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What the Straus Center Is Reading — The Golem Redux: From Prague to Post-Holocaust Fiction

Cover of The Golem Redux against a brown background

Elizabeth R. Baer | Wayne State University Press | 2012

Reviewed by Sam Gelman

In his essay “Cultural Criticism and Society,” Theodor Adorno wrote that “after Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric.” And yet, as People of the Book, Jews have always turned to the written word as the vehicle for our imagination. Elizabeth R. Baer confronts this tension in The Golem Redux: From Prague to Post-Holocaust Fictionwhich examines various retellings of the myth of the golem in post-Holocaust literature and media. Baer convincingly and cleverly argues that the golem, as a product of creativity itself that touches upon themes of memory and identity, is the perfect mechanism “to affirm the viability and authority of the imagination, of story, and creativity” in a post-Holocaust world. Bearing the Hebrew word “emet (truth) on its forehead, it is a text within a text, figuratively and literally.

Baer begins her study with an overview of the golem legend, starting with the first appearance of the word “golem” in Psalms 139. From there, she traces the myth to the pages of the Talmud, commentaries on the Kabbalistic Book of Creation and the stories of Solomon ibn Gabirol and Rabbi Elijah Baal Shem, two tales that predate the most famous golem story of all: that of Rabbi Judah Bezalel Loew, also known as the Maharal of Prague. Most of these stories involve the rabbis using a form of Jewish mysticism to create a being made of mud to do simple acts of service and household chores, and are missing many of the elements usually associated with the golem story—the creation ritual, protecting the Jewish community, the blood libel—which were only added years later.

Baer then jumps forward in time to the early 1900s to look at two texts she labels “intertextuality gone awry, a Jewish legend turned on its head and used against the Jewish community.” Gustav Meyrink’s novel, Der Golem (1915), and Paul Wegener film of the same name (1920). While both the movie and the novel tell a “Jewish” story in that they follow Jewish characters and retell the myth of the golem, they both end up relying on antisemitic tropes and stereotypes. They conflate Judaism with the occult, imply Jewish promiscuous sexual nature (especially among Jewish women) and cast the Jew as the “malevolent outsider.” As Baer writes, “it is clear that the impact of Wegener’s Der Golem was to propose that the Jews were a virulent threat to the German nation rather than the message of the original golem legend, which was that the golem is created as a response to the threat posed to the Jews.” (Many of these stereotypes and tropes would find their way into Nazi propaganda just 15 years later.)

But despite its use in antisemitic projects, the golem would also serve as a symbol of Jewish power and memory following the Holocaust. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Golem (1982) is a tribute to the “destroyed Jewish communities of his youth,” while Elie Wiesel’s The Golem (1983) is layered with post-Holocaust nuances, casting the golem as a Messiah-like figure who can serve as a bulwark against persecution and eradicate genocide. Like Adorno, Wiesel also had a difficult relationship with post-Holocaust literature, famously saying that “A novel about Treblinka is either not a novel or not about Treblinka.” But Baer suggests that Wiesel’s use of the golem to tell a “veiled tale” perhaps reflects the author’s desire to have it both ways—to pass along the lessons of the Holocaust in literature without actually writing about the Holocaust.

Baer dedicates a significant portion of the book to her analysis of Cynthia Ozick’s The Putternesser Papers (1997). Baer concludes that the golem novel serves as a “rejection of the notion that texts about the Holocaust can have a consolatory meaning,” yet she also writes that Ozick did not reject the role of imagination in post-Holocaust literature, as Ozick herself stated, “The imagination seeks out the unsayable and the undoable, and says and does them.” The chapter continues with a study of Thane Rosenbaum’s The Golems of Gotham (2002), which takes Ozick’s latter comment to task by giving voice to several Holocaust survivors who later committed suicide—including Primo Levi and Jean Amery—and imagines what they would say about the Holocaust so many years later.

On the lighter side of things, Baer spends a chapter discussing the golem’s role in the pages of Marvel and DC comic books, as well as the famous graphic novel The Golem's Mighty Swing (2001) and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000). She even dedicates a few pages to an episode of The X-Files centered on the golem. But which golem is the “true” golem? Baer rejects the question, arguing that no version moves toward or away from a “better ‘adaptation’ in the Darwinian sense.” Instead, “Each new golem text gestures back to its predecessors and, in doing so, creates literary memory.”

When it comes to fictional works on the Holocaust, creating this literary memory can be a difficult task. But it is also necessary. For, as Holocaust survivor, Ivan Klima wrote, “If we lose our memory, we lose ourselves… Without memory, we cease to be human beings.” Perhaps this is the meaning of the end of many of the golem legends, which sees the aleph in “emet” erased, turning truth into “met” (“death)” and causing the golem to collapse and fragment. Memory is our truth; it makes us who we are. But it must be tamed a nurtured so it can be passed to the next generation and live on. For without memory, we crumble into the dust of the Earth.

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