Land of Promise. By Leo Lania. Translated from the German by R. Henry, 392 pp. The Macmillan Co. $2.50.
Can a Jew ever obliterate his racial origin? Can a Jew ever trust in a promise of complete social and civic equality, even if it come from the highest authority of a sovereign state? Here is the old, old question probed once again, but in this case the probing serves to produce one of the most stirring, and to Jewish readers, one of the most interesting novels to come from a German pen since the advent of Hitler.
Leo Lania of course is living in exile. Before his flight from the terror he was making himself a name as a journalist and dramatist. In distinction to most emigrÃ©s, who have been driven by bitter necessity to putting words on paper, Mr. Lania is a professional. He has not written an autobiographical document of the type with which the manuscript desks of publishers are flooded; instead, he has produced a hard, terse panoramic novel of great scope.
A whole host of characters play parts in this book, but the most important of them are Jews. Kurt Rosenberg was the son of a wealthy Berlin Kommerzialrat, in whose home, even before the war, the Bohemians, the intellectuals and artists, gathered. If any of the guests remembered that they were in a Jewish house, the good wine and good food and brilliant conversation soon made them forget it. After the war, the same atmosphere prevailed, but a heavy salting of political personages was added. It is no exaggeration to say that a good part of the fate of Social-Democratic Germany was settled in the Rosenberg drawing-room.
In the meantime, young Kurt had gone to war, fired with Prussion ideals, inspired by his youth and war propaganda to deeds of heroism. He soon earned his Iron Cross, a lieutenancy, and numerous honorable citations. This was the background of service to his Fatherland which he considered should earn him a place of respect and honor for the rest of his days.
The revolution did not shake his ideals; the inflation he survived; and he saw fit to scoff at the first rumors that Hitler would come into power. In fact, secretly he may have been a little in sympathy with that point of the Nazi program which insisted on treaty revision and equality of armament for Germany. He never dreamed that the anti-Semitic aspect of the program would be applied to Jews of his standing, and he was not far-sighted enough, not to say humane enough, to care how it would affect the masses of poorer Jews. And yet he lived just long enough to see his honor and position scorned, his uniform mocked, his Iron Cross ripped off, and himself beaten and killed.
During the war, a humble Jewish tailor in Borutsch, on the Eastern Front, had sewed a button on Kurt Rosenberg’s tunic. With amazement the tailor, Moses Mendel, had inquired whether his Lordship, the Lieutenant, could possibly be a Jew. A Lieutenant and a Jewâ€”that, in Tsarist Russia, bordered on the impossible. Slowly, in Moses Mendel’s mind, there dawned the notion that things must be different in Germany. And then came the great day when the High Command issued a proclamation signed by Ludendorff himself. The great general had even bothered to have his message translated into Yiddish. “To my dear Jews of Poland,” it began, and it spoke honeyed and unheard words about freedom and civic and social equality.
“This General,” said Moses Mendel, “is a great man.” Eventually the Russian revolution broke out, Poland and the Ukraine set up autonomous governments, and Borutsch sweated and groaned as before under the martial rule of the occupying German army. Petition after petition and tax after tax the Hetman Skoropadsky addressed to the Jews; and after him the Hetman Petliura did likewiseâ€”and always the Jews paid. And when they could no longer pay, and Petliura still needed money, he raised old cries of hidden gold, bell-cmashing and ritual murder, and launched a pogrom.
In Moses Mendel’s mind the words of Ludendorff and the image of the Jew who was a Lieutenant remained, and so he fled before the storm; fled with much suffering, cold, hunger and poverty, westward to Germany, land of promise. After many difficulties he reached Germany and set up his tailor shop; he didn’t make much money, but he was happy. During the inflation he brought out his small store of dollar bills and pound notes and gold rubles, and bought merchandise, “intrinsic values,” as he had learned to do in other inflations. And when he sold his clothes for millions and even billions of marks, he thought his dream of wealth had come trueâ€”until he found his billions would not buy him a pound of meat. Thus, Mr. Lania seems to say, did the Jews inspire and profit from the inflation. Only one thing stood Moses Mendel in good steadâ€”the knowledge that he could flee. And so, when the Hitler terror reached its orgiastic climax, he and his daughter, Esther, unlike the stiff-necked and purblind Kurt Rosenberg, slipped over the French border.
I have traced the course of but two of the many characters who live in the pages of this book. There is much else that will hold the reader as the swift panorama of Germany in War, Revolution, Inflation and Terror unfolds; but Mr. Lania is at his best when he writes to show that the same fate awaits Jews of both high and low estate at the hands of Fascism. It is a duty to recommend this book to Jewish readers.