NEA Literature Fellowships

Simone Zelitch

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(2010 - Prose)

From the novel Judenstaat

Selected Footage: 1945-1947

After the war, many refugees passed through Germany and moved on, but the Jews remained. They lived in and around Displaced Persons camps, and slowly took up residence in cities like Munich and Berlin. They came from Poland, from Lithuania, from Hungary, from Romania, and though the refugees were under U.N. auspices, the true administrators were the antifascist factions that had kept a steady presence through the war: the Communists, the Social Democrats, the Bundists. Most survivors had no interest in politics, but they knew where their bread was buttered and who gave out boots that fit, and who served the strongest coffee.

The coffee that the Bundists served was, as Leopold Stein said, "as strong as an ox, as rich as a Rothschild, and as black as the soul of man." Not that Stein believed in souls, but if history dictated that souls were black, well, who was he to argue? Stein had lived out the years of the war with a band of partisans and Free French in the Rhineland, and had emerged with his shirt-sleeves rolled up his hairy arms, to build a Jewish State in Germany.

Stein had a cloud of ill-kept hair. He was never quite clean-shaven. At some point, he had grown a beard, and it came in gray, and in one rare photograph, he peers through all that hair into the camera, embarrassed by his resemblance to a rabbi.

Some would claim that Stein came from a family of believers, but in fact, his father was a life-long atheist, his mother a trouser-wearing vegetarian. Who knows when he first wandered into the quarter where the Eastern Jews all lived and spoke their jargon? He went there because his parents told him not to go there. It was one of the very few things they had forbidden. Just as he was the kind of young man who would drink with the servants, get himself expelled from the most progressive school in Germany, and not only choose sides in a fight, but throw himself into the fray, Stein tasted what his parents found distasteful. The scent of pickled garlic, the dizzying vulgarity of their marketplace, the Hebrew characters painted on the shops, all made him wonder who he was and what he had to do with these strange people.

Stein came of age after the Great War, when borders shifted, and large numbers of Yiddish speakers crossed into Germany. Stein pushed himself to learn that bastard language, and wondered that after centuries among the Slavs, it remained so completely German. Was there a Germany that still lived inside these Jews, beaten down as they were by other nations? That Germany lived inside of Yiddish, carried everywhere just like a lantern, dimmed by compromises, superstition, fragments of liturgy and marginalia. Did the light still burn?

Having both the temperament and resources to pursue these questions, he sought out Eastern Jews in Hamburg, where he got to know trade-unionists among the dock workers who argued about Marx in Yiddish. He traveled along the Rhine where the Emperor Charlemagne had opened the gates to Jews a thousand years ago. All the while, the Germany he knew--the Social Democratic Germany--receded. He felt as though he was watching a beautiful woman die, and all the while knew that she was not his wife. To whom did he tie his fate? To the Germany Jews made.

Right here. The world rooted in Ashkenaz--that ancient word for Germany-- dispersed and deepened, brought home and embodied by Mendelssohn himself who laid claim to the heritage right under his feet. He traveled to Vilna, to an international conference of Yiddishists and Bundists in 1929, and he urged them all, with the passion of a man with a fixed idea, to build a Jewish home in Germany.

They laughed at him. They listened, but they laughed, these poets and linguists, these Socialists who'd walked out of the Third International, and most of all the ones who had stayed and then regretted it, who had weathered years and years of fixed ideas. "Young man," said one delegate, "if I were you, I'd take a walk around the park and calm down. For what do we need a country? We have a country. It's called the Yiddish language."

Stein had an answer, but it was not one that these Old Bundists would be ready to hear, not yet. He would quote Comrade Stalin on the National Question. Here was a people with a common culture and a common language. All that was missing was a land.

"Then go to Moscow," someone countered. "I hear they treat Yiddish writers very well there, if they stay on their leashes."

"I'm not a Yiddish writer. I'm a citizen of German, and so are you, in spirit. Join me there!"

That started a back-and-forth so fierce and hostile that Leopold Stein felt both battered and invigorated. He joined the fray, just as he would have as a schoolboy, and afterwards, a few delegates came up to him and asked if he had written a clear summary of his ideas. They went to a café and kept talking until they closed the place down. By 1945, all of those people would be dead.

Now 1947, in Bad Reichenhall Camp, Stein filling a coffee urn at a water pump. In Feldafing Camp, Stein at a long, plank desk. Stein in a work-shirt and dungarees, holding a spade over his shoulder. In Munich, his home town, Stein filmed with a hand-held camera by French occupation soldiers, walking none-too-steadily through the milling crowd, gesticulating, overwhelmed by the force of his own logic, and the camera lingers on two men who share the newspaper: A Home. The headline reads, in Yiddish: "Roosevelt to Jews: Unpack Your Suitcases. Our Hotels are All Booked."

Beside Stein, Stephan Weiss, Auschwitz survivor, bird-of-prey demeanor. Weiss is not a Bundist. Weiss is not a brawler. Yiddish is one of his eight languages, and he shares with Stein the common language of a fixed idea. He was born in Vilna. Talent and ambition led him to Berlin. Then, following what he'd thought were sound instincts, he crossed the border, first to Vienna, then to Budapest, and then, at the prospect of induction in a labor battalion, he decided to stay with distant relatives who promised him a job at their printing press in Warsaw. This was in early 1939.

Now, he publishes the newspaper A Home. For all his frailty, Weiss leads the Jewish Association of Brandenburg, a powerful body that manages its own affairs and deals with armies that control all four sectors of divided Berlin. Stein knew Weiss before the war, when their paths crossed briefly in the late '20s. He'd been a different man there, a kind of aesthete, always a cigarette in a holder, babbling and posing. Now, the cigarette is gone. He looks like an emaciated owl. No one can match Weiss's single-minded energy, nor can they, in the end, understand what drives him. No one sees him sleep. No one much likes him. He might have frightened children, had those children not been rendered entirely fearless by the time they had reached this pass.

Stein, Weiss, a crowd of adolescents, and row after row of boots: this film stock, rare and near decay, found after the death of one of those same young men, now a grandfather retired from a factory in Zwickau. The boots are laid out on a long table. Stein's people have stuffed each boot with a note, and the young people remove the notes in a hurry, papering the raw dirt as they hold up the boots, measure them against their feet, and swap them with their neighbors. All the notes are printed in the bold typescript of A Home. "Don't go anywhere".

Yes, this is all well-documented, the continuity of Ashkenaz, the people and the nation, through generations of development and then expulsion and expulsion, and renewal and poignant flowering, and finally the great Churban, the piles of ash to make good fertilizer. Stein would make use of his considerable connections to try to lay claim to the three great cultural centers on the Rhine: Speyer, Worms and Mainz. Those cities were in the French Zone, where few of the officers were sympathetic. Yet is there a need for a historic claim? The present is claim enough. That was the position of Stephan Weiss, who finally persuaded Stein to arrange a certain meeting.

Now emblematic newsreel footage shown around the world: the Yalta Conference: Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. A seagull picks at something near the chair where Roosevelt is seated. Leopold Stein stands nearby. He wears a suit-coat. He extends his hand a little, as though he intends to feed the bird.

What would become of the Jewish Autonomous Region of Birobidjan, or England's unhappy experiments in Palestine and Uganda? What of the role of Roosevelt, who is quite ill at the time? Leopold Stein can be very persuasive. Surely, he emphasizes the humiliation of the enemy. Churchill might not be drawn in that direction, but Stalin is another story. Stein, energetic, muscular, vibrant, resembles a working man. Legend has it that Stalin says to Stein, "So you want to be king of the Jews?" But this is just speculation.

There would be opposition from some quarters, opposition which could only be overcome if things happened quickly, before forgetting started. Forgetfulness would be the enemy. Some say that Stein returns with a promise. Some say that on that April day, he and Weiss walk to the Brandenburg gate, knowing that the men who meet them there are under orders.

The orders are to raise a flag. The night before, Weiss had laid out the materials, and by the light of a primus stove, he'd patched together his design. He knew the cloth; he knew the thread. When he'd unfolded it that afternoon, he did so carefully, for the material was in danger of unraveling.

Weiss does not believe in flags as a rule. He'd lived under too many of them: the crest and crown of the Hapsburgs, the double-headed eagle of the Russian empire, the optimistic flags of four republics, the Soviet flag, and of course the flag that brought him close to death. But this flag, he believes in.

Thus, Stein and Weiss meet at an arranged time with Soviet officers who have a quiet conversation with the guards, and lower the flag of liberation. Then, they raise the new one, constructed from the uniform Weiss had worn in Auschwitz.

Black with white prison stripes: in the corner, a yellow star. The flag of Judenstaat.

Simone Zelitch, is the author of three novels, The Confession of Jack Straw (Black Heron Press, 1991), Moses in Sinai (Black Heron Press, 2001), and Louisa (G. P. Putnum's & Sons, 2000), which was the recipient of the Goldberg Prize in Emerging Jewish Fiction. Her work has also appeared in The Lost Tribe Anthology and has been featured in the NPR broadcast and the published anthology Hannukah Lights. Recent honors include residencies at the Edward Albee Barn and I-Park. A former Peace Corps volunteer, she has taught in Hungary, and at Southern Illinois University, the University of the Art,s and the University of Pennsylvania College of General Studies. She is Associate Professor of English at Community College of Philadelphia, where she directs the Certificate Program in Creative Writing. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, Doug Buchholz and his daughter Jane.

Photo by Dennis Gingell

Author's Statement

My phone call from the NEA came less than a week after I'd completed the first readable draft of Judenstaat. So much time had passed since I submitted my application that I'd literally forgotten what I'd sent: an early version of the first few chapters. Certainly, the most significant impact of this fellowship is the vote of confidence it gives to my very strange novel. I have been struggling with Judenstaat for nearly five years, and only a handful of people had read the chapters I'd submitted. I'm grateful that I had the good sense to offer the panel rough, new work, as it means that the fellowship was awarded not on the basis of what I've already done, but where I'm going.

In the past few years, much of my energy has gone into teaching at a community college, and building a creative writing program. Once, I dreamt that I told a group of hostile students that I hadn't marked their papers because I was finishing a chapter of my novel, and the students laughed maniacally and shouted, "You're not a writer! You're a teacher." Of course, I'm both, but it's often difficult to say as much to students who have good reason to demand my full attention. Essentially, the NEA has given me the resources to focus on revising and enriching Judenstaat through revision and further research in Germany and elsewhere (yes, alternative histories do require real research), and it has also given me permission to insist that writing is an urgent business, with its own set of obligations. That, in itself, is a valuable lesson for my students.