restricted access 8. America Abandoned: German-Jewish Visions of American Poverty in Serialized Novels by Joseph Roth, Sholem Asch, and Michael Gold
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197 Chapter 8 America Abandoned: German-­Jewish Visions of American Poverty in Serialized Novels by Joseph Roth, Sholem Asch, and Michael Gold Kerry Wallach In 1930, Hungarian-­ born Jewish author Arthur Holitscher’s book Wiedersehn mit Amerika: Die Verwandlung der U.S.A. (Reunion with America: The Transformation of the U.S.A.) was reviewed by one J. Raphael in the German-­ Jewish Orthodox weekly newspaper, Der Israelit. This reviewer concluded: “Despite its good reputation, America is a strange country. And Holitscher, whose relationship to Judaism is not explicit, but direct, has determined that to be the case for American Jews as well.”1 The reviewer’s use of the word “strange” (komisch ) offers powerful insight into the complex perceptions of America held by many German-­ speaking Jews, which in 1930 were at best mixed and ambivalent . An earlier travel book by Arthur Holitscher (1869–­ 1941) from 1912 depicts America more favorably, though it is widely believed to have provided inspiration for Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel, Amerika: Der Verschollene (Amerika or The Man who Disappeared, published posthumously in 1927), which famously opens with a description of the Statue of Liberty holding aloft a sword rather than a torch.2 But Holitscher’s views of the United States markedly changed during the 1920s, particularly after he spent five months there in 1929. Accordingly, Wiedersehn mit Amerika offers cynical commentary on the covert antisemitism present in American businesses, the ephemeral nature of prosperity due in part to unequal capitalist wealth distribution, and the nature of Jewish life in the most destitute parts of NewYork City. As Holitscher observed in 1930: “In the peering filthy alleys of the oldest Jewish quarter, the benches of residents form 198    Three-Way Street ranks, the residents driven out of their apartments by the heat and stench of neglected ruins, according to customs of the old home.”3 Such analogies comparing New York Jews to their destitute European counterparts exemplify a trend that gained currency in the early 1930s, prior to the shifts in and after 1933: that of decrying Depression-­ era America as beyond hope. Indeed, Holitscher’s change in perspective from 1912 to 1930 is representative of a more general shift within the transnational Jewish public sphere in the late 1920s and early 1930s, from optimism to social critique of America. European Jews of different backgrounds exchanged stories and information about the immigrant American-­ Jewish experience in the pages of the interwar German-­ Jewish press. Major periodicals reached audiences in German towns and cities including Hamburg, Berlin, Frankfurt, and Munich, and also crossed geographic, cultural, and political borders to connect readers in such locations as Breslau, Vienna, Prague, Zurich, Basel, Warsaw, Budapest, Copenhagen, Paris, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem. The press thus warrants consideration in theoretical approaches to transnationalism, which has been defined by anthropologists as “the processes by which immigrants forge and sustain multi-­ stranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement.”4 Works of fiction that were serialized in the German-­ Jewish press, too, brought visions of America to doorsteps across Europe and thereby facilitated their dissemination throughout international Jewish networks. Building on this notion of connections shared among different places, I examine German-­ Jewish transnationalism in two distinct contexts: in a literal sense, with respect to social relations of European Jewish migrants living in or traveling to New York; and in literary and print media, insofar as representations of Jewish life in America contributed to the construction of Jewish identities in Europe. More than only a place of settlement, the idea of America also provided an emotional haven for German Jews over the course of nearly two centuries, from the 1730s until the 1920s. Even before the mass immigration of eastern European Jews to America in the 1880s, at least 250,000 Jews from German-­ speaking lands had immigrated toAmerica.5 Communication between American Jews of European origin and Jews in Germany yielded a transnational culture that flourished especially in periodicals and in literary works in circulation in multiple locations. Various processes of translation have enabled the development of transnational Jewish cultures, many of which rely heavily on exchange among different national and linguistic traditions. To some extent part of a larger quest for authentic Jewish culture, interwar periodicals aimed at Jewish readers of German imported and translated literature from at least thirteen languages, includ- America Abandoned    199 ing English and Jewish languages, and especially Yiddish and Hebrew.6 This newly assembled corpus of modern Jewish literature constituted...


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Subject Headings

  • Jews -- Germany -- History.
  • Germany -- Emigration and immigration.
  • Jews, German -- Foreign countries.
  • Jews, German, in literature.
  • Germany -- Civilization -- Jewish influences.
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