Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Monday, August 5, 2019

Mottke The Thief by Sholem Asch - 1935 - Translated from Yiddish by Wilma and Edwin Muir

1880 - Born in Poland

1910 - moves to U.S.A, becomes a citizen

A financially fortuitous marriage allowed him to devote all his energied to his writings.  

1957 - died London, though he spent much time in Israel.

Prior to today I have posted upon three very powerful short stories by Sholem Asch.  Kola Street, perhaps his most famous story, is set in Warsaw.

“Kola Street” is an unflinching look at the violence and social conflicts within Jewish society in Warsaw in the days between the world wars.  The story begins with an account of the Kola Street Jews, the roughest elements of Jewish society and their relationship to upper class Jews.  The narrator tells us that the rich may scorn the common people of Kola Street but whenever gentile thugs come to attack them they call for the help of Kola Street residents.  When -ever funds are needed to support scholarships for the study of the Torah, the rich ask Kola Street for help.  

“Jew's Eyes", set in Buchenwald tells a story of chilling cruelty inflicted on a Jewish child with beautiful eyes.  

"The Jewish Soldier”, published first in 1914 in The Forward in New York City, would have sent Asch to Siberia if published in Poland of Russia.  A powerful anti-war story, it tells The story of a young Polish Jew drafted into the Russian Army to fight the Germans.  

Mottke The Thief is the first novel I have read by Asch. A very interesting work, it tells The story of a man born into a poor shtetl family in 
Poland who becomes Warsaw's leading pump and brothel owner.  Much of his money is made by selling girls to brothel operators in Argentina.  The girls are told they will become rich mistresses of "black princes" and are eager to go.  We are told only that a horrendous life awaits them.

Mottke's mother in a fit of jealous rage threw acid in the face of her husband, partially blinding him, shortly before he was born.  He was a cobbler but now could only work a little.  His mother stayed constantly pregnant which allowed her to work as a wet nurse for a wealthy family, supporting the family from this.
Mottke's father abuses him terrible.  His mother finds the money to send him to Torah school.  He is abused by the master and his wife and is falsely accused of robbing them.  His parents and almost everybody else says he will end up a thief.  

At age 14, he begins to spy on women as they bath.  He ends up raping his cousin and another girl and decides to head for Warsaw, a magic place in his mind.  In a very interesting and a bit weird to me interlude he joins a troupe of "tumblers", clearly meant to be a Gypsy tribe.  The members of the group, who put on shows as they travel the country in a caravan, are thieves, the women near prostitutes.  Mottke ends up falling in love with a young woman in the group, Mary.  She will play an important part in his future.

Compressing a lot, the description of prostitution in Warsaw was very interesting.  Asch shows us pimps competing for girls, girls bring beaten for poor earnings.  For 1935, it is sexually open.  

The novel is advertised as taking us beyond the stereotype of Yiddish literature to depict the role of Jews in the criminal life of Warsaw.  We see how poverty drives girls, often orphaned young, to become prostitutes.  

Mottke comes to a sad end.

This book kept my attention throughout.  

I found it ironic to see Roma people depicted in a fashion in accord with the ideology that justified sending them to concentration camps by a Yiddish writer in 1935. 

After his death, endowed by his widow, his residence in Tel Aviv became a museum, still open.

The museum website has a lot of good data

For sure it is worth your time should you visit Tel Aviv.

Mel u
Oleander Bousweau

Mel u

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