Osip Mandelstam Reclaimed His Jewish Heritage When He Rediscovered His Poetic Voice and Turned against Soviet Tyranny

Oct. 11 2021

In pre-Revolutionary Russia, Osip Mandelstam was a leading figure in the poetic movement known as Acmeism; he went on to be one of the preeminent poets of the Soviet Union, until, in 1933—frustrated by his country’s increasing repressiveness—he read a friend a poem mocking Stalin. He spent the following years under various forms of arrest, until dying of typhoid fever in a Siberian labor camp. In his early work, Mandelstam rarely mentioned his Jewish upbringing or addressed Jewish themes, but eventually that changed. Reviewing a recent biography, Gary Saul Morson writes:

For much of the 1920s, Mandelstam supported himself by translating foreign literature and writing critical essays. As the decade waned, he gave up composing verse until, at last, he rediscovered his poetic voice. Accepting his permanent opposition to the regime, he also reclaimed his Jewish heritage.

Mandelstam’s autobiographical essay “The Noise of Time” describes his early alienation from his Jewish roots. The boy depicted in his Hebrew primer repelled him, and he never learned the language. At home, he saw only “the chaos of Judaism—not a motherland, not a house, not a hearth, but precisely a chaos, the unknown womb world . . . which I feared, and . . . always fled.” . . . Mandelstam once described Acmeism as “a longing for world culture,” though he regarded himself as having no past, neither the Russian culture that excluded him nor the Jewish traditions he rejected. A rootless intellectual, he observed, “needs no memory—it is enough for him to tell the books he has read, and his biography is done.”

As Mandelstam realized, this sense of exile itself had Jewish origins. “Joseph, sold into Egypt,” one early lyric intones, “could not yearn more powerfully!” As Gregory Freidin observed, although it was an accident that Mandelstam’s parents named him Osip—the Russian form of Joseph—he chose to identify with the exiled dreamer and interpreter of dreams.

At first, his Jewish origins conflicted with the mythic biography he constructed for himself, but later they became essential to it. Andrew Kahn’s new book, by contrast, argues that Mandelstam critics have paid too much attention to the Jewish theme. . . . Kahn rejects [Mandelstam’s widow’s] portrait of him as someone whose “alienation from Soviet life began in 1918,” which he dismisses as a product of the cold war (in literary critical jargon, simply naming a position as belonging to the “cold war” allows one to dismiss it).

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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Jewish literature, Poetry, Russian Jewry, Soviet Jewry

The Significance of Mahmoud Abbas’s Holocaust Denial

Aug. 19 2022

On Tuesday, the Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, during an official visit to Berlin, gave a joint press conference with the German chancellor Olaf Scholz, where he was asked by a journalist if he would apologize for the murder of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics. (The relationship between the group that carried out the massacre and Abbas’s Fatah party remains murky.) Abbas instead responded by ranting about the “50 Holocausts” perpetrated by Israel against Palestinians. Stephen Pollard comments:

Scholz’s response to that? He shook Abbas’s hand and ended the press conference.

Reading yet another column pointing out that Scholz is a dunderhead isn’t, I grant you, the most useful of ways to spend an August afternoon, so let’s leave the German chancellor there, save to say that he eventually issued a statement hours later, after an eruption of fury from his fellow countrymen, saying that “I am disgusted by the outrageous remarks made by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. For us Germans in particular, any trivialization of the singularity of the Holocaust is intolerable and unacceptable. I condemn any attempt to deny the crimes of the Holocaust.” Which only goes to show that late is actually no better than never.

The real issue, in Pollard’s view, is the West’s willful blindness about Abbas, who wrote a doctoral thesis at a Soviet university blaming “Zionists” for the Holocaust and claiming that a mere million Jews were killed by the Nazis—notions he has reiterated publicly as recently as 2013.

On Wednesday, [Abbas] “clarified” his remarks in Berlin, saying that “the Holocaust is the most heinous crime in modern human history.” Credulous fools have again ignored what Abbas actually means by that.

It’s time we stopped projecting what we want Abbas to be and focused on what he actually is, using his own words. In a speech in 2018 he informed us that Israel is a “colonialist project that had nothing to do with Judaism”—to such an extent that European Jews chose to stay in their homes and be murdered rather than live in Palestine. Do I have to point out the moral degeneracy of such a proposition? It would seem so, given the persistent refusal of so many to take Abbas for what he actually is.

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Read more at Jewish Chronicle

More about: Anti-Semitism, Germany, Holocaust denial, Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority