Ludwig Lewisohn’s 1927 Book Has Lessons for Indian Minorities Today: A Review From Jail

An exploration of Jewishness written long before the Holocaust shows how fraternity and solidarity are required to overcome majoritarianism and fascism.

A month ago, Sudha Bharadwaj wrote the following review by hand in Mumbai’s Byculla Jail. While her friends and family typed the text for possible publication, Bharadwaj was diagnosed with a heart disease. As she remains incarcerated in an overcrowded prison on the basis of contentious charges for her alleged involvement in the Elgar Parishad case, appeals for her bail are ongoing.


I was starved for reading material in jail when The Defeated, a philosophical novel by Ludwig Lewisohn came into my hands from the jail library. Both the title and author were unknown to me. First published in 1927, this book is the story of successive generations of Jews migrating from Russia to Germany and America. It speaks with great empathy, pain and sensitivity not so much of Jewish society as of the inner struggles of individuals of successive generations as they deal with the continuing discrimination they face in diverse forms; how they try to cope with their “Jewishness” in different ways – by mimicry, self-hatred, flights of fancy, cutting off their roots, anger, and religious conversion; and how the ultimate protagonist, Arthur, comes to terms with his Jewishness by accepting it and setting out to help other suffering Jews.

Ludwig Lewisohn

In its narrative over nine books, interspersed with passages on the history, psychology, culture and religious notions of the Jews as well as passionate philosophical ruminations, the book vividly sets out what “being Jewish” means.

What struck me was that this novel precedes both the Holocaust and today’s aggressive Israeli state that denies freedom and dignity to Palestine and yet carries in it so clearly the seeds of both apprehensions. Clearly, even then in 1927, the writing was on the wall for anyone who cared to see it.

Today, when it is critical to understand “being a Dalit” or “being a Muslim” to comprehend how a majoritarian Hindutva mindset becomes “the mainstream” and “other-ises”, puts down and demonises other identities, this piece of literature provides a rare, deep insight into “being Jewish.”

The story of the Levy family is related from the time of Reb Mendel and his wife Braine in Russia in 1840, through their son Efraim and his children, Tobias, Bertha, Rose, Samuel and most importantly, Jacob in Prussia, and finally ends with Jacob’s children – Hazel and the main protagonist, Arthur Levy, in America around 1925 when anti-Jewish pogroms were going on in Rumania (today’s Romania).

Braine, Efraim and Tobias

Reb Mendel wants to understand more of the world and feels attracted to Isaac-Ber Levinsohn’s Beth-Ye-Huda, which proves from the history of Israel that “pious and holy Jews had in all other lands and ages cultivated profane science and philosophy.” He rebels by giving up his position as a ‘melamed’ (scripture teacher) in Russia, where Jews are forced to sink their synagogues deep in the ground and not raise their eyes except when praying. His wife Braine’s father had been extremely wealthy and was looted and devastated in the Polish anti-Jew uprising of 1840. While Mendel joins a rich distiller, Bratzlawer, his wife disapproves. Like her father, she believes intensely in “Jews being the chosen people” who have to be “divided from all other nations” in their ways. Much later, after the death of Mendel and even the prosperity of her son Efraim, when she’s about to die, Braine leaves for Israel to die there. She always speaks to Efraim and his sister about a chest from which her father would extract a parchment to read alone in his room with tears rolling down his cheeks. It is this parchment which finally falls into the hands of the main protagonist, Arthur, the grandson of Efraim, in book nine.

Efraim joins Bratzlawer’s business in his youth, making himself indispensable, and later marries Bratzlawer’s daughter, Hannah. They take the name of Levy and move to Insterburg, Prussia, where they shift from the Yiddish language to German, except when they wish to converse privately about their ‘shikse’ (gentile) German peasant helpers. But they still observe “the Law of Israel in form” and go to the orthodox synagogue, rather than the “reformed intensely German” one.

Yitzhak Arad, Yad Vashem, Alina Bothe, Lewi Stone, Tel Aviv University, Shoah, Holocaust, Operation Reinhard, Operation Reinhardt, Adolf Hitler, World War II, Deutsche Reichsbahn, German National Railways, Reinhard Heydrich, Wannsee Conference, Poland, concentration camps, Final Solution to the Jewish Question, Nazis, Rwandan genocide, Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka

Jews being deported to the Bełżec concentration camp in April 1942. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Though the businesses of East Europeans like Efraim are eventually outdone by the sophisticated West Europeans, Efraim’s eldest son Tobias grows up in an idyllic feudal set-up in a beautiful German landscape. The memories of his childhood are of the fairy tales told and folk songs sung by the affectionate German peasant women in the spinning room, not of the fears of his ancestors. He feels oppressed when he is sent to the “cheder” (Jewish primary school) to learn Hebrew and Jewish scriptures. He finds the other Jewish children there poor and dirty and the gentile children gather to throw stones at them.

Tobias has an excellent career at the gymnasium (college) of Insterburg; his modest well-behavedness and the help he readily gives his blond-haired, blue-eyed classmates who find learning a burden gain him friends. But despite his giving his very heart in his friendships, he can only get the status of “a confidential upper servant” even as his friends’ sisters giggle and ridicule him behind his back. He realises that whereas any decently intelligent gentile can enter a career of judgeship, for a Jew to do the same, he must be “a veritable paragon of learning, tact and devotion.” He feels ashamed of the poor Jewish students that the professors smile at; even ashamed of his own father with his sing-song Jewish accent. His fear is that if he is classed with them, what will become of his career?

He meets Burghammer, an elegant Jew, whose father had had him and his siblings baptised. Burghammer tells him, “We are Protestants. Yes, the Junkers [the land-owning aristocracy of Prussia] cut us socially but the state is on our side. Our Jewish brains are needed. Count Bismarck consults my father twice a month, he raised the money for the Austrian War…”

Some years later, after participating in the 1870 war effort, Tobias becomes independent of his father’s allowance and sends some generous sums for his siblings’ education. In 1880, he informs his father that he has married the daughter of Burghammer and taken his wife’s name. What he doesn’t reveal is that he has also been baptised by a notorious anti-Semitic preacher. But his father understands and feels like “shredding his clothes and strewing ashes on his head” for this ‘geshmatt’ (turncoat) as if hearing of a death.

Theodore Burghammer becomes a distinguished jurist. When his shopkeeper brother Samuel, in a bankrupt state, once searches him out, Theodore gives him more money than he has seen in his life and quickly hurries out “for an important appointment”. Theodore never sees any of his family again. When he is politely informed of his mother’s death, he initially buys a ticket for Insterburg but crumples it up at the station. The money he wires to his father is returned. The next month he is appointed as a ‘Justizrath’ (counsellor of justice).

Polish Jews captured by Germans during the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Photo: United States Holocaust Museum/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The justizrath and his wife build a palatial house in Berlin with the fortune she inherits, where “all literary and artistic Berlin crowd” gather mostly Jews. Though he has become a great man, unaffected by “the anti-Semitic ribaldries of press and pulpit” and the “growing roar of the race-conscious Nordics”, sometimes he becomes extremely distressed. Then a secret agent is asked to seek out his brothers and sisters, who get large sums of money from “an unknown hand.” Of course they understand where it is coming from.

In the autumn of 1917, Justizrath Burghammer’s house is surrounded by a mob of hungry, tattered creatures suffering from the pains of war. A woman shrieks, “The accursed Jews feed while our children die of hunger!” He stands stern and upright at his window while stones crash into the glass panes above his head. The mounted police drive the mob away ruthlessly even as he receives the terribly polite telegram of his son’s martyrdom in the war. With a dry sob, he stretches out his arms, and cries words he had not heard in 50 years – “Shmah, Yisroell (Hear, O Israel)”.

Also read: ‘No Longer the Other’: How Holocaust Poetry Reclaims Identities

Jacob, Arthur and Reb Moshe

Jacob, the youngest child of Efraim, is the only blond sibling. He stays away from the ‘cheder’ and later, school, and follows musicians with a twig held trumpet-like to his lips. In his 18th year, he meets a poor, illiterate Lithuanian girl. They live for a month in “deep ardour” and “undisputed instincts” before “the crash”! Jacob goes home to find his frail father hemmed in by two brothers of the girl, demanding money from “the Jew.” They extort, threaten and leave, spitting on the floor and crossing themselves. Jacob experiences a cold disgust and “ages by years in those few minutes”. He resolves to leave for a free land – America – and indeed reaches there with $130 in his pocket in the year 1879.

How the Jewish community hangs together by supporting the early new immigrants is also illustrated by Jacob’s case. He is picked up by a kind old Jew named Friedenfeld, whose pleasure it is to gather such “greenees” from “decent families” or those who came from somewhere close to his home and who speak German and put them to work where they can learn English and make their way in life.

Jacob initially works as a day caretaker at Friedenfeld & Cohn’s department store catering to every domestic need of poor Irishmen and later, of even poorer Italians, particularly cheap furniture. In this way Jacob escapes from his history with relief and despite many half-hearted plans, he never returns to Prussia, writing to his family rarely. He learns English slowly, which he speaks with a heavy German accent till the end, and lives as a tenant with a German gentile widow on Friedenfeld’s recommendation. He embraces enthusiastically the American ideal, where, in a nation of migrants, he is treated as a German and not a Jew.

At the department store, Jacob meets another hardworking young Jew, Nathan Goldmann, and together, with some financial help from Friedenfeld, they set up their own furniture firm of more modern designs. In the first three years, were it not for support from Friedenfeld’s customers, Jacob’s landlady and Goldmann’s family, their firm would have collapsed half a dozen times. But they persevere and by 1889 have established a tiny factory and modern showroom by the secular name of “Phoenix Arts”.

Jews on selection ramp at Auschwitz, May 1944. Photo: Public domain

Both their marriages into Jewish families bring them substantial dowries and both the Goldmanns and the Levys prosper over time. Like his wife Gertrude, Jacob becomes an American citizen and so are his children. They have no overt Jewish observances, for to them the synagogue still smacks of their migration, oppression and the ghetto.

Jacob and Gertrude’s son Arthur, the main protagonist, appears in book three. Though Arthur and his sister Hazel always seemed to know they are Jewish, he often wonders how. For apart from a few remarks like “so-and-so cannot be trusted as he is ‘goyim’ (non-Jew)” or “so-and-so can be depended upon as he is ‘Yehudim’ (Jew)”, there are barely any overt signs of Jewishness in their household.

Yet when Arthur first enters school, he has a searing experience. A little classmate, George, makes a gargoyle-like face at him, puts out his tongue and calls him “Sheenie”. He is so hurt and rebellious against the hurt that he does not even inform his mother; rather, he invites the boy over. George, after sniffing the air suspiciously, relaxes and rampages boisterously with the toys, scaring the well-behaved Arthur and Hazel and finally, stuffing himself full of cake, says, kicking the table, “My dad says there’s lotsa nice Jews, he did so.” Though George forgets and becomes friendly, Arthur never forgets.

Arthur takes refuge in reading books that are very difficult for his age. He only fears a group of boys whom he usually passes on his way home from the library who shout, “Purge the Sheenie” and once trip him up. He is blinded with rage and hatred and being outnumbered and weak, seeks comfort in arrogance. “I will be a great learned man and these hoodlums will be sweepers of bars and diggers of mud.”

While excelling at studies, he has headaches and nightmares. George, who barely scrapes through his exams, is happy, carefree and active in sports. During gym, a group of boys tease Arthur about his circumcision and thereafter he adamantly refuses to participate in sports, getting a medical certificate from a Jewish doctor. He becomes “morbidly aware” of his name, his father’s accent. His father cannot fathom his irritation and reproaches him sadly. “Vell ve are Chews, my son.”

Arthur enters Columbia University in 1910. Initially he feels the dignity, freedom and smugness so healing that he hardly goes downtown, confining himself to his lodgings and the university. Though he makes good friends with several gentiles, he notices they don’t invite him to social events. It’s Tobias’s experience all over again. And when he criticises the Russian Alliance, he is told, “Now you are speaking as a Jew, not an American.”

German troops parade in Warsaw to celebrate the defeat of Poland, October 5, 1939. — US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park

Once America enters the war, the situation changes for Jacob. “Being suspected of German sympathies”, Jacob faces threatening slights and direct pressures from larger houses, political bosses and banks. He loses the pride he had in being “a self made American” as he is brutally informed of the number of war bonds he has to buy.

Arthur is lucky not to be conscripted, but is assigned as an assistant to a rather ignorant psychological expert. By this time, Arthur has already read Freud and is far advanced. With the help of Friedenfeld’s son Mortimer Freefield, who has now become a typically American lawyer, he is appointed as an intern at the women’s department of the Hospital for the Insane on Drew’s Point. He throws himself into the work with passion, but is extremely disturbed to find the low-paid and untrained Irish nurses, particularly one Donovan, physically abusing the patients. Only one other doctor, Dr Kirke, is interested, but he is too ambitious. He advises Arthur not to complain, as Donovan is a “sweetie” of the senior Dr Duval. But Arthur first resigns and then confronts Donovan. Later that night, Dr Duval comes in drunk and abuses him for his Jewishness outside his door.

Gertrude’s sister had married Adams, a Jew in the construction business. When Adams had constructed a block of flats, he had fondly reserved one as a clinic for one of his two sons, whom he had hoped would take up medicine. Since neither of them does, Arthur moves in and fulfills the old man’s dream.

Arthur falls in love with the feminist suffragette daughter of a Protestant minister, Elizabeth. They are great friends and support each other immensely. When she discovers she is pregnant, she fights against the idea of marrying him, but finally gives in to Arthur’s care. Arthur’s parents are worried: though they would like to accept Elizabeth as a daughter, they feel she would not be comfortable. And indeed, put off by the very first embrace of her mother-in-law, Elizabeth tends not to accompany him on his visits home.

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Gradually Arthur and Elizabeth grow apart. She seems to him not to care for the child, John, or “their family.” She takes up writing and is hectically busy socially, from which activities he feels alienated. A time comes when tensions become extreme. Arthur sends John on a holiday with his parents and lets Elizabeth go to her father. When she returns, she comments how alike her father and Arthur are – both patient and not judgemental. “But I am a rebel and a pagan,” she says. Arthur explains that even her rebellion is part of a legitimate stream, but if he rejects his Jewish roots, there is nothingness, a void. They are both deeply concerned about how John is to be brought up.

Arthur has meanwhile decided to give more of his time to a Jewish institution called the Beth Yehuda Hospital. He feels comfortable there – the patient, the doctors, the administration are all Jewish.  He does not have to pretend or be anxious before expressing an opinion. There he meets Reb Moshe.

Braine’s father, Reb Elizer Hacohen, had a younger brother, Reb Moshe Hacohen. This Reb Moshe is the latter’s grandson. Reb Elizer was an orthodox ‘Mithnaged’ but his brother was a ‘Chassid’, as is his grandson. Reb Moshe tells Arthur, “I believe that active love will gradually bring a better world, a world of brotherhood and peace. When that world is completed, the Messiah will be among us. The way is not communicated by any book but from soul to soul.” He describes to Arthur his journeys across the world to meet Jewish people, particularly in Rumania, where they are suffering from pogroms at that time.

A group of Jewish girls wearing the yellow star. —United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Oesterreichische Nationalbibliothek.

One day Elizabeth is shocked when Reb Moshe suddenly arrives at their home. She is frightened by his orthodox black dress and black hat, but he puts her somewhat at ease by telling her a parable about the attire. Reb Moshe tells Arthur that he has come to request him to join a commission to Rumania as a qualified psychiatrist to see people “who neither live nor die”. Elizabeth realises Arthur’s desire and need to go and leaves the house with John, writing him a straight-forward and principled letter. Even when they meet later, they understand and respect each other more than ever before, yet feel their ways are separate. This part of the book leaves us with the same poignant question they ask each other: “Does this mean mixed marriages don’t work?”

Before Arthur is to leave, Reb Moshe gives him a scroll of parchment. It is the English translation of a Hebrew document written by their common ancestor, Reb Efraim Hacohen. The document is the very one Braine’s father would read and weep. The text, laid out in book nine, is based, according to Lewisohn, on historical fact, and narrates what the Jews suffered in the 11th century as martyrs of the Christian crusades – a buried and unacknowledged history. Reading it, Arthur feels liberated, in touch with his people and history, as if he has suddenly understood himself. As he prepares to leave, Reb Moshe warns him: “Don’t be too enthusiastic.  Jews have always been a difficult people. While you avoid the ‘rich goyish man’s error’ of thinking all Jews are Christ killers and usurers, even while individuals are honourable and kind; beware too the “rich Yehudim error” of thinking that Jews are a Holy Nation, but individuals are thieves and rascals!”

Many other well-etched characters in the book

There are many other well-etched Jewish characters in the book. There is Nathan Goldmann’s son, Joe, who becomes a Marxist and believes that “though Jewishness is a curse, the way is not to run away from it, but destroy it through the proletarian revolution….”  There is his brother, Victor Goldmann, who has no gift for mimicry and is confused, angry and consumed by self-hate. Even though he becomes a successful architect, he commits suicide.

There is Hazel, Arthur’s sister, who is refused admission to a fashionable girls’ school because she is Jewish and who is separated from her gentile boyfriend by the family. Though she later marries a moderately successful young Jewish man, Eli, and keeps a model house, she, her husband and her daughter are unhappy. She doesn’t want to stay with her in-laws in the ghetto, for she feels too superior for it and hates the “uncouthness” of the ghetto. But where she and Eli live, they have no friends and are lonely.  In his unhappiness, Eli begins to stay out, drink and even see other women. Catching him out, she storms out of the house with her daughter and returns to her parents in a hysterical state. Only after Arthur’s mediation does the ice melt between Hazel and Eli. They realise they need to move to a Jewish neighbourhood to have more friends and a social life.

And there is Bertha, the independent-minded and balanced sister of Jacob and Tobias, who gets married late in life to a Talmudic scholar, Benjamin. He later becomes an assistant professor of Jewish Scripture in the university. She keeps a comfortable Jewish home and kitchen, where they engage with gentile friends on an equal footing. Bertha is a great support to her father, Efraim, in his old age, speaking to him in Yiddish and finally closing his eyes when he dies.

Thus Lewisohn paints a vivid mosaic of very different but believable characters.

Jewish prisoners are issued food on a building site at Salaspils concentration camp, Latvia, in 1941. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The tortured Jewish psyche, identity and nationalism

Lewisohn describes through vivid examples the effects of the Jewish feeling of inferiority and comments ironically on the fact that “the part played by such inferiority in psychical life was fittingly described by a Jewish physician (Freud) for though all men can be afflicted with this feeling (inferiority) in consequence of a specific cause, nearly every Jew is afflicted without specific and discoverable cause… where the cause is known, the mind consents, where it is not known, the soul rebels… There arise intricate maladies of the soul. Sudden suspiciousness, fear of fear, propitiation without belief, rage apparently at others pointed at oneself, arrogance, sensitivity in a thousand contorted and contradictory ways.”

Lewisohn traces this to a thousand years of intermittent persecutions and maybe even further back to “the Babylonian captivity that ended the Jewish people’s brief dream of equality”.  Even their last war-like heroes, Judah Makkabi and Bar Kochba, he says, are “heroes of defeat”. It is to this he attributes Jewish penitence, their sense of perpetual exile, their belief that “force is evil, war is sin and passive martyrdom is triumph.”

Lewisohn’s analysis goes to the extent of justifying the Pharisees who were, according to him, actually “a nation in bondage” to Rome.  Their aim was “to preserve the Jewish nationality, to substitute religious and cultural solidarity for political independence.” Hence, their objection to even the “first faint stirrings of what was to later become Christianity, with its universality, its anti-nationality.”  He claims that for the crucifixion, it was actually the empire of Pontius Pilate that was to blame. For after all, even Judas, after the betrayal, ultimately hangs himself. To appreciate how this “other view” has been suppressed by the Christian mainstream, one only needs to recall the debates around ‘Ravana’ or ‘Mahishasur’ that Dalit and tribal communities are raising today in our country.

The importance of an identity is also something Lewisohn repeatedly stresses upon. He elucidates how, “in an ambitious empire, throwing its millions into war, the absolute pacifist is the only friend of mankind”, but in an oppressed, decimated and tormented national minority, “there is something to be said for those who are anxious that no jot of their cultural or religious heritage, that makes them a people, is abandoned”.  For, as he rightly remarks, “Before there can be internations, there must be nations” and “we must not let the strong ones stamp out the weak before the days of the internation.”

The story itself illustrates Lewisohn’s contention that “Jews tried to forget themselves and their people in the Germanising time and the Americanising time… The nations said: Be like us and we shall be brothers and at peace!  Then began the Jewish practice of protective mimicry … to escape difference, conspicuousness and hence danger … But can it be done without inflicting an inner hurt, a wound to the moral fibre?” No, he concludes, indeed not.

A view shows a construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Givat Zeev, near Jerusalem, December 19, 2011. Credit: Reuters

Unidimensional? Perhaps necessarily so

Lewisohn’s understanding is that mankind progresses in a “triangular formation”.  “At the apex are a handful of thinkers, at the base the thousand million who have hardly changed … At the apex race prejudice and sex slavery are forgotten. Peace, knowledge and compassion prevail. Just a few ranks below, the old savage diseases of the soul continue.” He describes Arthur’s predicament: “How should a young man then bear himself? As if there was progress, or as if there was none? At the apex there is no Jewish problem, but how can he guard against the cries of hate and pain that come to his ears from the base?”  It is these cries that Arthur finally responds to.

Interestingly, the author does not hesitate to depict the conflicts among different Jewish sects or the shortcomings of orthodoxy.  The arrogance of being the chosen people, the unquestioning atmosphere of the ‘cheders’, the refusal to accept scientific or secular knowledge. He speaks of the “reformed synagogues” too, which tried to mimic the Christians. And of course the generations long and deep debate between the Mithnageds and the Chassids is described pictorially in the distance between Braine and Reb Moshe.

While there are many penetrating insights in this work, Lewisohn’s entire understanding is only through the lens of “Jewishness.” In that sense, the book is certainly unidimensional; the aspects of class or gender, or the historical processes of capitalism and colonialism, while mentioned, do not form part of his analysis.

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Yet, just as it is important to see each colour of the rainbow in its own distinct individuality to understand ‘white light’, there is no doubt that The Defeated is an eye-opening work of literature on the Jewish question, that it is essential to understand how fraternity and solidarity are required to overcome majoritarianism and fascism in today’s world.

(The spellings of Yiddish and Hebrew words in this book review are taken directly from the book and may differ at times from the spellings commonly used today)

Sudha Bharadwaj is a human rights activist, trade unionist and lawyer.