“The Jews are in the midst of one of the most serious crisis in their history, and here in America, which contains the most important Jewish community in the world and to which Jews all over the world turn with hope, what do you do? You quarrel with each other. You play petty politics. You argue over who shall be your leaders. It’s a terrible tragedy.”
This was Sholom Asch, beloved Yiddish novelist who has won universal respect and renown during his prolific years of literary productivity, speaking.
It was Friday afternoonâ€”a cold, windy day that sent pedestrians moving along at a brisk rate, eager to reach havens of warmth and shelter.
The Jewish Bulletin reporter’s appointment with Sholom Asch was at 2 East Forty-fifth street, just off Fifth avenueâ€”headquarters of G. P. Putnam’s Sons, the writer’s American publisher.
The Putnam offices were warm and cozy. The reporter looked forward to a pleasant chat with the great novelist in these comfortable surroundings, while he thawed his chilled bones.
“But I’m so tired!” Sholom Asch pleaded immediately after he had been introduced. “I want to go to my hotel and sleep a while. Can’t we make it later this afternoon?”
He had spent the entire day with his publishers, it seems, and was worn out from that and from his trip to this country aboard the Conte di Savoia, which had brought him here on Thursday evening.
DEADLINE MUST BE MADE
The reporter explained the exigencies of the deadline, which made it impossible to postpone the interview if it was to be printed in the week-end issue of the Jewish Daily Bulletin.
“All right, then,” said Sholom Asch. “I’m going to my hotel now. You come with me and we’ll talk on the way.”
Thereupon the writer donned his huge coatâ€”one of those coats with fur lining and collar, and loops of braided thread instead of buttonholesâ€”jammed his floppy velour hat onto his head, and swung his silver-trimmed cane onto his arm. Garbed in his ensemble, which for some reason seems to constitute the uniform of the man of Yiddish letters, this big, portly, vigorous man grabbed the reporter by the arm and led him to the elevator.
A LONG WALK
Down on Fifth avenue it was cold. The reporter pulled his neck into his collar while his eye scanned the horizon for a taxi.
“Let’s walk a little,” Sholom Asch suggested. “I’m staying at the Brevoort.” The Brevoort is on Fifth avenue, thirty-seven blocks south of the Putnam offices.
Resignedly the reporter trotted along at the author’s side, hoping vaguely but, as it turned out, futilely that Sholom Asch would tire somewhere between Forty-fifth and Eighth streets and hail a cab.
As they walked, butting their heads into the marrow-freezing wind, the writer talked.
BEMOANS LACK OF LEADERSHIP
“What has happened to the days of Louis Marshall?” he lamented. “Where is American Jewry’s real leadership? How can anything be accomplished when you spend all your time fighting each other?”
He went on in this vein, explaining that he had come to this country for no particular reason and for no determined period, but that he hoped while here to do some missionary work for unity within the body of American Jewry. He thought he would return to Europe and his home at Nice, in sunny southern France, in three or four weeks.
“I couldn’t have picked a worse time to come here,” he said ruefully, pulling his fur collar around his ears. “It’s warm in Nice now. You can go around without a coat.”
MAY ATTEND CONFERENCE
He was interested in the fact that many of American Jewry’s leaders were to gather in Washington for the National Conference for Palestine, which is being held this week-end. Perhaps he would attend the Sunday session, he said. First, though, he wanted to communicate with some of his friends among those leaders here in New York. He hadn’t had an opportunity to speak with any of them during his less than a day in this city.
“Everyone knows my books in this country,” he said proudly. “Not only Jews. Jews aren’t interested in my book ‘Salvation,’ a book about the very heart and soul of the Jews, a really Jewish book.
“You have to knock the Jews down to make them interested. If you write that Jews are money lenders, traders, middle men, they praise you for being a great artist, a great realist. If you do a constructive piece of work, if you show how our ancestors were forced into money lending and trading, if you tell of the wonderful contributions to civilization Jews have madeâ€”then they aren’t interested.”
There were a few book shops on Fifth avenue, along the route. At each Sholom Asch stopped, peered through the window, apparently searching for something he didn’t find, then moved on.
At the Empire State Building the writer came to a sudden halt. He turned his head skyward and grinned.
“So this is the tallest building in the world!” he exclaimed. “Come, let’s go into the lobby.”
There was no Empire State Building when he was last in this country, four years ago. The reporter thought he might like to go up into the tower and gaze down upon the metropolitan area from that majestic height.
But Sholom Asch was content to stroll about the pretentious lobby, examining the decorations and asking questions.
DERIDES ‘BIGGEST BUILDING’
“Isn’t this silly?” he said finally, waving his hand with a sweeping motion to indicate that he was referring to the entire building. “Human beings are so small and they build places so big. Such a place is all right for giants, not for men.”
On the way out he stopped to look at a mysterious dial indicator, which resembled a big compass except that it had two moving hands instead of one.
“What is that?” he asked.
The reporter inquired and learned that it was an instrument for measuring the velocity and direction of the wind. The hands now showed a fifty-mile “breeze” coming from the northwest.
Sholom Asch was weary of the Empire State Building by now. Out he and the reporter went again onto Fifth avenue. Oh for a taxi!
MEET DAVID PINSKI
But the great author was in a walking mood. In the lower Thirties he saw something which caused his face to light up. It was David Pinski, his fellow Yiddish literateur, coming from the opposite direction.
The two writers stopped, removed their hats, shook hands and then kissed each other, in the European manner. Pinski’s eyes were rheumy with the cold. His face was lighted in a pleasant smile, but tears trickled down his cheeks. It was an incongruous sight.
The two men chatted in Yiddish for a while, virtually ignoring the reporter, who cowered within his overcoat and dreamily contemplated the joys of a fireplace and a hot toddy.
SAAR INTRIGUES HIM
“No,” the author said in reply to a question, “I didn’t come here especially to see my publishers. All arrangements were made with them long ago.
“I came here to see New York again. I’m an American citizen, you know.” There was joy in his voice as he said this. “These days it’s a great thing for a Jew to be an American. All Jews deserve it.
“In Europe conditions are terrible. We are at war with Germany. None of us ought to be incognito in this war, if you know what I mean.
“But conditions are changing there every day, I believe. Hitler’s importance and his popularity are waning. The Saar plebiscite was no victory for him. It simply means the return of a traditional German territory to Germany.
“I don’t think things can continue much longer in Germany as they have been. No one can tell me the German people are solidly behind Hitler. I know from personal experience that the intellectuals are not.
WILL TRACE NAZISM IN BOOK
“In the book I’m writing now I shall tell about the post-war period of inflation in Germany. I shall show how Germany subsisted on the flow of American gold into the country for a long time, and how when that ceased, Hitler came.”
Are Jews as badly off in Poland as they are in Germany?
“This is a foolish question if you’ll excuse my saying so,” Shollom Asch said. “True, the Polish Jews are in a terrible economic stateâ€”much worse than in Germany, where the numbers are much smaller, and where, after all, Jews mostly have been prosperous in the past.
“But in Poland they have not been insulted by the government, as they have been by Hitler. Their honor has not been attacked. Their right to live as Jews has not been questioned. There is no ‘Aryan’ clause there. There has been no official charge that they are an inferior race.”
HAUPTMANN CASE ENTERS
By this time the author and the dogged reporter had reached Twentieth street. Suddenly Sholom Asch grew tired of being interviewed and began to do some interviewing of his own.
“Tell me about this Hauptmann case,” he said. “He killed the child, didn’t he?”
The reporter explained that the mills of justice are now grinding in Flemington, N. J., to determine whether or not this is true. But Sholom Asch persisted:
“He killed the baby, though, didn’t he?” he asked again. “They found him with the money. He spent some of it. He didn’t tell them where to look for the rest of the money, as he would have done if he had come by it innocently.”
AIDS A PANHANDLER
Like all good American citizens, Sholom Asch had his opinions in the Lindbergh kidnaping case, and he wanted to air them. So for the next few blocks the conversation centered around this intriguing and revolting crime.
On Fifth avenue at Ninth street, just across from the Brevoort, a well – dressed, soft – spoken young man approached the writer with a panhandling appeal.
“Listen, friend,” the panhandler said, “I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten all day. Could you spare a few cents?”
Sholom Asch looked at the man uncertainly for a moment. Then he reached into his pocket and extracted a quarter, which he gave the beggar.
“Do such things go on in this country?” he said in wide-eyed surprise. “Do respectable people like that go hungry?”
GOODBYEâ€”AND TO SLEEP
“But he probably isn’t respectable,” the reporter said. “He’s probably in the business of begging and keeps himself looking well so as to excite more sympathy. He probably makes a good living at it.”
At the hotel portal the reporter strode forward to accompany the author into the warmth of the lobby, and perhaps up to his room.
But Sholom Asch slapped him on the shoulder and pumped his right hand in a farewell greeting.
“Thank you very much,” he said, pushing the reporter gently but firmly away from the hotel entrance. “I have to go upstairs and sleep now. Goodbye.”
He strode through the doorway and was gone.
“Taxi!” shouted the reporter. “And make sure it’s heated!”