Ivo Andric And The Jews

Ivo Andrić
and the Jews

By Dušan Puvačić

In the last chapter of Bosnian Story (Travnicka hronika) Salomon Atijas, 'the most prominent of the Atijas brothers and the head of the whole prolific tribe of the Travnik Atijases'1 , comes to pay his farewell visit to the departing French Consul, Monsieur Daville. He comes unexpectedly to offer 'what little he possessed or could do'2 to help the Frenchman - who had treated them, the Travnik Jews, as men, without any discrimination - out of his financial difficulties.
While the Sarajevo Jews, who used to make loans to the Consulate in better days, now, at a moment of great changes in the world and in France, become distrustful and unwilling to offer a helping hand, Master Salomon brings tears of emotion to Daville's eyes by his embarrassed gesture of compassion and friendship, in the form of the offer of a loan of twenty-five Imperial ducats.
'Daville, who had thought at first that Atijas had come to request or ask something from him, was surprised and touched'.3 However, in his words of thanks Daville confines himself to 'general and indefinite phrases', speaking of his 'sympathy and his understanding towards the Jews, of humanity and the need for people to comprehend and help each other, without distinction'4 .
Encouraged by Daville's kindness and the admiration he expressed for the resilience of the Travnik Jews who had managed to defend and preserve themselves against all the ills brought upon them by the whims of history and the persecution of greedy Pashas, Salomon discards his protective shield of caution and starts to speak, 'to utter his complaint, to commend and explain himself, like a man who is given a unique opportunity, a few precious minutes only, for an important and urgent message'5 . But Daville's benevolent laughter, provoked by the words of a Jewish saying, makes Atijas stop short in his confession, while a 'worried and fearful expression'6 returned to his face. 'He was frightened that he might have gone too far and said what he should not', and that 'what he had said was not what he had meant to say'7 .
But this Jew who brings with himself, besides his offer of money, 'a scent of garlic and untanned skins'8 and a 'worried expression of animal melancholy'9 in his eyes, has an important message to deliver to the departing stranger. He feels uncomfortable in Daville's clean and comely world. But in spite of his shyness and his fear he cannot resist the desire 'to say something further, about himself and his people, something urgent and secret, from his great hole of Travnik, from the damp storehouse where one lived hard, without honour or justice, without beauty or order, without judge or witness'10 . He wants his message to be addressed 'to some better, more orderly, more enlightened world beyond'11 .
But instead of a message with a 'great and general'12 meaning about his own existence and the suffering of the Travnik Jews, he is able to utter only 'confused and disjointed words'13 . Unable to express 'briefly and worthily'14 what he wanted to say about his people - because he 'does not know a single one of this world's languages properly'15 - he departs with 'broken words which came to his tongue'16 .
'It will never be told', comments the author, 'what was choking Salomon Atijas at that moment, what was bringing tears to his eyes and excited trembling to his whole body'17 . But in a moving gesture of identification with his character, Andric continues: 'Had he known how, had he, in general, been able to speak, he would have said something like this…'18 And there follows a long passage of Salomon Atijas's unspoken message which has been rightly described as one of the best and emotionally most powerful passages in the whole of Andric's writing and in Yugoslav literature in general. The tone, the content, and the whole character of the passage do not differ in any significant way from some of Andric's more direct and more personal utterances on the 'Jewish theme' in his essays. But Salomon Atijas's unspoken 'heartfelt plea'19 is not only of contextual but also of great symbolic importance.
What the author says on behalf of his character is not actually what Salomon would have said himself, because what lay within him as a living burden had not been 'quite clear or definite in his own mind, still less was it ripe for utterance'20 . And so the author 'mediates' between Salomon's 'best feelings and best longings'21 and their unspoken expression. But it is not only the linguistic inadequacy of a Spanish Jew living in Bosnia which prevents Salomon from turning his feelings into a coherent statement of great emotional importance. It is a long inheritance of fear and insecurity haunting the man who, even in his cradle, was never permitted to 'weep aloud, let alone talk freely and clearly during his lifetime'22 .
Although, as Andric says, 'no one, almost no one' manages to express 'his best feelings and his best longings' in his lifetime, Salomon succeeds where so many have failed, in spite of all his inadequacies, because the author has identified with him, giving him his voice and his moral concern.
So Ivo Andric has shown himself to be a writer who was willing both to write about Jews and to speak for them at a time when such support was their 'real need'23 . Bosnian Story was finished in April 1942. And there is no doubt that in the mind of this 'master of the unspoken', as Andric has been called by the American critic John Simon,24 the 'terrible, senseless, fratricidal hurricane which even today we cannot comprehend and which to this day has never understood itself'25 - about which Salomon Atijas would have spoken if he had dared and known how - the hurricane which had torn the Spanish Jews from Andalusia and brought them to the Balkans, making them 'beggars whom not even gold can help'26 , was a part of the same historical process which was killing Jews while the novel was being written.
It was that 'tragic and inexorable'27 historical process Andric refers to in his essay on Kalmi Baruh (1896-1945), his Jewish friend who perished 'with thousands and millions of others like a predestined victim of brutal racism'28 . However, Andric reminds us that the Jews were not the only ones who fell victim in the same historical drama which, as he has put it, 'it seems, has no end'29 . Those 'others', non-Jews, were also 'without guilt or defence'30 .
By identifying Jews and non-Jews in their historical destiny it would seem that Ivo Andric has tried to reiterate, in a manner appropriate for a creative artist, Leo Straus' conviction that 'the Jewish people were the chosen people in the sense, at least, that the Jewish problem is the most manifest symbol of the human problem as a social or political problem'31 . The same feeling, common to many enlightened European writers, has found its expression in the words of the exiled Czech author Milan Kundera (b. 1929), who said that in the destiny of the Jewish people 'the fate of Central Europe seems to be concentrated, reflected and to have found its symbolic image'32 .
Do we need a more telling example of this allusive identification of the destiny of Jews and non-Jews in Andric's work than the one we are offered in the story The "Titanic" Bar (Bife "Titanik"), one of Andric's very few stories which deal with World War Two. It is enough that it is Mento Papo, 'a Jew without any ties with the Jewish community, alone, without money, without respect, without property, naked, mute and helpless'33 , who has been chosen as a symbolic representative of those thousands and millions who have suffered and perished 'without guilt and without defence'. Mento Papo, faced with his Croatian ustasha murderer, becomes in his danse macabre no less symbolic than Aska, the little lamb followed by the bloodthirsty wolf, in her dance of life and survival. Just as Aska knew that 'in order to live, she had to dance'34 , so did Mento know that 'talking meant… living'35 . However, his 'pitiful, ridiculous, and improbable leaps'36 did not have any chance of succeeding in the world of irrational hatred and self-generating evil.
Prior to Andric's both extensive and sympathetic treatment of the Jews, they had received but scant attention in the literature of the peoples of former Yugoslavia. As in all European literatures, biblical inspiration has been prominent in the writing of numerous Yugoslav writers ever since the first books were written in the Middle Ages, and this interest has been maintained, though on a much smaller scale, ever since. But the writers who have used biblical and apocryphal subjects have not generally associated the people of the Book with the Jews of their times. They either tended to use them to express some general philosophical ideas, or as symbols of their own fate and aspirations. On the other hand, the Jews who occasionally appear in folk literature are usually presented, under the influence of religious prejudice and intolerance, as objects of ridicule, contempt and derision. One folk song, exceptionally, contains qualified praise for the young Jewish girl who wishes to marry Kraljevic Marko, the Balkan folk hero. Similarly sympathetic treatment of the Jews appears in the Slovene France Presern's (1800-1849) poem Jewish Girl (Judovsko dekle), where a Jewish girl abandons her Christian sweetheart because of the religious barrier.
However, anti-Semitism never struck deep roots in Yugoslavia, and when it did exist it was usually in the form of what David Goldstein in his book on Dostoyevsky and the Jews37 calls conventional anti-Semitism - the widespread belief that the Jews are cursed and cruel masters of craft and deceit and unscrupulous exploiters of others. It has been established that 'such anti-Semitism as did exist was more apparent in the ex-Habsburg territories than in the Serbian or former Ottoman areas. Hence, it was more directed against Ashkenazim than Sephardim, the former being considered foreign and the latter native'.38
Understandably, some of those anti-Semitic sentiments have found their expression in the form of anti-Jewish slurs and slanders scattered in the works of some 19th and 20th century Yugoslav writers, in which the Jews played only minor or episodic roles. They were generally presented as stereotypes - shopkeepers, moneylenders or publicans - and were referred to disparagingly and depicted as re-presentatives of the forces instrumental in pre-cipitating the disintegration of native rural society and its values. Some anti-Semitic remarks are placed in the mouths of negative, deranged or degenerate characters, and cannot be attributed to the writers themselves.39 It is not uncommon to find them even in some of Andric's works, because he realized that without them his whole picture of the complex ethnic scene of Bosnia would have been less convincing.
The fact that among Yugoslav writers there were only a few non-representative figures who were openly and strongly anti-Semitic can be explained by the circumstances of the Jews being few in numbers, inconspicuous, living largely their own separate existence cut off from gentile society. For the indigenous Slav population they never represented a dark and sinister force detrimental to its own interests, as was the case in some other European countries. So the Jews rarely inspired strong feelings and their individual and communal lives were neglected as a literary theme.
Consequently, before the Second World War, Jews were central characters only in the works of Jewish writers, such as Haim S. Davico (1854-1918), Isak Samokovlija (1889-1955), Hinko Gottlieb (1886-1948) and Zak Konfino (1892-1975). Ivo Andric was the only exception, and the first Yugoslav non-Jewish writer to treat the Jews with a real creative interest.
Ever since Andric introduced 'the passionate and devious Jewess'40 in his story of Ali Djerzelez, a steady stream of Jewish characters has continued to populate his prose: Josif Baruh, Mordo and Salomon Atijas in Bosnian Story; Mordo and Santo Papo, Elias and David Levi and Lotika in The Bridge on the Drina (Na Drini cuprija); Rafo Konforti in The Woman from Sarajevo (Gospodjica); Haim in Devil's Yard (Prokleta avlija); Rifka Papo in Love in a Country Town (Ljubav u kasabi); Salomon Kamhi in Under the Hornbeam Tree (San i java pod grabicem); Mento Papo in The "Titanic" Bar (Bife "Titanik"); and Maks Levenfeld in Letter from the Year 1920 (Pismo iz 1920) are the most prominent ones. Both in his fiction and in his essays Andric has sustained his continuous interest in, as he used to call them affectionately, 'our Jews'.
It has been claimed that Jews are so manifestly absent from Dostoyevsky's novels, in spite of his deep involvement with the 'Jewish question' in his non-fictional prose, because he did not have - nor could he have had - any direct experience of Jews, as St. Petersburg counted very few Jews among its residents.41 Jews play such an important part in Andric's work because he did have first-hand knowledge of their way of life from his frequent contacts with them, first in his early days in Visegrad and later in Sarajevo, Zagreb and Split. These contacts established a very deep personal bond between him and both those Jews who had settled in Bosnia after their expulsion from Spain in the 16th century, and those who came later from Central and Eastern Europe. The roots of that bond could be traced to his early childhood, as his story Children (Deca) suggests. The narrator, a 'greyish engineer',42 revives an episode from his youth, when he refused to take part in the battering of Jewish children, a cruel game in which some of his friends participated with great relish, at the price of being ridiculed and ostracised by his comrades in play. He could not, and did not know how, to beat the Jews. A Jewish boy kept appearing in his dreams being chased by his friends, while he would let him pass unchallenged. With his 'tormented face' the Jewish boy seemed to him 'light and unrestrainable as an angel'.43
Andric, who was so reluctant to comment on the works of his colleagues and contemporaries, did not decline to write about his two Jewish friends, Isak Samokovlija and Kalmi Baruh. And what is even more symptomatic, he published two texts about each of them respectively. But the dominant theme of these essays concerns not so much - if at all, particularly in Samokovlija's case, - their individual talents and achievements, as the tragic predicament of the people they belonged to, and its characteristic ambiguous position in the wider Bosnian context.
The most eloquent statement of Andric's pro-Semitic sentiments can be found in his piece on the Sarajevo Jewish cemetery, which, he pointed out, he had visited several times on several consecutive days. In this affectionate and evocative text, Andric surveys the four centuries of the history of the Sephardic Jews on Bosnian soil and emphasizes the identity of their historical situation with that of all ‘rayah’ in the Ottoman Empire. But at the same time he points out their more precarious and exposed position brought about by their ethnic and linguistic isolation and the religious prejudice and superstitions of their Christian fellow-sufferers. Forced to hide behind their own traditions, beliefs and prejudices out of need and through the instinct of self-defence, the Jews did represent a world in itself, but they were at the same time, as Andric puts it, a living part of 'our wider community'.44
In his book Defenses of the Imagination, the American critic Robert Alter says that if the Jews have a historical destiny, it is to be at 'the crossroads of trouble', and that 'that destiny has been fulfilled time after time not only in the realm of geo-politics but also in the Christian imagination'.45 Is not this metaphor - 'at the crossroads of trouble' - exactly applicable to what Andric has considered to be a major feature of his native Bosnia; and, having that in mind, might it not be said that the Jews in Andric's work are shown to fulfil their historical destiny not only by sharing the fate of the oppressed people of Bosnia, but by being presented as symbolic of that fate?
Throughout his work Andric attributes to the Jews many of the features of the Levantines, as defined by Cologna in his conversation with Des Fossés in Bosnian Story. They have two homes and yet none, 'being at home everywhere, yet always remaining a stranger';46 they are 'men who know many languages but have no language of their own'47 ; they are 'equally despised and mistrusted'48 on both the East and the West; 'they are a little humanity on its own, staggering under a double original sin';49 they are often given the role of 'interpreters and go-betweens'50 mediating between peoples of opposed civilizations and cultures. In Bosnian Story there are several Jews who have that role: a Jew from Split by the name of Pardo, Juso Atijas, Josif Baruh and Rafo Atijas.
But, in a few instances, the function of intermediary they are given goes beyond the simple task of interpreting, as they are put in charge of some rather special assignments. Maks Levenfeld, born into a family of Jews converted to Catholicism, conveys in Letter from the Year 1920 (Pismo iz 1920) Andric's most succinct archetypal image of Bosnia, and it is implied in the text that Levenfeld's congenital restlessness and his cravings for a better world, a world without hatred (the same world about which Salomon Atijas dreams in Travnik), have their roots in his discarded Jewishness.
In Devil's Yard (Prokleta avlija) it is Haim, a Jew from Smyrna, a compulsive talker, who mediates between the world of reality and the world of fiction; and, moreover, by his ability to know everything and foresee everything ('although not always accu-rately'),51 between the present and the future. Even his 'gloomy tales and imaginary fears'52 are a typical expression of his Jewish inheritance.
Sometimes, that role is more specifically personal and limited, but equally tragic, as it can be seen in the history of Rifka Papo who, in Love in a Country Town (Ljubav u kasabi), attempted to cross the barrier of religion and prejudice. In the mind of Ledenik, her flippant Christian lover, she is closely related, and almost identified, with the image of the Visegrad bridge. For him they are the only two things capable of comforting him and cheering him in his Bosnian desolation. This identification is suggestive of the similarities in the symbolic roles ascribed by Andric to bridges and the Jews in a wider context. Elsewhere Andric even points out that the Jews had first settled in Visegrad about the time the bridge had been built.53
Even a superficial insight into Andric's works would suggest that his presentation of the complete ethnic spectrum of Bosnia offers a thematic and moral balance, and that his compassionate treatment of the Jews is symptomatic of the general humanistic values operating in his work. It would seem, however, that, at least in some of the episodes where the Jews appear as protagonists and where they are compared with and contrasted to his gentile characters, Andric weighted the emotional scale in favour of the Jews.
Throughout Bosnian Story, for instance, the Jews are shown to possess more moral courage and humane responsiveness in their relations with the French than is the case with members of other ethnic groups. They are the only ones who are willing to offer Daville their hospitality upon his arrival in Travnik, and their help before his departure. This tendency of Andric's to recognize in his Jewish characters some of the positive features his other protagonists are denied is best exemplified in those parts of his work in which he deals with the personalities who have identified their lives with money.
In the vision of Vitomir Tasovac, Salomon Kamhi from Under the Hornbeam Tree (San i java pod grabicem) may seem the epitome of a Jewish shopkeeper disposed to cunning and trickery, but it is gazda Jevrem from An Uneasy Year (Nemirna go-dina) who is described as an archetypal usurer. The comparative presentation of Rajka Radakovic and Rafo Konforti, in The Woman from Sarajevo, is particularly illuminating in the section of the novel covering 1917, when the war brings hunger and misery upon thousands of people. Rafo's compassion and Rajka's insensitivity are directly juxtaposed. For Rafo, 'a hungry people, that's the worst thing there is'.54 Rajka is unable to find understanding for Rafo's 'unexpected explosion of indignation, or see what possible connection she, Rajka, and her business had with the question of whether the people were hungry or full'.55 While Rafo, who was falling apart, 'had a compulsive need to talk of the hunger and poverty of the great mass of people and of the grave con-sequences this would be bound to have for the state, the economy, and the individual',56 Rajka only noticed that the signs of destitution were 'more numerous than she would have wanted'.57 While Rafo donates food to the neediest and buys various provisions in order to 'sell them to the people at the unusually low price',58 or hands out the food without charge, Rajka continues to count her money, 'insensible to most of the rules of the community and to the moral feelings and responses of an individual'.59 Rafo suffers his final downfall in the form of a complete breakdown and is taken to a mental institution; Rajka justifies her earlier reputation of being 'Shylock in petticoats'.60 Through-out this comparative analysis Andric has reserved for Rajka a tone of chilly detachment, while Rafo has been observed with humorous compassion and, even, affection.
However, the character for whom Andric shows the greatest amount of sympathy is the 'beautiful Jewess from Tarnovo' in The Bridge on the Drina, Lotika, 'that untiring and adroit woman of chilled senses, quick intelligence and masculine heart'.61 Although she 'earned very much'62 practising a trade which was 'neither pleasant nor particularly chaste',63 and took good care of her money, she is presented as a woman of an exceptionally 'compassionate heart and kind nature',64 ready to help complete strangers as much as her own kith and kin. She does believe in 'the law of profit and loss'65 ('that divine law which had always controlled human activities'),66 but it is not money for money's sake which controls her life. 'She directed the destinies'67 of the Jewish poor scattered throughout Galicia, Austria and Hungary, but her counsels were always accompanied by 'a money order for a sum sufficient to ensure that her advice was listened to'.68
When, finally, she makes her last exit in Chapter Twenty-three of The Bridge on the Drina, her 'despairing scream'69 is mingled with the 'muffled thunder of the guns… which showed… that universal and individual misfortune was nearer and greater that it seemed'.70 While elaborating this idea, with a varying degree of emphasis, in his novels, short stories and essays, Ivo Andric has shown that, in the words of Robert Alter, 'what a writer has to say about Jews, carefully considered, can sometimes provide a key to the underlying aims and even methods in his work, and an insight into his relation to the larger culture around him'.

From: Dušan Puvačić, BALKAN THEMES, Tradition and change in Serbian and Croatian literature, Editions Esopie, 41, rue Olivier Metra, 75020, Paris


1 Bosnian Story, p. 446.
2 Ibid., p. 447.
3 Ibid., p. 447.
4 Ibid., p. 447.
5 Ibid., p. 449.
6 Ibid., p. 449.
7Ibid., p. 449.
8Ibid., p. 446.
9Ibid., p. 448.
10 Ibid., p. 450.
11 Ibid., p. 450.
12 Ibid., p. 450.
13 Ibid., p. 451.
14 Ibid., p. 450.
15 Ibid., p. 453.
16 Ibid., p. 450.
17 Ibid., p. 451.
18 Ibid., p. 451.
19 Ibid., p. 453.
20 Ibid., p. 453.
21 Ibid., p. 453.
22 Ibid., p. 453.
23 Ibid., p. 453.
24 John Simon, 'Bosnia through the Ages'. The New York Times Book Review, 28 July 1968, p. 4.
25 Bosnian Story, p. 451.
26 Ibid., p. 451.
27 'Pomen Kalmiju Baruhu'. In Umetnik i njegovo delo. Sabrana dela, Belgrade 1977,Vol. XIII, p. 217.
28 Ibid., p. 217.
29 Ibid., p. 217.
30 Ibid., p. 217.
31 Leo Straus, Spinoza's Critique of Religion. Preface to the English Edition, New York, 1965, p. 6.
32 Milan Kundera, 'A Kidnapped West or Culture Bows Out'. Granta, 11, 1984, p. 108, p. 6.
33 'Bife 'Titanik'. In Nemirna godina. Sabrana dela. Vol. V, p. 197.
34 'Aska i vuk'. In Deca. Sabrana dela. Vol. IX, p. 191.
35 'Bife 'Titanik', In Nemirna godina, p. 220.
36 Ibid., p. 221.
37 David I. Goldstein, Dostoyevsky and the Jews, University of Texas Press, 1981.
38 Harriet Pass Freidenreich, The Jews of Yugoslavia. The Jewish Publication Society of America. Philadelphia, 1979, p. 189.
39 'Yugoslav Literature', Encyclopaedia Judaica. Jerusalem, 1971, Vol. 16, pp. 885-892. Miroslav Pantic, 'Jevreji u dubrovackoj knjizevnosti'. Zbornik Jevrejskog istorijskog muzeja. Belgrade, 1971, pp. 211-238.
40 'Put Alije Djerzeleza'. In Znakovi. Sabrana dela, Vol. VIII, p. 31.
41 David I. Goldstein, Dostoyevsky and the Jews, p. 4.
42'Deca'. In Deca. Sabrana dela. Vol. IX, p. 47.
43 Ibid., p. 54.
44 'Na Jevrejskom groblju u Sarajevu'. In Znakovi. Sabrana dela. Vol. VIII, p. 216.
45 Robert Alter, Defenses of the Imagination. The Jewish Publication Society of America. Philadelphia, 1977, p. 151.
46Bosnian Story, p. 285.
47 Ibid., p. 286.
48 Ibid., p. 286.
49 Ibid., p. 286.
50 Ibid., p. 286.
51 Devil's Yard, p. 72.
52 Ibid., p. 120.
53 The Bridge on the Drina, p. 176.
54 The Woman from Sarajevo, p. 119.
55 Ibid., p. 119.
56 Ibid., p. 125.
57 Ibid., p. 120.
58 Ibid., p. 126.
59 Ibid., p. 141.
60 Ibid., p. 78.
61 The Bridge on the Drina, p. 178.
62 Ibid., p. 179.
63 Ibid., p. 179.
64 Ibid., p. 179.
65 Ibid., p. 258.
66 Ibid., p. 258.
67 Ibid., p. 180.
68 Ibid., p. 180.
69 Ibid., p. 302.
70 Ibid., p. 302.

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