Novel covers multitude of losses

January 24, 2014

Book Reviews

Losses
by Lea Goldberg, edited with
Aftermath by Giddon Ticotsky
Bnei Brak: Hakibbutz Hameuchad-Sifriat
Poalin Publishers, 2010
380 pp, In Hebrew

Lea Goldberg (1911– 1970), distinguished author, poet, translator (From Russian and English to Hebrew), and chairwoman of the Department of Comparative Literature at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, was a native of Koenigsberg, Eastern Prussia, spending her early childhood in Russia. She made “aliyah” in 1935.

Goldberg chose to shelve this jewel of a revealing novel, personally and historically Jewishly and generally, though segments of it appeared in the Palestine Hebrew Press in the second half of the 1930s. The book’s drama, bearing Goldberg’s autobiographical features, is centered in Berlin during the critical years of 1932 and 1933. The author studied at that time at the University of Berlin, receiving her doctorate from Bonn University’s renowned Oriental Seminary with a dissertation on the Samaritan translation of the Torah.

With Nazism’s rise to power in 1933, she had an eerie premonition of a world war, “And the war will be in a few years,” along with a radical transformation for what seemed so stable as exemplified in Berlin’s stature, “This solid city hanging over nothingness, the city of peace and freedom on the precipice of blood’s void.”

The novel’s protagonist, Elchanan Krohn was raised in Russia in a well-to-do Russian speaking family with his lawyer father, already removed from “shteitle” life. In a Job-like tale of woes in the ensuing times’ upheaval of the Russian Revolution, the family was reduced to poverty and misery. The father died a broken man and the one sister married a Russian sailor, moving away from her Jewish roots. Krohn himself was arrested and exiled to Siberia for Zionist activity, eventually settling in Palestine as a chalutz. A proud Hebrew poet, he was a student of mysticism and philosophy who came to Berlin to study when the German universities had the finest reputation in the world. He focused on mysticism in the three monotheistic religions, perhaps searching for a unifying, universal factor, even as Nazi ideology tried to disprove it.

Goldberg and her family also experienced trying times in Russia and she regarded herself as a Hebrew poet without particular regard to her gender.

Soon enough, with the Nazi takeover, the halls of academia are infected with rabid anti-Semitism. Both Jewish and Gentile professors who opposed Nazism are victimized. Professor Klaus Paul Braka of Bonn University was poisoned to death while in France. He represents Goldberg’s mentor, professor Paul Ernest Kahle who left for England, sacrificing his academic career.

Kohl’s own wife, Mary, on April 1, 1933, a declared ban day on Jewish professionals and businesses, called on a Jewish physician, courageously confronting SS men. Braka appointed for his assistant the brilliant, Jewish Czechoslovakian Dr. Briker, in spite of Nazi resistance. A probable reminder of Dr. Levy, Kahle’s assistant committed suicide when dismissed by a Nazi party member. It was at a Braka lecture that Krohn was exposed to a papyrus, which the professor discovered, revealing that the Caliphates sought not to convert their conquered people to Islam because it reduced collected taxes. How intriguing that today we still attempt to understand Islam’s intentions which again are of global consequence.

Goldberg’s deep and wide-reaching novel, gratefully released 40 years after the author’s passing, rather than be consigned for permanent oblivion, adds an essential perspective both literally and academically. The losses in Losses refer to an early loss, if not theft of a manuscript precious to Krohn; the loss of one’s roots and homeland, the loss of the women in Krohn’s life, and last but not least, the loss of Germany’s humane soul along with the attached loss of multiple millions of Jews and Gentiles that even Goldberg’s prophetic vision could not fully grasp.

—Dr Israel Zoberman is founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Chaverim.

Letter to the Editor