I was born in Baltimore in 1954, nine years after the Shoah, one of signature events of the 20th—or any—century. That I recall, throughout my early childhood no one in my community spoke much about it.
During the Israeli Bond drives of those years, the rabbi would sometimes invoke a gruesome image or two—but nothing approaching a coherent account of continent-wide anti-Semitism or the camps. We had no discussions at the dinner table or in Hebrew School and certainly none in the public school classroom. At the Jewish Community Center where I played basketball, I saw men with numbers tattooed on their forearms. I couldn’t approach these men: there was no context for that and certainly no invitation.
I was only six years old when the English translations of Primo Levi’s If This is a Man (1959) and Elie Wiesel’s Night (1960) became available in America. Later, having read them, I didn’t understand why they hadn’t moved my parents and teachers to a frank conversation of the war. Perhaps the memories were too near and raw; perhaps adults through their silence believed they were protecting us. Not even the survivors I knew, the parents of my friends, would speak. “Why remember bad times?” they’d say when the children asked.
Popular culture filled the void, and not particularly well. The Guns of Navarone (1961) pitted allied commandos against generic bad guys who happened to wear German uniforms. The Great Escape (1963) offered a mostly benign account of a POW camp. True, German soldiers gunned down the majority of those who attempted escape, but the story was about soldiers killing other soldiers who wouldn’t sit still and listen—wouldn’t play by the rules of war. In a sense, the never-say-quit attitude of the British and Yank prisoners invited the killing. There was a grim logic to that and a certain decorum and courtesy in the camp, call it a baseline respect for the human that was never shown to the prisoners of labor camps or death factories. Why didn’t the movies portray that? In 1965, Hogan’s Heroes gave us a comedy (!) set in a POW camp, its storylines variations on the mischievous play that duped the ever-clumsy German command. No one, it seemed, neither the entertainment industry nor educators, dared to take on the horror of industrial-scale murder.
All I had to work with in my struggle for understanding was the silence of adults and quasi-entertaining military action/adventure accounts of the war. What I sorely missed were innovative curricula like Facing History and Ourselves (founded in 1976) that addressed the calamity head on in public school settings. At last, by my mid-twenties, more histories and more survivor accounts were being published and televised series like Holocaust (1978) brought realism to the subject. By that point my war-related anxieties were already established. I had filled in blanks not with information but with nightmares of snarling dogs and men in jackboots hauling people off into the night.
Little wonder that these anxieties surfaced decades later in my writing. Many Jewish artists find themselves reckoning with the events in Europe seventy years ago, whether or not they lived through them. My reckoning came in The Tenth Witness, a novel set in 1978 about the legacy of national socialism. I follow a character who falls in love with the daughter of a man who made steel for the Reich. Why? I suppose I wanted to get as close to the beast as I could to study it—in a context I understood, the 70s, when there were still plenty of former Nazis walking the streets of Munich and Buenos Aires. The woman fascinated me. She was innocent, though her father wasn’t. Still, did she need forgiving for merely having been born German, or born to parents implicated in war crimes? What does forgiveness look like in the context of the Shoah? How do the sins of parents weigh on children? What does a child learn from a father who used slave labor? Is that child somehow tainted? These questions confused my teenage years, and only decades later did I gain perspective enough to wrestle with them.
Doubtless, my parents and teachers thought they were doing right by sparing children details of the Shoah. We take another view these days, and that’s a good thing because their silence proved a burden.
No one counted on that.
My fascination with detectives started very early on.
I remember that one of my strongest reading experiences as a child—when I was maybe 8 or 9 years old—was discovering with growing terror and amazement The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle. I was reading at night, in bed, under the blanket, and I knew I was intimidated by this strange character, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, even more than I was by the monstrous giant dog he was chasing.
And there’s another experience I remember very strongly:
I was 11 or 12 years old and I had already finished all the Agatha Christie novels available in the adult section of the municipal library in my home town, Holon, an urban suburb of Tel Aviv. I was standing in front of the library shelves that offered almost no other detective novels and asked myself: And now what? Are there really no other detectives in the world for me to read?
Many years later, as a young literary scholar pretending to write a PhD thesis on the detective novel, I found myself going back to these two important moments in my personal history of reading. This time I could ask myself the questions I couldn’t formulate as a child: How did I come to read the terribly horrifying story of the hound of the Baskervilles when I was only 8 years old? And why was it that the shelves in the municipal library in Holon offered no other detective novels after having finished all of Hercule Poirot’s investigations?
I understood then, that my own intimate history of reading, as a child in Israel in the 1980’s couldn’t be separated from the bigger social history of reading in Modern Hebrew. I was facing the mystery of the Hebrew detective, or the mystery of the detective in Hebrew: Why is it so difficult to write a detective in Hebrew?
And for me, at that moment in life, it wasn’t just a theoretical question, but a very personal one, almost a question of life and death, because secretly, without anybody knowing, I wasn’t going to finish my PhD thesis on the genre; instead, I was planning to write my own detective, in Hebrew. I was going to write the first investigation of police inspector Avraham Avraham.
“For years I could not read Kafka. I would get to the bottom of the first page of The Castle and my brain would seize. Then something clicked inside me and I became obsessed with him. I believe reading Kafka to be a deeply personal experience. You can accept what others tell you Kafka means or you can interpret him for yourself. His enigmatic work lends itself to almost infinite interpretation.”
So too does Yellin’s marvelous story. In the opening paragraph, her narrator announces her intention to throw her past – including her Jewishness – onto the heap of forgotten things so she can start anew. She moves to the English countryside where the Bronte sisters lived — and where she tell us there are no other Jews. She hires a builder to renovate an ancient cottage and encounters, but never speaks to, a mysterious old man the villagers in her new home call Mr. Kafka. Meanwhile she becomes obsessed with the real Kafka, and especially with his relationship to Judaism. The narrator reads from her Introduction to Kafka:
“More than any other writer, Kafka describes the predicament of the secular alienated Jew. Yet his work, so personal on one level, remains anonymously universal. He has no Jewish axe to grind. Nowhere in any of his fictions does Kafka mention the words Jewish, or Jew.”
She finds this remarkable and resolves to determine whether it is true. But when she goes to the village library to begin her search, she gets a surprise. Its copy of The Trial has “a forest of date-stamps, repeated and regular, going back years.” The Castle has also been in heavy circulation. This suggests to her that there is a “profound need for Kafka in Bronteland.” Or is it just one borrower, obsessively checking the books out? Perhaps the local “Mr. Kafka?”
What does all of this mean? Is the mysterious old man really Franz Kafka, somehow miraculously transported from Prague to Yorkshire? And where does this obsession with Kafka’s problematic relationship to Judaism come from, if the narrator is really intent on leaving her past behind? Yellin presents the reader with puzzle pieces but does not insist on a final arrangement. What is clear, however is that the past refuses to stay forgotten. It is everywhere in this story, suffusing the present. It has settled in a dark corner of the local pub and pokes through the plaster ceiling of the narrator’s cottage. Even as she tries to begin her new life, the narrator “rattles the cans of the past behind me willy-nilly.”
- James Patrick Kelly
Franz Kafka was a man who struggled with his many contradictions. Although his writing has come to be intensively studied, as a man he is hard to know, even given all the scrutiny of recent years. He was born in 1883 into an assimilated middle-class Jewish family in Prague, the third largest city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He had five siblings, two younger brothers who died in infancy and three sisters who survived him, only to perish in Hitler’s camps during the Second World War. He was a member of the dominant German-speaking minority, just three percent of the population of Prague at the time, but he was also fluent in Czech. As a young man, he was athletic, taller than average, fond of swimming, rowing, and bicycling. Yet for much of his life he was also a hypochondriac: it was not until 1917 that he was diagnosed with the tuberculosis that would kill him seven years later at the age of forty.
Of all the contradictions in Kafka’s life, two stand out for the modern readers. Kafka was a student of Yiddish literature, and in his youth championed Yiddish theatre, much to the puzzlement of some of his literary friends. He was sympathetic to Zionism and yet there are no overt allusions to Jews or Jewishness in his fiction. “What have I in common with the Jews?” he wrote. “I have hardly anything in common with myself, and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.”
But there are many things “missing” in Kafka’s fiction—often a sense of place, or of time or of historicity—because these did nothing to advance his artistic goals. Kafka was not a realist and we ought not look to the work to understand his problematic relationship to Judaism. Of course, contemporary questions about Kafka’s Jewishness are informed by tragedies that occurred after his death. Not only did his sisters perish in concentration camps, but his translator and mistress Milena Jesenská did as well. The approach of the Nazis forced his friend and literary executor Max Brod to flee Prague for Jerusalem with a huge collection of Kafka’s papers. Do the terrible realities of the Holocaust affect how we read the work?
Undoubtedly, but this is a problem for us, and not for Kafka. Similarly, there are those who interpret The Trial and The Castle as predictions of the rise of totalitarian states like Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and Stalin’s Russia. Kafka, however, was not trying to prophesy some future world order but rather was attempting to engage imaginatively with a society he knew all too well.
Then there is the puzzle of Kafka’s instructions to Max Brod, which was to destroy his unpublished work. Brod claims that he told his friend plainly that he would do no such thing. After Kafka’s death, Brod found two notes which explicitly stated that all his papers were to be burned unread. How was Brod then to have executed these requests if he was to burn them unread? And why didn’t Kafka burn the papers himself, especially since he knew Brod was unlikely to do the deed? While we have no way to know his thinking in this matter, we do know that this was the request of a sick man whose financial fortunes had taken a radical turn for the worse.
His modest pension, taken when he retired after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, was nearly worthless in the hyperinflation that plagued the defeated and disintegrating Austro-Hungarian Empire in the wake of World War I. It is clear that Kafka was a depressed and often anxious man. Never a risk taker, he suffered from feelings of inferiority that arose from the high standards to which he held himself as a writer. Frustrated that his reach continued to exceed his grasp, at the end of his life he struggled with despair.
There is an odd and, yes, Kafkaesque postscript to Brod’s denial of Kafka’s request. Brod brought many of Kafka’s papers with him to Jerusalem in 1939. No one knows exactly what this cache contained, although reputedly there were letters, diaries, and manuscripts. On his death in 1968, Brod left these papers to his secretary and presumed mistress, Esther Hoffe.
But was she intended to be the executor or the beneficiary? Brod’s will is ambiguous, since it also provides that his literary estate be given to a “public archive in Israel or abroad.” In any event, Hoffe retained possession of the Kafka papers until her death in 2007, at which time they passed to her daughters in accordance with her will. Possession of these papers is the subject of a lawsuit in Israel, unresolved as we write this. It is likely, however, that in the near future, Kafka readers and scholars will have access to a trove of Kafka’s previously unseen writing.
Perhaps they will help us unravel some of the contradictions that still puzzle readers of
this literary genius.
- James Patrick Kelly