Dusseldorf, Germany, 1797. The town is under the hegemony of the great, the glorious, the liberator Napoleon Buonaparte, whose Edicts of Tolerance and regime of emancipation have thrown down the ghetto walls and welcomed Jewry into Europe. Eighteen hundred years of pent-up intellectual and creative energy, devolved into Bible study and the painting of New Year's cards until now, are busting to get out.
Like every Jewish child, Samson and Betty Heine's little Chayim was a born genius, a ga'on, an il'ui. The boy would revive the family's fortunes - sadly his father did not have the acumen of others of his tribe - as a merchant, or a banker. No yeshiva bucher nor Holy Land pilgrim like his mother's uncle Simon van Geldern, Harry, as they called him in German, would go into his uncle Solomon Heine's business, after a proper Catholic education please. But sadly Harry's genius did not lie that way. Sadly Harry left his uncle bankrupt.
Still, there are many ways for genius to manifest itself, and if a boy cannot be a child prodigy, perhaps he can still become an adult one. But in philosophy? Who is this goyische Hegel anyway that he takes Jewish disciples? Can you earn a decent living from such a life? And poetry noch? Have you made any money from these Gedichte? At least he mixes with Jews, Peira (Sammy always insisted on using his wife's given name, not her German one). Cultured Jews at that - Edouard Gans, Moses Moser, Leopold Zunz. So who wants him mixing with Jews already? We're out of the ghetto now; let him mix with cultured goyim. Let him be baptised a Lutheran - I told you that Catholic education would come to nothing; and think of how much money we wasted on it. And then let him be ashamed. Ashamed? He's always ashamed. Of being a Jew. Of being a convert. And what did converting gain him anyway? He only did it to get his doctorate at Goettingen, and they still refused him. A Jew is still a Jew, even if he has converted. To the goyim, and in his own confused heart and soul.
Genius he was though - whatever that means. Read "Die Nordsee". Read "Buch der Lieder". Read his responses to the anti-Semitic polemics of Menzel and von Platen. Read the list of charges brought against him when they put him in gaol - a genius is always without honour in his own country. What do you mean it wasn't his own country? He was born there, wasn't he? Several generations native, nu? But a Jew, and a Jew is always a man without a country - as Gustav Mahler would put it, a hundred years later: "I am a threefold expatriate—a Czech among Austrians, an Austrian among Germans, and a Jew in the whole world." Perhaps you're right, Sammy. After Goettingen they turned him down at Munich too. The police were after him for his satires. The German Diet prohibited publication of his work. Yet he still thought of all those years in France as exile.
The French hailed him immediately as a genius, gave him space in Allgemeine Zeitung and Revue Des Deux Mondes, made him the leader of Jungdeutschland - still not what one looks for in a nice Jewish boy, though it was good to see his picture in the newspapers. And such friends, such cultured goyische friends - Honoré de Balzac, Théophile Gautier, Ferdinand Lassalle, George Sand, Karl Marx. He's getting married, Sammy. I don't want to hear. Eugénie Mirat - he calls her his Mathilde; isn't that sweet? I don't want to hear about a shiksah. She's a lovely girl. She's an illiterate shop-assistant. And Heinrich the greatest writer in Europe. Heinrich? Since when he is called Heinrich? It killed your father, Chaymele. He made me swear, on his death-bed, never to give you a pfennig if you say a single bad thing about the family. That's a good boy, I knew I could depend on you. Now come back to Germany. I can't mutti. Not because of Germany. My spine. Attacks of paralysis. I am condemned to a mattress grave. At least I can go on writing. Bury me in a Jewish grave, mutti. O, and mutti - we were wrong about Napoleon; we thought he liberated us from anti-Semitism and set us free in Christian Europe. We were wrong. They still spit on us. When we spit back, they burn our books. Take my word for it, where they start by burning books, they will sooner or later end by burning people.
Der Scheidende (The Departing)
It has died in me, as it must,
Every idle, earthly lust,
My hatred too of wickedness,
Utterly now, even the sense,
Of my own, of other men’s distress –
All that’s living in me is Death!
The curtain falls, the play is done,
And my dear German public’s gone,
Wandering home, and yawning so,
Those good folk are not stupid though:
They’ll dine happily enough tonight,
Drink, and sing, and laugh – He’s right,
The noble hero in Homer’s book,
Who said once that the meanest schmuck,
The lowest little Philistine there,
In Stuttgart (am Neckar), is happier
Than I, son of Peleus, the hero, furled,
The shadow prince in the Underworld.
Not Heine's best poem, but irresistible in the context of this piece. The translation is by A.S. Kline, and you can find many more at Poetry In Translation.
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