The Scholems: A Story of the German-Jewish Bourgeoisie from Emancipation to Destruction by Jay Howard Geller
In his memoir From Berlin to Jerusalem, published shortly before his death, Gershom Scholem suggested that the divergent paths which he and his three brothers had chosen reflected the various options that stood open for middle-class German Jewry [End Page 603] at the turn of the century. Jay Howard Geller's The Scholems takes this observation as his starting point and recounts the story of this family, from Prussian Glogau at the end of the eighteenth century to Jerusalem and Sydney at the end of the twentieth.
The book focuses mainly on the four Scholem brothers, the sons of the printer Arthur Scholem and his wife, Betty: Reinhold (1891–1985), Erich (1893–1965), Werner (1895–1940), and Gerhard (Gershom, 1897–1982). The two older brothers, who are less known to the reader, stand for assimilatory Judaism with its wish to acculturate into non-Jewish German society. The two younger, more famous brothers represent the revolutionary solution to the so-called "Jewish question," either through universalistic socialism, which will bring about a new order in Germany itself (Werner), or by working toward the particularistic Zionist utopia, which was to be realized in the Land of Israel and form part of Jewish national self-definition (Gershom).
The past couple of years have seen the publication of several monographs dealing with different aspects of Gershom Scholem's life (by Amir Engel, Noam Zadoff, and David Biale), as well as the first biography in English of Werner Scholem by Mirjam Zadoff, which examines his career as a German Jewish politician within the context of his family. Geller's narrative builds on these existing studies, as he describes the turbulence and radical changes that affected the lives of the Scholems in the years of persecution in Germany during the first half of the twentieth century. Reinhold, Erich, and their mother, Betty (their father, Arthur, died in 1925 from heart failure), managed to escape in 1938 and immigrate to Australia, while Werner—who had been elected to the Reichstag as a member of the Communist Party—was arrested in 1933 and interned in different concentration camps until his murder in Buchenwald in 1940. Although Gershom immigrated to Palestine in 1923, and hence did not experience the traumatic events firsthand, the Holocaust was arguably the defining moment of his biography and he would continue to wrestle with its significance for the rest of his life. In many respects, the story of the Scholem siblings has strong tragic elements and can be read, as Geller suggests, as a parable for the decline of German Jewry.
The merit of Geller's work lies in the detailed account he provides of the larger Scholem family and the eloquent way in which it is narrated. (Especially interesting are the descriptions of the period after Reinhold, Erich, and Betty arrived in Australia.) Geller places personal episodes in the lives of the family members within the larger framework of the history of the German Jewish bourgeoisie, where his main concern lies. Consequently, his narrative swings constantly between specific events in the lives of members of the Scholem family and the general social-historical framework—the general situation in Germany at the time.
Throughout the book Geller adheres to the narrative set by Gershom Scholem in his autobiography, which he does not question. Consequently, inner conflicts in Gershom's life that Scholem himself avoided rarely receive any treatment. The reader is left with the feeling that the story has another, hidden layer, which Geller does not [End Page 604] bring to light. An example is the confusion that arises from his treatment of Gershom Scholem's unique brand of Zionism. In one passage Geller emphasizes the influence of Ahad Haam on Gershom's Zionism (133), while in another he has Gershom espousing the "negation of the diaspora" (175) ideology, which is in direct opposition to Ahad Haam's humanistic thought; but this dissonance goes unexplained. Another example of glossing over difficulties lies in the surprise Geller expresses about the decision of Erich's son, Arthur, to settle in postwar Germany, even though his father did not feel comfortable there (196–197). Given the internal family dynamics and relationships, this move seems to be less surprising than Geller suggests and quite important for understanding the whole story: just as young Gerhard left for Palestine, partly in rebellion against his father's generation, and Werner rejected German nationalism in favor of communism, so perhaps the revolt of the next generation manifested itself in a desire to return to Germany.
Here lies the main weakness of the book: while concentrating all his efforts on showing how the Scholems fit into the larger framework of the German Jewish bourgeoisie, Geller neglects a major aspect of the biographical research by ignoring complexities and conflicts within the Scholem family itself. In his eagerness to show how the Scholems fit their time he does not write about the elements that made this family unique. Although Geller states in his introduction that his research is not only "a social history of German Jewry," but also a biography (9), the reader is rarely granted a glance into the inner world of the protagonists and the dynamics between them. The book does not explain what motivates the Scholems and how they stand as members of a family in relation to each other. Yet the emotional and psychological dimensions of such relationships might actually have been the heart of the story, since this is what make families what they are.