"Memoirs of an Anti-Semite" by Gregor Von Rezzori
First Impressions (Pt.9)
This novel is told in five separate episodes of one man’s experiences growing up and being told that anti-semitism was the normal way of thinking. Since our narrator is an aristocrat, he has some obvious class prejudices which include anti-semitism towards the poorer Jewish folk. Slowly, but surely, he seeks to learn that his prejudices were wrong and actually, there is no difference between him - a rich and worldly man, and a working-class Jewish person. He realises this through various friendships, relationships and even complex meetings involving Jewish people in which he finds not only sympathy and rage, but also confronts himself in this rage - asking himself why he thinks about them in this way. As the narrator confronts his past, we see prime Jewish characters of complex natures such as Wolf Goldmann, the hearty child of Dr. Goldmann who only seeks to make a friend but often struggles to assimilate into a more ‘Eurocentric’ lifestyle. We also see the Jewish woman in which our narrator falls in love with. But, in hiding and concealing her Jewishness, he ultimately leaves her for her fakery. There are also many more in which the narrator has to confront why exactly it is that Jewish folk hide their Jewishness but then expect nobody to realise. He analysis this over and over again, looking both ways at how this is a product of being racially stigmatised and how this is also a deceit on the part of the Jewish folk who choose to conceal themselves. As we go through the book once more, we find that the confrontation that the narrator has with himself looks deep within his own personal prejudices and develops some contradictions and hypocrisies before he can attempt to rectify things that he had once believed that now, seem absurd.
The way in which language is used towards the description of Jewish people is quite openly a statement of anti-semitism as the language is normally rough and animalistic. A clear and linguistic representation of how society in this time has stripped the humanity from the Jewish population and a clear example by the narrator as to how the Jewish folk are treated within the communities. It is most likely the most probable way in which the majority population observed them; with hatred, scorn and certain racial and religious prejudices:
“On weekdays, the place was almost lifeless, if we disregard the straggling gangs of lice-ridden Jewish children who romped among the sparrows in the dusty roads…At times - mostly unexpected - something picturesque erupted: a Jewish funeral, for instance, when, like dark, bizarre flowers, male shapes in long caftans and red fox-fur caps suddenly emerged from the ground among the skew and sunken gravestones, under the pale birches and weeping willows of the small, out-of-the-way Jewish cemetery.” (p.8)
From this, we not only see how the Jewish children are described and observed as animal by the general and racially insensitive majority public, but we also examine the thoughts of what an occasion looks like. The fact that a Jewish funeral could look ‘picturesque’ offers some prejudice within itself because of the fact it is a positive phrase for looking upon someone of a race that is persecuted wrongly and he or she has died. The fact that the cemetery is ‘out-of-the-way’ is also a linguistic feature, much different to the animal descriptions of the children. The adult world of the Jewish folk mostly seems to be ‘out-of-the-way’ in a picturesque manner, but to make themselves known like some of them do would mean that the narrator feels almost obliged to find faults with them. The fact therefore, that they are ‘out-of-the-way’ means that the narrator does not feel the need to point out their faults. This is the narrator trying to blame anti-semitism on the Jewish population for making themselves known and it is a terrible attempt at blaming the racism on the people who are clearly the victims of it.
It is clear that for the narrator, the highest point of humiliation is to be beaten or ‘thrashed’ by someone of the Jewish population. Again, this is a presentation of the anti-semitism that was prevalent within the community. The fact that it was humiliating to be beaten by a Jewish person meant that the majority population most often regarded the Jew as being the lowest of the social hierarchy. Being placed beneath the Jew, therefore, would be a humiliation that involved coming down the social ladder - and for an aristocrat like the narrator, it would fill him with rage just to experience it. When he does experience it, he vows to kill the man with a pistol, but not before he describes in detail the extent of his humiliation:
“And this promptly unleashed my impotent rage again and my thirst for vengeance, the bitter humiliation of being thrashed by a Jew and not chastising him…” (p.79)
He goes on to state that he had great ‘disappointment’ and ‘distress’ from this incident. What he did not consider is that he had paid for the corn with fake coins and this would make any person, whether Jewish or not, incredibly angry and wishing to teach a lesson to a fellow being. So, in the worst of ways - it is actually the narrator’s own fault and had nothing to do with the fact that it was a Jewish man who beat him.
As the novel progresses, the narrator begins to confront his dislike for Jewish folk and believes that his anti-semitism was taught and not born into him from birth. When he does this, he begins to realise that there are rarely any key differences between himself and his fellow Jewish man or woman. It is still only rare of him to philosophically consider the argument, but the fact that he is considering it at all represents a change in the narrative:
“Occasionally, I was struck by the dreadful thought that all these experiences assaulting me and arousing such contradictory sensations were characteristic and normal only to those for whom I had been taught since childhood to feel contempt: Jews.” (p.90)
It shows that there is a clear piece of knowledge here. The narrator knows that the racism he feels has been ‘taught’ and wasn’t already in him from birth. But it also shows that he is trying to reason his anti-semitism by analysing it. He has since fallen in love with a Jewish woman, been beaten by a Jewish man and even befriended a few Jewish people and these are the said ‘contradictory sensations’ he would be feeling towards them. Being an adult with differing experiences to his elders, he can no longer decide how he truly feels and even though he wishes to fulfil the teachings he had been taught and stay true to them, he also wants to be able to think independently because obviously, to be independent and self-reliant is the ultimate trait of hyper-masculinity. Yet, he is reliant on many people - mostly Jewish folk, to tell his side of this seemingly hypocritical story. He states again:
“…the specifically Jewish quality in Jews had never repelled me so much as the attempt - doomed from the start - to hush it up, cover it over, deny it. The yiddling of Jews, their jittery gesticulation, their disharmony, the incessant alternation of obsequious and presumptuousness, were inescapable and inalienable attributes of their Jewishness.” (p.112)
Thus the reader sees that though he does not now have a racially problem with the Jewish folk, he still has a problem with the way in which they try to cover their Jewishness. This too, can be seen as hypocritical and often racist. The way in which it is anti-semitic is because the narrator is still making generalisations about the Jewish population, listing the ways in which they are stereotypically (and often negatively) Jewish by coming out with a list that is not only inaccurate but also insensitive. But, the fact that the narrator now states that he is not repelled by Jewish people is also racist because now, he is failing to see his growth throughout the book in order to make himself a better person towards the Jews. The narrator does not understand that learned anti-semitism must also be unlearned and cannot simply disappear now that he is in love with a Jewish woman.
In conclusion, I believe that even though the narrator tends to address his issues with the Jewish race and religion, he cannot escape the past in which he was solely taught contempt for the Jews and now that he is grown, he tries to unlearn it but struggles to address the unlearning as a progression. Instead, he makes hyperbolic, insensitive and often generalised statements about why anti-semitism is the fault of the Jewish folk in the way in which they act, talk, socialise, do not assimilate and other things that the reader will recognise as incorrect of the narrator to assume. All in all, this book seems to be a good example of why anti-semitism does not have a place in the world and should be addressed as a serious problem that is destructive to society as a whole.
Von Rezzori, G (2008). Memoirs of an Anti-Semite. USA: New York Review Books.