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Wise Survivors

Historians have long been fascinated by twentieth-century German Jews as articulate witnesses, artists, writers, political thinkers, liberal politicians, and advocates of an open society in an age of unprecedented turmoil and creativity. In his excellent new book, Stephen Aschheim, the Vigevani Professor of European Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, examines collections of still little-known intimate private letters and diaries to provide a composite portrait of three well-known and controversial writers: Gerhard (later Gershom) Scholem, Victor Klemperer, and Hannah Arendt. Shedding new and unexpected light on the drama of their lives, his book is not a biography but rather, as Noel Annan once described Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, a polemic, although it is a disguised polemic. Written in a tone of cautious understatement, Aschheim’s book nevertheless calls into question some of the simplifications Jews and Germans resorted to “in turbulent times.”

Aschheim’s theme is “identity.” He does not discuss Scholem’s, Arendt’s, or Klemperer’s scholarship but concentrates on their political ideas and purposes. He asks how these three thinkers made the important decisions in their lives; how they searched for and, according to their private papers, thought they found their “authentic” selves amid the often conflicting influences of class, family, friends, lovers, and associates.

Why put these testimonies together and with what justification?” Aschheim asks. Klemperer, the oldest, was still steeped in the bourgeois prejudice and conformism of the Wilhelminian era, while Scholem and Arendt belonged to the rebellious post–World War I generation. They were not “typical” German Jews, and yet Aschheim is right in claiming that their intimate letters and diary entries add “compellingly to our knowledge of the world of modern German Jewry” at a time when they were central to the life of secular Europe.

Still, the three had much in common. All were assimilated, or, as is sometimes said, acculturated German Jews, though neither term reflected the frequent diversity and occasional turmoil of a predicament that finally became a kind of identity for most German Jews. All grew up in secular families for whom the true religion was the Goethean cult of Bildung, creative self-development, which, from the days of Moses Mendelssohn, was seen as a key to full integration with the general society. Each had an extraordinary passion for knowledge, combining deep learning with the gift of writing supple and succinct prose. All had confident egos and were outspoken, at times brash and even nasty. All were prodigious diarists and letter writers. Scholem wrote that language was the innermost essence of the world and that letters could be liberating, elevating, “like some absolute religion…[a] metaphysical necessity.”1

Here the similarities end. Each made dramatically different political choices. Scholem left Germany as early as 1923, Arendt only after the Nazis came to power. Klemperer never left; he died in the German Democratic Republic in 1963. Scholem was a “primordial” Zionist, a passionate Jewish nationalist. After receiving a doctorate for his dissertation on the first extant kabbalistic text, he moved to Palestine—which didn’t yet have a university—with some two thousand books on mysticism and a few dozen detective thrillers. His mother kept him supplied there for years with pork sausages and marzipan from Germany.

In Palestine, Scholem for years supported the Brit Shalom movement for a binational state; he was often sharply critical of the “purely reactionary forces in Zionism” that were asserting themselves in Palestine. “We strayed into the desert of Araby on our way to Zion,” he wrote to Walter Benjamin in 1931. “Our own hubris blocked the path” there.2 One Zionist had Scholem in mind when he complained that some German immigrants were more worried about Arab rights than about Jewish rights.

Victor Klemperer, later renowned for his remarkable diary of life as a Jew in Nazi Germany, remained a German patriot throughout. He felt more shame for Germany, he said, than fear. Klemperer survived Nazism thanks to his non-Jewish wife, whom Nazi hoodlums periodically beat up as a Judenhure, and who stood by him until the liberation. His brothers and cousins (among them the famous conductor Otto Klemperer) emigrated soon after Hitler’s rise to power. Victor never seriously contemplated emigration.

Of the three, Hannah Arendt was the freest in her thinking and the most complicated. In 1932, she saw the danger of remaining in Germany more clearly than most others. Karl Jaspers, her teacher, vainly tried to discourage her from turning her back on Germany: it was her present, her past, her future, he claimed. Arendt answered: “Germany in its old splendor is your past, but what mine is I can hardly say in a phrase.” Henceforth, she would strongly affirm her identity as a Jew but recoiled from all collective and ideological labeling, a subject over which she later bitterly quarreled with his erstwhile friend Scholem.

Scholem’s headstrong, seductive personality, perhaps inevitably, dominates this composite portrait,3 and not only because of his well-known tempestuous clash with Arendt in the aftermath of the Eichmann trial. He was probably the most influential thinker on Jewish history and Jewish religious culture in the twentieth century. More than anyone else he helped to make classic Jewish studies a part of Western culture. He had an intuitive grasp of the theological and metaphysical ground of things. The department store tycoon Salman Schocken (a secular Zionist), who believed that, like Germany, the modern nation-state the Zionists were building in Palestine was in need of a mystical foundation, subsidized Scholem’s explorations of previously ignored Jewish mystical thought for years. (For the same reason, Schocken subsidized the future Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon.)

Scholem was driven by a master vision cloaked as philology. By concentrating critical scholarship on the hidden tradition in Judaism of kabbalah —hitherto considered by Jewish liberals as mere superstition—he almost single-handedly invented a new discipline and turned it into a legitimate field of study. Much of this he achieved only after he emigrated to Palestine. In the mid-Twenties, he must have cut an unusual figure in Jerusalem, as he trudged in the heat through the dusty, narrow alleyways of Mea Shaarim—the city’s ultra-Orthodox slum quarter, where Zionists were likely to be stoned for being secular. Six feet tall, lanky, invariably dressed formally in white linen suits and silk ties, he was looking for the last “practical kabbalists,” i.e., those practicing some form of black magic. A running joke among his colleagues at what became the Hebrew University was that he actually believed in black magic himself, so deeply had he immersed himself in kabbalistic studies.

Scholem’s harsh judgment on German Jews before 1933 was equally influential. He condemned them for living, often knowingly, a “lie.” German Jews lived with this terrible accusation for decades afterward. Scholem made no secret of his contempt for the “undignified” bourgeois German-Jewish milieu in which he himself had grown up. For a long time, high school teachers and politicians in Israel endorsed Scholem’s contempt of “craven assimilation”; some went so far as to insinuate that German Jews had somehow deserved their fate. Scholem famously insisted that whatever German–Jewish “dialogue” there might have been before 1933 had been entirely one-sided. Whatever integration there had been was only at the price of betraying Jewish tradition. Scholem ignored that a dialogue can’t take place between entire peoples, but, in his own case, it was the Jew who refused it. According to Aschheim, Scholem even believed at one time that no real intimacy and friendship was ever possible between Jews and Germans. He criticized Peter Gay’s well-known book Freud, Jews, and Other Germans as “scandalous”; the very title was “chutzpah.” Gay, according to Scholem, was “a classical example showing to which lengths glorifiers of Jewish assimilation to Germany are prepared to go thirty-five years after Auschwitz.”

Scholem came from a family with obstinate, rebellious sons that nearly broke up as a result of their conflicting ideas. One brother was a German nationalist—too right-wing even for the taste of the conservative father. Another became a Communist who later died in a concentration camp; the youngest, the precocious teenager Gerhard, felt an inexorable need to pursue his roots. Already as a teenager he preferred to be known as Gershom. The family celebrated Christmas as a German folk holiday. One year, under the family Christmas tree, Scholem found a silver-framed photo of Theodor Herzl, a Christmas gift from his doting mother. He was her favorite son but he drove his father to distraction. When the young Scholem first told him that he wanted seriously to be a Jew, his father’s reply was that of many assimilationists: “Jews are good only for the synagogue…. Do you want to return to the ghetto?” Gershom retorted: “You yourself live in a ghetto! I never met a Christian in your house except on formal occasions like your fiftieth birthday!”

At fifteen he praised Nietzsche for writing a new “Bible” and vowed to become the Jewish Zarathustra. His journals show an astonishingly mature mind at an early age. They analyze, often critically, Goethe, Spinoza, Humboldt, Rilke, Marx, Kierkegaard, Jakob Böhme with the erudition of a mind at least ten years older. A continuing interest in the “demonic,” a fascination with nihilism, and a disdain for liberal-bourgeois rationalism reveal the extent to which Scholem was a product of fin-de-siècle irrationalism with a Jewish twist. “Reason…is the longing of the dumb,” he wrote. His journal entries are sprinkled with negative allusions to women,4 and show a remarkable absence of any hints about sex or romantic fantasies.

But this most vehement critic of Deutschtum borrowed other fantasies from German nationalism, völkisch notions stressing the inalienable essence of the Jewish Volk, a primal “substance” partly composed of Jewish history and religion that resisted definition but still was “polluted” by the outside world. Its pristine essence must not be rendered impure. “Vital” reform must come only from within. Modernizing Orthodox Judaism under the influence of the gentile world—as in Reform Judaism—produced only degradation, “impurity,” and the liquidation of the authentic substance (although he did not himself observe Orthodox ritual). Scholem changed his mind later on, but in 1915 he favored a kind of voluntary apartheid. The headmaster of Scholem’s high school summoned Scholem’s father to complain that his son had asked that Jews and Germans be separated in the school. “We Jews and Germans do not go together.”

He was one of the few German Jews to oppose the 1914 war. He did so not out a sense of outraged humanity, Aschheim says, but for nationalistic Jewish reasons. It was not the Jews’ war. For opposing the war Scholem was thrown out of high school only a few months before graduation. For Scholem’s father this was too much, coming as it did a few weeks after his Communist son, Werner, faced the prospect of a court martial for the same offense. His reaction was harsh. “You are just a coward,” he said. The scene at the Scholem family breakfast table was a high moment of bourgeois tragicomedy. The maid handed Gershom a registered (!) letter that had just arrived by post. (At the other end of the table, Papa Scholem may have been reading the morning newspaper.)

  1. 1

    Arendt’s intimate correspondence with her husband Heinrich Blücher, Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, Mary McCarthy, and others has been available for years. Klemperer’s celebrated diary of daily life in Nazi Germany (I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933–1945, translated from the German by Martin Chalmers, two volumes, Random House, 1998–1999) is only a fraction of what he has left behind—with almost 7,000 pages in print so far, there is almost as much left in manuscript. Scholem left some 16,000 letters, many of which have been published over the years in German.

  2. 2

    Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, translated from the German by Harry Zohn, and with an introduction by Lee Siegel (New York Review Books, 2003).

  3. 3

    See Gershom Scholem: A Life in Letters, edited and translated by Anthony David Skinner. This is a good selection of Scholem’s intimate personal correspondence in an English translation which reads at times almost like a biography. It includes not only Scholem’s letters but those of such friends as Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt, as well as others, particularly his mother, who wrote regularly about the vicissitudes of life under the Nazis and her futile hopes for the release of her oldest son from prison.

  4. 4

    After his death, his widow said in a published press interview that Scholem never loved anybody in his life except Walter Benjamin.

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