In Bestiarium Judaicum: Unnatural Histories of the Jews, Jay Geller examines the ways Jews have been portrayed as, or compared with, animals in Central European writings. German-language Jewish literature itself has a peculiar history of using animal imagery; Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” (where the main character turns into cockroach) and Felix Salten’s Bambi—which likely reflects the author’s Zionist sentiments—are among the best-known examples, but hardly the only ones. Paul Reitter elaborates in his review:
Some of the Jewish intellectuals of Central Europe [in the 1920s and 30s] saw their cultural position, and the self-consciousness that resulted from it, as extraordinary and exceptional. In their attempts to evoke this position, they seem to have turned increasingly to nonhuman figures. In a 1921 letter to his friend Max Brod, Franz Kafka offered what is now probably the most famous description of the plight of German-Jewish writers in Central Europe: “With their back legs they stuck fast to the Judaism of their fathers, and with their front legs they found no new ground.” . . .
Kafka played with the associations between Jews and mice in the last story he wrote, “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk,” which was published in 1924. The “mouse folk” live with danger and enemies close by, much like the Jews of Central Europe did then. . . .
[Even] if Kafka’s animal studies are a special case, written in a style entirely his own, they also reflect a larger literary phenomenon. From Heinrich Heine, in the early 19th century, to the Austrian . . . Felix Salten, on the eve of World War II, a number of German-[language] Jewish authors wrote stories with anthropomorphized animals. For the most part, their animal figures evoke the plight of European Jewry without concertedly allegorizing it—though the temptation to read them as allegories is often strong. . . .
Geller catalogues the key animal associations in the German [anti-Semitic] imagination—Jews and pigs, Jews and wolves, Jews and dogs, Jews and apes, Jews and rodents—and discusses their evolution over the centuries, providing commentary on widely circulated instances of these stereotypes, from the bestiaries of the Middle Ages to graphic representations of Jews as animals in Nazi propaganda. He considers how the animalizing of Jews facilitated the Holocaust, looking, as he does so, at reflections on “the construction of the Jew-animal” by Jews, like Primo Levi, who were in occupied Europe at the time of the Final Solution.
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