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?”

Read more at In geveb

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


Israel Is Courting Saudi Arabia by Confronting Iran

Most likely, it was the Israeli Air Force that attacked eastern Syria Monday night, apparently destroying a convoy carrying Iranian weapons. Yoav Limor comments:

Israel reportedly carried out 32 attacks in Syria in 2022, and since early 2023 it has already struck 25 times in the country—at the very least. . . . The Iranian-Israeli clash stands out in the wake of the dramatic events in the region, chiefly among them is the effort to strike a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and later on with various other Muslim-Sunni states. Iran is trying to torpedo this process and has even publicly warned Saudi Arabia not to “gamble on a losing horse” because Israel’s demise is near. Riyadh is unlikely to heed that demand, for its own reasons.

Despite the thaw in relations between the kingdom and the Islamic Republic—including the exchange of ambassadors—the Saudis remain very suspicious of the Iranians. A strategic manifestation of that is that Riyadh is trying to forge a defense pact with the U.S.; a tactical manifestation took place this week when Saudi soccer players refused to play a match in Iran because of a bust of the former Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Suleimani, [a master terrorist whose militias have wreaked havoc throughout the Middle East, including within Saudi borders].

Of course, Israel is trying to bring Saudi Arabia into its orbit and to create a strong common front against Iran. The attack in Syria is ostensibly unrelated to the normalization process and is meant to prevent the terrorists on Israel’s northern border from laying their hands on sophisticated arms, but it nevertheless serves as a clear reminder for Riyadh that it must not scale back its fight against the constant danger posed by Iran.

Read more at Israel Hayom

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Saudi Arabia, Syria