When Saul Bellow Met the Polish-Jewish Historian Who Influenced His Work

Founded in Vilna in 1925, the Jewish Research Institute (known by the Yiddish acronym YIVO) was dedicated to studying, and later to preserving, East European Jewish life and the Yiddish language. It relocated to New York City during World War II, and in the early 1960s several of its original members remained actively involved. In his diary from that decade, Ezekiel Lifschitz—then YIVO’s chief archivist—recorded, inter alia, the visits to the institution of three luminaries of Jewish literature: the Yiddish poet Avraham Sutzkever, the English-language novelist Saul Bellow, and the Hebrew writer S.Y. Agnon.

Cecile Kuznitz, who translated the excerpts describing these encounters, explains why Bellow was interested in the work of one particular Yiddish-language scholar:

The occasion for Bellow’s [1965] visit was a meeting with the historian Isaiah Trunk, a YIVO staff member. Trunk, a critic of Hannah Arendt’s caustic appraisal of the Nazi-created Jewish councils, published a study of the Łódź Ghetto in 1962. Bellow was presumably gathering material for his next novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet [1970], which includes lengthy reflections on the Holocaust.

The protagonist of Mr. Sammler’s Planet critiques Arendt’s concept of “the banality of evil” and offers his thoughts on Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski, the controversial head of the Jewish council in the Łódź Ghetto. In fact, Sammler is the author of an “article about that crazy character from Lodz—King Rumkowski,” whom he describes as “a mad Jewish King presiding over the death of half a million people. . . . Rumkowski, King of rags and shit, Rumkowski, ruler of corpses.” However derisive this language, we learn that Bellow was familiar with Trunk’s nuanced account of the impossible choices facing the heads of the Jewish councils.

Lifschitz describes the visit thus:

Bellow visited YIVO today. Apparently he became interested in the Łódź Ghetto and got a copy of Trunk’s book Lodzher geto. Today he came to see Trunk. B. makes a very agreeable impression: natural in his behavior and without “artificial” pretensions. While speaking he easily switched over to Yiddish and although he apologized for his weak Yiddish, it was in fact a surprise how freely he speaks and without a trace of the well-known American accent. While talking I remarked that it’s a quite a distance from [his 1953 The Adventures of] Augie March to [his 1963] Herzog. He replied, “I returned late to Jewish life.” However, he defended Augie March, saying that the book reflected life at the time 30 years ago. I reminded him of the scene in Herzog that moved me greatly, where the protagonist says to his friend more or less: We are already old Jews, let’s become worshippers in the little immigrant shul on our old block. To that Bellow answered, “Where can you find such a little shul now?”

Read more at In geveb

More about: Avraham Sutzkever, Holocaust, Jewish literature, S. Y. Agnon, Saul Bellow, Yiddish, YIVO

Hamas Has Its Own Day-After Plan

While Hamas’s leaders continue to reject the U.S.-backed ceasefire proposal, they have hardly been neglecting diplomacy. Ehud Yaari explains:

Over the past few weeks, Hamas leaders have been engaged in talks with other Palestinian factions and select Arab states to find a formula for postwar governance in the Gaza Strip. Held mainly in Qatar and Egypt, the negotiations have not matured into a clear plan so far, but some forms of cooperation are emerging on the ground in parts of the embattled enclave.

Hamas officials have informed their interlocutors that they are willing to support the formation of either a “technocratic government” or one composed of factions that agree to Palestinian “reconciliation.” They have also insisted that security issues not be part of this government’s authority. In other words, Hamas is happy to let others shoulder civil responsibilities while it focuses on rebuilding its armed networks behind the scenes.

Among the possibilities Hamas is investigating is integration into the Palestinian Authority (PA), the very body that many experts in Israel and in the U.S. believe should take over Gaza after the war ends. The PA president Mahmoud Abbas has so far resisted any such proposals, but some of his comrades in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) are less certain:

On June 12, several ex-PLO and PA officials held an unprecedented meeting in Ramallah and signed an initiative calling for the inclusion of additional factions, meaning Hamas. The PA security services had blocked previous attempts to arrange such meetings in the West Bank. . . . Hamas has already convinced certain smaller PLO factions to get on board with its postwar model.

With generous help from Qatar, Hamas also started a campaign in March asking unaffiliated Palestinian activists from Arab countries and the diaspora to press for a collaborative Hamas role in postwar Gaza. Their main idea for promoting this plan is to convene a “Palestinian National Congress” with hundreds of delegates. Preparatory meetings have already been held in Britain, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Qatar, and more are planned for the United States, Spain, Belgium, Australia, and France.

If the U.S. and other Western countries are serious about wishing to see Hamas defeated, and all the more so if they have any hopes for peace, they will have to convey to all involved that any association with the terrorist group will trigger ostracization and sanctions. That Hamas doesn’t already appear toxic to these various interlocutors is itself a sign of a serious failure.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Gaza War 2023, Hamas, Palestinian Authority