The Arty Semite

Malamud's 'Refugee' at 50

By Erika Dreifus

  • Print
  • Share Share

A version of this post originally appeared on Ron Hogan’s Beatrice blog.

I owe my discovery of Bernard Malamud’s “The German Refugee” — published 50 years ago Saturday — to “The Best American Short Stories of the Century,” which joined my bookshelf shortly after its release. And although I don’t normally use the word “frisson” in everyday conversation, it describes exactly what went through me when I saw the title of Malamud’s story in the anthology’s table of contents.

Reading this story as a writer, I noticed several elements. First, there is the first-person narrator through whose eyes we learn of another character and his conflicts. Perhaps the most famous example of this technique is the Nick Carraway narrative of Jay Gatsby’s story in “The Great Gatsby.” In “The German Refugee,” American Martin Goldberg recounts the tale of the eponymous “German Refugee,” an older German-Jewish man named Oskar Gassner, whom Martin describes as “the Berlin critic and journalist” who had fled Germany in the months after the Kristallnacht of November 1938. In those days, Martin tells us, he “made a little living” by tutoring such refugees in English, and the meat of the story recalls the summer of 1939, when Martin worked with Gassner in preparation for the latter’s delivery of a lecture in English.

Then, too, for anyone who focuses on language, this story yields rich rewards. One sees how a character — in this case, a refugee character — gains definition through speech: “‘Zis heat,’ he muttered…. ‘Impozzible. I do not know such heat.’ It was bad enough for me but terrible for him. He had difficulty breathing.”

Language itself is almost a minor character in this story, inspiring tremendous anguish. As Martin reveals: “To many of these people, articulate as they were, the great loss was the loss of language — that they could no longer say what was in them to say. They could, of course, manage to communicate, but just to communicate was frustrating. As Karl Otto Alp, the ex-film star who became a buyer for Macy’s, put it years later, ‘I felt like a child, or worse, often like a moron. I am left with myself unexpressed. What I knew, indeed, what I am becomes to me a burden. My tongue hangs useless.’”

So I have writerly reasons to be interested in this Malamud tale. But undoubtedly it is because of two “German refugees” in my own life that I have revisited this story so often. Like Oskar Gassner, my father’s parents were Jews who emigrated from Germany in the late 1930s. In Oskar’s speech, I can hear theirs.

Moreover, as a writer with a specific, intense interest in how one who has not directly experienced Nazism or the Holocaust can still create fiction around those subjects — an interest manifested in my story collection, “Quiet Americans” — I am also compelled by Malamud’s approach, as explained by critic Eileen H. Watts.

Watts quotes Malamud as saying that in another of his works, the novel “The Fixer,” he “was able to relate feelingfully to the situation of the Jews in Czarist Russia partly because of what I knew about the fate of the Jews in Germany.” Watts suggests:

Despite not addressing the Holocaust directly in his fiction, Malamud was profoundly affected by it. Indeed, the importance of Malamud’s work to Holocaust writing lies in his realistic reflection how survivors, refugees, and Jews who were not physically affected by the Holocaust continue to be affected by it…

Responding to the Holocaust as a man who is a writer, Malamud created Jewish characters who carry their history on their backs — and in their hearts… Malamud’s status as a writer derives from his ability to translate his “feelingfulness” for the six million who perished into Jewish characters who live in the Holocaust’s indelible shadow.

In “The Best American Short Stories of the Century,” the permissions listings reveal that “The German Refugee” first appeared in the September 14, 1963, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. In my paperback copy of Malamud’s “Complete Stories,” a note about “The German Refugee” indicates: “Title in the magazine was ‘The Refugee.’”

The longer title evidently appeared as early as December of that year, when Malamud’s “Idiots First” collection was published. It’s a curious circumstance, and it’s one that I may investigate further. For now, though, I can say this much: As a reader, writer, and granddaughter, I am most grateful for the adjective.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: The German Refugee, Erika Dreifus, Books, Bernard Malamud

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.