Journey to Oblivion: The End of the East European Yiddish and German Worlds in the Mirror of Literature (review)
- Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies
- Purdue University Press
- Volume 11, Number 2, Winter 1993
- pp. 176-179
- Additional Information
176 SHOFAR Winter 1993 Vol. 11, No. 2 Journey to Oblivion: The End of the East European Yiddish and German Worlds in the Mirror ofLiterature, by Peter Stenberg. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991. 213 pp. $35.00. That East European Jewry was destroyed in the Nazi Holocaust continues to shame the historical consciousness of humankind. It is less known that in the wake of Hitler's war in the east many millions of ethnic Germans were brutally driven from their homes in the Baltics, Ukraine, Silesia, and Sudetenland, and perhaps more than a million of them were murdered by wrathful local populaces at the war's end. It is also true that after Auschwitz neither Germans nor Jews can contemplate their own history-the Germans in guilt, the Jews in mourning-without including the other in it. Yet in no way do these two people share the consciousness of a common, or parallel, "journey to oblivion" that the title of this study suggests. Whatever historical ties or events may be cited to link Germans and Jews, the enormity of the Holocaust negates their validity for the argument of comparable fates. The one people committed the crime, the other suffered it. Establishing a moral symmetry between the German and Jewish disasters, I should stress, is not Stenberg's aim. Throughout his book he takes pains to dispel any notion that the ethnic Germans of Eastern Europe, however dreadful their demise, experienced a tragedy approximate in horror to that of the Jews. Likewise he consistently cites the Nazi policy of brutal conquest as the catalyst for the German agony, just as he repeatedly names Hitler's hordes as the murderers of the Jews. Nonetheless , the discomfort created by the book's title extends to its organizing theme as well as its content, which this title does in fact describe. German and Jewish fates in Eastern Europe, the author contends, found meaningful counterparts in one another, and a comparative study of twentieth-century Yiddish and German literature, perforce in narrow selection, will better illuminate the fearful end of both peoples. To support this thesis, Stenberg, a Canadian Germanist, first surveys th·e evolvement ofYiddish from German, and then describes the migration ofJews and Germans to Eastern Europe, and their communities there. In Chapter 3 he draws on Sholom Aleichem's Tevye stories along with German novels of uprooting and assimilation by the Galician-born Jewish authors (of quite unequal rank) Karl Emil Franzos, Joseph Roth, and Alexander Granach to show how the erosion of traditional shtetl culture is reflected in both Yiddish and German literature. His witnesses to the Book Reviews 177 decline of Gennan life in Eastern Europe through the upheavals of World War I and the Russian Revolution (Chapter 4) are the Baltic-Gennan novelist Siegfried von Vegesack and a chronicler of the Mennonite community in Ukraine, Dietrich Neufeld. In Chapter 4, after a brief discussion ofl. B. Singer and the esthetic problems ofHolocaust literature, Stenberg examines novels of this genre by the Jewish Gennan-Ianguage writers Jurek Becker and Edgar Hilsenrath, and the lesser-known nonJewish author Udo Steinke. His last chapter treats the end of the Gennan presence in fonner East Prussia, as portrayed in novels by the prominent Gennan writers Johannes Bobrowski, Siegfried Lenz, Horst Bienek, and Christa Wolf. The book concludes with some observations on present-day Romanian-Gennan writing. Stenberg proceeds from the conviction that critical studies in English both on Holocaust literature and Yiddish literature, the latter with its themes of shtetl life and the move to the New World, have tended to remove their subjects from a broader literary context. Such studies, he suggests, could have been enriched had their authors examined works on the kindred theme of the Gennan ordeal in Eastern Europe, or works in languages other than Yiddish and English, i.e., in Gennan. But his own comparative study fails to exemplifY this point. Indeed, he might have more profitably applied his efforts solely to the East European Gennan theme. For where he does, he treats some truly neglected questions. Elsewhere, however, he has trod well-explored ground and in the process demanded more of his brief study than one...