Franz Werfel in a café, Leipzig, 1914. (Mahler–Werfel Papers, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania)

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German Literature

Between the Enlightenment and the Shoah, Jews living in Eastern Europe made contributions to German-language literature that by any measure must be considered significant to that tradition. Yet it is difficult to classify this contribution with a unified definition pertinent to the exercise.

The Range of Inquiry

If Eastern Europe is defined as bounded on the west by German-speaking Europe, which German-language products are to be understood as East European? Were Jews who wrote in German contributing to what they consciously took to be a “foreign” tradition, or were they expressing themselves in their “own” tongue? Should our consideration of Jews include all assimilated Jews as well, including converts?

The conditions under which Jews living among Christian speakers of Slavic languages, Hungarian, or Romanian chose to write in German were so widely varied between the eighteenth and the twentieth centuries, however, that to think of these authors as fitting within a single tradition is problematic. Every example is in some sense a limit case, helping to define the boundaries of the East European Jewish contribution to German literature by virtue of how it does not fit with the rest. Taken together, these examples bring into relief the troubled but creatively rich relationship of Eastern to Western Europe as well as of Jewish heritage to secular culture.


The story of the East European Jewish contribution to German letters follows traditional narratives of modernity, and hence is most sensibly told beginning with the Enlightenment. Here both the most telltale example and the most towering figure is Salomon Maimon (1754–1800), born into a Jewish family in Polish Lithuania, who became an important voice in both the Jewish Haskalah and the German Enlightenment. In the 1790s, Maimon’s major philosophical works appeared, written in German (as was his autobiography), and deeply in dialogue with the budding traditions of German idealism. Maimon represented the confrontation and amalgamation of traditional Jewish and European rationalist thinking, bringing the powerful influence of Maimonides to bear on the new critical practices of Enlightenment. Major figures of the German Enlightenment regarded him as an East European Jewish outsider whose raw genius and critical acumen served as both a challenge to and ultimate evidence of the universalism of Enlightenment precepts.

Jews in Eastern German Lands

Maimon spent the last years of his life and died in Silesia. Depending on the period and the part of this region, it belonged to Poland, the Bohemian crown, the Habsburg Empire, or the German Empire, but throughout the modern period until 1945 it had a very large German-speaking population that was culturally dominant and which included many Jews. Plebiscites in several years following World War I mostly resulted in the confirmation of most of this territory as German, with the exception of some eastern parts of Upper Silesia. Philosopher Edith Stein (1891–1942), the Jewish convert to Catholicism who was later canonized by Pope John Paul II, recounts how her own Jewish family was so fiercely German-identified that the plebiscite favoring adherence to Poland meant that it had to uproot itself from the homeland and move to the major Silesian city of Breslau. The life histories of Silesian Jews of varying generations, such as socialist Ferdinand Lassalle (1825–1864) and philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945) as well as Stein, follow the model of their counterparts in other parts of Germany rather than Eastern Europe.

Long before the unification of Germany in 1871, in the Middle Ages, German settlers had moved eastward into lands occupied by mainly Slavic-speaking peoples, and many of these lands would become part of the unified German Reich. German-speaking Jews lived in cities such as Danzig (today Gdańsk) in the state of East Prussia, reaching as far as today’s Baltic states. Here, as in Silesia, a Jew such as the Zionist Kurt Blumenfeld from Marggrabova (now the Polish city Olecko) had more in common with other German-Jewish Zionists than with those in the Pale of Settlement.

The Habsburg Monarchy

To the south of the German states that would come to be unified under Prussian dominance in the last third of the nineteenth century were the states of the Habsburg Empire, encompassing speakers of many languages and including at its height a diverse Jewish population of more than two million. The Jews of the Habsburg monarchy were so wide ranging in language use, profession, religious practice, and relative acculturation to the surrounding majority populations and affluence that they seem more sensibly organized as several different Jewish populations rather than a single one.

No national group ever came close to forming a majority within the Habsburg Empire, but German had come to be the privileged language of imperial administration and German-speakers by extension could be said to have been the dominant national grouping. This changed significantly in the last third of the nineteenth century, specifically in 1867 with the Ausgleich, or “compromise,” dividing the empire into two halves, one Austrian (sometimes called Cisleithania) and one Hungarian, with foreign affairs and the army under the unified control of the Habsburg monarch. The compromise fanned the flames of other competing nationalist claims within the monarchy.


To the north of Vienna and its surrounding provinces were the Habsburg crown lands of Bohemia and Moravia. These provinces, with borders closely mapping onto those of today’s Czech Republic, were host to a majority of Czech-speakers and a large minority of German-speakers concentrated in the north, west, and south of the area as well as in mixed-population areas, especially cities and towns of the interior. The Jews of these regions had mainly taken on the languages of their Christian neighbors, either Czech or German, or had command of both languages and a more fluid national identification than subjects of other regions. German-speaking Jews of Bohemia and Moravia, and especially the population of Prague, made a very important contribution to German literature and indeed to European civilization more generally. For the most part, these figures wrote in their native language, in a context in which German was an indigenous tongue, even if not the language of the majority of the population. Yet, the context of the large surrounding Slavic-speaking population is a fact that must be considered inseparable from any understanding of this Jewish contribution to German literature.

Fritz Mauthner, Meersburg, Germany, early 1900s. (Leo Baeck Institute, New York)

Some Jews resident in German-language “islands” within the majority-Czech interior identified particularly strongly as Germans, such as the journalist, novelist, and philosopher Fritz Mauthner (1849–1923), who lived in Berlin for much of his career, but whose staunch German-nationalist sympathies emerged out of the Czech–German national contest in Bohemia. Jews of Mauthner’s generation were able to identify as German nationalists without thinking of this as a contradiction; only in retrospect in his 1918 memoir did Mauthner consider that being a Jew among Christians may have contributed to his sense of displacement as much as being a German surrounded by Czechs. Mauthner’s philosophical work Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache (Contributions to a Critique of Language; 1901–1902) was an introduction to the philosophy of language that presaged the Viennese Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work. Scholars have speculated on the relationship of these critiques of language to the polyglot environment of the Habsburg Empire, the language conflict in this period, or the flexible national identities of Central European Jews.

In the elite Prague German literary association known as Concordia, the two dominant figures around 1900 were both Jews: Hugo Salus (1866–1929) and Friedrich Adler (1857–1938), adherents of the then fashionable literary trends of neoromanticism and neoclassicism. Their work hence was rich in historical and classical references but eschewed any mark of East European, Jewish, or local peculiarity. Neither the Jewish place in German culture nor the status of Prague as a German cultural center seems to have been controversial from their standpoint. The same would not be the case of the generation that would follow them.

The best known of these authors was Franz Kafka (1883–1924), who is considered a towering figure of modern European literature. Kafka was part of a generation of German-speaking Jews from Prague that included others such as the prolific and important writers Max Brod (1884–1968) and Franz Werfel (1890–1945); the blind expressionist prose writer Oskar Baum (1883–1941); expressionist poets and translators Otto Pick (1887–1940) and Rudolf Fuchs (1890–1942); socialist journalist Egon Erwin Kisch (1885–1948); Zionist philosopher Hugo Bergmann (1883–1975); and others. These writers, all born in the decade between 1880 and 1890, came of age in a period in which German cultural domination in this region had been forcefully challenged by the political ascendancy of the Czech national movement, just as the status of Jews as members of the German minority was increasingly challenged by the ethnicist/racialist categories of evolving German nationalism. It was in this volatile cultural and political context that a Prague German literature dominated by Jews flourished and gained extraordinary attention abroad, far out of proportion to the relatively small absolute numbers of Prague’s German-speaking Jews. Over the course of the twentieth century, Prague’s Jewish writers became in various ways more cognizant of their status as Jewish writers and of their potential connections to true East European Jews, including Galician Jews in their own half of the Habsburg monarchy. At the same time, Zionist identifications increased, especially sympathy with “cultural Zionism,” particularly in the wake of a series of lectures in 1909–1911 by Martin Buber sponsored by the Bar Kochba Jewish student organization. In all of these cases, the “turn to Judaism” taken by Prague’s German writers seems to have been associated with an identification with East European Jewish life, where it was imagined that Jews lived in a more spiritually authentic condition.

Franz Kafka as a child, Prague, ca. 1890s. (Leo Baeck Institute, New York)

Prague and other Bohemian cities and towns produced many other German writers of significance in this period and after, including, for example, Paul Adler (1878–1946), Leo Perutz (1884–1957), and Franz Carl Weiskopf (1900–1955), all from Prague; Norbert Fryd (1913–1976) from Budweis (České Budějovice); and Oskar Neumann (b. 1894) from Brüx (Most) in German Bohemia. After the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, Prague became a major center of exile literature by German Jews. In the adjacent province of Moravia, Jews were generally more strongly identified with German language and culture, or at least in greater percentages and for longer, than those in Bohemia. From the province’s capital of Brünn (Brno) hailed writers such as Ernst Weiss (1882–1940) and Fritz Beer (1911–2006); from other towns in Moravia came Hermann Ungar (1893–1929) and Ludwig Winder (1889–1946). Holocaust writers Josef Bor (1906–1979) and Meir Marcel Faerber (1908–1993) came from Mährisch Ostrau (Moravská Ostrava); and even as important a figure as Sigmund Freud could be included, but his family moved to Vienna from the Moravian town of Freiberg (Příbor) while he was still a boy. An important if also idiosyncratic exemplar is Alexander Friedrich Roda Roda (Sándor Friedrich Rosenfeld; 1872–1945), whose early work would come to characterize the “Habsburg spirit,” according to Gregor von Rezzori. Roda Roda was born in Drnowitz (Cz., Drnovice), Moravia in 1872, but his family soon moved to Zdenci in Slavonia, the furthest eastern province of today’s Croatia. Roda Roda’s Central Europe ranged into German Austria and Germany itself, where he became famous as a satirist, rubbing elbows with leading literati and political writers of the age.

Jews from the eastern reaches of Cisleithania, particularly Galicia, with its very large Polish Jewish population, were less likely to contribute to German literature. The Habsburg character of the region was strong, and the population in several areas quite mixed, including German-speaking aristocrats, Jews, Poles, and Ukrainians. But the vast majority of Jews in these areas lived within a strong Yiddish-speaking cultural environment. Still, several Galician Jews did make significant contributions to German literature. Two very important examples were men whose background as East European Jews cannot be considered incidental to the content of their contributions. Martin Buber (1879–1965), raised in Lwów (L’viv; Lemberg), presented mediations of Hasidic tradition that to a German audience were obviously linked to this background, as was his crucial journal Der Jude, and even his philosophical writing, or so one could argue. Joseph Roth (1894–1939) was born in Eastern Galicia (today’s Ukraine) and became an important Austrian modernist writer. Yet, in both these and in other cases, the authors’ contributions were made after their emigration, as it were, to German-speaking lands beyond the invisible boundary of Eastern Europe. They thus can be said to have made their contributions as émigrés rather than as East European writers of German. This path was not unusual for a certain tier of Galician Jewish society, who took German to be the language of higher culture and education and had their children schooled in it, even if as a second, third, or fourth language (after Yiddish, Polish, scholarly Hebrew, and sometimes Ukrainian). Such was the path of writers Manès Sperber (1905–1984), Soma Morgenstern (1890–1976), Salamon Dembitzer (1888–1964), W. H. Katz, the scholar Nahum Glatzer (1903–1990), and psychoanalytic writers such as Sigmund Biran (b. 1901). Most made their way to Vienna; many studied or worked in Germany.

Max Brod (right) with composer Hans Erich Pfitzner, Venice, 1923–1924. (Mahler-Werfel Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania)

An important German writer from this region who should not, however, be considered typical was Karl Emil Franzos (1847/48–1904), who spent his earliest childhood in Galicia and attended a German-language Gymnasium in nearby Czernowitz, Bucovina. This novelist, essayist, and poet was a fierce German nationalist and an important contributor to the nineteenth-century German “orientalist” image of Eastern Europe and its Jews (this last especially through the volumes Vom Don zur Donau. Neue Culturbilder aus Halb-Asien [From the Don to the Donau: New Cultural Portraits from Half-Asia; 1878]).

Bucovina (Ger., Bukowina) lay in the far northeastern corner of Cisleithania—today’s Romania—and had a long history of mixed populations, having been under the sovereignty of various kingdoms, principalities, and empires in every direction (including the Ottoman Empire, the Kingdom of Hungary, Kievan Rus, Moldau [Moldavia], the Habsburg monarchy, and then Romania). Hence Bucovina was considered by German leaders of the Habsburg Empire to be a key strategic site for Germanization since the reign of Joseph II, whose campaign included the settlement of many Germans from the West as well as the active Germanization of some local populations, especially Bucovina’s Jews and particularly in its capital, Czernowitz (Chernivtsi). German-language education was formally required of them in various ways, and by the nineteenth century the Jews of its many country towns and especially Czernowitz were largely German speaking and strong supporters of the monarchy. The city and region continued to attract Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants from surrounding areas, however. In the early twentieth century, Jews made up nearly half of the population of Czernowitz and well more than one-tenth of a population of nearly one million where no ethnic group commanded a majority. It was in the twentieth century that the German poetry of this region blossomed due to the extraordinary creativity of Bucovina’s Jews.

The most important of the German poetry written by Jews in Bucovina was created in the twentieth century, especially after World War I and the succession of the region to Romania. Here the most apt comparison may be made to the German literature produced by Jews in Prague earlier in the century. The disproportionate contribution can be thought of in the context of minority cultures, where the hegemonic status of the German language had already been superseded by other national claims, so that the previously privileged language of culture was now maintained and promulgated largely by German-acculturated Jews.

Geschichten aus sieben ghettos (Stories from Seven Ghettos) by Egon Erwin Kisch. (Amsterdam: Allert de Lange Verlag, 1934). Illustrated by P. L. Urban. (YIVO)

In both Bucovina and Bohemia, contemporaries and scholars have argued that the disproportionate literary talent might be linked to the isolation of these “language islands” and perpetuation of a high-cultural tradition from centuries past. But these sites were hardly considered language islands before the onset of the national movements that would create them as such, and the assumption that isolation from working-class elements or dialects is salutary seems transparently ideological. It is true that the Jews of Bucovina cherished a high cultural European heritage that seemed old-fashioned to many residents of both the surrounding Slavic and Romanian populations and those of most of German-speaking Europe as well. Another important influence is said to have been played by the so-called Ethical Seminar at the University of Czernowitz, where some Jewish students, notably Rose Ausländer (1901–1988), were steeped in a German neoidealist philosophical tradition.

The poetry of German Jewish Bucovina is perhaps best known as Holocaust literature, although the greatest contributions clearly begin in the interwar period. Many and perhaps even most of the writers emigrated or spent substantial time in Germany, Austria, France, England, the United States, or Israel. Some of the most important, in addition to Ausländer and the poet Paul Celan (1920–1970), include Alfred Margul-Sperber (1898–1967), Klara Blum (1904–1971), Alfred Kittner (1906–1991), Alfred Gong (Alfred M. Liquornik, 1920–1981), Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger (1924–1942), Moses Rosenkranz (1904–2003), and Immanuel Weissglas (1920–1979), to name only the best known of many authors.


Jewish contributions to German culture in East European regions of mixed population were always linked to the status of German in those regions. In the post-Enlightenment period, a writer such as Moritz Gottlieb (1795–1858), born in Hungary, and acculturated to German language, carved a German-speaking literary sphere running from a Hungarian country town to Pest and Prague, Vienna, and Bavaria. Even in Theodor Herzl’s generation (his dates were 1860–1904), German cultural identification, and above all education, was the rule for bourgeois Budapest Jews. Bambi author and critic Felix Salten (1869–1945), a very popular and successful German writer of the day, was not generally identified as Jewish at all, much less Hungarian, although he was both and became increasingly persuaded by Zionism.

Unlike the Czech-speaking provinces with which it would later share several states, Slovakia was in the Hungarian half of the monarchy and as other largely non-Magyar regions was subject to periodic concerted and even violent Magyarization. Jews born in Slovakia, such as Bruno Frei (1897–1988) and art historian Moshe Atlas (b. 1891), would write in German after Austro-German education and relocation.

After the 1870s, things changed radically in the Hungarian half of the new “dual monarchy,” and Jews increasingly and strongly acculturated to Hungarian national identifications. Nonetheless, in cities such as Budapest, where the German cultural tradition had been strong in the Habsburg past, German remained in currency as a second language, a language associated with Western learning and with access to broader European traditions, including, for instance, international communism. These are reasons for the important German contributions by Jews such as the philosopher and literary critic Georg (György) Lukács (1885–1971), whose first German publications were originally drafted in Hungarian and translated by himself, and pioneer film writer and critic Béla Balázs (1884–1949). Playwright and novelist George Tabori (1914–2007) was also born in Budapest, worked in Germany, then emigrated to London and later to New York; his German plays were drafted in English and translated back into German. Yet, these works, in a different way from those of Roda Roda, can be said to capture the intricacies of cultural identification in the complex space known as Central Europe.

Farther East

While many of the East European Jews writing in German did so in lands under some influence or former influence of German state power, Jews from the former Russian and even Ottoman Empires must also be included in this survey. These fall into several categories, again based on the reasons for German language use as well as the kind of literature they produced. German (often Judeo-German) was a prime language of the Haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment in Eastern Europe, and some Jewish writers, such as the Russian memoirist Pauline Wengeroff (1833–1916), chose to write in it. The genre of ghetto literature was another outlet for East European Jews writing in German. The tradition emerged as a romantic and neoromantic form in the mid-nineteenth century, where Jewish ghetto life (past or present) was represented to a German public as something half tragic, half quaint; half foreign, half familiar; with pity and with nostalgia. While much of this so-called ghetto writing was produced by German Jews, there were others such as Mikhah Yosef Berdyczewski (1865–1921), the pioneer of Hebrew literature born in Międzyboż (now Medzhibizh, Ukr.) and living in Berlin, whose German writing related traditional Jewish life and legend. Alexander Eliasberg (1878–1924) of Minsk studied in Berlin and made a career in Germany as a translator, most famously, and was a mediator of traditional Jewish culture to a German reading public. As was the case with Martin Buber, the popularity of whose volumes of Hasidic tales was owed in part to this genre, many of these writers were transplants. Ghetto writing was a significant genre of German literature, firmly anchored to the authors’ Jewish and East European roots.

One could argue further that there is continuity between this literary tradition and some of the Holocaust memoirs that emerged after 1945. Some of this literature chronicled life in East European Jewish communities before it was destroyed, and some tracked the authors’ lives through transit, concentration, or death camps, or into exile. This genre also derived from a refugee literature coming out of World War I, where a writer—Max Brusto from Kolno (1906–1998), for instance—was a war refugee in German-speaking lands and wrote about the refugee experience. Some refugees from this period, exemplified by Jura Soyfer (from Khar’kiv, Ukr.; 1912–1939), integrated as writers with little reference to their refugee status (while later a socialist poet, dramatist, and satirist, Soyfer was from a high bourgeois family who fled the Russian Revolution to Vienna). The Soviet and post-Soviet periods ushered in a new generation of exile literature including the contribution of many East European Jews such as Vladimir Vertlib (born in Leningrad; 1966– ), although the narrative of political persecution dominates these, and the Jewish heritage of the authors is more remote.

Suggested Reading

Susanne Blumesberger, Michael Doppelhofer, and Gabriele Mauthe, eds., Handbuch österreichischer Autorinnen und Autoren jüdischer Herkunft 18. bis 20. Jahrhundert, 3 vols. (Munich, 2002); Amy Colin and Alfred Kittner, eds., Versunkene Dichtung der Bukowina (Munich, 1994); Cécile Cordon and Helmut Kusdat, eds., An der Zeiten Ränder: Czernowitz und die Bukowina; Geschichte, Literatur, Verfolgung, Exil (Vienna, 2002); Wilma Iggers, ed., The Jews of Bohemia and Moravia: A Historical Reader, trans. Wilma Iggers, Káča Poláčková-Henley, and Kathrine Talbot (Detroit, 1992); Hans J. Schütz, “Eure Sprache ist auch meine”: Eine deutsch-jüdische Literaturgeschichte (Zurich, 2000); Scott Spector, Prague Territories: National Conflict and Cultural Innovation in Franz Kafka’s Fin de Siècle (Berkeley, 2000); Peter Stenberg, Journey to Oblivion: The End of the East European Yiddish and German Worlds in the Mirror of Literature (Toronto and Buffalo, 1990); Desider Stern, Werke von Autoren jüdischer Herkunft in deutscher Sprache (Vienna, 1970).