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

March 14 2022

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?”

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

 

How China Equips the Islamic Republic to Repress Its People

In its dedication to bringing totalitarianism into the 21st century, the Chinese Communist party has developed high-tech forms of surveillance using facial-recognition software, a vast system of “social credit,” and careful control over its subjects’ cellular phones. Even stricter and more invasive measures are applied to the Uyghurs of the northwestern part of the country. Beijing is also happy to export its innovations in tyranny to allies like Iran and Russia. Playing a key role in these advances is a nominally private company called Tiandy Technologies. Craig Singleton describes its activities:

Both Tiandy testimonials and Chinese-government press releases advertise the use of the company’s products by Chinese officials to track and interrogate Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjiang province. According to human-rights groups, Chinese authorities also employ Tiandy products, such as “tiger chairs,” to torture Uyghurs and other minorities.

Iran has long relied on China to augment its digital surveillance capabilities, and Tehran was an early adopter of Beijing’s “social-credit” system, which it wields to assess citizens’ behavior and trustworthiness. . . . Iranian government representatives have publicized plans to leverage smart technologies, including AI-powered face recognition, to maintain regime stability and neutralize dissent. Enhanced cooperation with China is central to those efforts.

At present, Tiandy is not subject to U.S. sanctions or export controls. In light of Tiandy’s operations in both Xinjiang and Iran, policymakers should consider removing the company, its owner, and stakeholders from the international financial system and global supply chains.

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Read more at FDD

More about: China, Human Rights, Iran, Totalitarianism, U.S. Foreign policy