On My Schlemiel Seminar in Budapest: History, Irony & the Survival of the Schlemiel

I arrived in Budapest last Thursday and on Friday I started my Graduate Seminar on “The Schlemiel in European Literature and Culture” at the Ashkenazium Program (which includes several notable Jewish Studies, Philosophy, and Literature scholars on its faculty such as Elliot Wolfson, Paul Franks, Shaul Magid, Peter Trawny, Susan Handelman, etc.) To give an idea of what I am teaching and the scope, here is my reading list for the six days of my seminar:

Day 1:   Folklore, Genealogies, Definitions – an Intro to Schlemiel Theory and this Seminar

Readings:

  1. Day 1: Shtetl Life, Hasidim, Chelm
  2. Rabbi Nachman, The Clever Man and the Simple Man
  3. Intro, Chapter One, and Appendix to Schlemiel as Modern Hero
  4. Intro and Chapter One to, Sanford Pinsker, On Schlemiel Origins

Day 2:  Haskalah and the Schlemiel – A Historical Backdrop; Mendel Mocher Sforim

Readings:

  1. Haskalah, Part I
  2. Haskalah Part II
  3. Benjamin the Third
  4. Yiddish vs. Hebrew, Tragedy and the Pale
  5. Supplement (Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi, on Benjamin the Third)
  6. Supplement (On Rahel Varnhagen, Hannah Arendt

Day 3:  Haskalah and the Schlemiel – Part II – Peretz and Aleichem

Readings:

  1. IL Peretz, Notes on Shtetl and Bontshe Shvayge
  2. On Account of a Hat, Shalom Aleichem
  3. The Further Adventures of Menachem Mendel
  4. Tevye the Dairyman

Day 4: Shalom Aleichem – Motl, the Cantor’s Son – A Schlemiel’s Journey From Europe to America

Readings:

  1. Motl the Cantor’s Son
  2. Supplement (Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi on Aleichem)

Day 5: The Pre and Post Holocaust European Schlemiels – A New Chapter

Readings:

  1. Robert Walser Selections
  2. Kafka Selection
  3. Paul Celan, Conversation in the Mountains
  4. Gimpel the Fool, IB Singer
  5. The Jew as Pariah, Hannah Arendt
  6. Walter Benjamin, Kafka Essay
  7. Day Dreamers and Creative Writers, Freud

Day 6:  Post-Assimilation American Schlemiels, American Schlemiels and Israeli Sabras, Nihilistic Schlemiels, and The Future of Schlemiel Theory

Readings:

  1. Woody Allen Fiction
  2. Portnoy’s Complaint
  3. Daniel Itzkovitz – the New American Schlemiel
  4. Beware of God – Shalom Auslander
  5. The Tummlers, Nathan Enlgander

We will be reading full books, short stories, and scholarly essays that trace the trajectory of the schlemiel from Europe to America. As one can see, the readings on Day 5 and 6 I am using two historical benchmarks: the Holocaust and the transport of the Schlemiel to an American context. (A third benchmark, which doesn’t appear in the outline, is the advent of Zionism and the founding of the Jewish State. Both will be discussed in the final classes in tandem with the American innovation of the schlemiel).

Being in Budapest and lecturing on the schlemiel here have brought up a lot of things for me as a scholar of the schlemiel and the creator of the largest blog/website on the schlemiel in the world. As Ruth Wisse, Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi, and others have pointed out, the Holocaust destroyed not just a people but an entire culture. It destroyed a large part of the audience that adored the schlemiel and saw themselves through novels, short stories, and plays that evoked this character.

To be sure, Budapest was on that historical map of destruction.

On this, the following is noted by the USHM – US Holocaust Memorial Museum:

Before World War II, approximately 200,000 Jews lived in Budapest, making it the center of Hungarian Jewish cultural life. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Budapest was a safe haven for Jewish refugees. Before the war some 5,000 refugees, primarily from Germany and Austria, arrived in Budapest. With the beginning of deportations of Jews from Slovakia in March 1942, as many as 8,000 Slovak Jewish refugees also settled in Budapest.

Hungary was allied with Nazi Germany. Despite discriminatory legislation against the Jews and widespread antisemitism, the Jewish community of Budapest was relatively secure until the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944. With the occupation, the Germans ordered the establishment of a Jewish council in Budapest and severely restricted Jewish life. Apartments occupied by Jews were confiscated. Hundreds of Jews were rounded up and interned in the Kistarcsa transit camp View This Term in the Glossary (originally established by Hungarian authorities), 15 miles northeast of Budapest.

Between April and July 1944, the Germans and Hungarians deported Jews from the Hungarian provinces. By the end of July, the Jews in Budapest were virtually the only Jews remaining in Hungary. They were not immediately ghettoized. Instead, in June 1944, Hungarian authorities ordered the Jews into over 2,000 designated buildings scattered throughout the city. The buildings were marked with Stars of David. About 25,000 Jews from the suburbs of Budapest were rounded up and transported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center. Hungarian authorities suspended the deportations in July 1944, sparing the remaining Jews of Budapest, at least temporarily.

On November 8, 1944, the Hungarians concentrated more than 70,000 Jews—men, women, and children—in the Ujlaki brickyards in Obuda, and from there forced them to march on foot to camps in Austria. Thousands were shot and thousands more died as a result of starvation or exposure to the bitter cold. The prisoners who survived the death march reached Austria in late December 1944. There, the Germans took them to various concentration camps, especially Dachau in southern Germany and Mauthausen in northern Austria, and to Vienna, where they were employed in the construction of fortifications around the city.

In November 1944, the Arrow Cross ordered the remaining Jews in Budapest into a closed ghetto. Jews who did not have protective papers issued by a neutral power were to move to the ghetto by early December. Between December 1944 and the end of January 1945, the Arrow Cross took as many as 20,000 Jews from the ghetto, shot them along the banks of the Danube, and threw their bodies into the river.

Soviet forces liberated Budapest on February 13, 1945. More than 100,000 Jews remained in the city at liberation.

The strangeness of being here was redoubled when I first arrived at the hotel I am staying at: The Hotel Astoria. When I first looked around the hotel and took photos, I had this intuition that since the hotel was centrally located it may have been used by the Nazis as a base of operations. Lo and behold, I was correct.

When I read and write notes on the schlemiel, in a hotel room that may have been used by Nazis to plan the destruction of Jews, I get a keen sense of the tragic irony of history. After the Holocaust, some writers and scholars – especially from Israel – argued that the schlemiel was a figure of powerlessness. We need to turn to different characters, one more powerful and heroic rather than to the schlemiel anti-hero who, during the Holocaust failed to act (see Nathan Englander’s, “The Tummlers,” for instance).

Be that as it may, the schlemiel character lived on and survived in America to become, as Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi notes, a “cultural icon.” What people don’t know – who love schlemiels played by Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Seth Rogen, Larry David, Jason Alexander, Amy Shumer, etc – is about where this character came from and its tragic-comic history. It has survived the Holocaust, but its audience has changed and they no longer speak Yiddish as a common vernacular.

For this reason, I have made it my task to teach the history of the schlemiel – here, in Budapest – and discuss its meaning and trajectory. This character survived. We need to ask why and how that is the case. What is so special about this character that it could survive? This city reminds me that the Nazis were not out to kill Judaism; they wanted to kill the Jewish people. They knew that without a people, there can be no culture or literature or Judaism. We lived on – and so did my family, some of which came from Austro-Hungary – and it will be us who will give and who give life to the schlemiel….after the Holocaust.

More importantly, I would argue that the schlemiel’s survival is the survival of goodness in a world that the Nazis tried to reshape in their twisted image. We need to recall that character to better understand how comedy must win out over tragedy and the deep dark pit of nihilism that showed it’s ugly faced and killed thousands of my people in this city and was organized in this hotel, where I, at this very moment, write these words.

2 thoughts on “On My Schlemiel Seminar in Budapest: History, Irony & the Survival of the Schlemiel

  1. To darken the picture I would like to point out that the early 1940s didn’t mean a safe haven for everyone. After declaring war on the Soviet Union, a large number of foreign Jews (especially Polish and Russian Jews, but Westerners and Hungarians, who could not prove their citizenship as well) were deported from Hungary to German-controlled territory, and cca. 16,000 of them became victims of the Kamianets-Podilskyi massacre on the 27-28 August, 1941.

    Actually, in 2014 the interpretation of this event sparked a heated debate, because while many Hungarian historians consider it the first deportation from Hungary, Sándor Szakály referred to this 1941 deportation and subsequent murder of Jews as a “police action against aliens”.

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