Stefan Zweig never recovered from being humiliated as a Jew

The author only wrote one book based on a specific Jewish story, but the themes were present througout his oeuvre

July 01, 2021 16:01

Stefan Zweig’s world collapsed on 30 January 1933, when Hitler became German Chancellor. Zweig’s books were burned in public and were no longer published and sold in Germany, and he had no royalties from German publishers. The days when he was the bestselling author of the age, translated into many languages, were gone. Forced to leave Salzburg, he became another broken, wandering Jew.

England was a stage in Zweig’s ever-darkening exile as war approached, culminating in his suicide in Brazil in 1942, as news of the Holocaust began to reach the free world. But Zweig in a sense died in 1933, when his cosmopolitan world of literature and the arts died, and became, as in the title of his famous memoir, the world of yesterday (Die Welt von Gestern).

Zweig’s novella, The Buried Candelabrum, written in London in 1936, is another Kaddish for his ruined past — and for himself. Zweig wrote it not as the secular, assimilated Jew he was, thoroughly immersed in and devoted to German Kultur, but in the totally unexpected perspective of traditional Biblical and rabbinic faith.

As the lights were extinguished in the civilized world, Zweig told a story of the Menorah in the Temple in Jerusalem looted by the Romans under Titus when they destroyed the Jewish state in 70 CE. On the stone carving on the Arch of Titus beside the Coliseum in Rome, the Menorah is held high in the Roman victory parade; for centuries it was kept in the Temple of Peace in the Roman Forum, built with spoil taken from Jerusalem. Like other looted objects, the Menorah was displayed as symbol of Roman power and the punishment dealt to rebels — of whom the Jews in the land of Israel had been the most dangerous, and most cruelly crushed.

Yet, to the Jews, the Menorah inspired survival against the odds, through the light of faith, as the prophet Zachariah put it: “not by power or by might but by my spirit”.

The Buried Candelabrum is Zweig’s only work of fiction depicting a totally Jewish religious world. The story reflects Zweig’s growing empathy with Jewish history and tradition, and with Zionism, shared by many persecuted Jews in the 1930s. The Menorah described in the Hebrew Bible was created from one piece of gold by the craftsman, Betzalel, in the time of Moses, and was evidently used in the Temple in Jerusalem for over 1,000 years until its destruction in 70 CE.

Zweig, in the story of the Menorah, tells his own story, of a homeless cultural artefact, a source of light, extinguished. The world of Jewish religious faith represented by the Menorah was alien to Zweig. His life was guided by a different light and spirit, of the secular humanist Enlightenment (Erklärung) rejecting Jewish particularism and finding the highest culture not in classic Jewish texts but in German literature and art. Zweig saw German Kultur as the vanguard of human progress, a barrier against barbarism. Faith in Enlightenment — in Schiller’s vision, alle Menschen werden Brüder — remained strong among European Jews even as antisemitism grew.

Until 1933, Zweig shared with his friend Sigmund Freud the notion that a people blessed with the enlightenment of a Goethe, Kant, and Beethoven, cannot go to the bad. Perhaps Zweig’s greatest source of pride was in being part of this Kultur, mementos of which — such as Goethe’s pen — he collected and cherished as religious relics.

His fame prior to 1933 seemed to exemplify the acceptance of Jews as Germans and the triumph of the liberal, progressive strain of German identity. Yet even at the height of his acclaim as a German writer of fiction, he suspected that the idea of a “German Jew” was a fiction. His bestselling novella, Letter from an Unknown Woman (1922), written amid an outpouring of postwar antisemitism, hinted at the unfolding tragedy of European Jews: an unnamed woman keeps up a futile lifelong love for the famous novelist R., despite his total blindness to her existence, even after he (unknowingly) fathers a child by her. The German Jews, their devotion to the Fatherland similarly intimate yet unrequited, might have expressed their bitterness similarly, tortured in being alien and hated, yet unable to give up their attachment.

In his London years, Zweig returned to the theme of unrequited love. In Beware of Pity (1939), he tells of a crippled young woman of Jewish origin in love with a Christian army officer who, she is convinced, pities but does not love her; her tragic fate suggests the darkness of Zweig’s obsession.

Zweig’s despair at falling from elysian heights to the torments of the damned is suggested further in his unfinished novel, The Post-Office Girl, written in the late-30s. Set in 1926, the novel tells of an impoverished young woman, a dead-end employee in a provincial Austrian post office, unexpectedly invited by a rich aunt for a lavish holiday in the Alps. For a few days she basks, Cinderella-like, in a fairy-tale glow of acceptance and admiration, becoming practically a new person, cool and glamorous. Suddenly, her aunt sends her back home, and the dream is shattered. The Post-Office Girl is on one level an allegory of European Jews who imagined that emancipation meant acceptance, from which there was no going back: “She doesn’t want to see it, doesn’t want to be reminded that from now on and forever these mountains are for other people, the playing fields and the games, the hotels and their glittering rooms, the thundering avalanches and the hushed forests, not for her, ever again!”

Zweig felt similarly after 1933, that the scintillating European literary world that had briefly lionised him was gone forever and the darkness of barbarism was closing in.

The Buried Candelabrum reveals a totally different, surprising side of Zweig. Written after the passage of the Nuremberg Laws, it can be read as the author’s rejection of his 1920s public image as a cosmopolitan sophisticate, representative of Kultur, and his embrace of the Jewish identity thrust upon him by Hitler. ‘Buried’ as a failed German, Zweig was resurrected as a Jew, seeking meaning in affliction.

The story of the lost Menorah, uniquely in Zweig’s fiction, could be mistaken for rabbinic lore, or a tale by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav or by Zweig’s great Hebrew contemporaries, such as Bialik or Agnon. In his central character, Benjamin ‘Marnefesh’ (bitter of soul), Zweig imagines the last one alive to witness, aged seven, the exile of the Menorah from Rome to Carthage in 455 CE and, 80 years later, representative of the Jewish world as supplicant for the Menorah to the Emperor Justinian in Byzantium. Like Zweig, Benjamin speaks out of the ruin of a fallen empire; a celebrity fallen from grace; and his sense of mission and public responsibility contends with a death-wish (a theme explored by Zweig in his later fiction, notably Beware of Pity and Chess) and a feeling toward the end that his life is futile: “let me die”. In Benjamin, there are echoes of the life of Theodor Herzl, who published Zweig’s earliest writings in Neue Freie Presse in Vienna in 1900. Like Herzl, Benjamin is driven by a dream of national resurrection; and he has flashes of Herzl’s fighting spirit: “…why do we let them take [the Menorah] away from us?” He, too, encounters hostility and suspicion of being a political charlatan or false messiah. After his mission to the emperor fails (as Herzl failed with leading figures of his time), Benjamin dreams of the Menorah in exile culminating in a vision of Jewish farmers in the land of Israel: “Men were quietly at work upon their own land, drawing water from the wells, driving ploughs, milking cows, sowing and harrowing and harvesting.”

At the dream’s climax, the Menorah returns to the Temple in Jerusalem, not to its original place in the antechamber but to the Holy of Holies, where Benjamin enters too — as though he were the High Priest on Yom Kippur.

Zweig is concerned not just with a political and social solution to Jewish exile and antisemitism. He engages with Judaism as a universal religion of profound spirituality, the essence of humanism, committed to international social justice, and opposed to materialism, idolatry, and war.

The Emperor Justinian, before whom Benjamin pleads for the Menorah, is the image of ruthless dictatorship, “more like a graven image than a human being” and his cohorts are similarly statue-like, seeming, as in the description of idols in the Psalms, “neither to breathe nor to see”.

In this way, Zweig answers those who drove him from German Kultur: there is a world elsewhere, free of the “curse of having to live among the Gentiles”, of a humane civilization based on truth, not power, on peace, not war — on faith in a divinely-inspired way of life. The Menorah symbolizes the light of faith and celebrates, from the depths of a tortured soul in exile, the undying light of a collective Jewish spiritual ideal: “ …where we build a Temple, the Gentiles destroy it … Both will endure, the Chosen People and the Menorah. Let us have faith, then, that the Menorah… will rise again some day, to shed new light for the Chosen People when it returns home. Faith is the one thing that matters, for only while our faith lasts shall we endure as a people”.

July 01, 2021 16:01

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