By Kata Gellen
It is widely recognized in scholarly circles that there was a flourishing of interest in traditional Jewish life in Eastern Europe among German speakers in the early twentieth century. Martin Buber gave lectures on Chassidism, Franz Kafka attended the Yiddish Theater, and Arnold Zweig and Alfred Döblin wrote quasi-ethnographic accounts of traditional Jews in the towns and shtetls of Poland and Ukraine. In general, these writers were searching for more authentic and spiritual forms of Judaism. They looked sympathetically on the world of East European Jews, yet from a considerable geographical and cultural remove. Two authors stand out for their more intimate, nuanced, and critical engagement with this world: Joseph Roth (1894-1939) and Soma Morgenstern (1890-1976).
Joseph Roth’s works have been widely read and translated. His novels Job (1930), Tarabas (1934), and The Emperor’s Tomb (1938), as well as short works including “Strawberries” (1929) and “The Leviathan” (1940), demonstrate a serious engagement with Jewish life in Eastern Europe in the first decades of the twentieth century. They are also infused with the typical Rothian mixture of humanism, irony, tragedy, and an inextinguishable spark of hope. When Roth drank himself to death in a Parisian hotel room, it was Soma Morgenstern who remained by his side. The two had first met as teenagers at a youth Zionist conference in Galicia, the easternmost province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire where both were born and raised. They reunited years later in Vienna, where they were trying to make a living as journalists and writers. Professional opportunities and creeping German fascism pushed them westward, to Berlin, Frankfurt, and eventually Paris. By the mid-1930s, Roth’s illness had ravaged his body and spirit. In the same period, indeed in the year 1935, Morgenstern published his first novel, Der Sohn des verlorenen Sohnes (The Son of the Lost Son), volume one of his trilogy Funken im Abgrund (Sparks in the Abyss).
Morgenstern’s novel tells the story of an assimilated Jewish teenager in Vienna, Alfred Mohylewski, who is reunited with his long-lost uncle from the East, Welwel Mohylewski. Alfred is a typical modern urban Jew, without any religious upbringing and only a dim awareness of his Jewish roots. His mother and grandmother are bourgeois self-hating Jews (converts, in fact), whose strong assimilatory desire leads them to reject and scorn East European Jews. Alfred’s father, Welwel’s brother, is deceased. Alfred is thus raised in the world of Viennese high culture and Bildung. His life revolves around such institutions as the university, the theater, and the press, and he knows little about Jewish ritual, holidays, and prayer.
Though the novel will center on Alfred’s development—it is, on one level, a typical German Bildungsroman—it begins not in Vienna, but in the Galician town Dobropolje, where Welwel is preparing for a journey to Vienna. He will be attending the Congress of the Agudat Israel, the association of Torah-loyal Jews, which formed in the early twentieth century as an alternative to the Zionist and Bundist organizations that were gaining popularity and adherents. The Agudat advocated for the maintenance of Jewish traditions and the continuation of diasporic life, rather than political interventions in a messianic history that they believed only God could control. The first 50 pages of the novel are set in Dobropolje, thereby establishing Galicia as the setting for the entire trilogy. Here we are introduced to the major themes of Welwel’s life: Jewish prayer and ritual, farm work, the concerns of family and community, and relations with Ukrainian and Polish neighbors. In addition, Welwel is a man whose deep connections to the Galician landscape often arouse childhood memories, descriptions of which infuse the narrative with pathos and nostalgia.
Structurally speaking, the novel begins and ends in Galicia, but its main action takes place in Vienna. Alfred attends the Congress of the Agudat Israel at the invitation of his ward, Stefan Frankl, a journalist. Morgenstern attended the actual meeting of the Agudat Israel in Vienna in 1929, and his experiences there partly inspired him to write Sparks in the Abyss. This means that Morgenstern might see himself in the role not of the son (Alfred) or of the new “father” (Welwel), but rather of the trusted guardian who supports Alfred’s development—for ultimately it is Stefan who must give his permission and blessing for Alfred to join his uncle in the East. Though himself an urban bourgeois Jew, he proves more tolerant and open-minded than Alfred’s mother and grandmother, and encourages Alfred in his quest to explore his roots and heritage.
The lengthy scene at the Congress presents an odd mixture of ceremoniousness and sterility, familiar to anyone who has attended a large academic conference. Alfred is captivated by it and watches with rapt attention—confused, unsettled, intrigued. This might explain why, during a scene of solemn and hushed contemplation, he explodes in laughter. This inappropriate outburst unleashes chaos and alarm, as the participants and security guards fear a terrorist threat. Eventually the situation gets cleared up, Welwel and Alfred meet, and the plan for Alfred’s journey to Galicia is hatched. Narratively speaking, it is clear what purpose the laughing fit serves: it is the plot device that allows Alfred and Welwel to come together. But what is the actual reason for Alfred’s laughing fit? The novel offers no definitive answer to this question, yet it seems to be a visceral yet immature reaction to the incongruity of the scene before him: traditional Jews in caftans and with sidelocks, speaking an elevated and archaic German, engaged in religious rituals far away from home in the middle of a bustling metropolis. Alfred, we must remember, is also a clueless teenager, inhabiting a transitional state in which personal identity is in flux and social relations are a mystery. Teenagers find a lot of things funny, and they often don’t know why.
The climactic scene at the Congress is the novel’s narrative and affective turning point. It also exemplifies why The Son of the Lost Son is deserving of a new edition and translation. Morgenstern’s novel was translated into English by Joseph Leftwich and Peter Gross, and published in 1946 by the Jewish Publication Society of America and Rinehart & Company. By this point Morgenstern had been living in Los Angeles and New York as a refugee for five years. Various friends and colleagues from Europe, most consequentially the famous writer Stefan Zweig, had praised the novel and helped secure an English translator for it. Without diminishing the significance of this publication event, I also want to point out its shortcomings. The climactic scene at the Congress provides a case in point. Instead of rendering the original sequence of events, Leftwich and Gross rewrite the scene of Alfred’s outburst to make it more palatable and comprehensible to the reader. They leave out entire passages (for example, Alfred’s strange vision of his “dead” mother, who is in fact alive and well) and make up new ones (for example, a story about Alfred reaching into his pocket for a camera and dropping a flash bulb, which creates a small explosion—neither the camera nor the explosion is present in the original). I suspect that Leftwich and Gross were trying to make the story—in particular, the laughing fit—more digestible and less objectionable, but its awkwardness and opacity are precisely what make it a powerful climax.
I will end by noting that the second and third volumes of the trilogy, Idyll im Exil (Idyll in Exile, previously translated as In My Father’s Pastures) and Das Vermächtnis des verlorenen Sohnes (The Testament of the Lost Son), are equally compelling and deserving of new translations. They are set entirely in Galicia and trace Alfred’s development into adulthood as a proud Jew, a competent and progressive agronomist, and an upstanding community member committed to the peaceful and productive co-existence of the various ethnic, religious, and national groups in the region. Morgenstern wrote these novels during his flight from Nazi-occupied Europe, and they were not published in the original German in his lifetime. They appeared in English translation in 1947 and 1950, respectively, and are out of print and difficult to obtain. Thanks to the work of editor Ingolf Schulte, Morgenstern’s works appeared in a complete German edition in the 1990s, two decades after his death in New York. All the novels are now available in paperback in German. We can be grateful that Morgenstern saw the publication of the entire trilogy in English between 1946 and 1950, and at the same time recognize the need for an updated translation for modern readers. Given the recent upswell of interest in the lost world of Jewish Galicia, the time is ripe for this.