- The Jew as Pathogen: Reflections on Marc Weiner's Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination: Review Essay
- Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies
- Purdue University Press
- Volume 14, Number 2, Winter 1996
- pp. 106-114
- View Citation
- Additional Information
106 SHOFAR Winter 1996 Vol. 14, No.2 THE JEW AS PATHOGEN: REFLECTIONS ON MARC WEINER'S RICHARD WAGNER AND THE ANTI-SEMITIC IMAGINATION Review Essayl by Ingrid Shafer Mary Jo Ragan Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination, by Marc A. Weiner. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995). It is difficult for me to be dispassionate about this review. I was born in Austria just before the beginning of World War II and grew up to the sounds of Der fliegende Hollander, Tannhauser, and Parzifal. Almost as soon as I could read I began to devour the yellowing 1920s librettos in our library the way I gobbled up everything in print. My mother adored Richard Wagner, and she was very disappointed that as a teenager I began to prefer Bach and Gregorian chants to Wagner's Romantic exuberance, and Stefan Zweig or Sigrid Undset to Wagner's texts. A dark oil portrait of Wagner hung on the Ii\ing room wall, next to our baby grand piano which my father played for hours on end. The painting had been damaged by a bomb fragment, and one day, as I tried to figure out a way of repairing it, I removed the canvas from the frame and discovered a photograph ofAdolf Hitler stashed behind the composer. This was about eight years after the war, and my parents were not amused. To my frustration, Hitler disappeared, along with a savagely antisemitic '1 dedicate this essay to the memory ofAbraham and Ritka Polenzweig from Warsaw and four of their five children whose future was stolen more than fifty years ago, all of whom 1 have come to know and love through the eyes of the oldest son Leizer who alone lived to tell the story. TheJew as Pathogen: Review Essay 107 biology text, complete with canoon-like illustrations of misshapen Jewish "types" with vulture-like noses that reminded me of Wagner's bird beak beneath the modish cap. I had discovered the text in the bottom of a book case, and hoped to use it in my well-intentioned if clumsy attempts to discover why good people like my parents had allowed the slaughter of millions offellow humans and why no one wanted to answer my questions about the Nazi era. At that time I did not yet have a name for antisemitism but "smelled" it as undefined fetor in odd places, such as Wagner's operas, legends and fairy tales with their occasional Jewish stereotypes, the cheap nineteenthcentury pulp novels I borrowed from our neighbors, and the way the story of the crucifIXion was told, depicted, and re-enacted. I was beginning to grasp cenain patterns, and they involved a combination of excessive patriotic fervor, religious fanaticism, and the inability to see others as fellow humans. My obsession with the Holocaust had begun two or three years after the war when I found death camp photographs in a magazine and asked my mother, "Why did the Nazis kill the Jews?" I did not believe her original insistence that no one knew; so I continued to nag and was finally emotionally shattered when she became quite angry and yelled at me that I would understand when I had children of my own; that even if people had known they would have done nothing in order to keep the Nazis from deponing and killing them and their families instead. It seemed at that moment that I (and Austrian children like myself) had an enormous debt to pay, for our very lives had been bought with the dying of countless Jews-a mysterious people, since I had not as yet knowingly met a single Jew. Years later my mother told me that her much older sister, my beloved aunt Elsa, was the only surviving child of my grandmother's twenty-year cohabitation before the tum of the century with the son of a prominent Jewish family until they separated so he could marry a Jewish bride. He continued to suppon her and their daughter, and she wore his ring until her death. Elsa was a mathematics and biology teacher and took early retirement...