A Wise Man Fighting For a Better Society

Stephen Tree: Moses Mendelssohn. ISBN 978-3-499-50671-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Moses Mendelssohn, one of the most influental thinkers of the Enlightenment, is exercising a growing fascination upon me. Stephen Tree’s book is a short and concise account of Mendelssohn’s life and his difficult position in Germany. As a philosopher he had many admirers and patrons, but as a Jew he had few rights as a citizen. Intellectually he certainly was superior to most of his contemporaries, but as a Jew he was an easy target for base Anti-semitic attacks.

However, two centuries after Mendelssohn’s birth not even the Nazis succeeded in erasing the memory of one of the greatest German Jews. Mendelssohn’s defence of the immortality of the soul, his ideas about the relation between religion and politics, expressed in his work “Jerusalem”, his effort to modernize Judaism and to reconcile it with rationalism and his lifelong fight for a peaceful co-existence of Jews and Christians rank among his most important contributions to the intellectual life in Europe during the 18th century. When I come to think of it, we could do with a few Mendelssohns to clear out the fog in some politicians’ minds and prevent them from compromising our social and economic future. And it will not be the last time you will hear of Moses here on this blog.

When he was a young man, Moses Mendelssohn took harpsichord lessons and frustrated his teacher with his inability to keep time. Here is a piece performed with utmost precision, written by a contemporary of Mendelssohn: Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in E Major:

Time to Compose, Time to Rejoice

Following the Mendelssohn Family

Diane Meur: La carte des Mendelssohn ISBN 978-2-253-06894-5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Being an author is no trivial thing. When I was young, very young, I had the fantasy of becoming such an author. I believed I had a message and I wanted to write a book about it. I quickly realized my message was trivial – something about youth and rebellion – and once I had understood how much patience is required to research source material, to organize the work and to actually write a book, I was dissuaded to write anything exceeding in length my MA thesis to finish my studies.

Unlike me, Diane Meur didn’t back away from the challenge. She researched the ups and downs of the lives of the Mendelssohn family, starting with the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and following a millions streams flowing from that genealogical source. She got confused by all the material as one could have predicted, she dropped the project, took it up again, drifted away from the subject and came back – and in the end she wrote a lovely book less about the Mendelssohn family and much more about her discovery of the Mendelssohn family, allowing every now and then for a detour, narrating her emotions, her daydreams, her philosophical musings.

Experts on the Mendelssohn family will not discover much new information, but any reader interested in a non-scientific exploration of the life of Mendelssohn the Philosopher, Mendelssohn the Composer, Mendelssohn the Jew turned Protestant turned Catholic, Mendelssohn the Composer’s Sister, Mendelssohn the Banker etc. will find Meur’s book both informative and entertaining. A good read, a good gift too. Thank you, dad!

And as you may expect, there will be no book review without a music suggestion. And since we had Fanny Mendelssohn now twice in a short time on that other blog of mine, I will honour today Felix with his Symphony No. 5 in A minor (Op. 56) “Scottish”:

Soul-searching far, far away from home

A Perpetual Fate, a Perpetual Disgrace

Roth, Joseph: Juden auf Wanderschaft (English title: The Wandering Jews) ISBN 978-3-423-13439-9 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Reading Kafka, reading about Kafka and reflecting the fate of the Jews from Eastern Europe – it’s all part of the same story. Kafka was an assimilated Jew living in Prague, and during World War I, thousands of Jews from Russia and Galicia fled to what would later become the Czech Republic. The Austrian-Hungarian Empire was suffering defeat after defeat on the Eastern front, and former Austrian outposts were overrun by Russian troops, forcing the local Jews to flee. Russia was no friend of the Jews. Neither was Prague.

Joseph Roth (1894-1939) , a writer turned reporter, narrates the story of the Eastern Jews, despised by their assimilated cousins in Western Europe and most of the rest of Europe. Filthy, poor, dishonest, uneducated – thise were Jewish prejudices against Jews, gladly taken up by anti-Semitists anywhere in Europe. “The Wandering Jew”, published in 1927, is a disturbing book, even after so many years. So little has changed. If you look at the current stereotypes attributed to refugees from Syria, Irak, Afghanistsn, Libya… you know where they stem from. And Anti-Semitism of course is alive and kicking.

Roth’s book is brutal when it comes to describe how Eastern Jews have been treated since the late 19th century and up to 1933, a date after which all Jews in Europe risked to run a common fate: annihilation. This is balanced by his description of the Eastern Jews’ communities, their industriousness, their internal solidarity, their faith, the rich cultural traditions, their unshakable will to live and their courage to pursue their luck in foreign countries, whatever price they may have to pay.

The wandering of the Jews – for up to the foundation of Israel they lacked a true fatherland in a territorial sense – pushed them to seek a political and ideological home: Palestine. Not just a territory, no, a political concept, a dream. Zionism, the logic consequence of more than 1000 years of European Anti-Semitism, the way out of the eternal dilemma: assimilation or discrimination? It’s hard to say what was worse in Roth’s eyes since he showed little sympathy for the superficial Western bourgeois society of which he was a product. Roth studied in Lviv and Vienna, he later lived in Vienna, Berlin and Paris.

Roth explains it all very well, and any honest reader looking at the refugee debate in Europe, President Trump’s idée fixe about a protective wall on the Mexican border or the Middle East shows that the so-called Western civilizations use stereotypes and concepts in their debates almost identical to those used some 100 years ago. Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the biggest fool of all? Speaking about fools, Roth taught me something I didn’t know yet. Every Stetl had its Batlen, a storyteller, a joker or, as Roth puts it, somebody who reflected useless ideas. I sense a subversive element here and I love this kind of social subversion. Watch and listen to the Batlen, for he speaks the truth!

The laconic style in which Roth describes life in a Stetl, the relationships among Jews and between Jews and gentiles and between the Jews and God made me smile occasionally. These descriptions appear funny like in “funny little people” – the Hobbits come to my mind. Actually, there is nothing funny about them. The stoicism with which the Eastern European Jews supported their internal political and cultural divisions and the hostility of the environment is remarkable. It hides the earnest that filled these people’s minds. Roth says the Jewish people can be punished by God, but never abandoned.

Finally, in the context of Eastern Jews settling in Berlin, Roth mentions something important: “Everything is improvised […] One must always be ready to move and carry one’s few belongings, some bread and an onion in one pocket, the Tefillin in the other. Who knows whether one will not be forced to wander again in the next hour.” From German Jews I occasionally hear that, once more, “the suitcases are packed”. In the light of a revival of Anti-Semitism in Germany, this is no surprise. It certainly is a disgrace. At the same time it would appear that it never has been different: a perpetual threat, a perpetual disgrace. And this text grows longer and longer, and it’s message will reach, once more, the wrong audience…

Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, qis celebrated with a prayer, the Kol Nidrei. Max Bruch and Arnold Schönberg have set it to music:

A light is sown for the repenting sinner

Hate Without Border. Antisemitism Here and Now.

juna grossmann

Juna Grossmann: Schonzeit vorbei. Über das Leben mit dem alltäglichen Antisemitismus. ISBN 978-3-426-27775-1 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ My fellow blogger Juna Grossmann is a German Jew. A Jewish German. A German citizen, born in Germany, of German parents and with German grand-parents. And she happens to be of Jewish faith. She has written a book, a good book. A frightening book. An important book. She has compiled stories of Antisemitism in Germany as they happen today. Daily verbal assaults, stemming from prejudice, ignorance and the wilful violation of basic human rights.

Antisemitism in Germany is everywhere, and it comes in different forms and shapes. It does not remain restricted to people with limited exposure to education, far from it. It is not limited to anonymous letter writers or social media trolls. More than ten years ago already, it was articulated by German politicians in the disguise of criticism targeting Israel’s domestic and foreign policy. Prominent Jews in Germany received and still receive letters with threats, less prominent Jews are being discriminated when they look for flats or jobs. Or sell vegetables. Many are asked to “go home”, as Grossmann ironically points out, herself included. Home? Germany is her home. People signal her to go to Israel – a country many antisemitists deny the right to exist. And more than just a few come up with an obvious, logic conclusion: Auschwitz.

It’s frightening and revolting. Would I like to live door-to-door with such people? The fact is, I do live door-to-door with such people. Antisemitism doesn’t stop at the border. Luxembourg has it’s own sad history of segregating and discriminating Jews. Luxembourg officials did nothing to keep Germans from rounding up Jews in 1940. People disappeared, no questions asked. Luxembourg was a victim of Germany’s expansionism, few cared about the Jews’ fate. Without being a Jew, I have witnessed Antisemitism in Luxembourg. I remember certain “jokes” told at school. That was in the 1980s. I noticed prejudices held by people I respected. And of course, being a blogger, I am well aware of social networks being an excellent environment for the propagation of hate-speech of all kinds, including Antisemitism. Hate without borders.

Grossmann’s chronicle is a gruesome, highly recommended reading. It shows to what extend open and hidden Antisemitism has become the norm in Germany once more, paralleled only by hate against Arab refugees. The book is important since it documents the plurality of the sources of Antisemitism: educated, respected people as well as people knowing next to nothing about Judaism or European history. Anonymous trolls on Twitter and people sending letters on official stationery with their name and signature. Antisemitism here and now and everywhere.

“Wehret den Anfängen” is a German slogan meant to remind Germans to fight early indicators of antisemitism. It was already wrong at the moment it was coined. Antisemitism had never left Germany, it had merely gone into hiding after 1945. The “re-education” efforts by the Allied powers in the aftermath of the German defeat were a failure, an excellent example of a completely misguided policy. After the Nuremberg trials, West German courts were slow to prosecute former Nazis for the complicity in the extermination of Jews. Right-extremist groups were courted by law enforcement and intelligence agencies during the Cold War. Grossmann was born in the GDR, where antisemitism officially did not exist. But the GDR’s ambiguous attitude towards Israel and the impossibility to discuss the Holocaust and Germany’s responsibility in a closed society nurtured Antisemitic prejudices that have become visible in the past two decades.

The time of hiding is over. Antisemitism is out in the open, unfiltered, unbound, viral. Read this book! Open your eyes and ears and stand up against any form of racial or religious discrimination! Democracy is not for free. Today it may be the Jews, the Arabs, the LGBT community, tomorrow it may be you or me. And here is a Jewish voice that was not silenced by the Nazis. In 1946, the composer Erich Korngold wrote his violin concerto in D major, Op. 35. He had left Austria before Antisemitism led to mass murder on an industrial scale:

A witty violin concerto written in Hollywood

Vienna, the Post-War Abyss

Lothar_Rueckkehr

Ernst Lothar: Die Rückkehr (English title: The Return to Vienna) ISBN 978-3-552-05887-3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Felix von Geldern returns to Vienna after the war. He is the envoy of a Jewish family that emigrated to the United States to escape the Nazis, and now he is supposed to look after those of the family who stayed in Vienna – his mother – and after the family’s business in Vienna. He doesn’t travel alone, he is accompanied by his grand-mother, and his time in Vienna becomes a series of brutal reality checks, experienced by Felix on different levels.

When Felix and his mother go ashore in France, no warm welcome is waiting. The port lies in ruins, food is scarce and thieves try to steal the travelers’ luggage. Once they arrive in Vienna, they see a city partly destroyed, hungry citizen, refugees, beggars and thieves, a flourishing black market and US soldiers fraternizing with former Nazis. People live as if the Holocaust never happened, the hate against Austrian Jews is alive and kicking. And emigrated Austrians, displaying their moral superiority, quickly trigger death threats and physical violence.

Felix’ mother and his grand-mother pick one fight after the other, their rivalry exemplifying the divide between those who chose to flee and assimilate to Americans and those who stayed and found a modus vivendi with the Nazis. Felix, who got engaged to an American girl, falls for his former love, an artist with a distinguished career made possible by the Nazi propaganda master Joseph Goebbels.

The plot narrated by Ernst Lothar is fascinating, the moral abysses he explores are frightening. The novel is partly autobiographic. Lothar fled from Austria in 1938 after Germany had annexed it and made it a part of the Reich. When he returned, he found a country he would not recognize. It is no surprise that the novel, published in 1949, did not exactly trigger a wave of enthusiasm in Austria. Vienna is being confronted not only with its past under the Nazis, but also with the fact that it seemed to be slow to draw any lesson from that past.

The book is first of all an excellent read. Readers familiar with Vienna and the “Wiener Schmäh” will instantly feel at home, fascinated and horrified. Furthermore the current political developments – the gains of the right-leaning coalition party FPÖ in term of votes – can be partly explained by the fact that Austria, unlike Germany, never critically debated the Nazi period and its co-responsibility for the Holocaust. These phantoms have been haunting the country since 1945, showing their ugly face every now and then and each time with less inhibition.

Obviously, any novel linked to Vienna should be matched with music from a Viennese composer, and to compensate for the bleak picture painted by Lothar, here is Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A major, D.664:

Seeking freedom, independence, identity