Monday, October 7, 2013
Journey to Poland by Alfred Doblin translated by Joachim Neugroschel from German, published in English in 1991
For two months in late 1924 Alfred Doblin, a noted German Jewish novelist, made a tour of major cities in Poland to see what Polish Jewish life was like. Although Doblin’s family had been from Poland, he was raised in Germany and was a highly assimilated German Jew who lived and worked amongst the intelligentsia of Berlin. He sought a more “authentic” Jewish life than he was aware of in Germany, not necessarily to embrace it, but to better understand it.
He observed Jewish life in all the cities on his itinerary: Warsaw, Vilnius, Lublin, Lvov, Cracow, Lodz, and everywhere he had experiences that deepened his knowledge of Judaism. He walked through neighborhoods, listened to people tell stories – he loved folk tales, visited schools and synagogues, and sought meetings with important rabbis.
What he saw in Warsaw, his first stop, amazed him. He was totally unfamiliar with the appearance and the customs of very observant Jews which struck him as medieval. And he was appalled by their poverty and living conditions. He describes with great vividness his experience following the crowds to the cemetery the night before Yom Kippur and how many wailed at the graves of members of their families. In Wilno (Vilnus) he learned about the Gaon of Vilna and the Ba’al Shem Tov and their adherents. In Cracow he learned about the mysticism of Cabbalah through some of its texts and was fascinated.
Doblin characterizes as soulless and anemic the intellectualizing of Western Europe and extolls what he sees as the vibrancy and cohesion of the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. For example, he cites his own educational experience as typical of Western Europe: What he remembers is that the teachers were authoritarian and focused on discipline. In Poland he seeks out the opportunity to observe classes in Jewish schools where he finds that learning is a communal affair and teachers and students work together to interpret the text.
Throughout this memoir Doblin expresses his strong feelings about borders, and he uses the line from Schiller, “For every border wields a tyrant’s power” as its epigraph. He expresses much frustration and despair about the deleterious effects of nationalism on all people and property. In many places he visits he still sees evidence of unrepaired destruction that occurred during World War I. But he’s also alluding to other kinds of borders – the “border” between Christianity and Judaism, which he questions, and the various “borders” that separate the sects of Judaism. He advocates universalism in politics and religion.
One last border must be mentioned. In line with the dualities mentioned above, this highly intellectual writer appended a “Bibliography” to emphasize the border between the aridity of book research hardened into “truth” and the vitality of authentic experience. His “Bibliography” has three categories (borders, you might say). The first, he labels “I Leafed Through” and is followed by a list of nine books in German. The second category called “I Read Very Carefully,” lists only one book: Bernhard Guttmann’s Tage in Hellas. The third category is called “I Neither Read Nor Leafed Through” and is followed by the phrase: “The national libraries in Berlin, in Warsaw, in Cracow, and in Lwow.”
Besides the bibliography there is an introduction by the translator, Joachim Neugroschel, a map of Doblin’s travels, and footnotes.
To read an article about the lives of Polish Jews between the wars, click here.
Alfred Doblin, son of Max , author
Friends and Acquaintances
Avrom Kashe – Lublin
Rebbe Jakob Pollack
Stettin (Szczecin), Poland
Posen (Poznan), Poland
Nalewky Street, Warsaw Jewish District
Kazimierz Jewish District
Esthera Street, Krakowski Street, Jozef Street
Ballut – Alexander Street