certain Dr Hersch Nagler, whom Hoeflich attested as "one of the local leaders of Jewish Bolsheviks who arrived from Moscow via the Warsaw state prison."(31) Nagler offered Hoeflich a substantial monthly allowance in exchange for his regular reports on the situation in the Near and Far East, but Hoeflich declined this offer. A few weeks later, Wiener left Vienna for Berlin, where he worked first for his father’s firm and later as a reader for a major German publishing house. His relationship with Hoeflich grew increasingly strained.
From Berlin Wiener travelled frequently to Vienna and to Prague, where he collaborated with the famous Hebraist Rabbi Heinrich (Haim) Brody on an anthology of medieval Hebrew poetry. Published in 1922 by Insel Verlag in Leipzig, Anthologia Hebraica remained for over two decades the standard work in the field and was reprinted several times in Palestine to be used as a textbook for Hebrew high schools. The later editions did not, however, include the short preface written by Wiener alone - possibly because of his unorthodox statements asserting a direct link between biblical and medieval Hebrew and modern German Expressionism. Wiener elaborated on his concept of expressionist poetry as a synthesis between German and Jewish traditions in his two essays on Else Lasker-Schüler and Paul Adler that were included in the collection Juden in der deutschen Literatur(32). Why was Lasker-Schüler’s poetry perceived as Jewish, Wiener asked. At the external level, this had to do with her frequent use of tropes, images and parables that appeared to the reader as ‘oriental’. Of course, Western poetics also used images, but merely for the purpose of clarity. In Eastern poetry, symbol and parable existed independently, not as an illustration but as an end in itself, not as means towards other rhetorical or didactic ends. The Oriental poet decorated his experience with ‘verbal precious stones’ without any practical purpose; the Western poet aspired to give a precise depiction of his experience, using images as auxiliary means. The Oriental poet was more of a transcendental aesthete, which led to the tendency towards conservatism, to accumulation of experience rather than its revision, Wiener argued.
In Wiener’s view, Else Lasker-Schüler’s poetry was consonant with that Oriental tradition. He described her eighteen Hebrew ballads as "little ancient Hebrew Songs of Songs, which resemble, in their aphoristic quality, the cherry blossoms of Japanese lyrical poetry."(33) She had discovered in Biblical imagery and sensitivity what she had already known through intuition. But the appropriation of Oriental poetics by a Western poet had its dangers. Lasker-Schüler’s weakness had to do with her passivity, which for Wiener was a characteristic trait of her (and his) generation. Adopting the Oriental mood of passive contemplation could be destructive for a Western poet if it were not combined with rigorous economy of form. In this essay on Lasker-Schüler, Wiener also expressed his dissatisfaction with the state of German-Jewish artistic creativity. He identified the root of the problem which afflicted the creativity of most of the German-Jewish poets as dilettantism. A dilettante artist was able to express his personal experience but was incapable of subordinating his expression to the rigid requirements of form. This resulted in eclectic mixture of the Oriental and the Occidental "spirit", which could potentially spell the end of art. Lasker-Schüler’s poetry expressed her "passive" experience, but was not ecquipped, "um sich selber den Weg zum Verständnis zu bahnen."(34) In conclusion, Wiener proclaimed:
Man wird einst vermutlich unsere Epoche die dilettantische nennen. - Noch nie gab es eine so große Anzahl so hoch begabter, intensive erlebender ehrwürdiger Dilettanten, einen ethisch so hoch gediehenen Dilettantismus, der menschlich gesehen, unzweifelhaft höher zu bewerten ist, als manche hohe Kunst. In diesen Blättern galt es, den tragischen Dilettantismus unserer Zeit nicht nur menschlich-positiv, sondern auch von künstlerisch-zweckfreien Standpunkt in seinen negativen Momenten zu prüfen.(35)
Even Lasker-Schüler, one of the most outstanding German-Jewish poets of that age, did not live up to the genuine aesthetic "Oriental" standard that has been set up by the Bible. Her poetry remained dilettantish, that is, not general enough and too closely connected with her personal experience. Adopting a passive and contemplative personal oriental attitude as a person without counterbalancing it by the rigorous economy of artistic form can result in degeneration of art, warns Wiener. As a person, he is sympathetic with the attempts of his generation to create a new German-Jewish poetic idiom; but as a critic he has to uncover its lack of rigor and energy.
Wiener’s linguistic shift from German to Yiddish can be considered within the wider context of a search for new ways of expression among German-speaking Jewish intellectuals, particularly those from the former Habsburg Empire. Whereas some of them remained within the German linguistic sphere but looked for inspiration to the Orient - among them Wiener’s colleagues Albert Ehrenstein and Paul Adler, who turned to translation and imitation of Chinese literature - others changed not only their cultural orientation but their language as well. As two most curious examples, one can mention Leopold Weiss, who was born into a middle-class Lemberg Jewish family, studied art history at the University of Vienna, but made his career, under the name Muhammad Asad, as the architect of the Islamic state in Pakistan and a pre-eminent authority on Islamic law, or the Czernowitz-born poetess Klara Blum, who emigrated to the Communist China and reinvented herself as a novelist under the name Zhu Bailan.
An interest in Jewish culture and history was not unusual for a Central European Jewish intellectual of Wiener’s generation; neither was his commitment to Communism. What was unusual, however, was the combination of the two, and Wiener’s ability to reinvent himself as the pre-eminent Marxist scholar of Yiddish literature in the Soviet Union. He probably began writing in Yiddish around 1921, but was unable to find a publisher for his Yiddish texts until he moved to the Soviet Union. One of his earliest works was the unfinished poem "Yoyske-mamzer" (Yoske the Bastard) about a Jewish vagabond endowed with some messianic traits. The Christological allusions such as the hero’s name (‘Yoske’ is a derogatory Yiddish name for Jesus) and circumstances of his birth and death place this early work in the context of Yiddish expressionism of the early 1920s with its radical ideological and aesthetic agenda aimed at the re-appropriation of the image of Jesus as the symbolic figure of Jewish suffering and martyrdom and its estrangement from the traditional European Christianity. In 1923 Wiener completed his first novel Ele Faleks untergang (The Downfall of Ele Falek), which came out in Kharkov in 1929. This novel, which tells the story of an unfortunate young man growing up in pre-World War I Cracow, continues the theme of the suffering of the innocent.
In Berlin, Wiener established friendships with the Yiddish writers Leyb Kvitko and Der Nister (Pinkhas Kahanovich) who introduced him to the circle of Yiddish-speaking émigré literati from the Soviet Union. According to the memoirs of Kvitko’s wife Betty, Kvitko regarded Wiener as his best friend in Berlin: "They used to spent hours together, walking in Berlin streets and talking. Kvitko eagerly absorbed Wiener’s broad knowledge, and Wiener listened with no less interest to Kvitko’s stories about his life, about Bolsheviks, and about the Land of the Soviets".(36) Outside this circle, Wiener’s Yiddish works found little appreciation among Yiddish writers and editors who refused to publish them. The archival documents shed little light on Wiener’s ideological and political development at that time. He did not mention his Communist sympathies in his letters to his sisters, nor did his literary works contain any overt political references. His relationship with his father deteriorated after his mother’s death in 1922 and his father’s subsequent second marriage.
His move to Paris in the autumn of 1925 had a depressive effect on Wiener’s mood. His letters to his friend, the Hebrew author David Vogel, are full of sarcastic complaints at the attitudes of those Yiddish writers whom Wiener met in Paris: Sholem Asch, H. Leyvick, and Oyzer Warszawski. On 8 February 1926 Wiener wrote to Vogel:
I received a letter from Kvitko. He writes that I should come to Russia. Just so, and everything will be fine. This is of course absolutely impossible. He invites me to contribute to the Yiddish monthly Di royte velt (in Kharkov). I am not going to send him anything because I understand very well that even with his best intentions he won’t be able to publish anything. This is completely unsuitable for them.(37)
Almost two months later, in a letter to his sister Erna of April 4, 1926, Wiener sounded more determined:
Ich bekam nämlich von zwei Seiten, insbesondere von einer sehr und sehr seriösen unbedingt nach Russland zu fahren. Man versprach mir jede mögliche Hilfe. Jetzt sitze ich hier in Qual und Herzleid und zerquäle mein armes Gehirn. Alles was ich konnte habe ich getan. [...] Ich habe heute solche schwere Ahnungen über meine Zukunft gehabt. Nie noch war ich so mutlos. Ich weiss selbst nicht genau warum. Und das ist nicht gut. Es geht nicht bloss wegen meiner materiellen Zukunft sondern überhaupt(38)
Wiener waited in Vienna until the wedding of his younger sister Franzi who married his friend Fritz Gross and left in the autumn of 1926. The day of his departure remained in Erna’s memory: "It was a rainy, grey, cold, and sad day when I took him to the station. We were both depressed and crying and we were both young so we did not have any premonition that we should never meet again."(39) The reasons of Wiener’s emigration to the Soviet Union were complex: his dissatisfaction with the political course of the Zionist movement, his affection for communism, as well as his inability to realize his ambitions as a scholar and a writer in Europe.
Unlike his new friends Leyb Kvitko, Peretz Markish, and Der Nister, who found a temporary refuge in Central Europe after the devastations and pogroms of the Russian Revolution and Civil War, Wiener never lived in Russia and did not know the Russian language. During the first years in Kharkov and Kiev he underwent a thorough ideological and cultural transformation. From now on, his main language of expression was Yiddish; his scholarly and critical writing was heavily influenced by Marxist theory, and his fiction had to be adjusted to the norms of the socialist realism. Nevertheless, Wiener succeeded in realizing his ambition: he became one of the leading Yiddish literary scholars of his generation and produced a number of original works of fiction. Had the Yiddish culture in Eastern Europe not been destroyed the Holocaust and the Stalinist persecution, Meir Wiener would have been celebrated today as its Lukács or Benjamin, and his ideas would be developed by new generations of his followers. But as things are today, he is remembered only by a few literary historians in America and Israel. It would not be possible to discuss Meir Wiener’s work during his Soviet years in its entirety in one paper.(49) Therefore I shall limit my discussion to his memoirs and his autobiographical novel, in which he reflected upon his past in Krakow, Vienna, and Berlin. None of it was published during his lifetime, and a large part remains unpublished today.
Already in his youth Wiener became interested in his family history, of which he was intensely proud. In 1917 he wrote from Zurich to his younger sister in Vienna:
Du bist eine Jüdin. Wahrlich ein uredles altes Volk, älter als das älteste Adelsgeschlecht in der Welt. Ausserdem gehörst Du einer feinen, alten Familie an. Deine Vorfahren mütterlicherseits sind Gelehrte vom Typus des gelehrten Kaufmannes, soweit ich zurückverfolgte lauter edle Typen, ein sehr edler, seit Jahrhunderten geachter Name (Landau[);] väterlicherseits ebenso (die Vorfahren der Großmama aus Cheranov waren fast lauter Rabbiner wie ich es genau aufgeschrieben habe nach Aussage des Großpapas). Der Name Wiener hat überall in der jüd[ischen] Welt einen guten Klang, besonders auch in der moderner Gelehrtenwelt [...]. Der Vorfahre, dessen Namen Papa trägt, war eine berühmte rabbinische Größe, [...]. Du brauchst nur im Spiegel zu besehen und Du wirst selber finden, dass Du Rasse hast, und zwar eine feine edle Rasse.(41)
Nearly twenty years later in Moscow Wiener began recording his memoirs. Sixteen chapters concerning his early years in Krakow, apparently drafted during the last years of his life, remained unpublished until 1969. Eliezer Podryadchik, who prepared the memoirs for publication in the Soviet Yiddish magazine Sovetish heymland, believed that Wiener intended to write a comprehensive story of his life up to his emigration to the Soviet Union in 1926, but the plan remained unrealized because of the author’s untimely death. Today it is not easy to imagine how Wiener would have dealt with his diverse political, cultural, and academic interests that ranged from Zionism to German Expressionism and to the Kabbalah.
The central figure in the first nine episodes of Wiener’s memoirs, which were published jointly under the title Der zeyde Binyomin, was his maternal grandfather Binyomin Landa (Landau), an extraordinary character who combined mystical piety and deep knowledge of Jewish sources with worldly wisdom. His mathematical mind and exact eye enabled him to earn his living as a highly qualified profession al by performing complicated financial audits and supervising the construction of buildings in Krakow without compromising his religious beliefs. Wiener described his grandfather as an embodiment of the traditional Jewish ideal of a mushlam, a perfectly rounded personality that combined deep piety and learning with a positive attitude to practical life. As a socio-cultural ideal, the mushlam preceded the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment which brought about a split between critical reason and religious belief. Although born in the age of the Haskalah and familiar with its teachings, both grandfathers remained essentially pre-modern in their belief that all problems in nature and society could ultimately be resolved within the system of traditional Judaism. Binyomin Landa’s confidence in the ethical universality of Judaism was put to a test only once, when he began to ponder the problem of social inequality:
der zeyde hot batrakht: vi hot men es gehert fun di sforim, az dos rov mentshn laydn noyt durkh andere mentshn? Zol dos zayn epes aza naye shtrof fun got? Iz farvos shteyt gornit vegn dem in sforim? Farvos redt men gornit vegn dem? Farvos shvaygn ale un makh zikh nit visndik? Efsher darf men do gor fregn vegn dem di hayntike mentshn?"(42)
(Grandfather considered: how does it go in the religious tomes -- that most people suffer because of other people? Is that perhaps supposed to be a new kind of punishment from God? Then why is there nothing about it in the religious tomes? Why is nothing said about it at all? Why is everyone silent about it and pretends not to know? Perhaps one must indeed question the people alive today about it.)
Unable to get an answer from the familiar sources, he decided to pay a visit to the communal library "Ezro," a hotbed of modern freethinking. The librarian tried to determine the correct conceptual category for the problem that had brought this unusual visitor to his library. He suggested Zionism, literature, Haskalah, Hasidism or Halakha, but nothing quite fit, and the grandfather was about to leave. Then the librarian made one last desperate guess: "zeydenyu, ir meynt efsher sotsializmus?" ("Grandpa, perhaps you mean socialism?"). The grandfather got angry at such a suggestion: "Der zeyde flegt hern dos dozike vort als zidleray fun hefker-yungen. - Khasvesholem" ("Grandfather usually heard that word as verbal abuse by wanton youths, God forbid," ibid., 105). Here Wiener the author skillfully maneuvered his grandfather up to the border of socialism but made him stop before crossing. It was left to the grandson to make the fateful step over the gap that separated the Jewish tradition from socialism, which eventually led him to the Soviet Union. In another fragment that Wiener decided not to include in the final draft of his memoirs, he tried to push his grandfather even closer to socialism: he had his grandfather look at the "Communist Manifesto" and recognize that his views were not so mush different from those of Marx and Engels.
Wiener’s memoirs paid little attention to his parents and their middle class milieu, focusing instead on all kinds of unusual characters that impressed him in his youth. Those people formed a bridge that connected the young Wiener directly to a romantic, pre-modern past, bypassing the bourgeois present. One was his 105-year old great-grandmother who must have been born in the days of Joseph II and continued to live mentally in the early nineteenth century. Wiener’s Krakow was a multi-layered city, whose medieval Jewish quarter still flourished, along with its inhabitants. One day his grandfather ventured deep into the Krakow slums, entering an "uralt hoyz fun der amoliker yidisher geto" ("ancient house in the former Jewish ghetto"), which was now populated by Jewish beggars.)(43) In accordance with his custom, the grandfather regularly invited them to a meal in his house. This time the meal had a symbolic significance as a ceremony at which the grandfather passed his legacy, the city beggars, to his grandson: "der zeyde hot gebetn Yoyln kumen teykef inderfri un zayn zol er bay im a gantsn tog. [...] Un der zeyde hot dokh di sude gemakht mit a meyn, az Yoyl zol dafke derbay zayn"(44) ("Grandfather asked Yoyl to come first thing in the morning and stay with him the whole day. And grandfather arranged the meal intending that Yoyl definitely be there"). Each beggar possessed a certain exaggerated quality that made him a remarkable character but disqualified him for a normal life: one had an extraordinary appetite; another was extremely shy; a third one was possessed by strong fears.
Wiener acknowledged that his naturalistic portraits of the beggars made them appear as literary rather than real characters:
Ikh veys, az a sakh fun di parshoynen, vos ikh bashrayb zey do, dermonen mit eyntslne shtrikhn zeyere in yidishe betlers shoyn lang fun andere yidishe shrayber bashribene, ikh shver ober, az di ale parshoynen, vos ikh dertseyl vegn zey, zaynen take geven mentshn, vos ikhh hob gezen in undzer shtot, vos ikh hob gut gekent, un oyb zey dermonen in andere bashribene betlers, iz es bloyz a simen, vi farshpreyt un enlekh zey zaynen geven eyner dem andern. (ibid., 111)
("I know that many of the characters whom I describe here remind one in their particular traits of Jewish beggars that have formerly been described by other Yiddish authors. I swear, however, that all of these characters about which I write were real people whom I saw in our city and whom I knew well, and if they remind one of other beggars described elsewhere, that is no more than a sign how widespread and similar they were, one was to the other").
The collection of beggars in Wiener’s memoirs resembles an allegorical portrait of the whole of humanity, with each person representing a certain aspect of human nature, exaggerated and driven to absurdity, in accordance with medieval, as well as expressionist aesthetic principles. Wiener’s first-hand familiarity with this phenomenon helped him establish his credentials within Yiddish literary tradition and the tradition of social criticism as well. By the late 1930s Wiener was recognized as one of the most knowledgeable and versatile custodians of the Jewish past in the Soviet Union, capable of representing it in three different genres: literary scholarship, the historical novel, and personal memoirs.
Another personification of the folkstimlekhkayt concept in Wiener’s memoirs was his older friend Yoysi Rotenberg, a prodigy who on his own mastered the entire Western philosophical tradition. As Marcus Moseley noted in his analysis of Wiener’s memoirs, this character was endowed with
all of the key-characteristics of the mentor/muse archetype as this is developed in the Yiddish autobiographical tradition: an obscurity of origin; familiar, yet strange [...] he escapes categorization within the familiar taxonomy of Eastern European Jewish culture; the muse is possessed of spiritual and/or physical charisma which exerts an almost magically irresistible attraction upon all who come within its orbit; and finally it is the naïve, childlike quality which draws to the muse adult and child alike.(45)
It is important to add to that insightful description that Yoysi also represented the ideal of the folksmentsh as it was described by Wiener himself in his critical studies of Yiddish literature and portrayed artistically in his historical novel Kolev Ashkenazi. Born and raised in the most backward corner of the Habsburg Empire, a Carpathian shtetl, Yoysi acquired an incredible expertise in all areas of philosophy that enabled him to stay abreast of its most modern trends. He performed this astonishing intellectual leap from the medieval shtetl directly to the fin de siècle city, bypassing the stage of nineteenth-century bourgeois positivism and remaining untouched by middle class sensibilities. His rejection of lucrative career offers from the rabbinical seminary in Trieste, a Zionist organization, and Christian missionaries from London, can be interpreted as testimony to the freedom of spirit that lived in the midst of the Jewish people and refused to be harnessed by bourgeois culture.
Wiener’s treatment of Zionism in his memoirs presents the most vivid example of what Moseley described as ideological distortion. Wiener associated Zionism, as any nationalist ideology, with mental and physical weakness. His friend Dovid Ekshteyn became attracted by Zionism after he had been severely beaten by his own father for his rejection of religious observance. For a year-and-a-half he was confined to bed, and when he finally recovered, he lost his fighting spirit and found refuge in nationalism. He explained his new worldview to his friend Yoyl: "mir iz nit shreklekh, az men vet mikh bagrobn in a tales un me vet nokh mir zogn kadish"(46) ("I do not find it terrible that I will be buried in a tales and kadish will be said over me"). Yoyl regarded Zionism as a consequence of anti-semitism with no independent value:
Tsiyenizm iz in der shtot nit geven farshpreyt. Un Yoyln iz dos geven in iker fremd. Der patos fun natsionalizm iz im geven fremd un kegn zayn teve. S’iz im oysgekumen vi umentshlekh, nit mentsh-frayntlekh, pereodemdik. (ibid., 123).
("Zionism was not widespread in the city. And it was in principle foreign to Yoyl. The pathos of nationalism was foreign to him and against his nature. It seemed inhuman, inhumane, primitive, to him.")
Yoyl tried to explain to his broken friend Dovid the absurdity of any nationalistic dream: "Az me shlogt arayn a drengl in der erd un men zogt: ‘do iz a grenets’, iz derfun gedrungen, az di mentshn fun beyde zaytn drengl vern fremd un fayntlekh eyner dem andern? Farvos zoln zey oyfhern tsu trakhtn beshutfes vegn der kumediker tsayt?"(47) ("When one pounds a rod into the earth and says: ‘here is a border,’ is the result that people on both sides of the rod become foreign to, and enemies of, each other? Why should they stop thinking cooperatively about the future?"). Wiener was driven to Marxism by his disappointment in bourgeois reality and by the promise of a future just society where national and religious differences would not matter. In Marxism, he found an imagined antidote to the leveling forces of capitalism and nationalism which threatened to destroy culture in its diversity. Communism attracted him by its utopian promise not only to build a just society but also to preserve archaic and primitive elements of culture for the future. Zionism, on the contrary, represented a negation of the future and return to the parochial past.
Wiener’s dual attachment both to communism and Jewish past exemplifies the peculiar phenomenon of "elective affinity" between Jewish utopianism and radical libertarianism that was described by the French historian Michael Löwy. As Löwy pointed out, the majority of Jewish intellectuals of German background with neo-romantic inclination faced a choice between two paths:
[...] either a return to their own historical roots, to their own culture, nationality or ancestral religion; or adherence to a universal romantic-revolutionary utopia. Not surprisingly, given the structural homology between these two paths, a number of Jewish thinkers close to anti-capitalist romanticism chose both simultaneously: on the one hand, a (re)discovery of the Jewish religion - most notably, the restorative/utopian dimension of messianism; on the other hand, sympathy for, or identification with, revolutionary (especially libertarian) utopias loaded with nostalgia for the past.(48)
For the majority of the intellectuals in this category - which includes such luminaries as Walter Benjamin, Martin Buber, and Ernst Bloch - this "elective affinity" was confined to the sphere of theoretical deliberation, and only few of them - like Gustav Landauer or Eugen Leviné - made an actual attempt to put theory into practice, which almost immediately ended in a tragic disaster. Wiener made a more sustained move from theory to practice by choosing the land of the revolutionary utopia as their home. As one can see, this move did not cure them of their romantic nostalgia. The nostalgic impulse became especially powerful at the most dramatic time of the Stalinist purges during the late 1930s.
Wiener’s major literary work, Der groyser roman has remained in manuscript until now. It is this unfinished work that contains a most fascinating fictional account of Wiener’s experience in Vienna and Berlin during the early 1920s. To my knowledge, Wiener’s Groyser roman is the only large-scale attempt in Yiddish literature to portray the Bohemian milieu peopled by the Jewish artistic and literary intelligentsia of Berlin and Vienna in the aftermath of World War I. Wiener deliberately avoids themes and motifs that were prevalent in Yiddish fiction of that age, such as assimilation, anti-Semitism, intermarriage etc. Most of his fictional characters have real life prototypes, whose names are sometimes mentioned in parentheses. Another source for reconstructing the reality behind the fiction is Wiener’s notebook from the year 1925 which has been also preserved in the archives.
The main protagonist of the novel Groyser roman is a Polish-Jewish artist named Slovek Lagodny who can be identified, with a reasonable degree of certainty, as Marcel Slodki, one of the members of the Dada group in Zurich who later lived in Berlin and Paris. Apart from the semantic connection between the adjectives Slodki (sweet) and Lagodny (mild, gentle), there are indications in the notebooks that Wiener used his friend Slodki as a model. The question of the extent to which the fictional character of Lagodny reflects the real-life character of Slodki is a more complicated matter that is unlikely be resolved with any degree of certainty from today’s perspective, so long after the events and persons concerned have passed beyond memory.
The opening part of the novel unfolds in the aftermath of the aborted revolution of 1919 in Vienna, "the gigantic city which now, after the demise of the Austrian Empire and having lost its right to its gigantic size, has remained a gigantic capital of a small state".(49) In the chapter entitled ‘Shadow People’ Wiener portrays a grotesque series of intellectual types, mostly Jews, who found refuge in numerous cafés:
In a big, poorly lit hall with an unusually high vaulted ceiling reminiscent of a Gothic church and big wide columns, there are little people sitting at the little tables, always the same, day after day. They come here after work, read papers, play chess, chew old jokes over and over. They are very polite to each other, and sometimes they start a conversation about the needs of ‘humanity’.(50)
The regular café crowd consisted of
all kinds of world improvers with various projects, followers of Buddhism and Shintoism, but mostly of psychoanalysis. Officers of the former Imperial Army, who were debating in their broad Viennese dialect one issue: that the war has proven that the humanity should correct the mistake and give ‘our Palestine’ back to the Jews [...] Social-Democratic lawyers, who were reading King Lear and works by Kautsky systematically, two pages a day.(51)
Some of the characters in the novel can be identified as Wiener’s friends and associates. In the novel, each one of them receives a short but devastating characteristic: ‘a radical Zionist with Catholic inclinations; a drunk actor with penchant for literature; a former officer and the author of the Zionist-Pan-Asiatic idea; [...] a Vienna Jew of Sefardi origin, Dr Abram Moren, a young man with a large beard and a lot of hair and the manners a la Christ, who took to organize a trade union of the prostitutes in order to save them from exploitation.’(52) The latter two persons can be easily identified as Eugen Hoeflich and Jacob Moreno Levy (1889-1974), the author of numerous popular books on psychoanalysis and the creator of the methods of psychodrama and group therapy, who made a very successful career after his emigration to the United States in 1925.
The grotesque pictures of post-war Vienna in the first part of Wiener’s novel are reminiscent of the atmosphere in David Vogel’s Hebrew novel Haim nisuin (Married Life, 1929). In the early 1920s Wiener and Vogel spent much time with their friends who met regularly in the cafés Central and Herrenhof. One can assume that, among other things, they would have discussed their literary projects, among them Vogel’s future novel. An echo of those conversations can be heard in Wiener’s encouraging words to his friend: "You will write prose! A good one! Very good one! Don’t fall in despair after the first unsuccessful attempts!"(53)
A number of clues lead to a guess that Wiener disguised himself under the mask of a secondary character named Menter. The writer Menter is introduced in an indirect fashion, through one of his acquaintances, who informs Slovek: "I met an interesting young man from Switzerland, a Doctor of Philosophy and a very witty person." What follows can be interpreted as self-criticism aimed at Wiener’s old self before his conversion to Communism: "this writer was known for his feuilletons and witticism, but he wrote little. With all his soft and friendly politeness, he was also known as an insincere and disingenuous man [...] It was known that for money he was ready to praise anyone."(54) One of Menter’s characteristic traits was his "modest elegance in dress" - something that can be found in memoirs about Wiener as well.(55)
In Vienna Menter makes his ideological choice. ‘I have decided: I am going with Lenin’ he informs his friend Slovek Lagodny. When Slovek inquires about his Party membership, Menter answers in abrupt sentences, the way Wiener used to write his letters:
- No. This is not necessary. It is vulgar. One can have influence and stay on the side, being free. An attachment to the Party is necessary only for the masses. An intellectual can accomplish something only if he is completely free.
- Then what do you have to do with Communism? - Slovek asked with surprise.
- My convictions. Study of problems. And something else - Menter replied enigmatically.(56)
The elegantly dressed Menter reappears in the second part of the novel which is set in Berlin. We learn that ‘even though nobody has ever seen a single line written by him, no one had any doubts about the importance of his writings.’(57) In response to the disapproval of his friend Kevich (Kvitko?) who makes fun of the good suit and white cuffs in which he attends a Communist rally, Menter produces an elaborate explanation which might elucidate the logic that brought Wiener to the decision to emigrate to the USSR:
What a bad feeling a bourgeois must have who has reached, by means of merciless logic, the conclusion about the complete hopelessness of bourgeois development. How helpless must a fighter for the class interests of the bourgeoisie feel, when he realizes that the line of history runs against his class? And how bitter must it be for him, when the logic of his own thinking leads him to class suicide - forcing him, against his upbringing, desire and will to fight against his own class? He cannot stand and passively watch this grandiose struggle, and yet he has not enough courage to break free and come over to a camp which is strange and repulsive for him.(58)
Abstract theoretical discussions about the inevitability of the victory of the proletariat occupy only small part of the novel, most of which is filled with the painful fantasies of Slovek who is pathologically jealous of his underage working-class lover. Slovek’s agitated imagination serves as a vehicle for the presentation of grotesque episodes from the Berlin artistic life of the early 1920s, which take place in cafés, the salons of the nouveaux riches, and artistic studios. Among the many characters are artists, writers, engineers, and currency speculators. The world of bourgeois individualist decadence is contrasted with the collectivist world of working class neighbourhoods, which attract Slovek by their sincerity and openness. Soviet Russia is present in the background of the novel, serving as a measure of the honesty and decency of the characters. Communism is represented as a harsh truth which is extremely difficult to live up to, especially for someone with a bourgeois sensitivity.
An element of fascination with the life and the morals of the lower classes is present in all the writings of Meir Wiener, fictional as well as critical. He was attracted by the directness of expression and the vitality of the folk, both in the past and the present. In his studies of Yiddish literature and folklore he celebrated the creative energy of the masses as a major force of cultural and social progress. The half-mystical notion of the Messiah as a great personality who embodies the spirit of the nation, which fascinated the imagination of the young Wiener, gave way to a theoretical concept of the people (folk) as the collective creator of cultural values. In his new ideological schema, Yiddish replaced Hebrew as the language of folk creativity. With all his knowledge of and commitment to Marxist ideology, Wiener remained until his last days an idealist, searching for the source of eternity in the depth of the collective soul of the people.
During and immediately after the Cold War, western scholarship developed an interpretation of Soviet Jewish history as a "zero-sum game," wherein the "Soviet" and the "Jewish" components were considered antagonistic: the more Soviet, the less Jewish, and vice versa. To describe the opposition between Wiener the memoirist and Wiener the Marxist historian, Marcus Moseley used the vivid metaphoric image of "right hand against left hand": "Viner’s right hand continued and richened the most distinctively Yiddish autobiographical tradition that his left hand would assign to the trash-can of history."(59) The most recent studies of Gennady Estraikh, David Shneer, and Anna Shternshis have challenged this assumption by demonstrating how Soviet Yiddish writers and cultural activists tried to create a new hyphenated Soviet-Jewish identity, and their attempts were not always in strict accordance with the policy of the communist party.(60) Elements of folk culture, the concepts of the primitive and the archaic played an important role in the projects of synthesis between Communism and Jewishness. Towards the end of the 1930s, Meir Wiener became the leading theoretician and a prominent artistic practitioner of that synthetic enterprise, which ended with the destruction of Jewish cultural life during the Holocaust and the subsequent Stalinist repressions.
In general, the pre-capitalist past of the Russian and other peoples of the Soviet Union became an important part of the new Stalinist imperial mythology - famous examples of which were the films "Aleksandr Nevskiĭ" (1938) and "Ivan the Terrible," (1945) by Sergei Eisenstein. This turn from the radical future-oriented proletarian culture of the early 1920s to the more conservative, past-oriented imperialistic one offered new opportunities for many artists and intellectuals who actively began to inscribe the Russian imperial past into the Soviet imperial present. Of course, Habsburg history was of little use for Soviet cultural imperialism, which might help to explain why Wiener’s memoirs and novel could not be published in the Soviet Union at the time of their writing. But Wiener, as well as Lukács and other Central European political émigrés, did not subscribe to that new Russian myth in its entirety. Their cultural and intellectual frame of reference remained largely European, as one can see in Wiener’s studies of the Yiddish Enlightenment and his Baroque historical fiction set in seventeenth-century Krakow and Venice. On the one hand, his autobiographical project can be regarded as a continuation of their pre-Soviet neo-romantic quest for an imagined Orientalist utopia, and on the other hand, as a veiled response to the increasingly imperialistic and chauvinistic trends in the Soviet culture.
© Mikhail Krutikov (Ann Arbor, Michigan)
(1) Elisabeth Albanis, German-Jewish Cultural Identity from 1900 to the Aftermath of the First World War (Tübingen: Nimeyer, 2002).
(2) Ludwig Strauss, "Ein Dokument der Assimilation", in: Die Freistatt 1 (1913/14), No. 1 (April 1913), p. 19.
(3) F. M. Kaufmann, "Die Erstarkung der westlichen Jüdischkeit", Die Freistatt, 1, No. 1, p. 12.
(4) Ibid., 13
(5) Julius Bab, "Assimilation", Die Freistatt 1 (1913/14), No. 3 (June 1913), p. 172.
(6) Ibid., 175.
(7) Ibid., 176.
(8) Gustav Landauer, "Zur Poesie der Juden", Die Freistatt 1 (1913/14), No. 5 (August 1913), 321-4.
(9) Quoted in Albanis, 168.
(10) Jakob Wassermann, Deutscher und Jude: Reden und Schriften 1904-1933 (Heidelberg: Lambert Schneider, 1984), 29-30.
(11) Ibid., 30.
(12) Jakob Wassermann, Deutscher und Jude: Reden und Schriften 1904-1933 (Heidelberg: Lambert Schneider, 1984), 29-30.
(13) Ibid., 30.
(14) Ibid., 31.
(15) Ibid., 32.
(16) Kasimir Edschmid, Frühe Schriften (Berlin: Hermann Luchterhand, 1970), p. 198
(17) For a more detailed account of Wiener’s ideological transformation see Mikhail Krutikov, "Yiddish Author as Cultural Mediator: Meir Wiener’s Unpublished Novel", in Joseph Sherman and Ritchie Robertson, The Yiddish Presence in European Literature: Inspiration and Interaction (Oxford: Legenda, 2005), 73-86.
(18) Letter to Martin Buber of May 30, 1917. Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem (JNUL), Manuscript Department, Martin Buber collection, 897/9
(19) Meir Wiener, "Ziele des Zionismus", Jerubbaal: Eine Zeitschrift der jüdischen Jugend, 1 (1918-1919), pp. 70-71.
(20) Jerubbaal, 71.
(21) Letter to Erna, 12 March 1917, p. 3.
(22) Letter to Erna, 12 March 1917, p. 3.
(23) Letter to Erna, 12 March 1917, p. 4.
(24) Melekh Ravitsh, Mayn leksikon (Montreal, 1958), p. 226.
(25) Eugen Hoeflich (Moshe Ya’akov Ben-Gavriel). Tagebücher, 1915 bis 1927, ed. by Armin Wallas. (Wien: Böhlau, 1999), p 63.
(26) Esra, Vol. 1 (1919), Heft 2, 45
(27) Ibid., p. 85.
(28) Meir Wiener, «Ist dies noch Zionismus? (Notizen und Zitate)» Esra, 8 (1920), pp. 226-235.
(29) Ibid., p. 244
(30) On the lack of response see Hoeflich’s bitter diary entry of February 20, 1920: "Nine months of work for nothing." - Tagebücher, p. 86.
(31) Ibid., p. 137.
(32) Juden in der deutschen Literatur, ed. Gustav Krojanker, (Berlin: Welt 1922). Wiener’s essay " Else Lasker-Schüler" was first published in Jerubbaal, 1 (1918/1919), pp. 293-302.
(33) Jerubbaal, 1 (1918/1919), 299.
(34) "Else Lasker-Schüler", 302
(35) "Else Lasker-Schüler", 302.
(36) Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo L’va Kvitko, ed. B. Kvitko and M. Petrovskii (Moscow: Detskaia literatura, 1976), p. 132.
(37) JNUL, Avraham Sutzkever Collection, 1565.
(39) Erna Adlersberg, "Reminiscences", Meir Wiener Archives, JNUL, 1763/2.
(40) A detailed analysis of Wiener’s scholarly methodology can be found in my article "Soviet Yiddish Scholarship in the 1930s: From Class to Folk." Slavic Almanach, 7/10
(41) Letter to Franzi of 9 May 1917, Meir Wiener Archives, Arc. 1763/55, Manuscript Department of the Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem.
(42) Meir Viner, "Der zeyde Binyomin," Sovetish heymland, 9 (1968), 103.
(43) Viner, "Der zeyde Binyomin," 106.
(44) Ibid., 107.
(45) Marcus Moseley, Being for Myself Alone: Origins of Jewish Autobiography (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 433.
(46) Meir Viner, "Yugnt fraynd," Sovetish heymland, 10 (1969), 124.
(47) Ibid., 124
(48) Michael Löwy, Redemption and Utopia: Jewish Libertarian Thought in Central Europe. A Study in Elective Affinity, transl. Hope Heaney. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), 34.
(49) JNUL, Wiener Collection,1763/16, p. 33
(50) Ibid. p. 39.
(51) Ibid. p. 41.
(53) JNUL, Sutzkever Collection, 1565.
(54) JNUL, Wiener Collection,1763/16, p. 49.
(55) Esther Rosenthal - Schneiderman, Oyf vegn un umvegn, Vol. 2 ( Tel Aviv : Hamenorah, 1978), pp. 192-193.
(56) JNUL, Wiener Collection,1763/16, p. 50.
(57) Ibid.,p. 324
(59) Moseley, 438.
(60) Gennady Estraikh, In Harness: Yiddish Writers’ Romance with Communism. (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005); David Shneer, Yiddish and the Creation of Soviet Jewish Culture, 1918-1930. (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2004); Anna Shternshis, "Soviet and Kosher in the Ukrainian Shtetl." In Gennady Estraikh and Mikhail Krutikov (eds.), The Shtetl: Image and Reality (Oxford: Legenda, 2000), 133-51
6.6. Das Jiddische als Kulturvermittlung
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