Memoirs of an Anti-Semite
Gregor von Rezzori
1981 (English translation)
A central concern of The Occidental Observer from its inception has been the way in which understandings of anti-Semitism in Western culture have been shaped by Jews, often through pseudoscience but also through culture. The early work of Kevin MacDonald on the Jews focused on the activities and motivations of Freud, and the Freudian-influenced Frankfurt School and its products like The Authoritarian Personality and Studies in Prejudice. MacDonald noted that the approach of Jewish-dominated intellectual movements like psychoanalysis and the critique-based sociology and psychology of the Frankfurt School offered a “philosophical-speculative approach to anti-Semitism” rather than empirical analysis.K. MacDonald, The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements (paperback edition), 157. The unscientific work of Freud and the Frankfurt School was, however, critical in moving discourse about anti-Semitism away from considerations of economic, social, and political competition and towards more nebulous philosophical speculation on the role of “suppressed nature,” “projection,” “hatred of the father,” and “pathological” social conformity. Underpinning this re-engineering of discourse was a more dramatic shift — the shift from criticism of the Jews to criticism of Western civilization and its peoples. In my own attempt to add to, and expand upon, MacDonald’s work, I have attempted to demonstrate the ways in which such pseudoscience spread from academia into the wider culture. It’s now clear that there were firm links between the Frankfurt School and the early pioneers of what has been termed “mass communications.” That these movements eventually absorbed and influenced enthusiastic Europeans is beyond question—demonstrated best perhaps in the “philosophical-speculative” approach to anti-Semitism reaching its zenith in Jean-Paul Sartre’s pretentious and incoherent Antisemite and Jew.
Until recently, I have struggled to find substantial expression of these ideas in literature, especially literature produced by Europeans. The most well-known example is probably Laura Zametkin’s 1947 Gentleman’s Agreement, which was almost immediately made into a film starring Gregory Peck and released alongside the similarly-themed Crossfire. There has of course been an abundance of Holocaust literature produced since the 1940s, but these are most often pieces of propaganda built on fantasies of violence. They are designed to introduce and reinforce visions of Jewish victimhood, and only to a secondary degree make any attempt to pathologize anti-Semitism as such. Carrying out such a direct pathologization in literary form really requires a first-person narrative from which to “expose” the anti-Semite as the deeply insecure psychopath the Frankfurt School alleged him or her to be, and such first-person literary narratives on this theme are rare.
The most raved about fictional first-person exploration of anti-Semitism, produced in the last twenty years, is probably Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones). Littell, a Jewish homosexual, published the book (styled as the remembered wartime odyssey of an SS solider) in 2006 to huge acclaim, winning the Prix Goncourt and having Le Nouvel Observateur declare it “a new War and Peace.” It’s now more than ten years since I read the 983-page book, but apart from an interesting section on the racial classification of the Mountain Jews of the Caucasus, I remember Littell’s text as little more than a nasty and sadistic exercise in the writing of perverse Freudian fantasies — fantasies that offer more insight into Littell’s own mind than into historical anti-Semitism. Littell’s protagonist, Maximilien Aue, is far from an “ordinary German” in that he is an incestuous homosexual with barely concealed transsexual tendencies who at one point in the novel tries to have sexual intercourse with a tree. All of which goes to show that any piece of long-winded, Jewish, ultra-violent, homo-pornographic trash can be declared a “new War and Peace” so long as it sets about defaming ‘the Nazis’ in the most novel and grotesque manner imaginable. In one of the more sober reviews of the book, David Gates at the New York Times pointed out that The Kindly Ones fails to offer even slight insight into anti-Semitism because “Aue is simply too much of a freak, and his supposed childhood trauma too specialized and contrived, for us to take him seriously.”
More subtle and interesting, but no less nasty and strange, is Gregor von Rezzori’s 1979 Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, which more than any other work of fiction I’ve read in the last decade truly embodies the Frankfurt School’s “philosophical-speculative” approach in literary form. I had no idea the book existed until a few weeks ago when, during a routine browse in a local used book store, the title on the spine grabbed my attention. The name of the author suggested a European view, which further piqued my interest. These early hopes were dashed when a later Google search for reviews (I have developed a terrible habit of reading reviews after purchasing a book, but before reading it) brought up the gushing praise of a Martin Levin who celebrated the novel’s exploration of the narrator’s “attraction-repulsion obsession with Jews.” I realized that I’d found precisely what I’d been looking for — the dissemination of Freudian/Frankfurt School ideas in culture, encased in the form of European-authored literature.
Memoirs of an Anti-Semite
Gregor von Rezzori (1914–1998), was an Austro-Hungarian aristocrat whose family background straddled Italy, Austria, and Romania. His diverse family origins induced a lifelong cosmopolitanism, reflected not only in his successive citizenships of Austria-Hungary, Romania, and the Soviet Union (and even at one point in his position as a stateless person), and his second marriage to a Jewish woman, but also in his fluency in German, Romanian, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, Yiddish, French, and English. From both his biography and fiction it’s clear that national feeling was something fundamentally alien to von Rezzori, whose writing combines an aristocratic aloofness with a hopelessly bankrupt understanding of almost everything he discusses.
Memoirs of an Anti-Semite strikes me as possibly semi-autobiographical or as some kind of perverse self-flagellating fantasy. The novel’s protagonist, for example, is also named Gregor, and during the book’s five chapters he drifts, like the author, between Romania, Austria, Germany, and Italy. The pseudo-memoir follows the protagonist from childhood, through to the post-World War II period, in what amount to five snapshot-style, chronologically-arranged episodes that have Jews, or attitudes toward Jews, as the central theme.
In the novel’s opening chapter, “Skushno” (Russian for boredom), we are introduced to the young Gregor in his early teens. He is presented as fundamentally lacking and inherently bad. He is expelled from school as an “unworthy” student, and is sent to a strict boarding school to resolve “imbalances” in his character. Even here, the schoolmasters reject young Gregor, informing his parents that
the mix of neurotic sensitivity and a tendency to violence, alert perception and inability to learn, tender need for support and lack of adjustability, would only develop into something criminal.
Christopher Hitchens once wrote that the novel dealt with anti-Semitism in “the mild language of understatement.” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, reviewing for the New York Times, wrote of Memoirs that “all the complex causes of European anti-Semitism are anatomized in these pages.” It’s difficult to understand quite what novel these men were reading, given that within the first two pages of Memoirs we are basically slammed, with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, with the idea that anti-Semitism is purely a problem of malevolent personal psychology. Gregor, we learn on the third page, is an abuser of animals, roaming the countryside with his dog seeking cats, “my special prey.” He attempts to study for exams that will prevent him from becoming a complete academic failure, but realizes that “sheer wickedness rather than genuine slow-wittedness made me unwilling to fulfil my duties.” Gregor is sent from Austria to a German-speaking enclave in Romania to live with elderly, childless relatives, Uncle Hubert and Aunt Sophie, in the hope that the change of scenery and household will bring him to his senses and change his character for the better.
Uncle Hubert and Aunt Sophie live in a small aristocratic estate on the outskirts of a small village with a substantial Jewish minority. The most notable building in the village is not, in fact, the home of Gregor’s relatives but that of the village’s Jewish doctor:
Startling, crazy — turreted, merlons, and orioles — it had a sheet metal roof with edges serrated like doily and dragon-head gargoyles at each eave, and it was richly decked out with pennons, halberds, and little weather vanes. This was the “villa” of the physician Dr. Goldmann.
The village itself is almost lifeless apart from “straggling gangs of lice-ridden Jewish children.” Uncle Herbert is introduced as a German nationalist, “an anti-Semite and a Wagnerian.” Gregor is at first in awe of his uncle, poring over Hubert’s old student and dueling-fraternity digests and developing a fascination for the uniforms they depicted. After mocking up one of the uniforms from pieces of clothing found around the estate, he draws the laughter of one of the housemaids. He explains to himself
What I was trying to experience for myself, feel for myself — in this presumably highly comical imitation of a costume that was nothing so much as the fashionable expression of a sentiment — what I was after was the Germanhood of the corpsmen.
This, of course, is a petty caricature of nationalism, and one quite common to Frankfurt School analyses of White ethnocentrism. In renderings like these, national feeling is presented as irrational, or reduced, as in von Rezzori’s fiction, as a simple and semi-comical matter of wanting to wear a uniform.
Gregor’s insecurities are contrasted with the personality of the other major character of the first chapter — Wolf Goldmann, son of the above-mentioned physician. Gregor takes a walk in the village one day wearing his homemade uniform, and is quickly surrounded by mocking Jewish youths. At the head of the gang stands Goldmann who, in contrast to the furtiveness of Gregor, possesses a “look of downright smug self-assurance.” Goldmann mocks Gregor, asking if it’s Purim. When Gregor lashes out, he is set upon by the Jewish gang, with the attack called off at the behest of Goldmann. When Gregor bitterly blames his dog for not defending him, Goldmann retorts “Because he didn’t wanna face odds of ten to one? He’d have to be as dumb as a goy—as you, maybe.” Taking pity on Gregor, Goldmann invites him to his father’s villa.
This marks the beginning of the chapter’s main plot, which is more or less a tale of Jewish superiority and German insecurity. Gregor worries that his Wagnerian Uncle Hubert will not approve of his taking Wolf Goldmann as a friend, and he hesitates to invite him to the estate. Goldmann, meanwhile, tells Gregor that his father is well aware of the exclusionary tendencies of the Germans and explains to Gregor that German dueling fraternities excluded Jews because the Jews were “master swordsmen. … Dr. Goldmann himself had been featured as the best swordsman in his [Jewish fraternity].” Gregor tries to impress Wolf Goldmann with his slingshot and climbing trees, but Goldmann showed no interest in these activities and Gregor “began to feel childish in front of him. … His sophistication was so far ahead of my own. … He was already a budding intellectual.” The only time I laughed during my reading of the book was at the point where young Goldmann takes Gregor on a tour of the villa, at one point revealing “his father had a priceless collection of documents on Jewish persecutions from the early Middle Ages to the most recent times.” The addition of this detail seemed so gratuitous and somehow outlandish that laughter seemed the only appropriate response.
The plot accelerates somewhat when Gregor persuades Goldmann to play slingshot with him. A wayward pellet smashes a window in Uncle Hubert’s prized Daimler. While Gregor is too scared to concede blame, young Goldmann confidently strides up to the house to tell Hubert what happened and to inform him that Dr. Goldmann will gladly pay for repair. Once inside, young Goldmann starts playing Aunt Sophie’s piano, revealing an astonishing musical talent. Aunt Sophie immediately begins fawning over the young Jew, while Gregor quickly succumbs to “jealousy born of envy” and finds a new bond with his uncle: “We could read in the other’s gaze physical disgust at the Jewish brat.” As well as innately bad psychology then, we must now add insecurity, inadequacy, inferiority, and now plain jealousy to the novel’s “exploration” of anti-Semitism. Subtle indeed.
Gregor begins spending more time with his uncle, hunting in the surrounding forests. This draws a typically sarcastic and superior response from Wolf Goldmann, who tells Gregor, “You goyim know more about animals than people” and alleges his uncle is in fact a rumored homosexual who probably has ulterior motives in taking the young man into the woods so often. Whether the rumor is true or not, the young Jew instantly achieves total psychological victory over Gregor, splitting him away from his only meaningful familial relationship. Gregor is isolated and bitter: “I cannot describe the profound repugnance I felt during the next few weeks, not only toward Wolf Goldmann but toward just about everyone.”
The chapter reaches its finale when Gregor returns to pitting his dog against the neighborhood cats, in this case a feral colony encamped on the property of Dr Goldmann. While attempting to hold a cat for his dog to attack, Gregor’s arm is badly wounded by the cat’s biting and scratching. He is then taken to the Jewish physician, but Goldmann, who presumably had been told of the circumstances of Gregor’s injury, refuses to treat him. Gregor is eventually treated in Czernowitz, but the refusal of Goldmann to treat the boy prompts calls for Uncle Hubert to fight him in a duel. Hubert refuses, provoking accusations of cowardice and expulsion from his fraternity at Tübingen. Hubert, a proud nationalist and very social person, dies abandoned by his friends. Goldmann, meanwhile, had his medical license revoked for his refusal to treat Gregor, and he abandons the village, the ostentatious “villa” falling into ruin. Gregor, presented to us as a vicious, jealous young anti-Semite, having essentially ruined both men, returns to Austria, never visiting the village again.
The second chapter, “Youth,” finds Gregor in his late teens, leading a bohemian existence in Bucharest as he seeks to fulfil his ambition of becoming “a world-famous painter”—like young Hitler in Vienna? Insecure around women, he attempts to meet with a gypsy prostitute at a sleazy hotel. He walks into the hotel and hands his money to the hotel owner:
Above his head, from a nail in the keyboard, hung a small, light-blue tin box stamped with a Star of David — the box was a kupat kerem kayemet, for contributions to build the Promised Land of Israel. It was typical for such a seamy hotel of ill repute to be in Jewish hands.
Gregor goes to one of the rooms with the gypsy girl, but is interrupted every ten seconds by the hotel owner who insists that Gregor has given him false currency. Gregor keeps exchanging the offending notes for new ones from his wallet until the gypsy girl laughs at him and points out that is in fact the Jew who is passing his fake coins onto Gregor. Gregor lashes out with a verbal insult, at which point the Jew begins punching him. Gregor is beaten to the ground, before running down the stairs and out onto the street. As he runs, he has a fantasy that a pogrom will break out:
Perhaps his Jewish brethren would form a mob and lynch me, and the Rumanians around the Calea Griviţei would finally be fed up with the riffraff that sucked their blood, would rise up against them and murder them all, a pogrom would erupt throughout the land. … I felt good picturing it.
The question of inter-ethnic violence, and anti-Semitism more generally, is therefore once again reduced to caricature by von Rezzori, who roots something like a pogrom in the fantasies of the easily duped and sexually frustrated. The reality of Romanian anti-Semitism in the interwar period was in fact inextricably bound up with socio-economic competition. Between 1910 and 1927, the Jewish population of Romania expanded from 250,000 to 900,000, largely via territorial acquisitions,A. Gerrits The Myth of Jewish Communism: A Historical Interpretation (Brussels: Peter Lang, 2009), 48. with Jews thriving in a nation perceived by many to lack a middle class. During the interwar period, the country was home to almost ceaseless legislative attempts to curb Jewish influence, most often in the form of quotas, especially at universities. The real history of Romanian anti-Semitism was therefore linked to the undeniable Jewish rise to positions of demographic, social, cultural, and economic dominance, and not, as von Rezzori suggests, in the petty jealousies of the sexually insecure. This rather nasty little short story in Memoirs, like so much else in the novel, smugly signals at the gesture of insight without offering anything of the sort.
Gregor continues his self-pitying state, eventually becoming a soap and shampoo salesman. He struggles to sell anything, and quickly finds that “mostly Jewish shopkeepers cut sharply into my richly prejudiced self-esteem.” He eventually wins a contract with a Jewish widow in her 30s, and while bringing his wares in for display one afternoon he falls through the cellar trapdoor. The widow helps young Gregor to his feet and brings him some water before the pair fall into a romantic embrace. Yes, von Rezzori, who has already dazzled us with subtlety, now moves onto the next character trait of his “anti-Semitic” protagonist — his apparently ceaseless attraction to Jewish women. The writing in this regard is abysmal:
I had finally understood that it was quite possible for me to love a Jewess, not in spite of the eternal Jewish tragedy, the age-old Jewish sadness showing in her face, but because of it: to see that face suddenly transformed by happiness — in fact, actually inundated with happiness — affected me deeply.
The chapter, quite possibly the worst of a bad bunch, concludes after many pages of inanity, with Gregor abruptly coming to a boil at witnessing his Jewish “Black Widow” putting on social affectations in a restaurant, slapping her across the face, ending the relationship and finding himself alone once more. The plotting and pacing of the episode are atrocious, with von Rezzori attempting to distract the reader by means of seemingly endless narrative deflections.
The novel’s third chapter, “Lowinger’s Rooming House,” follows Gregor as he moves into the lodgings of the chapter title. The Lowinger family are Hungarian Jews. The family is presented as patient and generous to their guests, particularly in their provision of meals. The patriarch is presented as highly intelligent and “peace-loving.” The boarders at the Bucharest rooming house are overwhelmingly male and rather rowdy, including a Russian sculptor, some political radicals, and a pair of Greco-Roman wrestlers. None of the residents are particularly well disposed to Jews, including their hosts, and during petty arguments there is frequent recourse to such outbursts as “those Jewish harpies,” and “that little Yid.” When one of the residents, Pepi Olschansky, a German journalist, challenges Mr. Lowinger to a game of chess and is beaten quite easily, he flees into petty superstition, telling Gregor “You know, I really believe they’re capable of certain kinds of witchcraft. … They’ve got their God in their blood. They can’t get rid of him.” The episode presumably serves von Rezzori’s purpose of adding another alleged quality to the anti-Semitic character — irrationality.
The dynamic of the chapter changes when a young Sephardic Jewish woman, Bianca Alvaro, comes to stay at the boarding house. An intellectual, she intrigues some of the male guests, and for a while also Gregor, but Gregor is eventually driven to disgust by what he perceives to be her social pretentiousness (the same fault he found with the widow). Gregor comes to regard her as nothing more than the same “snotty-nosed Jewish guttersnipe we were always in danger of running over when driving through the dusty village streets.” For all his inner protests, however, Gregor cannot seem to divest himself of an attraction to Jewish women, and when Alvaro asks Gregor to help her deal with the contents of a deceased relatives’ apartment, he agrees. He eventually makes a dramatic discovery about her relatives during his sorting of their effects, and believes that this will further develop his bond with Alvaro. He realizes that Alvaro “engendered a mixture of respect and fondness I’d never before experienced with anyone my own age.” The slowly budding relationship is then catastrophically ended through the interference of the vulgar Olschansky. The journalist, who had been plaguing Gregor for some time with questions about the nature of his relationship with Alvaro, finally succeeds in getting Gregor to (falsely) state that it is in fact sexual. The following morning Gregor finds an uncommunicative Alvaro hastily packing her things for departure from the rooming house. Suspecting Olschansky has said something, he goes to confront the journalist, only for Olschansky to freely admit to mentioning Gregor’s negative comments on Alvaro and also, it is strongly implied, that he sexually assaulted her. The chapter ends with Gregor’s departure from Romania several weeks later, and his arrival in Vienna in March 1938.
The penultimate chapter, “Troth,” which was once published as an independent short story (later expanded into the novel we have today), follows Gregor as he moves into his (anti-Semitic) grandmother’s apartment in Vienna against the backdrop of the Anschluss. He first recalls an earlier period spent living with his grandmother, when he first met and befriended Minka Raubitschek, the Jewish girl upstairs, whose parents have recently died of Spanish flu, leaving her plenty of money. In keeping with most presentations of Jews in the novel, Minka is utterly charming, with Gregor developing a romantic crush on her. The chapter is for the most part concerned with the first days of the Anschluss in 1938. Gregor is somewhat sympathetic to the new National Socialist authorities, including most of their views on Jews, even though he continues to spend his time with the Jewish Minka. Troth, although riddled with clichés, is by some distance the best chapter in the book, and its speculations on anti-Semitism are better than anything else found in the novel by several degrees. The anti-Semitism of Gregor’s grandmother is not the caricature we are by now used to, and her concerns about Jews range from crypsis (especially the changing of names), social criticism, negative influence in the arts, social pushiness, and economic dominance. Aside from brief glimpses of genuine interaction with anti-Jewish critique, however, the chapter is full of banalities and predictable, stock narratives. The “anti-Semitic” granny clashes with young SA men as they make Jewish intellectuals wash anti-National Socialist slogans from walls and sidewalks, telling them they’ve “gone too far.” Gregor uneasily tries to balance his friendships with Minka and her Jewish circle with an old friendship with a young man who is now an SS man. Minka makes it to America with her friends, and dies without further explanation. The entire chapter has a boilerplate feel.
The novel’s final chapter, “Pravda,” is a rambling third-person narrative, concerning no fixed time period, the purpose of which seems to be to offer some kind of reflection on the meaning of European guilt in relation to the Jews. The most prominent section of the chapter, which really acts as a shorthand for the intention of the entire novel, is essentially the argument that Gregor is a kind of proxy for Europeans of the early twentieth century. His putative sins are theirs, and theirs, his:
It was no personal guilt but a sort of collective guilt, a guilt shared by everyone belonging to so-called Western Civilization, a guilt that was imminent in the epoch, in this civilization’s present, particular state and shape. To be conscious of it, as if it were a personal guilt, was his dark privilege.
The primary message of Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, then, is for us to accept the “dark privilege” of collective guilt.
Elie Wiesel once remarked of Memoirs that Gregor von Rezzori “addresses the major problems of our time . . . with the disturbing and wonderful magic of a true storyteller.” As with every statement uttered by Wiesel, you can be sure that the truth resides in the opposite direction. Not as graphic, strange, or perverse as The Kindly Ones, the novel is nevertheless just as nasty and facile. This is a novel that trades exclusively in caricature and cliché; weak in style and even weaker in content. The Jews one finds within its pages are invariably absurdly innocent, or at least, in the case of the sleazy hotel owner, straightforward in their dishonesty. The Europeans in Memoirs are, by contrast, a concoction of Freudian neuroses: attracted to Jews, jealous of Jews, fearful of Jews, and all for the pettiest of reasons. They are the literary representation of the sociological construct proffered by the Frankfurt School in bogus studies like The Authoritarian Personality.
Anti-Semitism, as a serious matter of ethnic competition and conflict, does not meaningly feature anywhere in von Rezzori’s novel, and the “anti-Semite” is understood only as a born deviant. As both art and a contribution to discourse, Memoirs is an abject failure. Readers keen for a genuine and illuminating memoir that tackles one of the most crucial questions of the last few centuries would do much better to consult Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Two Hundred Years Together.
 K. MacDonald, The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements (paperback edition), 157.
 A. Gerrits The Myth of Jewish Communism: A Historical Interpretation (Brussels: Peter Lang, 2009), 48.