I’ve just finished two of your nonfiction books, What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920–1933, and The Wandering Jews: The Classic Portrait of a Vanished People, both translated by Michael Hofmann.
The first one is a selection of your nonfiction, divided into nine sections, according to the topic addressed: What I Saw, The Jewish Quarter, Displaced Persons, Traffic, Berlin Under Construction, Bourgeoisie and Bohemians, Berlin’s Pleasure Industry, An Apolitical Observer Goes to the Reichstag, and Look Back in Anger. It’s a collection of your personal journalism, and covers the columns you wrote for various German newspapers during the fragile and doomed Weimar Republic.
Reading this book is like taking a walk around Berlin in your company: from cafés to nightclubs to the police headquarters, we visit steam bath houses where travellers spend the night; we drop at the UFA cinema on the Kudamm; we wander the streets where impoverished refugees live; we enter the home of a murdered German foreign minister, or stroll through the new Karstadt department store.
You, always on the move, direct our wandering gaze across Berlin, and set it for while on the city’s obscure side. Your prose, at times lyrical, always evocative, illuminates the lives of those society has forgotten. Your descriptions of homeless immigrants are poignant and prescient: “All state officials,” you declare, “should be required to spend a month serving in a homeless shelter to learn love.” Your Berlin is a city inhabited by war cripples, Jewish immigrants, criminals, prostitutes, writers.
Being at the same time a part of the Berlin scene and a repelled stranger, you, a keen-eyed and inquisitive journalist, illuminate the early days of Nazism. Endowed with an style both ironic and lyrical, soaked in the melancholic twilight of the Austro-Hungarian empire, you are a master of the feuilleton, a descriptive but short sketch which has both an element of reporting and a literary approach – a writing form that reached its apogee in fin-de-siècle Vienna. The pieces collected in this book are not a documentary account of the Weimar Republic, but offer a personal (and sharp) insight into the corners of life and politics in Berlin. You succeed at capturing the city characters in a single glance, transforming small scenes and details into revelations about what Berlin was yet to undergo.
Along with your descriptions of the prosaic aspects of life in Berlin, many pieces in this book carry a hint of menace in the air: “a bus full of rancorous, quarrelsome, and aggressive passengers is bound sooner or later to have a collision”. On May 10, 1933, the Nazis staged their bonfire of books, and your response from Paris was the final piece collected in this book, a defense of the Jewish literary culture in Germany. “The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind”, written in 1933, when you were in exile, captures the Nazis’ “crazy assaults on the intellect” and condemns Europe for its ready capitulation to cruelty: “The European mind is capitulating. It is capitulating out of weakness, out of sloth, out of apathy, out of lack of imagination (it will be the job of some future generation to establish the reasons for this disgraceful capitulation).”
Written in the 1920s as an essay aimed at shedding light on the plight of European Jews, The Wandering Jews is a fragmented account about the Jewish migrations to the West from the Baltic States, Poland and Russia, in the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution, and as a result of the redrawing of national frontiers following the Treaty of Versailles. You portray the eastern Jews settling in Vienna, Berlin, Paris and (briefly) in the US, and compare the different conditions to which Jews were subject in each one of these destinations. Stressing the human costs of restrictive rules and regulations, you denounce the European bourgeois communities, which “by virtue of the fact that they grew up with elevators and flush toilets allow themselves to make bad jokes about Romanian lice, Galician cockroaches or Russian fleas.”
Switching between irony and compassion, you shed light into the options open to European Jews at the time – assimilation, emigration, Zionism. With glimpses of the lives led by Jews, you take a human (and often passionate and angry) perspective on the mishaps of being marginalized and living under poverty in Anti-Semitic societies. “The world”, you say, “never asks the wanderer where he’s going, only ever where he’s come from. And what matters to the wanderer is his destination, not his point of departure.”