To the Editor:
It is sad that the obsessed anti-Semite who sees everywhere evidence of a Jewish plot should breed the obsessed anti-anti-Semite who sees everywhere evidence of anti-Semitic propaganda. (It is understandable, of course. Have we not seen the zealot enemies of pornography become “smut hounds” who make censorship ridiculous? Or enemies of Communism who lose their sense of balance and, as the expression goes, “look for Communists under the bed?”) After reading in your issue of January 1947 the review of Emery Bekessy’s religio-historical novel, Barabbas, I can only conclude that the reviewer, Mordecai S. Chertoff, in contending against anti-Semitism, has surrendered the control of his own thinking to the enemy he fights,.
This is evident in his approach. Barabbas is a novel, an imaginative construction based upon a great dramatic scene in the literary heritage of the Western World, and as such the natural and normal approach would be that of the literary critic. Mr. Chertoff, however, approaches this novel in a specialized political frame of mind and makes demands that one might make of a tract—with the result that the foremost questions to be asked of a work of the imagination are not raised. Moreover, to make plausible the working hypothesis he forms about the novel, he has to exclude without even a mention the fairly obvious parallel the author and his colleague suggest between the Barabbas, the high priests, the Jerusalem mobs, and so on which they depict, and Hitler, the German industrialists, the Nazi mobs, the German concentration camps, and other phenomena threatening the values of civilized living in the years they were composing their novel. Why does Mr. Chertoff not see that Bekessy and his colleague were thinking much more in terms of the Central Europe that was alarming them than in terms of the scanty historical materials offered by the Jesus-Pilate-Barabbas story? Would Mr. Chertoff assert that there is nothing universal about the sadism of mobs or the appeal of demagoguery or the lust for power? One cannot put national or racial tags on these things except in an exemplary sense. Or would Mr. Chertoff claim that the New Testament as a literary storehouse should be closed to imaginative writers because certain dangers of misinterpretation exist? Fortunately, Mr. Chertoff is in a minority of one or two in misinterpreting Barabbas as a “hate-book against Jews.”
The tip-off on Mr. Chertoff’s mind being occupied by the question of anti-Semitism to the exclusion of literary judgment is given in his conjectures about the author and his colleague. The jacket of Barabbas is in error in giving the date of Bekessy’s departure from Europe as 1940. It was 1939 when he fled from Hungary and the increasing influence of Hitler. Bekessy’s colleague, Andreas Hemberger, remained in Central Europe until his death in 1946, but not because he was acceptable to the Nazis, as Mr. Chertoff hints. A native of Upper Bavaria, Hemberger was imprisoned for several months by the Gestapo when Hitler came to power and then expelled from Germany and his writings were banned. He worked as a journalist in Austria until 1938 when Hitler marched in and again Hemberger was jailed. Released, he was forbidden to write for publication. After Austria was liberated, Hemberger was installed by the American occupation forces as editor of the Wiener Kurier. It is regrettable that neither your reviewer nor you, sir, the editor of COMMENTARY, took the small amount of pains required to check on your reviewer’s guesses about the authors of Barabbas.
Why was Barabbas published, Mr. Chertoff asks. He answers for Prentice-Hall, the publisher, but may we speak for ourselves? The book was brought to Prentice-Hall by Marie Ginsburg, a former employee of the League of Nations and a friend of one of the authors on our list. A digest of it in English was read by Mr. Irving Fried, formerly an editor at Doubleday and known personally to me as a man of liberal sympathies, who reported very favorably on the story. The German text was then read by a well-known figure in the book trade, Mr. A. v. A. van Duym of Scribner’s Bookstore, a man of emphatic liberal convictions. Mr. van Duym was particularly enthusiastic about the portrait of Pilate. Subsequently, I read Barabbas in English translation and found it living up to the enthusiastic endorsements given me. It is relevant to note that not only have I personally combated anti-Semitism in my own articles and in such political activity as I have engaged in, but also that through marriage I am personally and deeply concerned about any advance anti-Semitism may make. Finally, Mr. Bekessy, who is the father of the novelist Hans Habe, has liberal affiliations. None of those who “screened” Barabbas for publication found any anti-Semitism in the work, yet all of us are sensitive to the problem of anti-Semitism and can hardly be described as naive on the subject. Mr. Chertoff did “find” anti-Semitism, but the point of this letter is that the over-determined can always “find” what they are looking for. To answer Mr. Chertoff’s question: Prentice-Hall accepted Barabbas because in our editorial judgment it was a novel of considerable literary merit which had an anti-Hitler message and held out the promise of a sizable sale.
Trade Book Editor, Prentice-Hall
New York City
To the Editor:
In reviewing Barabbas in your January issue, your reviewer states: “As to the motives of the liberal and well-reputed Religious Book Club—they must remain a mystery.”
Our motives are by no means mysterious. Not one of our editors who read Barabbas got the impression that the book was either anti-Jewish or pro-Nazi. On the contrary, we felt that the book was an obvious parallelism, with Barabbas as the ancient counterpart of Hitler who sought personal power by invoking hatred and violence to stir the latent nationalism of his people to a war pitch. Virtually every reviewer felt, as we did, that the book’s anti-Fascist message was obvious.
We would, of course, be extremely regretful if we were to find ourselves in the position of having unwittingly recommended a book whose purpose was to foster racial hatred. But we do not believe that Barabbas falls into this category. And our twenty-year record offers ample evidence that we are active on the side of those who work for tolerance and interracial understanding.
Jonathan D. Springer
Managing Director, the Religious Book Club
New York City
To the Editor:
Your letter with the enclosure from Mr. Munson was waiting for me when I arrived in Jerusalem on Sunday. Without the volume itself, but only my own review at hand, the references I need for a full reply are lacking. But most of Mr. Munson’s objections can be met nevertheless.
With no way of checking the records of either Mr. Bekessy or Mr. Hemberger, I must of necessity accept the righteously indignant defense of them. I must say, though, that on the basis of the novel alone my own opinion of them seems valid. That a publisher should rush to defend a novel that “held out the promise of a considerable sale” I can well understand, but that in the process he should provide the material for a rebuttal of that defense is an unexpected convenience. “Barabbas is a novel, an imaginative construction based upon a great dramatic scene . . .” and a “religio-historical” novel at that. Nylon stockings are “based upon” coal and air; surely one is justified in demanding of a historical novel that it bear closer resemblance to its origin than nylons to theirs? There would be no point in recopying the original list of historical offenses which was included in my review; I am sure that Mr. Munson has a copy to which he can refer.
A novelist may authenticate his point by pointing to historical prototypes, but finding such prototypes where they do not exist can hardly be condoned because of the imagination and cerebral gymnastics required. Mob sadism may be universal—but the mob-Pilate scene as Mr. Bekessy paints it—indeed, the whole rise of Barabbas—is an example of such invoking of non-existent prototypes. And the reference to the eventual extermination “of the whole pack of you” (in addition to numerous other references, the quoting of which is difficult at a remove of 5,500 miles) would seem to provide more than enough anti-Semitic notes, particularly when taken in context, for me to resent being so cavalierly classified as an “obsessed anti-anti-Semite.”
That “certain dangers of misinterpretation” exist in the utilization of the New Testament as a literary storehouse is undoubtedly true, and it is likewise true that certain dangers exist in crossing the street. And just as I would prescribe care in the latter, I demand it in the former. It is not the danger to which I take exception, but the misinterpretation. Thomas Mann has used the Old Testament, and Sholem Asch and others the New; Bekessy is almost alone in having fallen prey to those “certain dangers.” No, Mr. Munson, I would not close the New Testament to imaginative writers, as you imply, but I would feel better if undiscipled, unscrupulous writers, anxious for a market regardless of their imaginative complement, would avoid it. And I hardly think that I am in a “minority of one or two” in being opposed to the distortion and desecration of what to a goodly portion of the civilized world is still Sacred Writ.
An honest reviewer does not judge a book by its testimonials, and in his last paragraph Mr. Munson asks me to do just that. I stand by the views expressed in my original review in the columns of COMMENTARY as to the work’s literary merit and ignore Mr. Munson’s ultimate criterion, which is so well expressed in his last few words. I presented my view—subsequently confirmed by him—of what his firm expected: that it sell, and added my analysis of why it would, surely a legitimate attempt.
Mordecai S. Chertoff