The Arty Semite

Jurek Becker: Forget the Films, Read the Books

By Benjamin Ivry

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Judging any author by the film adaptations of his books is perilous, but few examples are as unfair as Jurek Becker (1937-1997), a German-language Polish Jewish writer who survived the Łódź Ghetto, Ravensbrück, and Sachsenhausen. Becker’s most famous novel, 1969’s “Jakob the Liar” (Jakob der Lügner) still merits rereading, despite the uneven 1999 movie adaptation starring Robin Williams.

Available from Arcade Publishing, along with a 1976 follow-up, “The Boxer,” “Jakob the Liar” tried to come to terms with the unthinkable, yet not without humor. An earlier, better 1975 East German film adaption, “Jakob, der Lügner,” still suffers as a dated contribution to the ever-evolving genre of Holocaust movies.

Among Becker’s other novels, 1978’s “Sleepless Days” from Mariner Books and 1982’s “Bronstein’s Children” from University of Chicago Press are of continued interest, as is the biography, “Jurek Becker: A Life in Five Worlds” also from University of Chicago Press. The latter is by Sander Gilman, who has published widely on, among other subjects, psychoanalysis.

The haunting travails of Becker’s early years did not mar his capacity for friendship and fatherly affection, however. Two books, as yet untranslated, from Ullstein Verlag prove this: letters to his friends Manfred and Ottilie Krug, and playful missives to his son Jonathan. Such private writings are especially revealing, and a new collection of Becker’s nonfiction prose from Seagull Books, “My Father, the Germans and I: Essays, Lectures, Interviews,” edited by the author’s widow, is refreshingly empathetic.

After the war, during which Becker’s mother was murdered at Sachsenhausen, his father decided to resettle “only a few subway stops away from the [camp’s] entrance.” His father explained by asking: “Did the Polish antisemites lose the war or the Germans?” Indeed, Jan Gross’s riveting “Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz” from Random House details the postwar Polish violence against Holocaust survivors, proving the elder Becker remarkably prescient in preferring East Germany. There, Becker underlines, the “anti-fascists were in control,” unlike West Germany, where he eventually relocated in the late 1970s, a place which, he would find, sheltered former Nazis.

Experienced in a plethora of tyrannies, Becker, who died of cancer in Frankfurt at age 59, concludes with devastating irony: “Not everyone who believes it’s a lie that Jews were murdered in Auschwitz has to be a neo-Nazi – he can just be an idiot.”

Watch Jurek Becker read his work in Switzerland here.

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