Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

The Weight of an Epoch

Yiddish Literature and German Culture in the Interwar Era

Prof. Marc Caplan


This project will focus on Yiddish modernism produced in Berlin during the 1920s, taken in comparison with contemporaneous figures in German-language literature, film, and critical theory. The goal is to understand the role of Yiddish in the creation of Weimar culture and its contributions to European High Modernism. By focusing on the pre-modern features of Yiddish literary discourse, such as its mobilization of quasi-oral genres of satire, parody, monologue, and burlesque to critique the processes of modernization, this comparison will consider the belatedness of East European Jewish modernity as a characteristic that serves to anticipate the fragmentation and dislocation of 20th century modernism. Because folklore, satire, and ritual laughter parallel characteristics of German-language modernism in the interwar era, Yiddish literature provides a model for understanding the social and formal characteristics of German culture—and does so because of its peripherality, not in spite of it. By comparing these two literary cultures, a sense of their complementary and reciprocal modes of borderless, liminal culture emerges to characterize not only the complexity of German national identity at this moment, but also the new role played by Berlin as an address for global modernism.

The structure of this study will consist of chapters devoted to the most significant Yiddish writers active in Berlin, in tandem with corresponding German figures. Chapter One will consider the historical background of German-Jewish and German-Yiddish interactions, the reciprocal perceptions of German and East European Jews, and the historical circumstances that changed the relationship of East European and German Jews after World War I; among the works to be considered will be the Russian-Yiddish writer S. Ansky’s travelogue of wartime Eastern Europe, Khurbn Galitsye (“The Destruction of Galicia,” 1920), which details the ambivalent Jewish attitude toward occupying German and Austrian armies. In the second section of this chapter, the focus will turn to the transformation of East-European Hasidic legends by pre-war German Jews under the popularizing auspices of figures such as Martin Buber (1878-1965) and M. Y. Berdichevsky (Micha Josef Bin Gorion, 1865-1921)—the latter an author who worked in German, Yiddish, and Hebrew.

Chapter Two will consider the Yiddish author Dovid Bergelson (1884-1952), who was active in Berlin during the 1920s, and the German novelist, Alfred Döblin (1878-1957). This comparison will focus on Döblin’s travelogue Reise in Polen, which details his inability to identify with the Polish-Jewish milieu in which he was born; and Mides ha-din (roughly, “Strict Justice”), Bergelson’s first novel about Soviet-dominated Ukraine, written in Berlin. In a separate section of this chapter, Bergelson will provide the focus for a comparative consideration of the “pension narrative,” a dominant genre in interwar Berlin expatriate fiction.

hapter Three will take up the story Unter a ployt (“Behind a Fence,” 1929) by Der Nister (Pinkhes Kahanovitsh, 1884-1950) in comparison with the film Der blaue Engel (1930) directed by Josef von Sternberg (1894-1969); each of these works is an adaptation of the novel Professor Unrat (1905), by Heinrich Mann (1871-1950). As such, they each illustrate the centripetal and centrifugal imperatives of peripheral culture; each work derives and departs from a work of German “high” literature, but both Sternberg, the Austrian-born American director, and the Soviet-Yiddish author Der Nister re-orient this work toward the emerging culture centers of Hollywood and Moscow, respectively. The second section of this chapter will focus on the development of Der Nister’s symbolist narrative poetics with particular emphasis on his simultaneous debts to Hasidic storytelling and to German romanticism.

Chapter Four will compare the Yiddish poetry of Uri-Tsvi Greenberg (1896-1981) with the poetry of Else Lasker-Schüller (1869-1945), to consider their affiliations with literary expressionism; thereafter Greenberg’s post-expressionist affiliation with radical Zionism will be considered in comparison with the emerging Marxist affiliations of Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), in order to discuss the connections between modernist aesthetics and ideologies of political “extremes.”

Chapter Five will discuss the narratives of Moyshe Kulbak (1896-1940) in comparison with the novel Hiob (1930) by Joseph Roth (1894-1939). This comparison will discuss the uses to which these authors put Jewish tradition, as well as the similarities in their use of quasi-folkloric narrative structures. A final comparison in this chapter will consider the use of messianic motifs in Kulbak’s writing, with respect to the utopian pessimism of Walter Benjamin’s various meditations on apocalypse and redemption.