An English-language resource for people interested in Jakob Wassermann.

As a first point of reference, the excellent German website http://www.jakob-wassermann.de/ has a wealth of information. It is well worth a visit, even if your German is as poor as mine.

Details about Wassermann's life and work are hard to obtain in English: I hope this helps, in part, to correct that.

Comments, suggestions, and corrections are more than welcome. Contact.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Jakob Wassermann, The Jews of Zirndorf


The Jews of Zirndorf was first published in Germany in 1897. An English translation – by Cyrus Brooks - appeared in 1933 (in America, this translation was given the alternative title The Dark Pilgrimage).

In many ways, The Jews of Zirndorf was the novel that established Wassermann’s reputation. It granted him access to the ‘higher’ literary circles of his day. It even led to his first marriage: his soon-to-be wife, Julie Speyer, was so impressed by the novel she engineered a meeting with the author, after which their relationship quickly flourished.

The reason for the novel’s initial success probably had more to do with its subject matter than with Wassermann’s growing mastery of technique. A book about the tensions between Christians and Jews, published at that time, would no doubt have seemed daring: the topic was a particularly sensitive one.

Wassermann’s own attitude – as reflected in the strange, allusive quality of the narrative – was deeply ambivalent. Neither Christians nor Jews are shown in a flattering light; and the question of whether there will ever be a satisfactory resolution of the tensions between them is left largely unanswered. Indeed, the novel as a whole has something deliberately unfocused about it, as if Wassermann were loath to impose any sort of clarity on what, for him, remained an obscure situation.

The novel is divided into two parts: ‘Sabbatai Zevi’ and ‘The Jews of Zirndorf’. The first is a prelude to the second, yet the connection between them is not immediately made clear.

Starting in Furth, Bavaria in October 1665 - ‘seventeen years after peace had been signed’ ending the Thirty Years’ War - Wassermann attempts to re-create the atmosphere of the period. Christians and Jews live uneasily side by side. Memories of the war have left both groups weary of conflict. As a testament to this, a tower of stones left behind by the invading Swedish soldiers has been allowed to remain standing. The tower, ostensibly, is a symbol of peace, but for Wassermann it represents something more:

‘Not far from the Chapel of Charles the Great, on the Schiessanger at Furth, a mighty pile of stones towers towards the sky. It is said this pile was erected by the Swedes as a memorial of their victories, and each stone, they say, is taken from a plundered house... Among many other stones in this monument by the chapel was a polished block of granite, engraved with strange, outlandish characters. It was an inscribed Jewish gravestone; the Swedes had stolen it from a Jewish burying ground and piled it up among the stones that belonged to orthodox Christians. Yet no Christian dared remove it, for its embellished characters inspired an awe in them, and they feared that if they touched it they might fall under some magic spell... For a long time it was a great trial to the Jews to see a stone from their sanctuary thus exposed to desecration... Yet they did not dare remove the stone, for the memorial was looked upon in some sort as a symbol of peace, and it was thought that any damage inflicted upon it would be the sign of a fresh outbreak of war.’

The significance of the image seems clear enough: the Jewish presence – something ‘strange’ and ‘outlandish’ in an otherwise Christian edifice - is tolerated, but only reluctantly, and only because the Christians are, for the moment, sick of fighting. The Jews, on the other hand, are trapped somewhere they do not want to be, yet they can do nothing about it. For neither group is peace really a consideration: fear is what holds them together. The tower is a symbol of defeat – as, it might be argued, assimilation is for Wassermann.

Into this uneasy truce walks the mysterious and slightly sinister figure of Zacharias Naar, an old ‘red-bearded Jew’ who has come to spread the news of Sabbatai Zevi, the ‘true’ redeemer of the Jewish people:

‘“For behold, a man has arisen in the town of Smyrna in Asia Minor, and he is the true Messiah, and the Kingdom of Heaven is near at hand!”’

Persuaded by Naar’s proclamations, and by Sabbatai Zevi’s prediction that ‘the year sixteen hundred and sixty-six’ will be the year which will ‘bring new triumphs to the Jews and lead them back to Jerusalem’, the Jewish inhabitants of Furth – like countless other Jews across Europe - decide to leave en masse in order to follow their Messiah. Their route, however, takes them past Nuremburg, a city notorious for its persecution of Jews. No sooner are they on the road, it seems, than they are attacked by soldiers. Those who survive the attack set up a makeshift camp, from which they prepare to start again on their dark pilgrimage. But then news reaches them that Sabbatai Zevi has – inexplicably – converted to Islam. Their Messiah has revealed himself to be a fraud. With no reason to go on, and no reason to return to Furth, the Jews decide to settle where they are. They make a new home for themselves: Zionsdorf, or Zirndorf as it later becomes.

Here, the first part of the novel ends.

The second part begins in the year 1885. Prolonged, heavy rain has left much of the countryside under water, ruining crops and causing considerable damage. Fortunately, most of the town of Zirndorf has been spared. God’s punishment seems to have relented – at least for the time being. The persecution of the Jews by their Christian neighbours nevertheless remains as implacable as ever. The tensions from the earlier part of the novel reappear here – two hundred years later – in a form that has barely changed. The Jews of Zirndorf are still viewed with suspicion and hostility, just as their ancestors were.

The second part of the novel begins with a confrontation: a boat carrying a group of Christian men almost collides with one carrying Jewish men; one of the Jews – Agathon Geyer - is knocked into the water and nearly drowns; the Christians row away laughing. Vowing revenge, Agathon refuses to get back into his boat, resolving instead to wait until his attackers return. He climbs on to the branches of a half-submerged tree and sits there shivering, deaf to the pleas of his friends and family members in the boat. They eventually row off, leaving him there alone. While waiting, Agathon has a vision – the first of several:

‘Out of the water arose a body, its arms thrown wide into the air, its face raised yearningly upward. Noiselessly the figure grew, and its muscles swelled as though under some terrific exertion. By its side a little man appeared, wee, peaky, with a complacent grin on his face, bowed again and again and held out his hand to the huge figure. And as the latter took it, he sank deeper and deeper into the water, recoiled as though in fear, staggered and dissolved into the vapour that lay everywhere over the surface of the water.’

The ‘huge figure’, it would seem, is Agathon himself – young and hopeful, with his arms ‘thrown wide’, ready to embrace life, his face ‘raised yearningly’, to God perhaps. The ‘little man’ represents ‘the Jew’: complacent and servile, wishing to pull Agathon down, to deprive him of his strength and make him dissolve into vapour.

From a non-Jewish writer, such a characterisation would seem deplorable. From a Jewish writer it seems like self-hatred – and might easily be dismissed as such. However, from Wassermann – though there is clearly an element of self-hatred, or more accurately, self-frustration in his writing – this attack on the stereotypical Jew is not quite so easy to dismiss. Wassermann’s animosity – as gradually becomes apparent – is directed towards the religion rather than the individual. Judaism and Christianity are both reviled as weakening, ‘dissolving’ powers; they belittle us by making us - or allowing us to become and remain - dishonest:

‘“God has lost hold upon our time; it has fallen out of His hand, nebbich! You hear them shouting of Jews and Christians, but what they mean is money, and what they do not mean is piety. What is God? Is it God when I make the sign of the cross? Is it God when I pray in the Thorah? Is the paper God? Is the wood God? Is God the sky? Is God the moon? Nothing is God; God is my goodness of heart and my poverty. I am God, you are God; God is a ghost, a thing of poverty and suffering.”’

Slowly, as the novel progresses, the connection between the two parts becomes clearer. Agathon, like Sabbatai Zevi before him, is an extraordinary individual, one who could easily pass himself off as a seer, even possibly a Messiah. But whereas Sabbatai Zevi succumbs to self-delusion, or dishonesty, or both, Agathon resists. He rejects not only established religion, but also his role as a prophet. Although others are drawn to him, he does not want followers. Indeed, what he actually does want remains obscure, even to himself. He is torn between love and loathing of mankind. His piety, likewise, is constantly disturbed by carnal desires. He remains, to his consternation, all-too-human:

‘He hated the time he lived in, which rolled by without meaning, a breathless time, stirring hopes which survived till death, striking the limbs with sickness when the spirit tried to conquer the body.’

Agathon’s spiritual dilemma is plainly Wassermann’s own:

‘“What I want is more than I can put into words. What I want – I want to rob mankind of its heaven and give it the earth... I know that many have the earth already, but, having it, they know that they lack Heaven. That is different. Do you understand me? They must have the pure earth, without cross, without apostasy, without renunciation, without any reckoning with One above. They have nothing but enjoyments and pain. But it is with them as with a bird in a cage. The bird has no pleasure even from the daintiest food, even from the most comfortable, most convenient, most highly gilded cage in the world. In the same way Heaven has become a cage for humanity. And it has been one so long that they do not even see the bars, and imagine they can fly. But while a single prayer arises from the world they cannot fly. I want to break the bars... or at least one of the bars; after me will come another perhaps who will break more of them.”’

This urge – to free himself and others – lies at the heart of Wassermann’s writing; he returns to the theme again and again in later novels. His interest in imprisonment – his concern for prisoners, and for those trapped by poverty – can be traced to this belief in the importance of freedom for all. His modesty, similarly, reappears throughout his writing: self-doubt; questioning the extent of his influence; not wishing to impose solutions on others, yet feeling, nonetheless, that he has something to offer.

The Jews of Zirndorf ends irresolutely. There is a palpable sense of defeat - Agathon has found no meaningful way of setting people free, yet there remains a note of hope: human beings are not yet ‘ripe’ for the vision and greater knowledge he offers, but a time will come when that will change.

The novel – as mentioned earlier – has an allusive quality that is hard to grasp. Although Wassermann rejects religion, he is not averse to using religious imagery: the flood at the beginning of the second part, and the image of a tree of knowledge with which the novel ends, are just two of the more prominent examples. Despite setting the novel in a specific place at two specific times – the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries – and despite basing the first part – albeit loosely - on actual historical events, Wassermann’s narrative seems predominantly dream-like – more an internalised drama, with its own private mythology than a representation of reality. The religious images – and the attempt to use them to create a new world – reveal Wassermann’s internal conflict: his ambivalence towards his own Jewishness. The final note of hope is also an attempt at self-reassurance: Wassermann is consoling himself for his failure to find a way out. The past is still there; likewise, his cultural and racial inheritance. For now, he cannot free himself entirely. But one day – his own Messiah – he will overcome all hindrances and obstacles, and will finally be redeemed.


From The Jews of Zirndorf, (George, Allen & Unwin, 1933, tr. Cyrus Brooks)

The Prelude: Sabbatai Zevi
The Jews of Zirndorf

320 pages