Twelve years ago, Jacob Wassermann, one of Germany’s greatest novelists, published what might be called a spiritual autobiography, “Mein Weg als Deutscher und Jude.” To this, since the rise of Hitler, he has added a postscript chapter and the whole is now presented in English under the title of “My Life as German and Jew”, published in America by Coward-McCann. Wassermann has been living in Austria for several decades so that the last chapter, as little as any other part of the book, is not conditioned by fear of reprisal.
It is a painful book, a painful record, of spiritual, physical and mental trouble and torment. It is the story of a man who, feeling himself no less German than Jew, strove to win acceptance for himself as German and for his works as German expressions fed by German sources and influences. In vain, and the vanity of that struggle is one of the heartrending things in the book. He wrote, not as a German denying his Jewishness, for he was not capable of that kind of deceit, but as a German and a Jew, and although he battered his way into recognition here and there, he was made to feel that by no mighty effort of his individuality could he escape the consequences of being, willy-nilly, a member of a hated race, the sacrificial goat among the races of Europe.
Most of us today regard the hate of the Jew in Germany as a modern phenomenon. We should therefore read this book to understand how far back this hate goes, how deep-rooted it is. We realize that the life of the Jewish young in Germany must be poisoned by that unreasoning hatred which closes the doors of schools and opportunities to him who bears the stigma, almost, of Jew.
We must read this book to realize how poisoned must have been the youth of Wassermann and how strong he must have been to have triumphed in spite of hate, contumely, desperation and hunger. Behind a youthful Wassermann who emerged bitterly victorious, there must have been several hundreds of others who were broken. If the Gentile reader of this work says, as he may, that his early experiences tended to plant in the heart of Wassermann the noxious seed of the persecution complex, the proper answer is that had 100 Gentile boys been pursued in the same manner and for a parallel reason hardly one of them might have survived to emerge into the light as has Wassermann.
The last chapter, the one which, journalistically, justifies the publication of this book at the present time, really adds nothing essential to the body of the work. Wassermann does not “take a stand” on the Jewish problem. Earlier in the work he has told us of his difficulty in accepting Zionism. The last chapter does reiterate his feeling that the world and the world of action belong to Evil and to evil men and that the principle of good is passive. It is in one of the earlier chapters that he presaged the present outburst. Perhaps with his experience of anti-Semitism he did not have to be intuitive to write the following explanation of anti-Semitism:
“They [meaning the Germans] want a scapegoat. Whenever they are badly off, after every defeat in every difficulty, in every trying situation they shift the responsibility for their distress upon the Jews. So it has been for centuries. Threatening embitterment of the masses has always been diverted into this convenient channel. Even the Rhenish electors and archbishops knew that when their military exploits had failed and their treasure vaults were exhausted they needed only to institute massacres of Jews to provide their people with certainly acceptable entertainment.” And else-where he defines anti-Semitism as “that dull, rigid, almost mute hatred that has penetrated the nation’s organism.” The word we use to label the feeling does not, he adds, adequately describe it, for the term anti-Semitism reveals “neither the nature nor the source, neither the depth nor the aim of that hatred. It contains elements of superstition and voluntary delusion, of fanatic terror and priest-inspired callousness, of ignorance and the rancor of him who is wronged and betrayed, of unscrupulousness and falsehood as well as of an excusable weapon of self-defense, of apish malice as well as of religious bigotry. Greed and curiosity are involved here, blood-thirstiness and the fear of being lured or seduced, love of mystery and scanty self-esteem.”
He found this hate among the most cultivated, even among those who would accept him for himself, but accepted him, as it were, under the terms of a personal reprieve which did not apply to other members of his race. It does credit to his integrity that he did not court such friendship. It is only fair to add that he met the world after an unhappy childhood during which he had to defend himself against his own family. Perhaps one of the most pathetic sections of the book is that wherein he tells how he bribed a younger brother not to squeal on him by telling him, at night, continued stories which he would break off at the most exciting point, on the promise that he would continue the episode the next night, provided Junior didn’t snitch. And it is almost equally painful to learn what dodges he had to adopt in order to transcribe on paper his first bursts of prose and poetry, for his father was convinced that being a poet was to be damned and that he who wrote for a living starved.
The autobiography of Jacob Wassermann is a record of injustice and a cry for justice. It was not enough that he came into the world a Jew born in Germany who wished to be accepted not only as German, not only as Jew, but as German, and Jew, but he came into the world, via a home in which his physical development was thwarted and his spiritual life stunted. That he should have written the books that he has is an evidence of the persistence of the story teller’s will against the particular set of unhappy circumstances which he encountered. In his last chapter he explains himself, his books, his people. His books, remaining stories though they do, are a cry for justice because Injustice is the order of the day, the year and the century from which the Jew, in his centuries, and Wassermann, in his day, have suffered.
YIDDISH AND HEBREW COURSES
Courses in Jewish History, Hebrew, psychology, art, Yiddish and Yiddish Literature have opened at Christadora House, 147 Tompkins Square East, and at the Y.M.H.A. at Lexington Avenue and 92nd Street, under the auspices of the Society for Higher Yiddish Education. The courses are under the supervision of M. Beckelman, Dr. Chasye Cooperman, Dr. S. Hishdansky and N. B. Minkoff, director.
The Society’s publishing unit recently released “Irlicht”, a volume of poetry by Jacob Stodolsky.