What the Straus Center Reads — The Golem Redux: From Prague to Post-Holocaust Fiction

Elizabeth R. Baer | Wayne State University Press | 2012

Reviewed by Sam Gelman

In his essay “Cultural Criticism and Society”, Theodor Adorno wrote that “after Auschwitz, writing a poem is barbaric”. And yet, as People of the Book, Jews have always turned to the written word as a vehicle for our imagination. Elizabeth R. Baer confronts this tension in The Golem Redux: From Prague to Post-Holocaust Fiction, who examines various accounts of the golem mythos in post-Holocaust literature and media. Baer argues convincingly and ingeniously that the golem, as a product of creativity itself which touches upon themes of memory and identity, is the perfect mechanism “for asserting the viability and authority of the imagination, history and creativity” in a post-Holocaust period. world. Bearing the Hebrew word “emits (truth) on its forehead is a text within a text, figuratively and literally.

Baer begins her study with an overview of the legend of the golem, beginning with the first appearance of the word “golem” in Psalms 139. From there, she traces the myth to the pages of the Talmud, commentaries on Kabbalah book of creation and the stories of Solomon ibn Gabirol and Rabbi Elijah Baal Shem, two tales that predate the most famous golem story of all: that of Rabbi Judah Bezalel Loew, also known as the Maharal of Prague. Most of these stories involve the rabbis using a form of Jewish mysticism to create a being made of mud to perform simple acts of service and household chores, and lack many elements typically associated with the golem story – the ritual of creation, protecting the Jewish community, blood libel – which were not added until years later.

Baer then jumps back in time to the early 1900s to examine two texts which she calls “intertextuality gone wrong, a Jewish legend reversed and used against the Jewish community.” novel by Gustav Meyrink, The Golem (1915) and the Paul Wegener film of the same name (1920). While both the film and the novel tell a “Jewish” story in that they follow Jewish characters and tell the myth of the golem, they both end up relying on anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes. They confuse Judaism with the occult, imply the sexual nature of Jewish promiscuity (particularly among Jewish women), and present the Jew as “the malevolent stranger”. As Baer writes, “It is clear that Wegener’s impact The Golem was to propose that the Jews were a virulent threat to the German nation rather than the message of the original golem legend, which was that the golem is created as a response to the threat to the Jews.” (Many of these stereotypes and tropes would find their way into Nazi propaganda just 15 years later.)

But despite its use in anti-Semitic projects, the golem would also serve as a symbol of Jewish power and memory after the Holocaust. Singer of Isaac Bashevis The Golem (1982) is a tribute to the “destroyed Jewish communities of his youth”, while that of Elie Wiesel The Golem (1983) is overlaid with post-Holocaust overtones, presenting the golem as a messianic figure who can serve as a bulwark against persecution and eradicate genocide. Like Adorno, Wiesel also had a difficult relationship with post-Holocaust literature, saying that “a novel about Treblinka is not a novel or not about Treblinka”. But Baer suggests that Wiesel’s use of the golem to tell a “veiled story” may reflect the author’s desire to have it both ways – to convey the lessons of the Holocaust in literature without actually writing about it. the Holocaust.

Baer devotes a significant portion of the book to his analysis of Cynthia Ozick The Putternesser Papers (1997). Baer concludes that the golem novel serves as a “rejection of the idea that Holocaust texts can have comforting meaning”, but she also writes that Ozick did not reject the role of imagination in literature. post-Holocaust, as Ozick herself said, “The imagination seeks the unspeakable and the undoable, says them and does them.” The chapter continues with a study by Thane Rosenbaum Gotham Golems (2002), which takes Ozick’s final commentary to task by giving voice to several Holocaust survivors who later committed suicide – including Primo Levi and Jean Amery – and imagines what they would say about the Holocaust so many years later.

On the lighter side of things, Baer spends a chapter discussing the golem’s role in the pages of Marvel and DC comics, as well as the famous graphic novel. The mighty swing of the Golem (2001) and that of Michel Chabon The Incredible Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000). She even devotes a few pages to an episode of X files centered on the golem. But which golem is the “real” golem? Baer dismisses the question, arguing that neither version moves toward or away from “better ‘fitting’ in the Darwinian sense.” Instead, “each new golem text harkens back to its predecessors and, in doing so, creates a literary memory.”

When it comes to works of fiction about the Holocaust, creating this literary memory can be a difficult task. But it is also necessary. For, as a Holocaust survivor, Ivan Klima wrote: “If we lose our memory, we lose ourselves… Without memory, we cease to be human beings. This is perhaps the meaning of the ending of many golem legends, which sees the aleph in “emits“erased, turning the truth into”meet“(“death)” and causing the golem to collapse and fragment. Memory is our truth; it makes us who we are. But it must be tamed and nurtured so that it can be passed on to the next generation and continue to live. For without memory, we crumble into the dust of the Earth.

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Berta D. Wells