Austrian novelist grapples with the rise of anti-Semitism

“Memoirs of an Anti-Semite” by Gregor von Rezzori is a novel disguised as a memoir. Divided into five parts, this troubling novel explores the nature of anti-Semitism in Europe leading into World War II. The main character and narrator, Bubi, journeys from childhood into adulthood, never free from the conflict between his inherited anti-Semitism and his contradictory experiences with Jews.

The story begins with Bubi in his aunt and uncle’s home. They treat him well, and he appreciates their gracious acceptance of him into their lives. Even at this young age, Bubi’s anti-Semitism is clear. After a few days spent exploring the town, he is dismayed when he discovers that “On weekdays, the place was almost lifeless, if we disregard the straggling gangs of lice-ridden Jewish children who romped among the sparrows in the dusty roads.” Despite having no contact with these children, the narrator assumes they are scoundrels. This powerful first impression of Bubi illuminates the unrelenting nature of anti-Semitism in 20th century Austria. Bubi was too young to form his own ideas about Jews, leading the reader to the fair conclusion that these beliefs were passed down to him.

The first real challenge to Bubi’s anti-Semitism occurs early in the novel as well. When a gang of Jewish children mocks Bubi for wearing a peculiar outfit, young Max Goldman, the son of the town doctor, dismisses the gang. After coming to Bubi’s rescue, Max becomes Bubi’s first Jewish friend. Bubi repeatedly discovers that Max is his superior in wit, intelligence and sophistication. Yet, Bubi always resents Max’s attitude, which he finds to be smug and arrogant.

Through Max and Bubi’s friendship, Rezzori highlights a key component of anti-Semitism in this era, which is the prevalent psychological principle of confirmation bias. Bubi’s elders teach him their anti-Semitism, a tenet of which is the accusation that Jews are arrogant. Thus, when Bubi observes Max’s arrogance, he confirms for himself that Jews are arrogant. This was the course for many children in the 20th century. They learned to be anti-Semitic, and then, when confronted with evidence supporting their anti-Semitism, they confirmed racist theories. Yet, when confronted with evidence that challenged typical anti-Semitic notions, gentiles took little note of it. Even when Bubi observes Max’s superior talents, he believes that Jews are scoundrels.

The rest of Bubi’s relationships with Jews demonstrate other aspects of anti-Semitism. The closest Jewish friendship Bubi forms is his relationship with his neighbor in Vienna, Minka. They share a deep friendship in which he grows to respect and admire her for her bravery, her cunning wit and her unbelievable cleverness. But despite being repeatedly faced with the fact that Jews are capable of being wildly successful, Bubi cannot relinquish the idea that they are lowly specimens. The inescapable nature of anti-Semitism is overwhelmingly the most important idea Rezzori illustrates, and Bubi’s relationship with Minka is overwhelmingly the best demonstration of this idea.

Readers and critics alike should commend Rezzori for the spectacular job he does of representing anti-Semitism leading into World War II. Not only does he look into the future, helping the reader understand how the barbarous atrocity of Nazi Germany could come about, but furthermore illuminates the past, helping the reader understand what brought the European world to this place of hatred. It is clear that this “memoir” is a kind of confession; for despite experiencing contradictory evidence, Bubi clings to his anti-Semitism. If he and others were courageous enough to reject the teachings of their elders in exchange for more accurate beliefs, perhaps Europe would not have fallen so easily to the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust.

Characters: A
The characters, especially the main character, are well developed. The complexities plaguing the main character’s mind are deep and overwhelmingly difficult to reconcile.

Language: A
Rezzori’s language is beautiful and smooth. In the beginning of the novel, he masters the voice of the child without compromising the fluidity or the clarity with which he writes.

Plot: A
The plotline is active and bending. The setting itself changes frequently as the novel progresses. The main character’s conflicted mind contributes greatly to the suspense included in the plot; it is difficult to predict his feelings as they are in constant flux.

Ideas: A
“Memoirs of an Anti-Semite” explores anti-Semitism in perhaps its most significant era. But beyond this central idea, Rezzori manages to lend thought to more general concepts, such as how much of our opinions are determined by our elders and whether we can overcome our beliefs when they are challenged.

Difficulty: B- (A is difficult, F is easy)
The novel itself is relatively accessible. It’s not particularly difficult to understand, nor is it particularly difficult to analyze. However, the main character’s conflicted nature becomes more and more frustrating as the novel progresses. There’s a certain lack of resolution that is difficult to accept.

Lanie is a first-year. You can reach her at eschles1@swarthmore.edu.

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