Remembering One of the Great Jewish Interpreters of German Literature, and His Family

Aug. 28 2015

After World War II, Erich Heller became a leading scholar and critic of German literature, teaching the subject at Cambridge in England and later at Northwestern in Evanston, IL. Born in Sudetenland, he was able to escape to England shortly after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. His niece, Caroline Heller, has made Erich and the rest of her family the subject of a novelistic memoir, about which Adam Kirsch writes:

Caroline . . . grew up in the 1950s as an American child in a prosperous suburb of Chicago, where her father Paul (Erich’s brother) was a doctor and her mother Alice a social worker. Yet she remembers her childhood as a long, failed attempt to fit in with American culture—“how we should look and who we should be,” as she puts it. Family life was anxious, dominated by her father’s “chronic sense of pending disaster,” and as a young girl she absorbed this feeling, which gave rise to bouts of depression and anxiety. Starting kindergarten was as hard, Heller recalls, as going to college would be twelve years later: in each case, she felt torn from the safety of her home, forced to adapt to a hostile world. . . .

The reason for this despair and fearfulness was the same reason the Heller family was the only one in the neighborhood not to have any family photographs on the walls. As Caroline Heller came to learn only as an adult, her father had been an inmate of Nazi concentration camps from the first day of World War II to almost the last. . . . Their way of protecting their American children, Caroline and her brother Tom, from this legacy was to hide it, or at least to let it remain hidden. . . . This kind of conspiratorial silence about the past, with its concomitant anxiety and dread, is one of the ways the Holocaust exacted its toll on the second generation. . . .

[With] the suggestion that Erich’s escape from prison was dishonorable—bought with sexual favors, or even by informing on his brother, as Caroline Heller seems to intimate in her endnotes—you have what is surely supposed to be a damning portrait. But was Erich Heller wrong to escape the Nazis, or to live the life of the mind as best he could at a time when that life was being extinguished in Germany? . . . Another version of the story, told by a more neutral observer, might leave us with a very different impression of Erich Heller. But that is the thing about family stories: the people who tell them are always still in the middle of them, just as we are all still in the middle of the Holocaust’s history.

Read more at Tablet

More about: Arts & Culture, Czechoslovakia, German Jewry, Holocaust, Literary criticism


Syria’s Druze Uprising, and What It Means for the Region

When the Arab Spring came to Syria in 2011, the Druze for the most part remained loyal to the regime—which has generally depended on the support of religious minorities such as the Druze and thus afforded them a modicum of protection. But in the past several weeks that has changed, with sustained anti-government protests in the Druze-dominated southwestern province of Suwayda. Ehud Yaari evaluates the implications of this shift:

The disillusionment of the Druze with Bashar al-Assad, their suspicion of militias backed by Iran and Hizballah on the outskirts of their region, and growing economic hardships are fanning the flames of revolt. In Syrian Druze circles, there is now open discussion of “self-rule,” for example replacing government offices and services with local Druze alternative bodies.

Is there a politically acceptable way to assist the Druze and prevent the regime from the violent reoccupation of Jebel al-Druze, [as they call the area in which they live]? The answer is yes. It would require Jordan to open a short humanitarian corridor through the village of al-Anat, the southernmost point of the Druze community, less than three kilometers from the Syrian-Jordanian border.

Setting up a corridor to the Druze would require a broad consensus among Western and Gulf Arab states, which have currently suspended the process of normalization with Assad. . . . The cost of such an operation would not be high compared to the humanitarian corridors currently operating in northern Syria. It could be developed in stages, and perhaps ultimately include, if necessary, providing the Druze with weapons to defend their territory. A quick reminder: during the Islamic State attack on Suwayda province in 2018, the Druze demonstrated an ability to assemble close to 50,000 militia men almost overnight.

Read more at Jerusalem Strategic Tribune

More about: Druze, Iran, Israeli Security, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy