First published in 1920 and set 17 years earlier, Gronemann's newly translated novel blends satiric humor and an eerie sense of foreboding in relating the efforts of European Jews to assimilate at a wildly contentious and confusing time.
Drawing on his own experiences, Gronemann focuses on two very different characters heading down two very different paths. Heinz Lehnsen is a well-trod regional court director in Berlin who changed his last name from Levysohn after having himself and his family converted to Christianity. Yossel Schlenker, Heinz's distant cousin, is a Talmudic scholar from the Russian shtetl of Borytshev who finds a world of new possibilities in bustling Berlin after immigrating there with his new, free-willed wife, Chana Weinstein. After an encounter with Yossel in Berlin, the conflicted Heinz, who “had never had anything Jewish around him," has his interest awakened in his disavowed roots. He travels to Borytshev, where, his Christian "cover" blown, he gets swept up by, but survives, an anti-Jewish pogrom. Written at a time when the new Weimar state was promising at least a whiff of democracy, the book holds out a certain promise for European Jews. With slippery, larger-than-life characters like Chana's con man father, whose schemes include writing "schnorrer letters" to solicit money from poor people who think they're contributing to a cause, Gronemann suggests there will be no keeping his people down. But with each cruel and offhanded denunciation of Jews and their Zionist dreams, and each cold reference to their past trials—"How was it even possible that there were even still Jews!" ponders Heinz—the book augurs unspeakably dark times ahead.
A free-wheeling Jewish comic novel before its time, this artfully contained commentary on Jewish life in Europe in the early 1900s makes a welcome reappearance.