Jacob Wassermann : His Way as a German and a Jew

“Ashamedly Jewish” is how Barbara Honigmann’s latest book in German, Unverschämt Jüdisch (Hanser, 2021), could be translated, quite literally. The portrait of the writer Jacob Wassermann (1873-1934) figures prominently in the book as a way of expressing the unease of a generation at the beginning of the twentieth century at the idea of being both Jewish and German – or of not really being either one or the other. Wassermann said he believed in a possible symbiosis of the two identities, while deploring the condition of the Western Jew of his time, cut off from his past. Through the figure of the author of My Way as a German and as a Jew (1921), Barbara Honigmann’s text plunges us into the heart of a tension experienced as an internal tug of war.


Jakob Wassermann, circa 1933, par Grete Kolliner, Wikipedia Commons


“To question oneself on one’s Jewish identity is to have already lost it. But it is still to cling to it; otherwise, one would avoid questioning. Between this already and this still… the Judaism of Western Jews ventures forth and risks itself,” wrote Emmanuel Levinas in his “Essays on Judaism,” collected in a volume aptly-titled Difficult Freedom.

This difficult freedom appeared, as it does for all other people, only with the advent of modernity, when fixed affiliations of a religious, social and cultural nature began to dissolve and Jews could tread a path from the ghetto to a novel civil society. Prior to the modern period, Jews lived apart, confined to traditional communities, outside which existed the majority society. Judaism and Christianity were mutually exclusive, the boundaries between the two were firmly drawn, though these barriers were not always and everywhere impermeable; after all, people traded with each other, were exposed to the same political and natural events and lived in the same environment.

“All Jewish poetry in the Diaspora refuses to ignore this condition of being-in-exile. This would happen if it were to record the world in immediate fashion, as does other poetry. For the world surrounding this poetry is exile, and must retain this character,” wrote Franz Rosenzweig in a preface to his translation of the poems of Judah Halevi, the great medieval Jewish poet who wrote his poems in Hebrew; his philosophical work, the Kusari, a defense of Judaism, in Arabic; and some other in Old Spanish. Heinrich Heine wrote of Halevi in his famous (and longest) poem:

Years they come, and years they vanish;

Seven hundred years and fifty          

It is now since dawned the birthday

Of Judah Halevi.

Franz Kafka, after writing his story “The Trial” on the night of September 22-23, 1912, recorded in a diary note what had impelled him to dash off the novella in such short order: “Thoughts of Freud, of course, at one point of Arnold Beer and at another of Wassermann …” German-Jewish literature had long been established at the time of this writing. This was the case since Heinrich Heine, from whom Wassermann distanced himself so unconditionally, and since Berthold Auerbach, who was as successful writer in the 19th century as Wassermann was in the 20th. Wasserman somehow never mentioned Auerbach,  or for that matter the Dreyfus Affair, which dominated the headlines as his first novel The Dark Pilgrimage  (German: Die Juden von Zirndorf) appeared. Emile Zola published just a year later “J’accuse,” after he had already published his great article “Pour les juifs” in 1896; I actually cannot imagine that Jakob Wassermann did not comment on the controversy surrounding the Jewish captain Alfred Dreyfus, which had pushed France to the brink of civil war.

So Kafka had read Wassermann, as everyone read him at that time; unfortunately it is not known to which Wassermann text Kafka was referring to in his diary. Wassermann was often in Prague for readings, and as a writer who, as a Jew, wrote Jewish themes and Jewish problems into German literature, he met with great interest there among the young German-Jewish intellectuals and artists. It was precisely at this time that a whole generation of Western Jews became increasingly aware of their unease and difficult freedom. The freedom that consisted in being able to feel like the subject of one’s own life, but at the price of not being properly Jewish and not being properly German. Many of the Jews of this and the following generation then wrote about this novel problem of identity, reflected on it, and sometimes became politically active, for example, by participating in the Zionist project, for which Wassermann could not muster any sympathy at all. 

Kafka’s and Wassermann’s literature could not be more different; although the two writers were separated by only ten years, they belonged, one might say, to different centuries. Wassermann was still a great storyteller, the “last among the great conventional novelists of the Germans,” as Jean Amery aptly called him.

He was a writer with a sometimes melodramatic voice, who in no way doubted the power of language and the power of storytelling, as, for example, did his friend Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Wassermann wanted to be a German narrator; his complete trust in conventional narration corresponded to his probably-never-abandoned belief in a fusion of the Jewish and the German, even if he was ultimately disappointed.  This contrasts with one of the heroes of his novels, Christopher Columbus, who till the very end did not know how wrong he had been. “He never knew who he was, he only knew who he wanted to be,” Wassermann wrote not about himself, but about Columbus, whom he already called in the title of his book the “Don Quixote of the Ocean.” Probably, since it is a late work, Wassermann identified with Columbus in terms of having charted the wrong course for a lifetime. The tracing of a direct route to India had, of course, been Columbus’ goal; he had instead discovered the Americas. The conventional narrative makes the Columbus story a captivating novel in the best sense of the word; one finds the inner truth of the character in exterior action. One sees a similarity with the best biographies of Stefan Zweig, and one understands why Wassermann was such a widely-read author.

Kafka, on the other hand, grapples with the “impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing German, and the impossibility of writing otherwise,” and from these three impossibilities sketches out his idea of a “small literature,” the literature of a minority in a majority society. In what sounds to me like a distant echo of Rosenzweig’s comment that all Jewish poetry must reckon with exile, Kafka wrestles more with his Jewishness, while Wassermann wrestles more with anti-Semitism, running against it and writing against it in order to tear down the invisible borders that now replaced the pre-modern visible borders; to virtually force German-Jewish symbiosis: “I am German, I am Jewish, one as much as the other, neither can be detached from the other.” Berthold Auerbach, who had eschewed Heine’s choice of baptism, had nonetheless already recognized two generations before Wassermann that “it is a difficult task to be a German and a German writer, and in addition a Jew. ”

“Du judaïsme. Un livre collectif. Publié par l’association des étudiants juifs Bar Kochba à Prague”. 1913.

In 1913, Jacob Wassermann, prompted by Martin Buber, published his essay “The Jew as Oriental” in the anthology “Vom Judentum” (“On Judaism”) published by the Prague Bar Kochba Association. By the “Oriental” he means, let us say, an “authentic” Jew, whom he does not, however, find among the Eastern Jews, as Kafka did at about the same time in his encounter with the artists of the Yiddish Theater from Lemberg and Rosenzweig did a little later, as a soldier of the First World War in Warsaw. He contrasts this “Oriental,” which to him is a purely symbolic figure (also known as the “fulfilled one”), with the deplorable condition of the Western Jews. He thus draws the contrast between “withering and fruitfulness, between anarchy and tradition,” and characterizes the Western Jew above all in his passionate endeavor to cut himself off from the past, “precisely because milieu, reminiscence, habituation and obligation of many kinds, externally and internally bind him to the past. But he does not find the law in the bond and so he destroys it and becomes an individual, an individualist (…) He also possesses nothing more than this very personality, whose slave and victim he is.”

Wassermann describes here the uneasiness of almost all Western Jews, including the intellectuals and writers among them. Everyone from Schnitzler to Kafka to Joseph Roth lamented it, this state of spiritual emptiness, progressive spiritual fraying (Scholem), lost spiritual power (Buber) and tortured sense of community (Kafka), To which they did not oppose a symbolic Oriental, but the, in their eyes at least, a still-intact Eastern Jewry, which “gets along without curiosity and desire for Christians,” as Kafka put it in his diary, even if it was an idealized image.

Out of the discomfort, however, also arose and formed the desire for renewal, which went in many different directions.

“Our relationship to Germany is that of an unrequited love: we finally want to be manly enough to tear the beloved from our hearts with a strong resolve instead of endlessly pining after her – and even if a part of the heart were to remain attached,” Moritz Goldstein had written in his essay “The German-Jewish Parnassus” in 1912, thus triggering the great assimilation controversy that lasted until the beginning of the First World War. The anthology of the Prague Bar Kochba Association, in which Wassermann’s essay appeared, belongs to this context and was one of the many contributions to it.  The first Zionist Congress, held in 1897, the year Wassermann’s first novel appeared, formulated its rejection of the humiliating Diaspora existence through the program of a Jewish national movement and the project of creating a Jewish homeland, even if it was not yet clear where it could be. Another form was Cultural Zionism, inspired by Martin Buber. Buber proclaimed the Jewish renaissance in the aftermath of his three Prague speeches titled “On Judaism,” which he delivered again before the Bar Kochba Society. Among the audience was the entire young German-Jewish Prague intelligentsia, including Kafka, Brod, Bergmann, Weltsch, many of whom were infected by Buber’s élan. Felix Weltsch later edited the Jewish weekly “Selbstwehr,” Hugo Bergmann emigrated to Palestine as early as 1920, founding the Hebrew National Library there and later becoming the first rector of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

On July 7, 1913, a religious “nocturnal discussion” took place in Leipzig between Franz Rosenzweig, his friend Rosenstock, and his cousin Ehrenberg, who tried to persuade him to be baptized. The result was Rosenzweig’s decision: “So I remain a Jew. ” After World War I, in the trenches of which he conceived and partly wrote his Star of Redemption, Rosenzweig founded the Lehrhaus in Frankfurt, which was followed by the founding of other teaching houses in several German cities, “for the instruction of the ignorant by the ignorant,” as Rosenzweig noted ironically in one of his letters, in keeping with the parable with which Buber concludes the first of his “Speeches on Judaism”: “When I was a child, I read an old Jewish tale, which I could not understand.  This was the tale: ‘In front of the gates of Rome there sits a leprous beggar and he is waiting. He is the Messiah.’ Then I went to an old man and asked him: ‘Whom is he waiting for?’ And the old man gave me an answer which I could understand only much later: ‘For you.’”

Jakob Wassermann en1899 dessiné par Emil Orlik

Incidentally, in the Berlin of the twenties and thirties, some Eastern Jews studied and earned their doctorates and later went on to teach at and lead important Jewish educational institutions in the United States and Israel, such as Yeshiva University in New York. Many sought a new path of reconciliation between secular and Jewish-religious content. For in the parallelism of the dual existence of the modern autonomous personality created by the Enlightenment and the sense of Jewishness extant since time immemorial, be it ever so “loose, flattened, diluted and without power of mind,” as Wassermann said, laid in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and still lies today the challenge of Jewish life.  Jacob Katz summarizes this process in his book Out of the Ghetto as follows: “The Enlightenment had created an instrument of rationalistic criticism. In the glare of reason, the cohesiveness of Jewish tradition began to dissolve.” Modernity began, and uneasiness in the culture of modernity began, life in a difficult freedom in which not only every Jew – but indeed every person – now had to find his way all by himself and on which he had to face the newly emerged problem of “identity.” Jacob Wassermann experienced this freedom as a tug of war between his Jewishness and Germanness. “The subject in its inexhaustibility mocks every effort to resolve it,” he could only say of it – after a lifetime of trying to come to terms with the problem.

Barbara Honigmann

© 2021 Carl Hanser Verlag GmbH & Co. KG, München

Translated by Daniel Solomon

Barbara Honigmann was born in East Berlin in 1949. She has worked as a dramaturge and director. In 1984 she  migrated with her family to Strasbourg, where she still lives today. Honigmann’s work has been awarded numerous prizes, including the Heinrich Kleist Prize, the Max Frisch Prize of the City of Zurich, the Jakob Wassermann Prize and most recently the Bremen Literature Prize. Hanser has published Damals, dann und danach (1999), Alles, alles Liebe! (a novel, 2000), A Chapter from My Life (2004), Das Gesicht wiederfinden (2007), Das überirdische Licht (Rückkehr nach New York, 2008), Chronik meiner Straße (2015) and Georg (a novel, 2019).

Contact the author

    Support us!

    You can help us

    With the support of:

    Thanks to the Paris office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation for their cooperation in the design of the magazine’s website.