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by Joseph Roth & translated by Michael Hofmann

Pub Date: Nov. 20th, 2000
ISBN: 0-393-04901-9
Publisher: Norton

The first English translation of five eloquent essays on the plight of the European Jews by Austrian author Roth (1894–1939).

Roth, many of whose magnificent novels and other works are now available in English (Rebellion, 1999, etc.), first published this collection in 1927, then again in 1937 with a devastating and prescient new preface (included in this edition, oddly, at the end). In it, he describes his visits to the Jewish communities of five extremely different locales: a remote Galician shtetl (which the translator reveals was Roth’s own birthplace); the ghettoes of Vienna, Berlin, and Paris; and the Soviet Union (whose government he finds somewhat appealing). In one of his least perceptive sentences, Roth declares that “while anti-Semitism has become a subject for study in the West, . . . in the new Russia, it remains a disgrace.” One section deals with Jewish emigration to America (where “consulates want to see more papers than any consulate on earth”) and offers the stunning image of a quarantined Jew looking “through the bars of his prison [at] the Statue of Liberty.” Roth has enormous respect and an almost romantic fondness for the rural Jews of Eastern Europe, the people who remain close to the old ways and have not committed the error of assimilation. “There is no other people,” he claims, “that lives on such a footing with their god.” At the shtetl he has a quick visit with a wonder-rabbi (whose powers Roth celebrates), and he describes a rural Yom Kippur, a funeral, and an eight-day wedding celebration (though he, a visitor, was not admitted). Most poignant are his comments about ghetto life. In Vienna, for example, the “two career alternatives are peddler and installment seller.” Interestingly, Roth was not a Zionist—he feared and despised all varieties of nationalism, especially in what he called “the deadly antiseptic boredom” of the West.

Graphic sketches of a life long gone, rendered with a sharp eye and an even sharper tongue. (9 b&w photos)