Bernard Malamud’s “The German Refugee”: A Parable for Tishah Be-Av

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Eileen H. Watts

When Moshe’s twelve spies returned from their reconnaissance mission to Canaan, and only two reported positive findings, the people wept, despairing of entering the Promised Land. Infuriated, God asked Moshe, “How long will this people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst” (Bamidbar 14:11)? Tishah Be-Av’s original sin then is not the Israelites’ immoral behavior, but lack of faith in God. He cannot fathom why these newly freed slaves and survivors of the wilderness do not trust Him. Vowing to punish that generation by foreclosing Canaan to them, according to rabbinic tradition, God marked that date for tragedy. To wit, the following events are said to have occurred on or around 9 Av:

Destruction of the First Temple

Destruction of the Second Temple

Defeat of the Bar Kokhba Rebellion

Expulsion of Jews from England

Expulsion of Jews from France

Beginning of World War I

Official beginning of the Holocaust

Mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka

These calamities, like stones pitched in a pond, create ripples not just in history, but in people’s lives. The twentieth century author who comes closest to meditating on the ripple effects of Tishah Be-Av is Bernard Malamud. His sad, lonely, and displaced Jews, the defeated denizens of his short stories, are unwitting mascots of a day commemorating Jewish tragedy and suffering. It is as if each character embodies the cries of Eikhah 3: “I am the man who has known affliction under the rod of His wrath; Me He drove on and on in unrelieved darkness … All around me He has built Misery and Hardship” (Eikhah 3:1-2, 5). Drenched in Jewish history, Malamud’s stories speak poignantly to Tishah Be-Av’s reach into twentieth century Jewish suffering.

Along with “God’s Wrath,” “Take Pity,” and “The Mourners,” whose very titles echo Eikhah,  “The Refugee” (1963, published as “The German Refugee” in Idiots First) seems to bear the ‘holiday’’s full burden: the Nazi Holocaust, the suffering of exile, the loss of faith, and resulting helplessness. These tales are set not on history’s global stage, but on the gritty streets and flats of the Lower East Side, which Malamud, born in Brooklyn to Russian Jewish immigrants, knew so well. In a sense a parable for Tishah Be-Av, “The German Refugee” illuminates the 9th of Av from two perspectives: 1) it amplifies the date’s themes by personalizing its miseries and telescoping scattered historical events into a single day; and 2) it extends the theme of loss of faith in God to loss of faith in the individual, questioning whether we, having perhaps lost the former in our post-Holocaust world, have worsened the problem by also losing faith in ourselves.

Bernard Malamud (1914-1986)

One third of the twentieth century triumvirate of Jewish American writers including Saul Bellow (1915-2005) and Philip Roth (1933-2018), Bernard Malamud wrote lovingly and pitiably of American Jews in transition; that is, of the sufferings of immigrants bereft of home, career, income, language, friends, family, and often, faith. Malamud’s National Book Award-winning short story collection, The Magic Barrel (1959), inspired by Joyce’s Dubliners and Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and his Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award Winning novel, The Fixer (1966), give voice to the Jewish dispossessed, living as strangers in a strange land. Yet floating above this misery is “an antique spirituality and an antique morality of surpassing beauty and importance, because it is a tie to God himself, [that] lives in the Jews.”[1] It is this innate morality in the face of struggle that leads Malamud to see Jews as metaphors for everyman. As Theodore Solotaroff put it in a March 1, 1962 Commentary piece: “Malamud’s Jewishness is a type of metaphor … both for the tragic dimension of anyone’s life and for a code of personal morality.” (Perhaps the author learned this definition of ‘Jewishness’ from struggling immigrants he knew.)

For not only is “The German Refugee” a personal story with a tragic ending, but it is based on personal experience. Scraping to make a living during the Depression, Malamud taught English to German-Jewish refugees. Exposure to these now-unemployed, struggling intellectuals made the young writer “suddenly [see] what being born Jewish might mean in the dangerous world of the thirties.”[2] Sadly, the narrative is based on Malamud’s fifty-five-year-old student, Dr. Friedrich Pinner, an economist and past financial editor of the Berliner Tageblatt, who, all his European clients gone, despaired of beginning again in a new country and with his wife, committed suicide by turning on the gas. As the story’s puzzled English tutor and narrator Martin Goldberg comments: “Not everyone drowns in the ocean,” and Malamud’s ocean is filled with history.

“The German Refugee”

The narrative opens with a tableau of exile, transience, oppression, pain, and despair: “Oskar Gassner sits in his cotton-mesh undershirt and summer bathrobe at the window of his stuffy, hot dark hotel room on West Tenth Street…. The refugee fumbles for the light … hiding despair but not pain.”[3] The stifling June heat seems a sympathetic response to the fifty-year-old Oskar’s situation. Beginning in September, as a newly-hired lecturer for the Institute of Public Studies in New York, Oskar must give a weekly lecture on ‘The Literature of the Weimar Republic’ in English translation. As a critic and journalist in Berlin, he had never taught and was terrified of having to speak publicly in English. Martin Goldberg’s job is to translate those lectures from German to English and enable Oskar to deliver them in English. After months of grueling work and anguish, the first lecture, on Whitman’s influence on Weimar’s poets, is a success, but two days later, Oskar learns that to prove her loyalty to him, his wife back in Germany had converted to Judaism and been murdered by the Nazis. Giving up, Oskar writes a note leaving his possessions to Goldberg and turns on the gas.

Personalizing Tishah Be-Av’s Miseries

Of course, the suffering of exile is not merely a matter of geographic dislocation, but is acutely psychological. It is the consequence of trying to begin again in a state of “displacement, alienation, financial insecurity, being in a strange land without friends or a speakable tongue” (Stories, 102). Thus, as June turns to July, and having written “more than a hundred opening pages [in German, to be translated later, Oskar] flung his pen against the wall, shouting he could not longer write in that filthy tongue. He cursed the German language” (Stories, 99). Robbed of his mother tongue because of what his country had done to him, Oskar Gassner is not so much a man without a country, but without a language.[4]

Unsurprisingly then, as the refugee explains why he can’t get past page one of his lecture, he is afraid. He tells Martin, “It is a paralyzis of my will. The whole legture is clear in my mind, but the minute I write down a single word — or in English or in German — I have a terrible fear I will not be able to write the negst” (Stories, 102). Oskar’s fear stems from his loss of faith in himself. He reports to Martin that he had tried to commit suicide his first week in New York, that he had been psychoanalyzed in Vienna years ago, and that those fears were gone. He admits, “I have lost faith. I do not—not -longer possezz my former value of myself” (Stories, 103). When Martin encourages him to have confidence, Oskar replies, “Confidence I have not. For this and also whatever elze I have lozt I thank the Nazis” (Stories, 103). Ironically at this point, the story turns to Whitman’s influence on German poets. Oskar tells Martin that they got from Whitman “most of all his feeling for Brudermensch, his humanity. But this does not grow long on German earth … and is soon destroyed” (105). Yet Oskar finishes the lecture on September 1, 1939, as Germany invades Poland, and thanks Martin for having faith in him.

Telescoping History

Malamud’s management of time also evokes the 9th of Av in terms of telescoping past into present by means of a narrative style that collapses historical events into the present. In his study of “The German Refugee” Robert Solotaroff notes the narrator’s temporal shifts. The tale’s first paragraph is written in the present tense (consider Martin Goldberg’s description of his student sitting in his undershirt, fumbling for the light, staring at his tutor, hiding despair but not pain); the rest, save for one phrase, in the past tense.[5] However, the contents of Oskar’s mother-in-law’s letter informing him of his wife’s death, which ends the story, is also reported in the present. The narrator records:

She [his mother-in-law] writes in a tight script it takes me hours to decipher, that her daughter, after Oskar abandons her, … is converted to Judaism by a vengeful rabbi. One night the Brown Shirts … drag Frau Gassner, together with the other Jews, out of the apartment house, and transport them in lorries to a small border town in conquered Poland. There, it is rumored, she is shot in the head and topples into an open ditch with the naked Jewish men, their wives and children, some Polish soldiers, and a handful of gypsies (Stories, 107-8).

Reading this account of Nazi atrocities written in the present, it is as if we are standing in the field watching it all happen before our eyes. Malamud not only juxtaposes Oskar’s suffering with concurrent events in Germany and Poland in the run-up to the Holocaust, but he makes us feel part of it. It seems to me that the effect of drawing us into the narrator’s present and past is analogous to Tishah Be-Av’s intended effect on us today.

That is, by compressing defining tragedies spanning millennia of Jewish history into one yahrzeit – Av 9 – the day reminds us of our relationship to time and to the past. Each horrific event (temple destructions, expulsions) engendered dislocations: of place, prayer, ritual, culture, community, language, and life. Mourning these events on Tishah Be-Av telescopes the centuries, collapsing each event into one day of our lives, fusing past with present, permitting us to feel a ripple of that original dislocation when the Israelites refused to enter the Promised Land because they had lost faith in God.

Extending the Theme of Loss of Faith

Interestingly, God is barely present in “The German Refugee.” Instead, there is Hitler and “Kristallnacht, when the Nazis shattered the Jewish store windows and burnt all the synagogues” (Stories, 94), and the fall of Danzig. To survive in America, Oskar must have faith in his own ability to learn and speak English and in his tutor’s ability to teach him. In fact, the narrator stresses the difficulties that these acts of faith pose. He writes: “To many of these [German refugees], articulate as they were, the great loss was the loss of language – they could not say what was in them to say. You have some subtle thought and it comes out like a piece of broken bottle” (Stories, 97). These men felt like children, or worse, often like morons. As another of Martin’s students put it, “I am left with myself unexpressed. What I know, indeed, what I am, becomes to me a burden” (Stories, 97). The degree to which an immigrant’s very identity and self-worth are tied up with the ability to communicate in a foreign language is stunning and heartbreaking.

Still, when Oskar thanks Martin for having faith in him upon completing the first lecture, the latter responds, “Thank God” (Stories, 105). This is one of only two times the word God appears in the text – here as mere exclamation, spoken by the politically naïve American teacher, not the persecuted, suffering immigrant student. God’s second appearance is in Oskar’s delivery of three lines from Whitman’s “Song of Myself, V”:

And I know the Spirit of God is the brother of my own,

And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,

And that the kelson of creation is love … (Stories, 107).

Placing Whitman’s belief in humanity’s divine spirit in a story crowded with humanity’s most savage acts certainly challenges one’s faith in God, Tishah Be-Av’s original sin. Here, Malamud amplifies our theological and existential condition. In other words, living in a post-Holocaust Tishah Be-Av state of exile, our belief in God all but gone, what are we to do? For Malamud, Whitman’s faith in humanity’s divine spirit and love is our only escape from spiritual exile, that is, loss of faith in God.

And yet, as Martin knows, not everyone drowns in the ocean; not everyone loses faith, either in God or in ourselves. So, what is the moral of this parable? Perhaps, that like faith itself, loss of faith is, at times, a choice. Perhaps that is Tishah Be-Av’s enduring message. Recall Malamud’s wonder at an antique spirituality and morality, important “because it is a tie to God himself [that] lives in the Jews.” Continuing that tie is also a choice.

[1] Bernard Malamud, “Imaginative Writing and the Jewish Experience” in Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work, eds. Alan Cheuse and Nicholas Delbanco, (New York: Columbia UP, 1996), 188.

[2] Philip Davis, Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010), 49.

[3] Bernard Malamud, The Stories of Bernard Malamud (New York: Penguin, 1983), 93.

[4] For a fuller discussion of the loss of language in “The German Refugee” see my “Not True Although Truth: The Holocaust’s Legacy in Three Malamud Stories” in The Magic Worlds of Bernard Malamud, ed. Evelyn Avery (New York: State University of New York P., 2001), 139-152.

[5] Robert Solotaroff, Bernard Malamud: A Study of the Short Fiction, (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989), 82.

Eileen H. Watts chairs the English Department at Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station, Pennsylvania, where she co-teaches the integrated Jewish humanities course on American Literature, Philosophy and Jewish Thought. She served as bibliographer for The Bernard Malamud Society from 1994 to 2009. Dr. Watts has written widely on Malamud, as well as on Allegra Goodman and Chaim Potok.