From Kabbalah to Class Struggle: Expressionism, Marxism, and Yiddish Literature in the Life and Work of Meir Wiener

From Kabbalah to Class Struggle: Expressionism, Marxism, and Yiddish Literature in the Life and Work of Meir Wiener

by Mikhail Krutikov


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From Kabbalah to Class Struggle is an intellectual biography of Meir Wiener (1893–1941), an Austrian Jewish intellectual and a student of Jewish mysticism who emigrated to the Soviet Union in 1926 and reinvented himself as a Marxist scholar and Yiddish writer. His dramatic life story offers a fascinating glimpse into the complexities and controversies of Jewish intellectual and cultural history of pre-war Europe.

Wiener made a remarkable career as a Yiddish scholar and writer in the Stalinist Soviet Union and left an unfinished novel about Jewish intellectual bohemia of Weimar Berlin. He was a brilliant intellectual, a controversial thinker, a committed communist, and a great Yiddish scholar—who personally knew Lenin and Rabbi Kook, corresponded with Martin Buber and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and argued with Gershom Scholem and Georg Lukács. His intellectual biography brings Yiddish to the forefront of the intellectual discourse of interwar Europe.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804770071
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 11/09/2010
Series: Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture
Pages: 408
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Mikhail Krutikov is Associate Professor of Slavic and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the author of Yiddish Fiction and the Crisis of Modernity, 1905-1914 (Stanford University Press, 2001).

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From Kabbalah to Class Struggle

Expressionism, Marxism, and Yiddish Literature in the Life and Work of Meir Wiener
By Mikhail Krutikov


Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7007-1

Chapter One

Failed Messiahs

German-Jewish Culture

Growing Up in Cracow

Born in 1893 in Cracow (or in its Jewish suburb Podgórze across the Vistula), Meir Wiener grew up in the lively atmosphere of the ancient Polish capital, which was incorporated into the Austrian Empire in 1795 with the third and final partition of Poland, but in 1809 was granted by Napoleon to the Duchy of Warsaw. Between 1815 and 1846 it was the capital of a small Cracow republic and was then again incorporated into Austria until the restoration of Polish independence in 1918. The first Jews probably arrived in Cracow in the thirteenth century and in the seventeenth century, the city had one of the most prominent Jewish communities in the world, concentrated in the old suburb of Kazimierz, which became officially annexed to the city in 1802. The Jews of Cracow were granted full civil rights by the Austrian state in 1867-68, which also lifted all restrictions on their residence in the city, but until World War II, Kazimierz remained the heart of Jewish Cracow.

Wiener was intensely proud of Cracow's Jewish past and the prominent role his family played in it. The city and its Jews exerted a powerful influence on his memory and imagination long after he left Cracow in 1914, never to return. Information about Wiener's Cracow period is found mostly in three sources, all of them from a later period: brief memoirs by his sisters Franzi Gross and Erna Adlersberg, written in London around 1968 at the request of various scholars interested in Wiener's life; Wiener's own letters to his sisters, written between 1916 and 1926; and fragments of his autobiography, composed in the late 1930s in Moscow. Each of these sources has its own distinctive tone, reflecting the situation in which it was produced. Combined, they offer a fascinating but incomplete and somewhat contradictory account that often conveys feelings and emotions rather than "hard facts."

Wiener's youngest sister, Franzi, re-creates the atmosphere of her childhood in her memoir, written in May 1968 in English (reproduced in her original spelling):

So far as I can remember we lived at ul. Sebastiana 16, Kracow, on the 2nd floor in a very commodious flat. My brother was the eldest of 7 children (2 died in infancy), self-willed and domineering. At a very early age he was sent to a Heder where he excelled in the study of Talmud. He had a wonderful way of attracting our love and attention by telling us fantastic stories which he delivered in a serial form usually on Saturday afternoons. We children listened breathlessly to his animal stories and we allowed ourselves to be led into a paradise, and the entry was of his making. He was always ready to explain a picture, or work of art. He especially took trouble with me as I was the youngest.

Our parents were orthodox Jews. One of my father's ancestors was a Rabbi in Vienna in the 17th century and was buried in the Döblinger Cemetery. He had 7 children and his sons emigrated to Poland and took on the name of the town they came from, hence the name Wiener. My grandfather Wiener was a well to do textile merchant who used to live in Crzanow, where he had a nice house on the Ringplatz. He had 11 children (there were 3 more who died in infancy), of which our father was the eldest son. Grandfather Wiener was a good looking man with blue eyes and a very gay disposition. He loved life and he loved to sing and dance, of which he had ample opportunity with all his 11 children's weddings, Seder's and Barmizwah's.

On our mother's side one ancestor came from Germany to work as a Rabbi in Podgorze. Our grandfather Landau was a very devout Jew who lived according to the Book and the laws laid therein. A small episode will describe his character: a business man owed him money which meant a lot to him as he was not well off. He had to state his case under Oath but he preferred to forgo the money rather than break the Second Commandment.[...]

Our grandfather was very proud of his brilliant grandson who had excelled in the Talmud whilst still so young, and it was a great shock to him when my brother on his own determination left the Heder when he was about 15. There followed a hard fight not so much with his parents but with his grandfather.

This grandfather, Binyomin Landau, died at the age of 91 in the village of Wisnica in 1941, the same year as the death of his grandson. He made a strong impact on the development of Meir Wiener's personality and became the main hero of the memoirs, which are discussed in Chapter 9. Whereas the grandfather embodied the traditionalist aspect of Wiener's upbringing, the grandmother and mother personified the opposite, secular side, as Franzi explains:

Our grandmother Landau, née Korngold, came from an unorthodox background. It was her doing to send my mother to a finishing school which was a nunnery and I even suspect that my grandmother did not disclose the full fact to her orthodox husband. It might have been this education which enabled our mother to recognize and understand the talents of her son and to do everything in her power to help him to develop his gifts in full. She arranged for him to have private all round tuition with a Professor Rappaport, who was I think a writer.

In response to an additional query from Max Weinreich, the director of the YIVO Institute in New York, Franzi Gross offered some additional information about the family's life:

My father was a textile manufacturer and he worked mostly for Czechoslovakian and German firms, and the "office" consisted of a very large room that contained samples of the goods, plus three rooms, one for a secretary, one for a male assistant, and another one in which my mother worked.[...] [S]he worked there from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day with an hour's break for lunch, when both parents went home to eat with their children.

To Weinreich's question about the language that was spoken in the family, Mrs. Gross explained that the choice of the language depended on age and gender. The parents spoke Yiddish between themselves but between the parents and the children, the language was "rather mixed, the boys always being addressed by our parents in Yiddish and answering in Yiddish; the girls, always in Polish and answering in Polish. (Although we had a teacher coming to teach us Hebrew prayers the result was that I cannot even read Yiddish or Hebrew and therefore I do not know my brother's works)." Finally, the children spoke Polish among themselves.

In a letter to Martin Buber, Wiener mentioned that his first language was Polish, but he was equally fluent in German and Yiddish. His sisters had non-Jewish governesses who spoke Polish to them. Franzi went to a Protestant school set up in Catholic Cracow for the children of the Austrian military employees and civil servants stationed in the city. The main language of instruction was German, whereas Polish had a secondary status. In her next letter to Weinreich, Franzi Gross shared some of her childhood memories about her elder brother:

When I said in my notes that he excelled in the study of Talmud it was said mechanically without forethought, but simply because I had heard it. But now I understand it better, that through the study of Talmud his brain was specially trained from his very early youth. He did not encourage me to take part in his work, only if he specially wanted it, as I mentioned in my notes, by translating here and there a chapter of his work. Somebody said of him, as a young man, that he was "wise." I think that it was this special training in Heder that made him so.

Unfortunately, the correspondence between Franzi Gross and Max Weinreich came to an end when Weinreich died in 1969. Another important piece of evidence, which complements Franzi Gross's account, is offered by her elder sister Erna Adlersberg, who was also close to her brother but in a different way. Whereas for Franzi, the youngest one in the family, Meir was the paternal figure and an object of absolute adoration to whom she confided all her worries and anxieties, Erna, being more mature, had a better understanding of her brother's insecure and vulnerable personality. Meir Wiener's letters to his sisters reveal two different sides of his character. He addressed Franzi in the voice of a domineering authority, trying to regulate and control her life in every detail, whereas to Erna he confessed his concerns and troubles. Franzi herself realized this difference only when she began revisiting her past in the late 1960s, as she related to Weinreich:

I have never read the letters addressed to my sister before now, and they disclose to me my brother as a completely different man than I thought. Now I can see that he was lonely in spite of his many friends around him, that he wanted sympathy and that he wanted warmth. I never realized that he was longing for the home nest so much (as he expressed in his letters to my sister), all the time he had the urge to go abroad and there was always this longing for home. He always showed himself to me as being self-sufficient, self-possessed, and self-confident, but my picture of him is now rather different.

In Erna's memories, as in Franzi's, Meir emerges as an authoritarian big brother keen on controlling his sisters' lives. But being older than Franzi, Erna was more capable of resisting, which perhaps explains why Meir was more prepared to confide in her. Her re-creation of Meir's childhood is therefore quite different from Franzi's:

Meir always read every second of his free time. What he read was at that time beyond my understanding. I remember one day when Meir was ill, he sent me to the library to collect some books for him—he must then have been about 16 years old—I looked through the pages of one book—my criterion of a good book was one with small paragraphs and often interrupted, and this book seemed to be the type that I would find interesting. (We children were not allowed to read anything unless chosen and approved by Meir). I remarked maliciously to Meir, a phrase he occasionally said when he caught me secretly trying to read a book or children's magazine which was not approved by him—"what rubbish are you reading here?" He looked at me with a benevolent smile and with understanding and said "if you can understand one of the sentences in this book I will give you 100 Kronen." This, for an 11-year-old girl was a fortune. Eagerly I sat down to read and he let me struggle for quite a few pages, watching with his indulgent smile until I gave up and begged him to explain what it was about. It was Nietzsche's "So Spake Zarathustra." Later in life I tried to get through the book but I must confess with embarrassment that I never quite succeeded.[...]

Whilst our mother was alive we were brought up to observe the Jewish principles, although ostensibly our home was a patriarchal one. We were taught absolute obedience to our parents and to old people, as well as to help the poor. Our mid-day meal each day was shared with a "Bachur" [young man] (a different one each time) coming from a "Jeshiva." Friday evening father went with his two sons to the "shul" and always returned with at least one "Orech" [guest] for a meal. The same thing happened on Saturdays and holidays.

I remember when I was very young my father used to sit down with the two boys in the mornings to study "Gemarah" or whatever else it was. On these occasions (and this stands out in my memory) Meir always had different interpretations which resulted in arguments. I think as a young boy already he knew more than the average scholar.[...]

Naturally I cannot recollect Meir's early education. I seem to remember though that he was sent to study [at] a "Jeshiva" at a place called Jaworzno. My clearest memories commence when he was about 15 years old and when he returned home. I think that he felt he had learned all that he could at the "Jeshiva" and wanted to continue to study on his own.

In the depths of his heart Meir was a believer in God, although he did not like the "trimmings" which in his opinion were senseless. He taught us children to believe in God without asking questions. He taught us to keep up the traditions and all traditional holidays. He rebelled about the rules restricting personal freedom or freedom of thinking. He did not believe that putting on the light, ringing the doorbell, playing the piano, or writing on the Sabbath, would be a sin, and he courageously said so, which in a home like ours was sheer rebellion. We sisters and brother felt exactly the same. Looking back I even think that our parents must often have felt the same, but mother observed the traditions out of loyalty to our grandfather and our father kept up appearances.

Father wanted Meir to become a businessman, and educated him accordingly, but Meir had no vocation for business. He wanted to study, to read and to write. In my father's eyes that was disastrous. There were very painful scenes between Meir and father which I can never forget, because in my heart I agreed with Meir. I remember one terrible argument when my father tore up Meir's book on Spinoza, and even burnt it. He said "it would be a shame on the family to see a grandson of Alter Benjamin Landau in a 'gymnasium.'" Meir put up a terrific fight, but with his mother on his side they reached a compromise, that he should work half days in his father's office and the remaining time he would be able to study. A professor was engaged. I cannot remember how long he was teaching Meir but my brother was always reading, writing, studying, visiting museums, libraries, and bringing home books, books, books. He also played the violin but he did not have much time for it. He was a linguistic genius, he knew 7 languages. Besides the modern languages he spoke perfect Yiddish and Hebrew, and some oriental languages.

According to Franzi, there was an additional, ideological aspect to the conflict between Meir and his father: "As a Hasid, he [the father] did not approve of Zionism and he became rather annoyed when occasional articles appeared in periodicals written by my brother on the subject." In his memoirs, probably composed during the 1930s in the Soviet Union and not published until 1969, Wiener somewhat derisively recalls the fascination of the Jewish youth of Cracow with the new cultural currents:

Sometimes there was a heated conversation about the Baal-Shem and Hasidism. At that time Martin Buber's The Legends of the Baal-Shem was published. Even earlier there appeared the Hasidic stories by Berdyczewski; articles about Hasidism by Shmuel-Aba Horodetsky, [Joseph] Klausner, [Avraham] Kahana; Peretz's "Monish"; and stories by Yehuda Shteynberg. Many of those works were translated into Polish. This literature suited the decadent modernist sensitivity of the youth and blended eclectically, as usually happens in the decadent culture, with the Catholic mood among parts of the young Jewish intelligentsia. They would sit for hours daydreaming in front of the Gothic wooden sculptures by Stoss in the Kosciól Mariacki [St. Mary's Church], Christ on the cross in Wawel, painted glass windows in churches, read Przybyszewski, Wyspianski, mix Polish Catholic mysticism with Hasidic Zionism. A weird, awkward brew (meshunedike, umgelumperte kashe).

Writing in retrospect from a communist perspective, Wiener makes Yoyl, the autobiographical protagonist of his memoirs, critical of these Jewish boys' naive fascination with Catholicism. He maintains that the saints like St. Francis, whom they would compare to the founder of Hasidism, the Baal-Shem, should bear responsibility for the actions of their followers, some of whom were "the worst murderers in human history."


Excerpted from From Kabbalah to Class Struggle by Mikhail Krutikov Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


A Note on Transliteration....................ix
Introduction: Why Meir Wiener?....................1
1. Failed Messiahs: German-Jewish Culture....................11
2. Politics and Scholarship in Post-War Vienna....................54
3. On the Way to Yiddish and Emigration....................101
4. Soviet Beginnings....................135
5. Folklore, Language, and the Haskalah....................168
6. Realism and the Yiddish Literary Canon....................205
7. Soviet Literature and Theory....................251
8. History and Fiction....................283
9. Life Writing: Between the Usable and Unusable Past....................310
Bibliography of Meir Wiener's Works in Chronological Order....................371

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