Bukovina, Anti-Semites and Beech Trees

Theme: Eastern Europe

So we are knee deep in discovering Eastern Europe through books, and one of the most striking realizations is how complex and complicated countries and their histories prove to be.  This is definitely the case for the novel, Memoirs of an Anti-Semite by Gregor Von Rezzori. Von Rezzori hails from Bukovina, once part of the powerful Austro-Hungarian empire and now owned by both Romania and Ukraine.  Bukovina?  I don’t think I have had the pleasure, you say?  Well, this is page is a good place to learn more about their history.  Known for its beech trees, it’s a beautiful and rural country.  They do have a coat of arms…which makes me think of the Big Texan Steak Ranch (you eat a 72 0z. steak…and it’s free.  Loss of dignity also free.  Gluttony, Free). 

Not only do they have a coat of arms, but also a rich anti-semitic history that tainted much Europe for centuries.  Memoirs of an Anti-Semite shows us this and much more about how the Nazi’s came to power.  It’s not a historical novel in that sense, but the narrator, also referred to as Gregor at times, is typical representation of the learned anti-semitism of your average Austro-Hungarian citizen.  The novel is divided into five sections- Skushno, Youth, Lowinger’s Rooming House, Troth and Pravda.  All of these parts are told in the first person to give the presence of the narrator validity as if he is writing a memoir and to engage the reader as an accomplice.    It is difficult to read Gregor’s off-hand disdain for Jews even though some of it is delivered as well-written satire and cutting witticisms.  But as the novel goes on, the reader is face with dueling desires to condemn him and to accept him.  He is not a Jew hater.  No, he is just one of those people that is taught to dislike and doesn’t seem to ever question the rationale of why he was taught to not like Jews.  It doesn’t deter him from befriending Jews, marrying Jews, or living with Jews.  In fact, he parrots what he was taught about why you shouldn’t like Jews, but ultimately he likes them.  What makes this difficult to handle is his condescension towards the Jews in his life.  As if he is tolerating them, indulging them, blessing them with his presence.  Even in the first section, Skushno, when Gregor is living with his Aunt Sophie and Uncle Hubi, he meets a young Jewish boy with whom he becomes friends yet is decidedly judgmental of his home and furnishings:

I continued to have qualms about bring Wolf to my relatives’ home, although I visited his home regularly.  The treasures he had to show me there did not have the desired effect on me, either.  He acted sulky  for the first time.  He was disappointed .  But try as I might, I could not find anything homey in those dark, disorderly rooms filled with papers up to the ceilings.  For all the grand bourgeois airs–the heavy black furniture, the plush upholstery, and the artfully draped and betassled  curtains of ribbed silk–there was something of the dubious and unventilated confinement of petit bourgeois
homes. The furniture might have appealed to me(like all normal children, I tended toward bad taste), for those ornately carved wardrobes and sideboards, tables , and armchairs were in the old German style of the turn of the century, which did, after all, fit in with my leanings.  Yet not only was the quality low, the wood stained, and the carving poor, but the pieces had been neglected, moldings were chipped, locks missing, and books, newspapers, and magazines were heaped upon every horizontal surface.

Most revealing about this novel couched as a memoir is that the prevalent attitude towards Jews, like the narrator’s, was how IT happened.  The quiet acquiescence and participation in genocide, in systematic killing of a race.  Although he doesn’t actively join forces with the Nazis in the various cities he resides, his dismissive demeanor of their tactics is maddening and was common.  He even recognizes his own loathing when he falls for a Jewish shopkeeper with whom he develops a romantic relationship:

After the initial daze, when we had plunged into each other’s arms on the sofa in the back room of the Parfumeria Flora, we went through alternations of being overwhelmed and dismayed, felling shame and guilt, reservation and temptation, attempts to break away, irresolution, affected yielding and renewed scruples–all emotive ups and downs that decent burghers use in their love affairs to make their own lives interesting and other people’s lives difficult.  During that phase, the noble sentiments with which I tried to quell my own Anti-Semitic were put to the acid test.  Weren’t these exaggerated dramatics typically Jewish?  I would have like to discuss it with Mr Garabetian, whose judicious and unsentimental views had a calming effect on my own exaltations.  How could a woman with the sensual riches of m Andalusian act in a way you would expect of a sacre-Coeur schoolgirl losing her innocence?  Unless, together with all the burdens encumbering her much-afflicted race, she was also curse with irredeemable philistinism.

And through all parts of this novel, there are realizations such as this.  It is not a cohesive novel–the sections are close-ups of particular periods in the narrators life.  But it shows that Gregor’s anti-semitism is inherent, a flaw he has and refuses to change.  The most touching relationship he has is with the Jewess, Minka, who lives upstairs from his grandmother.  She is beautiful, lively and smart.  She is seductive and comforting.  She is Gregor’s part-time lover for awhile(he has no intentions other than to satisfy his own needs) and states many times if it weren’t for her being Jewish, he would have fallen in love with her.  He even goes so far as to mimic the Jews, who are running to England to escape the Nazis, claiming that he does better imitations than one of their own.  But he has a soft spot he has for Minka and she for him.  When she has cancer and moves to the United States, he tries to get enough money to follow her.  How can one have the emotions that run that deep, yet still possess an undercurrent of loathing?

The last section of this novel is a departure as far as style and content goes.  The narrator is sixty now, living in Rome, and involved in his third marriage.  His second wife, we come to find out, was an unsuccessful marriage to a Jewess with whom he fathered a child.  In this passage, he gives us the core of the demise with his second wife:

He had tried fully to comprehend the trauma of her childhood, adolescence, and youth as a pariah, a Jew in the Third Reich; he had tried at first out of love, in order to understand her all the more intimately, to identify with her all the more deeply; now he did it in order to find weapons against her, weapons she herself forged for him.  He invented her as a Jew with the inevitable mental damage, and that is what she turned into, visibly turned into, more and more each day, each hour…it happened more and more often that one of his friends or her friends said to him, “You have to understand her:  she’s got awful complexes–she has to have them, poor thing.  If someone’s as Jewish as she is, it’s a miracle she survived!”  And the voices accumulated, admitting to him, “Yes, you’re right, unfortunately.  She’s awfully stupid.  It’s too bad–she’s so beautiful.  But really unbearable.”  It was eerie:  one could invent reality so that it became real; for example, one could invent Jews for oneself, in order to hate them….”

And that reality was created by millions of people.  When one, individual, nation or society, decides to create a reality that vilifies a race, it isn’t long before takes hold.  Not to say that this narrator does horrible things that world history presents as grotesque and unpardonable, but it is the insidious threads of hate that bind together those silent witnesses as a consenting collective.  Memoirs of an Anti-Semite is a well-written testament of a fictional history that is all too real. 

Memoirs of an Anti-Semite
By Gregor Von Rezzori
Translated byJoachim Neugroschel and Gregor Von Rezzori
Introduction by Deborah Eisenberg(A great intro…even though I read it after)
New York Review Books
287 pages
ISBN: 9781590172469


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