שמואל יוסף עגנון (1888־1970)

Shmuel Yosef Agnon


Agnon and Germany : the presence of the German world in the writings of S. Y. Agnon / edited by Hans-Jürgen Becker, Hillel Weiss. -- Ramat Gan : Bar-Ilan University Press, 2010.
472 p.

This book includes studies and research on Agnon`s work in Germany between the years 1913 and 1924, during which time his art earned its classic status. The studies deal also with the influence of the German world and its culture on his entire work.
The development of the work of S.Y. Agnon (1887-1970), the greatest of Jewish storytellers in the Hebrew language, reached a definitive and lasting peak that crystallized in the years that Agnon lived in Germany (1912-1924). The nature of this consolidation is presented to the reader in the present work, Agnon and Germany, the product of research conducted by two groups of scholars, the German group headed by Hans-Jürgen Becker and the Israeli group headed by Hillel Weiss. The German period extends beyond the physical presence of Agnon in Germany and also includes the period primarily after he went back to the land of Israel in 1924, and, in a way, until his death in 1970. The German world, alongside the Jewish world that was the mainstay of his writing, is present as a challenging element, symbiotic and antithetical, in all of his writings, especially in some of the longer novels and novellas that he published close upon World War II and afterwards as a reaction to the Holocaust and its roots in the Jewish-German experience throughout history.


The development of the work of S.Y. Agnon (1887-1970), the greatest of Jewish storytellers in the Hebrew language, reached a definitive and lasting peak that crystallized in the years that Agnon lived in Germany (1912-1924). The nature of this consolidation is presented to the reader in the present work, Agnon and Germany, the product of research conducted by two groups of scholars, the German group headed by Hans-Jürgen Becker and the Israeli group headed by Hillel Weiss. The German period extends beyond the physical presence of Agnon in Germany and also includes the period primarily after he went back to the Land of Israel in 1924, and, in a way, until his death in 1970. The German world, alongside the Jewish world that was the mainstay of his writing, is present as a challenging element, symbiotic and antithetical, in all of his writings, especially in some of his longer novels and novellas that he published close upon World War II and afterwards.

Agnon was a Nobel Prize laureate together with German-Jewish poetess Nelly Sachs in 1966. For most of his life, he was a religious Jew – in his own way; a son of Eastern Europe, his hometown was Buczacz and his homeland, Galicia – a geographical expanse (today the Ukraine) that represented a transitional zone and a meeting of Jewish and foreign cultures. The Jewish cultures were predominantly Hasidism and Mitnagdism (the Lithuanian, antiHasidic counterbalance), while in the background were traces of Shabtaism from the seventeenth century. The work is wreathed in memories from the past, of pogroms and catastrophes from the era of the Crusades and especially from the days of Bogdan Hmelnitsky (1648-49), a controversial Ukrainian hero who fought the Poles and in his military campaigns destroyed the Jewish communities between the Dneister and the Dnieper rivers. The non-Jewish culture of Galicia in Agnon’s early years was German in its Viennese variation, so highly esteemed in the Jewish Galician milieu that Kaiser Franz Josef was entitled “the Kaiser, may his glory be enhanced.” All of this alongside the Slavic cultures: Polish, Russian, and Lithuanian.

Galicia had been subject to the Austro-Hungarian Empire since Poland was divided in 1795 and until its dissolution in 1918 at the end of World War I. Agnon was born into a home where both of his parents knew and even spoke German and Yiddish in addition to Polish and Hebrew. A considerable portion of Galician Jewry regarded German culture as the pinnacle of High European culture and had been attracted to the Berlin Enlightenment ever since the eighteenth century, together with their spiritual and economic connection to the Polish-Lithuanian milieu that had been predominant in the region for centuries. The multi-tiered loyalty of Jewish society to the German culture clashed with their partially positive memories of the Polish kingdom, which had protected the Jews from the city dwellers, the Polish squires and estate owners until its dissolution in 1795, and the return of anti-Semitic Poland in 1919. All of these vicissitudes deposited one cultural layer upon the other, which accumulated and are revealed primarily in Agnon’s specifically German-period writing, when he began to deal with Jewish historiography. Agnon had emigrated from Jaffa to Berlin and aroused much curiosity there, with his personality and his writings that reflected his Ashkenazic style of speech. Gershom Scholem, who was himself German-born, considered him the “Jews’ Jew”, the most authentic Jew of all.

During the German Period, Agnon does not deal with actual events in Germany nor with the German present; this he leaves for years later, especially after the Holocaust. The subject of the German world and the German culture crystallizes, therefore, with a long-term perspective, for example, in the novel Shira, which is treated by Astrid Popien, especially in the German spiritual world of a professor of history, Manfred Herbst, who left Germany with his wife Henrietta in the 1920s and immigrated to the Land of Israel with the establishment of the Hebrew University. From his historical perspective, his personality and profession – the study of Byzantium and the Church Fathers – one may study the development of the typological dimensions that, according to this interpretation, contributed both to the evolution of the Christian world in the East, the Byzantine world, and the parallel connection that Agnon developed to the German world, a modern Western, European world as an unanticipated substitute for the culture of Greece.

Agnon, then, in his German period deals with a refinement of the mythical historiographic genre, beginning with Sippure Polin (“Poland stories”), ethnographic myths of the beginning of Jewish settlement in Poland, which he polishes, from their first publication in l916 in German, which had been translated from the Hebrew (four stories) until the latest edition which came out in 1953 (fifteen stories). According to Boris Kotlerman, whose introduction to Agnon’s Sippure Polin appears in this book, Agnon develops a poetic device that moves the mythical stories from stories that appear to be romantic and full of splendor to stories that reveal their critical potential, of Polish Jewry who had fallen in love with its diaspora. Boris Kotlerman follows earlier reviewers of the Sippure Polin such as Chaya Bar-Yitzchak and Shmuel Werses but amplifies the volume of Agnon’s critical dimension through a meticulous analysis of the text in all of its revised versions.

The studies presented here deal with the essence of the secret of Agnon’s writing and world, which are resolved in a special fusion that took place in Germany. This is an addition to the critical biographical episodes that shaped Agnon’s world. The first was his marriage to Esther Marx, the daughter of a Jewish-German family of well-to-do bankers who received their writer son-in-law Agnon with great reservation. The story of his relationship with his wife, her family, and his early and later courtship call up the eroticsociological-ethnic prototype of a man smitten by feelings of inferiority facing the dominatrix-woman as a key to his later love stories and contribute to his vision of art and its crystallization. The second biographical episode, World War I, which Agnon went through in Germany, especially in Berlin and Leipzig and in several provincial towns, prepared him to internalize the totality of the experience of devastation and helped build the postmodern world in his writing, before the concept was used in the 1980s and afterward. This period encompassed his wanderings in Germany together with his acquaintanceship with the outstanding intellectuals of that period, such as Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, Gershom Scholem and businessman Shlomo Zalman Schocken, who became his eternal patron. He labored with Buber over the publication of a Hasidic anthology, which was burned up together with Agnon’s entire house, library, and manuscripts in Homburg in 1924, an incident that shocked him for the rest of his life and which he saw as an expression of punishment for his failure to immigrate to the Land of Israel. Especially noteworthy is the influence of the personality of Gershom Scholem and his world of scholarship (see Gerold Necker’s study in this book), on the spiritual interests of Agnon and especially the influence of Shlomo Zalman Schocken, co-owner of a chain of department stores who supported Agnon throughout his creative years and provided for his spiritual nourishment, including general European literature. Agnon met with many influential personages, among them publishers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, actors, playwrights, and public figures, but one must mention in particular the special role and influence of the German Jews of long standing, who educated Agnon to discipline and duty, in addition to the masses of Galician Jews who immigrated to Germany, especially to Leipzig. All of these are included and absorbed into Agnon’s extensive work, which developed after the formally defined German period. However, during this period Agnon also did a revision of all of the writings that he had written during his four-year stay in Jaffa from the age of twentyone to twenty-four. In addition to these, he published seventeen works between 1912 and 1924 that left their lasting imprint as testimonials to new norms in his writing. One must make special mention of the development of bibliophily and bibliomania in his world, which was made possible not only through his encounter with Judaic scholars, but also through books and manuscripts that had been brought to Germany by various collectors, who developed Jewish bibliography to a basic science, from the beginning of the Enlightenment movement up to the enormous collection of books that came from all of the lands of occupation after World War I. These treasures, all first editions and manuscripts, found their way into the multi-layered mosaic of the Agnonian text through intricate and elaborate methods of fusion.

The scholars contributing to this study, some of them young doctoral candidates, are not a research group in the traditional sense of a group arriving at shared conclusions. Each study and each article is ultimately a personal piece of scholarship based on the information available to everyone, and every achievement of criticism and interpretation represents the individuality of that scholar confronting the text.

Andrea Weilbacher (“Agnon and the Jewish Renaissance”) presents a careful study of the history of the concept “the Jewish renaissance,” its evolution and productive presence in the world of Jewish intellectuals beginning with Martin Buber who first coined the term in 1901, including the changes that took place in the concept over the next decades. The experience of the renaissance was an expression of a last-resort extrication from the state of spiritual assimilation to a new spiritual self-consciousness, and creative attachment to the Hebrew language in all of its registers and levels. The practical organization of the Jewish educational institutions absorbed the new spirit and changes that took place in the role of Zionism in its different interpretations, be it the Herzlian doctrine or that of Achad Ha-am, Berdichevsky and others. The concept of a Jewish renaissance was adapted to different directions and depths by the German Jewish elite. The special relationship that developed between the businessman-intellectual Shlomo Zalman Schocken and the writer Agnon expressed the realization of modern cultural and aesthetic desires. This awakening burst forth in a torrent of Jewish artistic creation, publishing, translation, bibliography, and, most of all, selfawareness, an intensification of education and thinking. The second contribution of Andrea Weilbacher (“To Hear what Life is: Agnon’s Reception in the German Press before and after World War II) is a bibliographical study that deals with German reviews of Agnon’s published works from pre-World War I Germany and up to now. Many of them are unknown to Agnon scholars, since they were published in German and sometimes hidden in newspapers and journals where one would not expect to find them. The articles attest to a consistent mental process of thought that was able to distinguish between the significant innovations in Agnon’s work as an act of authentic modern art, and how his work is different from that of the other Jewish writers who dealt with the shtetl  from a provincial perspective. Some of the scholars whose articles Weilbacher cites at length preceded Agnon scholarship in Israel, such as the German articles of Gustav Kroyanker (1938), which were translated from German into Hebrew only in the 1990s, and those of Baruch Kurtzweil in the 1940s, which began with the same modern premises, and finally became accessible to the Israeli reader.

Mention has already been made of the fascinating scholarship of Gerold Necker, who clarifies the relationship charged with admiration, contradiction and tension between Gershom Scholem and Agnon. The essay (“Gershom Scholem and Shmu’el Yosef Agnon: Metamorphoses of a Friendship”) is a contribution to understanding the crucial and personal decisions in the lives of its protagonists, and deciphers the deepest secrets, such as what was Agnon’s influence on the decisions of Scholem in his Kabbalah research, as well as the impact on the nature of Scholem’s practical Zionism particularly in Germany, and the disputes that developed between Agnon and Scholem on a competitive, personality-centered basis and on political affairs in the Land of Israel. The essay is supported by an impressive bibliographical list, part of which has never before been available to the public.

Astrid Popien contributes two major essays to the book, whose subject is the European world and its impact and presence in some of Agnon’s important works. One (“The Bookcase of Dr. Manfred Herbst: S.Y. Agnon’s Novel Shira and European Literature”) treats the broad-ranging erudition of the secular professor Manfred Herbst, and his expertise in the roots of the more recent secular culture of Europe. She examines the books that Herbst collected and read, and considers the poetic role of the books in the body of the work, e.g., why are some titles more relevant than others? While surveying the bookcase of Manfred Herbst, she points out the momentous bearing they have, the internalization into Agnon’s writing of classic works that deal with the great European myths and philosophy, such as Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, which is a central theme in the novel. Thus, too, in her second essay (“Tirtza and Hirshl in Germany: S.Y. Agnon’s In the Prime of Her Life and A Simple Story in the Context of the Family Novel in European Realism”). Astrid Popien shows the hidden side of the work Bidme Yameha, a love story inspired by the European family novel in its models, values, and plots, revealing and exploring the similarity between Bidme Yameha and Fontane’s Effi Briest and Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks.

The essay by Detlef Müller (“Paralysis during Transformation: The Representation of German Characters in Agnon’s Novel In Mister Lublin’s Store) analyzes the novella Behanuto shel Mar Lublin, which was published in what was assumed to be its entirety only after Agnon’s death and was probably written in the 1960s. The plot unfolds in Leipzig at the height of World War I, the most significant period in Agnon’s life in Germany, treated in another novella Ad Hena. Agnon portrays a complex of tensions in German society, between the classes and personalities connected with the war, creating an analogy between the changes that took place in the premodern Jewish world and the changes in the German world and what they mean. The hero of the novella is the scion of a dynasty that had been living in Leipzig for several generations as opposed to the new Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who came to Leipzig from Poland. Lublin is contrasted mainly with the German world, which he tries with all his might to embrace. He must face on several fronts the questions of assimilation and issues of the remnants of Jewish identity. Detlef Müller analyzes the typology of the contrasting characters, both in the Christian milieu and in the Jewish one, and the contribution of a revelation of the roots of their identity and their early mythologies to an in-depth understanding of the modern crisis that appeared in full force during World War I and sent offshoots into the abyss that was opened during World War II.

The Israeli research group consisted, in addition to Hillel Weiss, of Boris Kotlerman, who contributes the introduction to Sippure Polin described above, and Avraham Yossef, who presents here some meticulous studies in the textual criticism of diverse works that were composed during the Germany Period, such as the Sippure Polin anthology, and deals with a breakdown of the text and the poetic and ethical meanings embedded in it. Avraham Yossef has been working for many years on an electronic breakdown of the text, and this book contains several examples of a scientific edition of Agnon’s writings, including identifications, hyperlinks to Jewish sources and parallel texts in Agnon’s work, which are partially identified through computerized information retrieval. It also raises key subjects in an exploration of the development of the genres used by Agnon and, in particular, the in-depth development of his historiographic perception.

Yehuda Friedlander, a scholar of long standing in the history of satire in Hebrew literature, also deals here (“Decadent and Menippean Elements in S.Y. Agnon’s ‘Be-ne’arenu u’vizkenenu’”) with the representation of the satirical dimension in the story (1923), a novella that is set in Buczacz, the city of Agnon’s birth in 1907, after the failure of the Jews of Buczacz in elections to the Austrian parliament and the failure of their candidate in particular. Agnon describes the life of assimilated Galician Jews together with the Zionist functionaries during the days of the pogroms in the first decade of the twentieth century. Agnon’s art lies not merely in his ability to engage the legends of the past but to write a kind of early short novel that demonstrates the expositions and complicated plots in the petit-bourgeois world of the young Agnon’s era. He demonstrates skill in portraying the present with a pen that seems to be light, satirical, and reflexive, a dimension that was hard to find in Agnon’s previous writings.

Elhanan Shiloh, a young researcher, in his study of the Kabbalah in Agnon’s work, a chapter of which appears here (“Kabbalistic Influences: A Look at ‘Aggadat Ha-sofer’ and ‘Ma’aseh Azriel Moshe Shomer Ha-sfarim’”) shows how kabbalistic writings in uncommon forms permeated the most delicate textures of the text identified as characteristically Agnonian. Shiloh points out the contribution of these texts to the ethos of Agnon’s work, such as the well-known story “Aggadat Ha-sofer”; but precisely here appears a clear paradox. It is difficult to describe the intellectual and philosophical richness of Jewish life in Germany, on the one hand, and the sense of loss and emptiness of an authentic Judaism that is knowledgeable and alive in books, on the other. Collecting and arranging are no substitute for Torah study and creating a living Torah-oriented Judaism. Germany, on the threshold of the Jewish renaissance of the 1920s in particular, was a wasteland when it came to the Torah of Poland. Alongside the feeling of inferiority of the Ostjude, Agnon was filled with feelings of pride at his distinctiveness as a Jew brimming with the small print that came to life in his stories in face of the bewilderment of the German scholars.

Two chapters deal with the realization of the holocaust as a central theme in Agnon’s work, one by Hillel Weiss (“The Presence of the Holocaust in Agnon’s Writings”) and the other by Yaniv Hagbi (Aspects of Primary Holocaust in the Works of S.Y. Agnon). These chapters are the product of an effort aimed primarily at revealing Agnon’s indirect ways of portraying the holocaust and their connection to the direct portrayals, which are relatively few, while noting the rhythms of Jewish national destruction, which are revealed as a device for an encounter between different patterns of behavior and their collision.

Yaniv Hagbi writes of the meaning and presence of “the primary cosmic holocaust” that conditions and enables the secondary holocaust, the historical event, which is an evolution of the catastrophe that stems from losing the primal code, associated with the sense of loss, while the writing process of itself is a process of validating the built-in destruction. The process of writing becomes a process of erasing, of obliterating, of despair at the shaping of an illegitimate reality.

The more time passes, the investigation and exposure of the subject – rather than becoming less intriguing – are increasingly revealed in Agnon’s work as representing the law-like nature of the survival of the Jewish world over a thousand years of exile in Eastern Europe, especially in a country living through waves of pogroms or in the modern country of Germany of World War I onward, until the first two decades after the establishment of the State of Israel. It is a time that is charged with meta-historical rhythms, waves of destruction alongside deliverances such as the Zionist historical process, including the establishment of the State of Israel. According to Hillel Weiss, the main thrust of Agnon’s overt preoccupation with the Holocaust concerned the questions: What brought about the Holocaust? Who is to be held culpable? What is the sin that caused it? Agnon’s work is torn from the beginning between the idea that there is no punishment without sin and the idea of arbitrariness or an inability to comprehend the ways of God (Eliezer Schweid, Between Ruin and Salvation, 1994). Agnon infers that a catastrophe of such magnitude can come to pass also because of an internal rift, because of ways of behavior, both of the Jews toward each other and also of the Jews toward their tradition and mission.

We would like to mention with esteem and gratitude the early scholars of Agnon’s German period: Gershon Shaked who died this year; Judith ZwickHalevi and her doctorate on the subject (1968), which was written under the guidance of Dov Sadan; Dan Laor and his great contributions on the subject. We thank Robert Gibson M.A. who, if not otherwise noted, most diligently translated the German essays into English, and Shifra Blass, for her translation of the Hebrew into English.

The vivid discussion and productive collaboration of the German and Israeli research groups gave rise to new perspectives on Agnon’s work on both sides. We thank the German Israeli Foundation for making this cooperation possible through generous funding.

Hans-Jürgen Becker, Hillel Weiss
Göttingen and Ramat Gan, September 2007

Table of Contents:

  • Introduction (pp. 7-15)
  • Andrea Weilbacher: Agnon and the Jewish Renaissance (pp. 17-39)
  • Gerold Necker: Gershom Scholem and Shmu'el Yosef Agnon: metamorphoses of a friendship (pp. 41-62)
  • Astrid Popien: The bookcase of Dr. Manfred Herbst: S.Y. Agnon's novel Shira and European literature (pp. 63-113)
  • Astrid Popien: Tirtza and Hershl in Germany: S.Y. Agnon's in the Prime of Her Life  and A Simple Story  in the context of the family novel in European realism (pp. 115-150)
  • Detlef Müller: Paralysis during transformation: the representation of German characters in Agnon's novel in Mister Lublin's Store (pp. 151-173)
  • To hear what life is: Agnon's reception in the German press before and after World War II / Andrea Weilbacher
  • The Poland stories: introduction to three Poland stories and comparison of versions / Hillel Weiss
    • Or Torah
    • The miracles of the Sexton of the old Beit Midrash
    • Bemetzulot
  • Historical time and space in S.Y. Agnon's Sippure Polin / Boris Kotlerman
  • Decadent and menippean elements in S.Y. Agnon's "Bene'arenu u'vizkenenu / Yehuda Friedlander
  • Kabbalistic influences: a look at "Aggadat Hasofer" and "Ma'aseh Azriel Moshe Shomer Hasfarim" / Elhanan Shilo
  • The presence of the Holocaust in Agnon's writings / Hillel Weiss
  • Aspects of "Primary Holocaust" in the works of S.Y. Agnon / Yaniv Hagbi

לראש הדף