Impossible Love: Ascher Levy’s Longing for Germany
By Roman Frister
Phoenix Press, 359 pages, $15.95.
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My grandfather, a native of Dresden, adored Strauss waltzes, bratwurst and the opera “Die Fledermaus.” After the war, though he refused to buy a BMW, he always spoke with admiration of and largely embodied that distinct Germanic orderliness and efficiency. So when it came time to choose a second language to learn in high school, the least I could do for him, as he lay dying of prostate cancer, was learn his mother tongue.
I didn’t get further than one semester before he died. On his deathbed, I offered him all I could — a little ditty we learned the first week, sung to the tune of “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.” Ich bin Auslander und spreche nicht gut Deutsch. Ich bin Auslander und spreche nicht gut Deutsch. Bitte langsam, bitte langsam, bitte sprechen Sie doch langsam. Ich bin Auslander und spreche nicht gut Deutsch. (I’m a foreigner, and I don’t speak German well. Speak more slowly, please.) He looked up at me and smiled with the little energy he had left in him, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and Majdanek thoroughly enjoying the sound of his grandson speaking German.
It was a difficult smile to understand, one that bespoke a love horrifically spurned — a love that, after hearing his Holocaust stories, seemed puzzling to me. Roman Frister, a death camp survivor and for many years an editor of Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper, has found a stunningly evocative way to tell the story of that tragic love. He found it in an old cardboard suitcase for sale at a Jaffa flea market. Stuffed inside were five generations’ worth of a German Jewish family’s personal papers — their letters, receipts, army commendations, bills.
Using this accumulated detritus, what any of us might have thrown away, Frister has created what he calls a “documentary novel” that reads like an historical epic. On the surface, it is the story of the Levys, a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jewish family living and growing prosperous in the Prussian province of Pomerania. But it is also a love story of a people seduced and then torn between their allegiance to their faith and to their country — or, as Ascher Levy explains it before embarking on a trip to Palestine, between the “love of the land of our forefathers and the love for our fatherland” — and the ultimate, devastating realization of that love violently rejected and their lives destroyed.
The Levy family story begins in the early 19th century with the wanderings of Ascher Jackel, a poor Jewish peddler. Like most Jews of his time, Jackel’s life changed when Napoleon’s army conquered much of Central and Eastern Europe and brought emancipation. Jackel gained Prussian citizenship and took a hereditary surname, Levy. He also bartered with soldiers retreating from the front, exchanging potatoes for their looted treasures. With his new money and status, he settled down and opened an inn.
But the theme of rejected patriotism already had crept into Jackel’s life. Zealously loyal, Jackel jumped at the chance to contribute funds to the Prussian army when another attack from the French seemed imminent. But only a few years later, in 1819, the same locals who accepted his donation burned down his inn during the hepp-hepp riots when Jews were blamed for the country’s droughts.
Jackel’s son, Ascher Levy, also started off as a peddler, but his entrepreneurial skills quickly led him toward a career as a grain merchant, a sawmill owner and eventually a timber wholesaler with state contracts, as well as a successful investor in railroad stock. His business became extremely lucrative, and he bought a home in the spa town of Bad Polzin (“the Switzerland of Pomerania”), where most of the book takes place.
As a prolific letter and journal writer, Levy provides Frister with the most interesting material with which to work. He is also highly reflective about his double allegiance, hanging in his house two portraits, one of Maimonides, and one of the Prussian King. At one point, he writes to his son, Bernhard, “Always remember that you are a proud citizen of Prussia, entitled to equal rights. And never forget that you are a Jew. If you do, there will always be others to remind you of your origins.”
What is startling about Ascher Levy and his offspring’s attitude toward Germany is the purity of their patriotism. One of Ascher’s sons serves in the Prussian army during its 1871 war with France and a few of his grandsons fight at the front in World War I, earning Iron Crosses. In fact, patriotism is a pole that pulls at them just as strongly as Judaism does, and at times even stronger. (Many German Jews succumbed to this pull and converted to Christianity.)
Though their commitment to Germany is never examined or questioned, they are in constant struggle with their faith, with its moral imperatives and prescribed rules of conduct. Ascher Levy has a strained relationship with Palestine. His dream always had been to go to the Holy Land. With his business prosperous and his age advanced, Levy makes the trip in 1872. What he
finds disturbs him. Jerusalem is a dirty city of beggars whose Jewish population is controlled by the ultra-Orthodox, who act more like a mafia than like religious leaders. They refuse to modernize or educate children in secular subjects, and Levy rails against this type of blind observance.
At the same time, though, Ascher rejects the secular Zionist movement. Herzl, to him, is just as dangerous as the antisemites in his midst, and he fears that the new movement will jeopardize his position in what he sees as his true fatherland. “From now on, we shall be told that our fatherland is Palestine,” he writes derisively. “Wagner will rise up out of his grave and compose an opera about the Jews of the Reich who have found their place at last.”
Ascher Levy’s children and grandchildren largely adhere to this patriotism. Many of them assimilate, and most of them drop Jewish observance. But they never abandon their attachment to Germany, and only reluctantly send their children to Palestine in the 1930s when their situation becomes untenable. The one grandson who chooses to remain in Bad Polzin watches the disintegration of the century-old family business as it is appropriated by the Nazis, before he is murdered in his home on Kristallnacht.
Frister paints the Levy family’s portrait as vividly as possible, given that he is working largely with the contents of a suitcase. But in the novelistic style he has chosen, these same sources also limit him. The dialogue, often drawn from letters, can come off stiffly at times, and characters who left behind more writing are depicted more fully than others. In the later section of the book, both the number of characters and the flatness with which they are drawn make for less than engaging reading.
Nevertheless, Frister manages to tell this love story in a highly original way. In the wake of the Holocaust, German Jewish patriotism may be a shocking notion for some of us. Yet for generations, it was this passionate attachment that kept Jews from seeing themselves as Germans saw them — as auslanders, outsiders.
The Levy name does not survive. The Germany that gave Ascher Jackel a last name in the end also killed the only male family members who could have passed it on, the ultimate rebuke to their love. My grandfather’s name also did not survive the war. He chose to reduce its final double “n” to one — both to make it less German, and as a sign that his heart had been forever broken.
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman