Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Zero Mostel (February 28, 1915)

Zero Mostel is most famous for his Broadway portrayal of Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof," which ran from September 22, 1964, until July 2, 1972. Otherwise not much about him is important to me. He wasn't in the movie, so I never saw him do it.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Michel de Montaigne (February 28, 1533)

Michel de Montaigne, the essayist and inventor of the essay form, lived his life as a French nobleman. And a fascinating life it was!

I loved the book How to Live or A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer by Sarah Bakewell. This book provides me with my main information about Montaigne. I had heard that his maternal ancestors were Jewish. People who are eager to know who was a Jew have ferreted through his works looking for evidence that he acknowledged this. They don't find much. For me, this means the topic should be dropped, but I find Bakewell's summary too interesting to leave it out of this blog. She writes:
"If his father's background was murky, a more significant secret apparently lurked in the family of his mother, Antoinette de Louppes de Villeneuve. Her ancestors were merchants; they were also immigrants from Spain, which, in the context of the time, strongly suggests that they were Jewish refugees, Like many others, they converted to Christianity under duress, and left following thee persecution of Jews on the peninsula in the late fifteenth century."

"Montaigne may not have realized that he was of Jewish origin, if indeed he was. He showed no more than mild interest in the subject, mentioning Jews only occasionally in the Essays, usually either neutrally or with sympathy, but never in a way that suggested he felt personally involved. ... "

"He also expressed a wry skepticism about the 'conversions' of some recent refugees -- reasonably enough, since the act was not done by choice. If, as some have speculated, this was meant as a subtle dig at his mother's family, it would not be surprising." (p. 43-44)

In my opinion, the efforts to demonstrate consciousness of his Jewish background (if he had one) are misplaced, and end up showing more about the person speculating than about this fascinating author. I think Bakewell's treatment of the question is level-headed, and I'll leave it at that.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Irene Nemirovsky (February 24,1903)

Irene Nemirovsky's book Suite Française became widely popular after its very delayed publication in around 2006. The story of the author's efforts to escape the Holocaust were both dramatic and depressing (well, all Holocaust stories are depressing). The New York Times review of the book is summarized thus:
"Born in Ukraine, Irène Némirovsky had lived in France since 1919 and had established herself in her adopted country's literary community, publishing nine novels and a biography of Chekhov. She composed "Suite Française" in the village of Issy-l'Evêque, where she, her husband and two young daughters had settled after fleeing Paris. On July 13, 1942, French policemen, enforcing the German race laws, arrested Némirovsky as "a stateless person of Jewish descent." She was transported to Auschwitz, where she died in the infirmary on Aug. 17." (See "As France Burned" by Paul Gray)
I read Suite Française during its period of popularity, and like the Times reviewer, was impressed by the insightful and compact nature of the stories, and agree that "a knowledge of its history heightens the wonder and awe of reading it."

Now one question: how do I feel about Nemirovsky's clear distaste for her fellow Russian Jews, a distaste that was much more expressed in her earlier books? I'm really quite uncomfortable about it, although I understand how it was a product of the times. I can't help thinking other Jewish authors were able to write with both artistic and material success about their experiences without such self-hatred, despite what was going on in France at the time. At the time I read the earlier book was only accessible in French, in the first edition from the 1920s, having been (perhaps justifiably) forgotten. Her savage depiction of greedy rich Jews was in my mind a bit shameful; what a waste of her capabilities. I believe it has been published in English since then, but I don't feel like exploring the topic further.

Monday, February 20, 2012

"A Nervous Splendor"

Frederic Morton's book A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888/1889 zeros in on a tiny time-slice of the history of Vienna. As the several other books I've read, this one confronts the rising antisemitism that was just beginning to dominate Viennese life, and contrasts it to the rising activity of Jewish intellectuals. The major focus of the book is the Imperial court, especially the suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf at his estate Meyerling at the end of January 1889. The frenzy of public mourning after his death, and the cover up of his relationship with the woman who jointly committed suicide with him are also presented within the context of Viennese life at the time.

Rudolf was an ineffective and extremely frustrated man without any power. His titles were meaningless, and his liberal political views inexpressible within the constraints of his life. Morton contrasts Rudolph's helplessness at age 30, and the futility of his liberalism, with the early lives of several men not far from his age: Sigmund Freud, Hugo Wolfe, Arthur Schnitzler, Gustav Mahler, Theodor Herzl, Anton Bruckner; and Karl Lueger, the antisemite. Also present, representing an older generation, Johannes Brahms and others. Morton also describes the lives of several lower-class (and never subsequently famous) families and individuals as they live through the last half of 1888 and the beginning of 1889.

I found most fascinating the author's description of how a number of individuals and families celebrated Christmas. Morton describes several of these events in detail. The well-off secular-Jewish families of Arthur Schnitzler and Theodor Herzl were decorating their Christmas trees. Not so the Freud family, who didn't participate in the holiday. Anton Bruckner played the organ for a monastic midnight mass outside of town. The poor family that figures throughout the book could afford to buy and decorate only a branch from a tree; they presented one another with second-hand goods for gifts. Gustav Klimt, Hugo Wolf, and others had conventional celebrations. Brahms enjoyed the praise of his latest work as published in the Neue Freie Presse, but kept to his usual schedule of lunch in his habitual restaurant followed by a nap at his cafe. Through these descriptions Morton clarifies the way these people viewed Christianity and its role in their lives. (p. 181-184)

As I read, I felt that every event and detail assumed a broader significance, to portend what would come after. However, Morton refuses to speculate -- as many did then and have done since -- as to how Rudolf might have altered later history had he survived and found a way to implement his liberal views. For one thing, his father, the Emperor, lived and ruled until World War I was almost over, so it's far from clear that Rudolf's pessimism about his future was unfounded.

And the last paragraph of the book reads:
"On Saturday, April 20, the day before Easter, at 4 P.M., Mozart's 'Te Deum' was sung in the court Chapel, a few yards from Rudolf's old apartment. Professor Anton Bruckner drew great chords and holy harmonies from the organ to celebrate the Resurrection. While the master's august music rose among the vaultings, a different sound was heard in Bruckner's native Upper Austria at Braunau. It was the thin cry of a baby born that afternoon. The parents were Alois and Klara Hitler. They named their little one Adolph." (p. 317)
Did Hitler's thought have roots in the Viennese currents of ideas that were swirling through the lives and times that Morton described? He definitely made a case for such roots.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Adele Bloch-Bauer

Yesterday I mentioned Adele Bloch-Bauer, whose portrait by Gustav Klimt became even more famous in 2005 when her niece recovered it from the Austrians. (They had stolen it in 1938, and successfully refused to return it for the ensuing decades.) The Bloch-Bauer family were wealthy; her father was in banking and railroads and her husband was in manufacturing. Adele had a salon in Vienna.

One thing about the Viennese intelligentsia: they were close-knit group and mixed practitioners and theorists from many disciplines. Adele's salon is an example of this interaction among the arts and political life in Vienna:
"Among the prominent guests in her salon were the composers Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) and Richard Strauss (1864–1949), Alma Mahler-Werfel (1879–1964), the authors Stefan Zweig (1881–1942) and Jakob Wassermann (1873–1934), artists from the circle of Gustav Klimt, actors from the Burgtheater, and after WWI, the Socialists Karl Renner (1870–1950) and Julius Tandler (1869–1936)." (See this article.)
Note: Klimt painted two portraits of Adele;
the earlier one accompanied my post yesterday,
and the second is above.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Vienna and Antisemitism

In reading about Vienna in the 19th century, I've become aware of the simultaneous development of two groups emerging together. I meant to focus on the secular-Jewish intellectual class, which included some of the wealthy bankers as well as middle-class Jews. But it seems that you can't learn about this fascinating Jewish community without also being aware of a political, populist Austrian-German nationalism with a strong antisemitic bias as well as a bias against many of the non-German nationalities of the Austrian empire.

From the 1890s, anti-liberal leaders assumed a great deal of political power, especially the antisemite Karl Lueger who was elected mayor of Vienna in 1895, and despite the Emperor's efforts to block him from office, became mayor in 1897. Antisemitic theories and actions became widely accepted and influential. After World War I they grew predominant in both Austria and Germany as is very well known. Less well known: their origin in Austrian 19th century policies and politics and the interplay between the conservative and Jew-hating ideas with the earlier liberal thought, Jewish intellectual and commercial success, and conservative antisemitic thought.

One thing I find disturbing is that every Jewish success was spun into a negative stereotype by the antisemites of the time. Jews were blamed for success in owning and running banks (the antisemites founded their own alternative postal savings bank). Jews received opprobrium for being writers or for owning newspapers. Most hated was the liberal and influential Neue Freie Presse, founded in 1864, edited from 1908 to 1920 by Moriz Benedikt, and ultimately put out of business by the Nazis when they took over Vienna in 1938. The antisemites criticized Jewish doctors (who perhaps became doctors because not all professions were open to Jews). Jewish university students were attacked and expelled from fraternities and other organizations that had formerly permitted them; Jews had a hard time rising in academic professions and musical institutions.

Yet many Jews put aside their Jewish identity when they wrote poetry or stories, composed music or plays, conducted, developed philosophic or other academic theories, or patronized a variety of arts. They led a normal, secular life, attempting to work around the forces that excluded them, marginalized them, or attacked them.

Despite the danger of the stereotypes, I am going to mention a few of the famous members of the Viennese intellectual community in its great times, with an extremely brief summary of how antisemitism affected them. I'm not an expert, I'm just beginning to read about this.

Sigmund Freud grew up in the secular-Jewish middle class. His intellectual leadership in developing theories about the human mind is still acknowledged even if the details have been revised or rejected. In reading the chapter on Freud in Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture by Carl E. Schorske, I learned how important to Freud was discrimination against Jews, both in terms of his career and his personal development.

Stefan Zweig was a widely-read and very popular author. His autobiography, The World of Yesterday, written when he was in flight from the Nazis and in despair about the loss of everything he had cherished, painted a fascinating nostalgic portrait of the atmosphere of Vienna before the Nazis. He put it in the best possible light, attempting to show, I think, that the Jewish writers and thinkers were able to overcome the forces that attacked them -- at least until the final disaster overtook them. Zweig's works seem to be undergoing a reevaluation: for a long time, he seemed dated, and now people are republishing and reading his novels and stories.

Theodor Herzl, a journalist for the
Neue Freie Presse, is now of course mainly known for the invention of political Zionism and his pursuit of support for his dream of a homeland for the Jews. While he was originally rather indifferent to his Jewish identity (according to a number of things I've read), the ascent of Lueger in Vienna and the Dreyfus case, which he covered as the Paris correspondent of the NFP, caused him to rethink what he'd believed. His realization was a fascinating development in the context of the freedom that Jews had thought they possessed. He was ahead of his time in recognizing the force of antisemitism in many parts of Europe. Interestingly, according to Zweig, his newspaper, which had a general following, did not allow him to publish anything about Zionism.

Gustav Mahler, composer and conductor, accepted conversion to Catholicism in 1897 perhaps as the price for advancement in his career as a conductor. In that year, he was appointed as Kappelmeister in Vienna. His enemies continued to attack him, though I think it's fair to say that his music transcends all this.

Gustav Klimt, surely the most famous artist from pre-World War I Vienna, became a victim of antisemites without even being Jewish. According to Schorske, his dramatically original work was at first accepted, but soon became very controversial, and in a fight about murals to be installed at the university, he was the victim of a lot of vicious anti-modern sentiment, including being accused of siding with the Jews.

Klimt's two portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer (who belonged to the Jewish community, which often patronized his art work) received a great deal of attention a few years ago when Adele's niece won a judgement that returned several paintings to her that had been among the ill-gotten gains from Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

The people I've named are only a few of the famous figures living in Vienna who made important contributions, including many others from the secular-Jewish community. For some, identity was very complex, as there had been intermarriages and conversions for several generations (but antisemites might not have cared) -- examples are Ludwig Wittgenstein and Hugo von Hoffmannsthal.

Lueger, when challenged for having Jewish friends, evidently said that it was up to him to decide who was Jewish. I'm not sure what exactly that meant. All I know is that Hitler thought he was fabulous.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Events in The Hare with Amber Eyes (which I started to discuss yesterday) eventually come to the Nazi takeover of Vienna in 1938 as experienced by the author's great grandparents and grandmother Elizabeth. De Waal explains how a long-employed family servant named Anna hid the collection of Netsuke (center of the story) a few at a time, so that these relatively insignificant items from the large and valuable stores of family possessions were the only ones rescued.

The Holocaust victims' shock of being deprived of all dignity and human rights is agonizing to read about no matter how many stories I've read before. Why had they not sent their money out of the country and fled before the inevitable happened? They were loyal and trusting citizens, up until then with equal rights despite the growing hatred of Jews. They were highly assimilated, Jewish but with a secular lifestyle. They saw themselves as real Austrians, and valued their position in Viennese society. However, the Viennese welcomed the Nazis with huge enthusiasm.

On a trip there, I once visited the home of Sigmund Freud, whose relatively modest apartment De Waal points out was very close to his family's palatial home in Vienna -- a video tape of the German victory parade was showing as a loop on a small TV set in Freud's one-time study, with the voice of his daughter Anna describing their shock at the frenzied anti-Jewish and pro-Nazi crowds. I thought of this as I read about the same parades, the same shock, the same sense of having been betrayed.

Elizabeth had earlier earned a doctorate in law from the University of Vienna, and with extreme bravery came to Vienna to help her parents to safety away from the Nazis. With her knowledge of the law, even in its eviscerated form, she was able to extricate her parents, who were desperately trying to escape. Her parents' first escape location was at a family vacation home in Czechoslovakia -- not safe enough. Her mother died at this once-happy refuge, but Elizabeth managed to get her father to England, where she and her husband and children were living, and where her son and grandson (the author) have spent their lives.

Later, after the war, Elizabeth tried to repossess some of the family's art collections and other property, but it was futile. The Austrians were successful in preventing Jews from returning or reclaiming what had been taken from them. I felt that the net result has this conclusion: the Holocaust was a great success. Where many Jews of all social classes and levels of accomplishment once lived peacefully in Vienna (and many other places of course), there are now virtually none, and those that survived had to start their lives over from zero.

The story is told in painful detail. Vivid and unbearable, the author makes you go through the suffering and desperate times with the family members and ask yourself for the millionth time, how did this happen?

The collection of Netsuke, small and resilient, made to be used as toggles for clothing, once used as playthings by the children of the family, survived better than many of the family members, and the post-war story is happier.

Monday, February 13, 2012


The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal describes his exploration and discovery of his forbears, the vastly rich Ephrussi family. I am enjoying this best-selling book enormously, and using it to form my picture of secular-Jewish Paris before and during the Dreyfus affair and of secular-Jewish Vienna in the early 20th century, at least of certain high social strata of the cities.

The first prominent Ephrussi escaped his Shtetl origins and made a fortune by dealing grain in Odessa in the mid-19th century. Contemplating a financial and trading network, his descendants set up businesses and palatial homes in Paris and Vienna, where they lived in a world of wealth and culture.

A tiny carving of a rabbit (left) is one of several hundred Netsuke statuettes from Japan from the was acquired first by De Waal's Parisian art-collecting great-uncle, an art patron and friend of the Impressionists. By tracing the family members who later owned the Netsuke collection and the motives for its original acquisition, De Waal has created the fascinating story of these immensely wealthy members of a certain segment of Parisian Jews and Viennese Jews in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Needless to say, the ending of the family's fortunes in 1938, when the Nazis marched into Vienna, looms over the story.

In addition, as I explore my topic of secular Jewish Vienna, I'm reading The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig. He begins with a fascinating portrait of late-19th century Vienna and its Jewish cultural atmosphere and numerous accomplished Jewish citizens, and continues with his life as an author and cultural observer. This autobiography, even more than De Waal's book, is dominated by the Nazi destruction of the world that he had known. Zweig wrote it during his last year, before he committed suicide in despair.

Thus I continue my travels in secular Jewish cities, and will write more about both Vienna and later Paris.

Monday, February 6, 2012

"Klezmer" by Joann Sfar

Joann Sfar's Klezmer is a graphic novel about some very unlucky and also rebellious Jews approximately 100 years ago. They wander around, hungry and cold, betrayed by friends or victimized by enemies until they come to where? ODESSA! When I picked up the book I had no idea this was their destiny. Here's Sfar's imaginary scene of the Odessa they see:

As the musicians catch sight of the city, Sfar draws a series of images with quotations from Isaac Babel's description, "Odessa is a horrible town. It's common knowledge that people there butcher the Russian language," he wrote. "And yet I feel that there are quite a few good things one can say about this important town, the most charming city of the Russian Empire. If you think about it, it is a town in which you can live free and easy. Half the population is made up of Jews... "

And here we see how Sfar imagines it. I also enjoyed his quotations from many Klezmer songs, as the musicians entertain first one another, and then begin to perform for audiences in little towns. I also liked the sort of philosophical aspects of the musicians' struggle with their own misfortunes and their lost faith, though sometimes Sfar is a little too clever about this.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Norton Simon (February 2, 1907)

The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena is one of my favorite museums anywhere. The gardens, interior spaces, and collections -- especially the Asian art and Impressionists -- are all splendid, and the size makes it very accessible. As I understand it, the collections very much reflect the taste and actions of the founder, Norton Simon and his wife Jennifer Jones (the actress).

Simon came from a West-Coast Jewish family. However, his Jewish background seems to have little or nothing to do with either his great success as a businessman or as an art collector. According to the museum website, "In 1929, at the start of the Great Depression, Norton Simon invested $7,000 in a floundering juice bottling company. He eventually turned his investment into the highly prosperous Hunt Foods, Inc. ... He built Norton Simon Inc., a multi-industry, multinational corporation that included Hunt-Wesson Foods, McCall’s Publishing, Saturday Review of Literature, Canada Dry Corporation, Max Factor cosmetics, and Avis Car Rental."

I place Norton Simon on my hero list because I really respect his accomplishment in developing the Norton Simon Museum. The museum website offers this quote, which I quite like:
"I am not essentially a religious person, but my feeling about a museum is that it can serve as a substitute for a house of worship. It is a place to respect man's creativity and to sense a continuity with the past. It is a place to give us a feeling of the dignity of man and to help us to strive towards our own creativity and fulfillment. - Norton Simon, 1974"