Tag Archives: judaism

Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran

Paris, 1960. Moïse, or Momo as he is usually called, is a Jewish boy that grows up in a rather loveless household. Mother and an older brother, Popol, have left soon after Momo’s birth and left the baby-boy with the father, a lawyer, that is hardly ever communicating with his son (or anybody else), except for the cases when he is suspecting Momo to steal money from the funds from which he is supposed to buy the household supplies.

At 13, Momo is getting interested in the other sex, and so the short novella Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran starts with him crashing his piggy bank and using the savings for a first visit at a prostitute. The real centre of the story however is the slowly developing friendship with Monsieur Ibrahim, the Arab of the predominantly Jewish neighbourhood, where Momo is buying (and sometimes stealing) his supplies.

While at the beginning they exchange usually only one sentence every day, over a longer period they become closer and the ever-smiling Monsieur Ibrahim, an elderly man who is rarely ever seen leaving his shop, is beginning to share his view of life with the boy who is looking for answers, answers that usually a father is supposed to provide if possible – but on the one occasion Momo is looking for a serious talk with his father, he realizes that his old man is a broken man, unable to even make sense of his own life. Something terrible happened in the life of Momo’s father, and it is only after Monsieur Ibrahim, a true Sufi, explains it to him at a later stage, Momo begins to understand that his twice being deserted by mother and father alike is not his own fault, of course. He is in a way suffering because he too is a victim of the holocaust – his life is tremendously affected by the consequences of this great crime, although he is born after WWII.

I don’t want to give away the whole story but rather dramatic developments are still ahead of Momo. At a bit below 70 pages in print, this book is a fast read, so you can easily go through it in a few hours.

A friendship between a Jewish boy and an Arab in Paris – I think the author realized that he had to tell us this story in the past tense. By placing his story in the early 1960s he makes this friendship more probable; at the same time this past is a bit like a lost Utopia where people that belong to different religions learn to accept each other and even become true friends for life. And on a more symbolic level – the protagonists’s name derive from Abraham and Moses – it is also a book about the fact that the followers of the big monotheistic religions share in the end much more than many of the legalistic interpreters of these cults want to know nowadays.

“Avec monsieur Ibrahim, je me rendais compte que les juifs, les musulmans et même les chrétiens, ils avaient plus de grands hommes en commun avant de se taper sur la gueule. Ça ne me regardait pas, mais ça me faisait du bien.” – (With Monsieur Ibrahim, I realized that the Jews, the Muslims, and even the Christians had more great men in common before they were hitting each other’s faces. It had nothing to do with me, but it made me feel good.)

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt is a popular and very prolific French-Belgian author of bestsellers. I didn’t expect very much from the book but was pleasantly surprised. Since I decided to read again more French books in their original language, it was also a test if I can still do it – it went well and I will tackle also some longer and more complex works in French again in the future.

It is said that the book is inspired by Romain Gary’s The Life Before Us – I haven’t read Gary’s book yet and can therefore not comment on this aspect.

By the way, there is a movie with the same title with Omar Sharif in the title role – probably his best performance of his later career.

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt: Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran, translated by Marjolijn De Jager, Acorn 2004; Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs du Coran, Albin Michel 2014

The above quote from the French edition is translated by Thomas Hübner.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Glückel of Hameln’s Memoirs

Glückel of Hameln (1645-1724) was a remarkable woman. Not only could she read and write – in a time when most women had no formal education at all -, she also proved to be an energetic business woman after the early death of her first husband. That involved also extensive traveling in a time when this was difficult and dangerous. And on top of it the mother of fourteen children wrote the first autobiography of a woman in Germany.

Glückel’s memoirs were not written with the intention of a publication. They were meant as a distraction after her beloved husband’s passing and also with the idea to let her twelve surviving children (two more children had died early) and countless grandchildren know where they came from. There is also a strong educative element in her writing: look what happened to us and our friends, family and neighbors and learn from it! And learn to understand that you need to trust in God, but you need to be also wise in your own decisions.

As the name indicates, Glückel was born in Hameln, and got engaged at the age of 12, as was the habit at that time, to a boy called Chajm to whom she was married two years later. The young couple set shop in Hamburg, lived first with Chajm’s parents before they could afford their own small home.

Child after child was born while Chajm became a trader in gold, pearls and jewelery with a good hand for business. Although the marriage was arranged at an age that seems unsupportable from the point of view of today and was concluded in a rather business-like manner, Glückel and her husband seem to have been a good match. She speaks with the greatest expressions of respect and love of her husband, who seems to have been always attentive and respectful toward her and her family and the mutual children. His temper was obviously more on the soft side and as much as he enjoyed his trade and the money he made with it, the well-being of his family seems to have been his only real concern.

When he died at the age of 44, it must have been a catastrophe for his widow who was from one moment to the next alone and with very little funds but had to support many children who were still living with her at that time. But somehow she made it: against all odds, she keeps the business running, travels to fairs and business partners in Germany and Holland. But it came at a price: we can feel from her writing that at times she must have been completely worn out. When an offer from a rich banker from Metz to marry him arrives, she gives in, hoping that in her old age she will have a comfortable home after so many hardships. But her second husband goes bankrupt, she loses all her savings and has to live in her last years, again widowed with one of her children.

This is a remarkable book, not only because it is the first autobiography written by a woman from Germany. Also Glückel’s life was everything than dull and average, although she must have been a modest person that frequently blamed herself for her own mistakes; once she writes about a successful business transaction she never forgets to thank God or to mention the part that other people had in this success.

Since the book was meant for her family members, she refrains from mentioning the names of some persons that behaved badly towards her or her first husband when these persons were still alive at the time she wrote the autobiography. On the other hand she describes her emotions very openly when something bad happened to her or someone from the family. As a reader, I could not help but to admire her for her persistence when it came to do the best for her family. She comes across as a strong, very modest woman with an incredible energy and family sense. 

The book is touching in itself as the story of a woman in very hard times. But it offers also a lot of insights in the everyday life of people in Glückel’s days, and especially in the life of the Jews.

Jews were not people with equal rights at that time and that included in most places that they had to pay Leibzoll, a kind of customs duty for themselves when entering a town, a deeply discriminatory act only applied in relation to the Jewish part of the population. Since Germany was divided in more than 2000 independent territories, traveling was for Jews extremely difficult. Additionally there were big differences in the living conditions of the Jews depending on the place where they lived.

In Altona, now a suburb of Hamburg, then an independent town that belonged to Denmark, the situation was very satisfactory for the Jews. The Danish King was known for his liberal opinions and was considered a friend of the Jews.

In neighboring Hamburg the situation was different: the Senate, the representative government body of the rich traders and bankers was rather friendly to the Jews; the Burgerschaft, the lower house of the Hamburg parliament on the contrary made life for the Jews very difficult by introducing rules that made it almost impossible for Jews to live in Hamburg. (Exempted from these harsh rules were the Portuguese Jews, descendants of Jews from Portugal who had settled in Hamburg after the reconquista; the Teixeiras, the de Castros and other Sephardic families were already considered as “real” Hamburgers and held influential positions in Hamburg; a certain rift between the Sephardic and the Ashkenazy Jews is clearly visible from Glückel’s writing. Although they shared the same belief, there seems to have been very little contact between these two groups. The sophisticated Sephards seem to have thought not too highly of their Ashkenazy brethren.)

Even worse was the situation in places like Leipzig, an important trading place that most Jewish traders visited twice a year – but Leipzig had for a reason the reputation of being a particularly anti-Semitic town that exposed Jews regularly to harsh treatment and extortion.

It may be rather strange for us readers today that Glückel is always so concerned about money. There is not a single page and for sure not a single characterization of a person that forgets to mention the exact amount of money someone’s fortune is worth.

To marry off her children to a good, i.e. a wealthy family, is the major concern for her and her husband. The wedding “market” was small and match makers seem to have been an extremely important institution at that time. Marriage was the chance for upward social mobility and that was the main concern for parents at that time. In lucky cases – like obviously in Glückel’s first marriage – love developed once the complete strangers were married and got to know each other. But it seems to be the exception, not the rule at Glückel’s time.

This – for us – obsession with money has of course a reason: money provided a limited protection for the fragile existence of the Jews at that time. It was important not in itself, but as a means to buy favours, ensure loyalties, pay off extortionist governments, assure a comparatively elevated social status in the Jewish community. As a reader we never get the intention that Glückel or her husband were gready people; if necessary, they part easy with their money. But it wouldn’t have been reasonable in their position with so many children not to permanently think about their pecuniary situation.

Glückel’s autobiography also reflects political events, for example several wars which affected the life of the family or of friends and business partners. A particularly happy moment is the participation of the Prussian Crown Prince as a guest at the wedding of one of her children. I found it also extremely interesting to read about how much the Jews in Germany were affected by the appearance of the “false messiah” Sabbatai Zevi who was Glückel’s contemporary, although he lived far away, in the Ottoman Empire.

Another aspect of Glückel’s writing that I find fascinating are her descriptions of her or her husband’s traveling. As already mentioned, traveling was no fun, especially for Jews. And there were pirates, robbers, or marauding soldiers all over the place. (One of the rare funny moments in the autobiography is also related to a travel experience; it involves a good servant of Glückel who got a drinking problem – but I will not give away the story here.) Hamburg saw several pandemics at Glückel’s time, most notoriously the plague which spread a fear of visitors from Hamburg all over Germany for many years, a fear for which Glückel gives us readers also a very disturbing example in her autobiography.

The book is also rich in descriptions of Jewish life, the importance of community life and of celebrating the big feasts together. All in all this book was an interesting and touching reading experience, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

A word about the manuscript: Glückel wrote the manuscript in Hebrew script and in Western Yiddish language. Western Yiddish is even closer to Standard German than its Eastern Yiddish variation. The original text reads like an archaic German with plenty of Hebrew loan words; grammar, syntax and about 90% of the vocabulary are German.

The original manuscript was passing within the family from generation to generation; the first publication was issued in 1896 in Yiddish; Bertha Pappenheim, a descendant of Glückel – readers of the book Studies on Hysteria by Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud know her as Anna O., one of the most famous case studies in the history of psychoanalysis – , translated the book 1910 in German for a non-public edition that was circulated in the family; in 1913 a second German edition followed, this time for a general audience. Since that time also translations in other languages (also two times in English) have been published.

A truly fascinating autobiography!

Glueckel

The Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln, transl. by Marvin Lowenthal, Schocken Books 1987

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The key to the Pasha’s library

As readers of Andre Aciman’s wonderful memoir Out of Egypt will know, Egypt was until the 1950s home of a Levantine Jewish community that lived for most of its history comparatively well integrated and respected in this part of the world.

Multi-cultural Cairo and Alexandria were at that time home to many religious and ethnic minorities that over the centuries had learned to cope with each other in a – mostly – peaceful way. Many members of the Jewish community like the Cattaui family had risen to great wealth and affluence. With the rise of Egyptian nationalism, the wars in 1948 and 1956 and the erection of an authoritarian regime of officers under the leadership of Nasser, this period came abruptly to an end. The Jews were no longer welcome in Egypt and had to leave, usually with very little except their lives and a few clothes.

This is the historical backdrop of two books of memoirs by Lucette Lagnado, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit and The Arrogant Years. Lagnado, a journalist working for major newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, was born in Egypt, where she spent her first years before emigrating via France to the US with her parents and siblings.

The books are covering roughly a century. Whereas The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit focuses mainly on her father, The Arrogant Years is mainly devoted to the life of the author’s mother. Although the two works cover the same period, Lagnado avoids redundancy as much as possible which makes both books worth reading.

The author’s father, Leon, was obviously a larger-than-life figure: he was very tall, good-looking, with impeccable manners and a talent for languages; a boulevardier that liked to go out every evening until late at night; a business man that was so secretive about his business that even his close family members had no idea if his business was thriving or if he was on the verge of bankruptcy; a womanizer that was rumored to have had many affairs (including the charismatic singer Om Kalthoum); a man that was at home with the British officers in Cairo during WWII who dubbed him “the Captain”; but at the same time a devout Jew who observed all rules of his creed and was praying every day in the synagogue; a patriarch with a very traditional mindset when it came to the role of women in the family; but at the same time a very kind and patient father (especially with his youngest daughter, the author).

Edith, the author’s mother, was considerably younger than her husband. Although her background was very different from Leon’s – her family was very poor -, her charm and good looks, together with her good education and humble manners made Leon approach her. The first chapter of Sharkskin which describes the courting makes quite an entertaining read. There was not much romance, the whole affair was conducted in a quite businesslike way by Leon and Alexandra, Edith’s mother, who set the rules for the further proceedings.

But the marriage proved to be a rather unhappy affair. Leon didn’t change his lifestyle of going out late every evening (except Sabbath) without his wife. Edith, who had worked as a very young teacher and librarian for the Cattaui family, the most influential Jewish family in Egypt, had to give up her job she loved so much and was confined to the home where she was supposed to take care of the children and the household, which was de facto dominated by Leon’s mother, a rather stern woman from Aleppo who insisted to speak only Arabic (usually Levantine families like the Lagnados would speak French as native language).

Both parents felt deeply enrooted in Egypt. While more and more of their friends and relatives were leaving the country, they tried to hold out as long as possible. But after a short arrest of the oldest sister Suzette, it is obvious that they have to leave. In Paris, the family which is now completely depended on the support by some organizations that deal with Jewish refugees, has to wait quite a long time until finally being admitted to be resettled in the US.

Life in New York held many difficulties in stock for the Lagnados: Leon, once a quite wealthy and successful businessman, had to support his family with the small earnings he made as a street seller of fake silk ties; the mother’s dream “to rebuild the hearth” fell apart since the older children were step by step going their own way or even leaving home for good. Life in Cairo was better in so many respects for the older generation and the nostalghia they are feeling in relation to their home country doesn’t exactly help them to embrace the American Way of Life that seems so strange to them.

While the author’s father seems to get tired from life and is withdrawing more and more to his prayer books, Edith surprisingly re-invents herself. She applies for a library job and despite lacking degrees or practical experience (except for her work as a young girl in the Cattaui library), she is surprisingly hired. From the author’s descriptions it becomes clear that this – beside her childhood – was probably the happiest time in the life of her mother, who deeply loved (mainly French) literature and who had read the complete Marcel Proust already as a young girl in Cairo.

Lagnado’s books touch on many interesting issues: the school and university system in the US; the typical problems of immigrant children who “try to fit in”; the change of the role of women in family and society that started in the 1960s with the Women’s Lib movement; the role of tradition and religion in the Jewish community; and also the situation of the health sector in the States. Quite a lot of the books deal with the ailments of her parents and herself (Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s in the case of Leon; a series of debilitating strokes in the case of Edith; and Hodgkin’s disease in the case of the author). But that’s not a criticism: this family has had more than their fair share of sufferings.

Lagnado’s books are not only a monument for her parents, but also for a now almost extinct specific Levantine Jewish culture. At the end of both books, she is able to reconnect herself with her own past and the past of this community. After many years, she is visiting Cairo again, standing on the balcony of her former family home in Malaka Nazli (now: Ramses) Street. And somewhere in Switzerland she tracks down the remains of the famous Cattaui library, including the books that were purchased decades ago by her mother who was given the key to the legendary Pasha’s library by the famous Madame Cattaui.

As readers we can feel rewarded that Lagnado shared her family history with us and we can be glad that she was able to make new friends again in her native city. Two truly remarkable and touching memoirs.

Shark_Skin_2 Arrogant

Lucette Lagnado: The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, Ecco Press, New York 2007

Lucette Lagnado: The Arrogant Years, Ecco Press, New York 2011

 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


The Story of a Simple Man

It begins like a legend and it ends like a fairy tale: Joseph Roth’s novel Job, the Story of a Simple Man, as the subtitle says.

Mendel Singer is a “pious, God-fearing and ordinary . . . everyday Jew,” who lives the life of a poor school teacher in Zuchnow, a shtetl in the then Russian part of Galicia. It’s the early 20th century and the lives of the Jews were not only threatened by poverty but also by the frequent pogroms. Emigration or involvement in one of the revolutionary political groups were the only real way out of this misery; for all the others the only relief from their difficult situation lay in the imagination. It’s the world that is described in the novels and stories of Scholem Alejchem, Isaac Bashevis Singer or Isaac Babel, or in the paintings of Marc Chagall.

Mendel Singer’s life is not different from many others: he is married, has two sons and a daughter and his life is rather uneventful. Things change when his fourth child, his son Menuchim is born. Menuchim turns out to be not able to speak (except for the only word “Mama” he is mumbling again and again) and he cannot walk properly either. Menuchim’s presence changes the whole dynamics of interaction within the family. His father gives him much more attention than to the other children, in the hope that this will enhance his development, his mother Deborah is visiting a famous rabbi in the next town to ask his advice, while in the meantime even the usual household routine suffers:

She neglected her duty at the stove, the soup boiled over, the clay pots cracked, the pans rusted, the greenish shimmering glasses shattered with a harsh crash, the chimney of the petroleum lamp was darkened with soot, the wick was charred to a miserable stub, the dirt of many soles and many weeks coated the floorboards, the lard melted away in the pot, the withered buttons fell from the children’s shirts like leaves before the winter.

Menuchim’s siblings don’t really like their brother who is such a burden to them and in one specific moment even make a half-hearted attempt to kill him, fortunately without success.

When the children grow up, things go worse and worse for Mendel Singer. While his son Jonas joins the army (usually most Jews in Russia dreaded the moment when their sons had to go to the army where they were exposed frequently to the rudest forms of anti-semitism) and even likes it there, his second son Schemarjah is deserting and emigrating to America where he soon changes his name to Sam.

The biggest problem beside Menuchim who doesn’t show any sign of development is Mendel’s daughter Mirjam, who has several affairs with soldiers and even cossacks, who had frequently a prominent role in the anti-semitic pogroms. The only way to save his daughter from the path on which she was embarking seems for Mendel Singer the emigration to America. An invitation from Sam, who sends also the money for the ship tickets through his new American friend Mac, will make it possible.

But there is a problem: the sick Menuchim cannot travel (the immigration officers at Ellis Island would send whole families back in such cases). Mendel and Deborah make for themselves all kind of excuses. If Menuchim will be healthy one day, he will join the family. In the meantime, he will stay with a good and caring family who will live in the house of the Singer’s. Deborah remembers the words of the famous rabbi: “Don’t ever leave him!” And also on Mendel, who is by then estranged from his whole family except for Menuchim to whom he feels particularly close, the moment to say goodbye is heartbreaking.

The second part of the book describes Mendel Singer’s and his family’s life in New York. Sam, together with his reliable business partner Mac is successful and able to provide a comparatively good life to his family. Jonas is writing a letter from Russia with some good news about Menuchim who surprisingly started to speak. Sam and his wife have their first child. Mirjam is having a regular job in Sam’s company. For the first time in his life, the sorrow seems to disappear from Mendel Singer’s existence. But only for a short while.

WWI breaks out and again everything changes for Mendel Singer. After some time he loses contact with Jonas, who went missing and is maybe dead. And also from Menuchim there are no more news anymore. Mendel fears the worst. After America enters the war, Sam also enlists for the army. Only a short time after he was shipped to Europe, he gets killed in combat. When Mac brings the bad news, Deborah has a breakdown and dies. Mirjam has to be admitted to a mental hospital after the outbreak of an unexplicable mental illness, probably schizophrenia.

Mendel Singer is withdrawing more and more from life. The most remarkable thing is that he stops praying. He is angry with God. What has he done to deserve such a fate? The parallel with the biblical Job is obvious.

Still, even after the complete collapse of his existence, life has a few surprises left for Mendel Singer. When a grammophone record plays a beautiful melody from his home region, Mendel finds out that this touching record is called Menuchim’s Song. And one day the composer of this song is by a strange coincidence giving a concert with his orchestra in town and is investigating about an old man, Mendel Singer. He wants to bring him some news from his son Menuchim…

Job is a great novel. It is very touching, without being sentimental. It is written in a very beautiful prose. It is well-composed. It has very interesting parallels not only with the biblical Job, but also with Joseph, Jacob’s youngest son. And it is asking interesting questions regarding belief and moral. It is a story that will stay with you for a very long time when you read it.

Joseph Roth knew about what he was writing. He was born himself into the world he is describing in Job, but he had the chance to grow up in Vienna. In the 1920s and early 1930s he worked as a journalist for the best European newspapers. His salary when he was working for the liberal Frankfurter Zeitung is said to have been the highest of any journalist. Beside from that Roth was an extremely productive author of novels and stories.

For those who don’t know him Job is (beside Radetzky March) probably the best starting point to discover his work. Since Roth objected Austro-Fascism as well as Nazism, he was forced into exile, where he drank himself slowly to death. His catholic funeral in Paris 1939 was attended by his friends, by Otto von Habsburg, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, by representatives of the Jewish community, and by a delegation of the Austrian Communist Party. His grave is at the Cimetière parisien de Thiais, where also Paul Celan and Yevgeni Zamyatin, Leon Sedov and the Albanian king Zog are buried.

 

Job

Joseph Roth: Job, transl. by Ross Benjamin, Archipelago Books, New York 2010

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

History of the Great Game of Chess

As an avid reader and also chess player, I think it is fairly obvious that I am also a reader (and collector) of chess literature. Although a lot of the chess books I am reading are way too technical to review them here, I will make an exception today. The book I am reviewing is dealing with a certain aspect of the history of chess that might be interesting for a wider audience.

Nansen Arie, the author of История на великата шахматна игра (History of the Great Game of Chess), is a dilettante – and I mean this expression not in an offensive sense. Arie has so far no record as a chess historian, nor is he a strong player. The author is a cardiologist and a lover of the game of chess since his childhood. Another history of chess I hear a few readers sigh…but this book is different and the subtitle explains us why: the contribution of the Jews to chess (приносът на шахматисти евреи) is the author’s topic.

Since the beginning of modern tournament chess in 1851 and until today, a big percentage of the leading players – including the world champions Steinitz, Lasker, Botvinnik, Smyslov, Tal, Spassky, Fischer (who developed mysteriously into an extreme anti-semite), Khalifman, Kasparov but also leading masters like Zukertort, Tarrasch, Charousek, Rubinstein, Bernstein, Nimzovich, Tartakower, Reti, Flohr, Fine, Reshevsky, Szabo, Lilienthal, Najdorf, Boleslavski, Averbach, Geller, Taimanov, Stein, Korchnoi, Speelman, Gelfand, Judit Polgar, Radjabov and many others were or are Jews or of Jewish origin.

Dr. Arie starts his work with an introduction that gives a short overview and that also mentions anti-semitism in chess: the influential chess writer Franz Gutmayer published a number of popular pamphlets in the early 20th century that denounced the playing style of Jewish players as decadent and “sick” – contrary to the “healthy” (Aryan) attacking style of Gutmayer’s disciples. And the world champion Alexander Alekhine published during WWII a series of articles called “„Jüdisches und arisches Schach” (Jewish and Aryan chess) in which he was attacking players like Lasker (whom he publicly admired on many occasions before) in a way that is not worthy of a chess genius. (After the war Alekhine disputed the authorship of these articles.)

In the first chapter, the author gives an overview regarding the main chess events before the establishment of a regular world championship, highlighting the successes of Jewish players and providing very brief biographical notes on them. The second part covers the World Championship matches, the third the Chess Olympiads. Part four covers chess in the USSR, part five the big international tournaments, part six the matches USSR vs. “Rest of the World”, part seven (somehow inconsistently) the “traditional” chess tournaments (like Hastings). A short chapter on Bulgaria would have been interesting and reasonable (the author is Bulgarian and writes primarily for a Bulgarian audience).

Dr. Arie has written a work with the love and industriousness of the amateur. Who wants to learn about the remarkable success of Jewish chess players has in this work all necessary information.

However, I have to admit that this work left me disappointed for various reasons.

The book contains no games at all. A book that wants to explore the successes of Jewish chess players should at least give some remarkable examples of their play and do some effort to explain, why there was such an explosion of Jewish players from 1850 until today, and what the social, historical or psychological reasons behind this development were. Dr. Arie is making no serious attempt to explain this rise of the Jewish element in chess.

A second big disappointment is the lack of a literature list. The author doesn’t mention any sources although it is obvious that he is heavily indebted to the literature on the history of chess. There is no mentioning of Moritz Steinschneider’s classical study “Schach bei den Juden” (1873), no mentioning of Emanuel Lasker’s writings on philosophy or the Jewish question, no mentioning of the Makkabi chess clubs in many countries. Edward Winter’s article “Chess and Jews” on chesshistory.org is also not mentioned, dito Felix Berkovich’s and Nathan Divinsky’s “Jewish Chess Masters on Stamps“, or Meir and Harold Ribalow’s “The Great Jewish Chess Champions“. There is even no mentioning of the sources of the photos in the book. I don’t know if this is the author’s or the publisher’s fault, but it is a lack of diligence and respect for the intellectual efforts of others when these sources are generally repressed and omitted.

This work is written in Bulgarian, but it makes an effort to re-translate many names or expressions into the latin script. Unfortunately the person who did this (very probably not the author) seems to have been not at all familiar with the history of chess. This results in very frequent and rather annoying mistakes like “The Rating of Chess Player” instead of “The Rating of Chessplayers” (title of Prof. Elo’s famous book), “Café de la Regens” instead of “Café de la Regence” , “Ignatz fon Kolish” instead of “Ignaz von Kolisch”, “Vilhelm Cohn” instead of “Wilhelm Cohn”, “Iohann Loewenthal” instead of “Johann Löwenthal”, “Rudolf Spielman” instead of “Rudolf Spielmann”, and so on and on. There is hardly any page in the book without such unnecessary mistakes.

Although I am very sympathetic towards the work of any dilettante (being one myself), I wish this book on an interesting topic would have been written and edited in a better and more diligent way.

Print

Нансен Арие (Nansen Arie): История на великата шахматна игра (History of the Great Game of Chess), Сиела (Siela), Sofia 2014

 

Moritz Steinschneider: Schach bei den Juden, Julius Springer, Berlin 1873

Franz Gutmayer: Der Weg zur Meisterschaft, Veit, Leipzig 1913

Emanuel Lasker: Kampf, Verlag für Berlin-Brandenburg, Berlin 2001 (reprint; originally published in 1906)

Emanuel Lasker: Jude – wohin?, in: Aufbau, New York 01. January 1939

Emanuel Lasker: The Community of the Future, M.J. Bernin, New York 1940

Alexander Aljechin: Jüdisches und arisches Schach, in: Pariser Zeitung, 18.-23. March 1941

Arpad Elo: The Rating of Chessplayers, Arco, New York 1978

Harold U. Ribalow / Meir Z. Ribalow: The Great Jewish Chess Champions, Hippocrene Books, New York 1987

Felix Berkovich / Nathan Divinsky: Jewish Chess masters on Stamps, McFarland & Co., Jefferson 2000

Edmund Bruns: Das Schachspiel als Phänomen der Kulturgeschichte des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts, LIT, Münster 2003

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 


A Belated Echo

Josef Burg, born 1912 in Wyschnyzja, a small town in the Bukovina, at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now belonging to the Ukraine, reached an almost biblical age. He died 2009 at the age of 97 years in the nearby town of Tschernowzy (Czernowitz).

Czernowitz, his home for most of his life, once housed a vibrant German-speaking Jewish community. Czernowitz not only had one of the best universities in Austria-Hungary and an excellent German theater, it had also dozens of newspapers and literary journals. It was, according to the poet Paul Celan who was born there, a place where people and books lived. It is therefore not surprising that Czernowitz was also the home of important German poets like Celan himself, Rose Ausländer, Immanuel Weissglas, Alfred Gong, and several others.

Josef Burg was one of the last of this generation of authors. But contrary to the above mentioned poets, Burg wrote mainly prose – and he wrote exclusively in Yiddish, not German. Yiddish, the traditional language of Eastern European Jews is derived from Medieval German (Mittelhochdeutsch) but has absorbed many Hebrew, Slav, and recently English words. By the educated Western European but also by most Zionist Jews, Yiddish was considered as ‘jargon’, a ‘wrong’ German, a dialect of the uneducated and backward people from the ghettos of Eastern Europe. But this point of view doesn’t do justice to this language – it is rich, colorful, even juicy, and it has produced many eminent writers and an extremely interesting literature. Josef Burg was one of the last authors to write in this language.

In one of his short stories A loschn beazmoj (A language of its own), Burg is describing the surprising reactions of his environment towards Yiddish: as a student in Vienna just before the Anschluss in 1938, he is witnessing how a Jewish student from the East is earning verbal abuse and even open hatred from his Jewish colleagues from Vienna – just because he is addressing them in his native language (which for sure all of his colleagues at least understood).

A short time later the narrator is congratulated by his professor for his excellent German. When the professor asks the foreign student what his native language is, he answers: “Yiddish, Herr Professor!”. The professor, probably a conservative Austrian aristocrat reacts not like the student expects:

I remark that he wants to say something. Maybe the hackneyed “Yiddish is spoilt German”. But he looks at me vividly. Warmth and a certain hesitation are in his gaze. And he says something unexpected. Simple, pure and full of expression: “Yiddish, young friend, is a language of its own.”

(Ich bamerk, as er grejt sich epess sogn. Efscher doss ojssgedroschene “Jidisch is a fardorbn dajtsch!”. Nor er kukt af mir zudringlich. Sein blik is erwoss farzojgn un warem. Un er tut umgericht a sog. Poscher, rejn un saftik: – Jidisch, junger frajnt, is a loschn beazmoj!)

The stories in Josef Burg’s collection of stories A farschpertikter echo (A belated echo) are grouped in three thematic chapters. One is consisting of childhood memories from his poor shtetl and its lumberjacks and rafters. The second deals with the life of the survivors and their attempts to find back to some kind of normality, which for most of them is impossible (Burg for example was the only surviving family member – he lost 50 relatives in the holocaust). And the third is focusing on the time of the persecution.

All of these stories leave a strong impression on the reader. That is partly because of the backdrop of these stories: the genocide. But it is also because of the art of Josef Burg. He leaves everything superficial out and is concentrating on the essential: the fate of the people he is describing, their hopes and fears, their rare joys and frequent sorrows.

In jene teg (In those days) is a good example. On five pages only, Burg is describing the fate of a man he knew in Vienna in 1938. The crippled Galician Jew is like the narrator a regular guest in the Cafe Central, a popular meeting point of intellectuals, writers and artists. The man with the hunchback is one of these luftmentschn that are such a familiar view in many Yiddish stories: someone with an unidentifiable profession (this one seems to be a photographer and a poet, but it is doubtful how he can survive from this almost non-existing income), origin and future, living on the edge of destitution.

The friendly and very modest behavior of this Quasimodo make the narrator curious and he is finally befriending this man. But he is too shy and modest to recite his own poems, as much as the narrator insists. After the Anschluss and the introduction of the “racial” laws in Austria, the Cafe Central has closed its doors for the Jews and on a last occasion before the narrator leaves Austria (he is a foreigner and therefore lucky to find a way out of the mousetrap which Vienna has become for local Jews), he is meeting his friend a last time and his friend is finally giving him a notebook with his poems:

“You wanted my poems? Here you are…Maybe they prove to be useful for you…for sure not for me anymore.”

(“ir hot gewolt majne lider?…Ot hot ir sej…Efscher wet ir sej kenen ojssnuzn…Ich – schojn sicher nit.”)

Some years later, the narrator learns about the fate of his friend from another emigrant: the poet was hiding in a chest, but found while sleeping by the SS. They buried him alive. The manuscript with the poems is handed over to a Jewish publisher in Prague who is later also to become a victim of the Nazis. The notebook is lost without a trace.

“Maybe one day you will remember me!”

(“Efscher wet ir amol mich dermonen!”)

Josef Burg remembered him. And we need to be grateful for this work of a great writer.

 

BurgCover2jpg

Josef Burg: A фаршпэтиктэр эхо: дэрцейлунген, новелес, фарцейхенунген, Sovetskij pisatel, Moscow 1990

Josef Burg:  A farschpetikter echo / Ein verspätetes Echo, P. Kirchheim, München 1999

Translations from Yiddish to English in this blog by Thomas Hübner

 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.