The Greatest Jewish Writer You Never Heard Of
By Martin Sieff
Nearly 40 years now since I discovered the hilarious, joyous, subversive, vicious and wise books of Stefan Heym: If you hate Nazis, Communism, Anti-Semites, Bigots, Censorship and Big Bullies of every persuasion hunt down and devour the works of Heym: You have found your champion. You have found your lifelong friend. When writer Stefan Heym – like George Orwell he started Life under another name but do not be deceived, Heym is who he was – died suddenly on a visit to Israel in December 2001 at the age of almost 89, the world outside Germany, the home he hated, paid almost no notice. Now, more than 19 years on from his passing Heym has not been forgotten in America and Israel only because he was never remembered there in the first place.
His passing went virtually unrecorded in the American media even though he had been a US combat veteran of World War II, a noted figure in American letters in the 1940’s and one of the first and most courageous intellectual dissidents against communism in Europe in the following decades. In Israel, there were actually some tributes, though hardly enthusiastic or excessive. No one knew what to do with Heym. Even at his most thoughtful and mellow, those in political and cultural power were more than a bit scared of him, and with good reason. He hated their guts.
But Heym will endure – more in German no doubt than English or Hebrew, which is another irony he would richly relish, since he actually wrote all his great works in English in the first place. No writer of the 20th century fulfilled the hallowed role of the Writer as Fearless Critic without Fear or Favor more consistently. No one ever exposed the petty nastiness of communist tyranny or the corruption and incompetence that is the inevitable outcome of socialism with more economy or wit.
As much as Heinrich Heine and Kurt Weill, Heym’s soul and life work were both saturated in the best and most corrosive Jewish cynicism. Heym’s character Ethan the Scribe, an earnest intellectual innocent dangerously lost in the political intrigues and power plays of King Solomon’s court in “The King David Report”, expresses astonishment to find fine cooking and excellent service in a royal guest house. His world-weary, street-smart mentor Amenhoteph the Eunuch patiently explains, “This goes to prove, Ethan, that not everything which is done by the servants of the government need be shoddy and of low quality or witless. If you know the chief servant and grease his hand with the necessary shekels, you will participate of the finest. … But if you rely on the people’s love to the King or their eagerness for the good cause, you will be served late if ever, and you will find grit in your soup and hairs in your sausage.”
Heym never deviated from this view. Elected in his 80s to the new parliament, or Bundestag of a united Germany, he then proceeded to drive decent, democratic Chancellor Helmut Kohl to distraction, too, just as he had the communist petty tyrant Erich Honecker 30 years before. He would not have had it any other way.
Heym never courted what late American sports announcer Howard Cosell would have called “the poo-bahs” of the international literary establishment. He would, again, have had withering contempt for their goodwill.
Like Philip Roth and John le Carré, he never won a Nobel Prize for Literature, but like them, his work looks certainly to outlast scores who did – and it certainly produces far more belly laughs. “The King David Report” is arguably the finest Biblical novel written and certainly the funniest. “Five Days in June” is a heartrendingly vivid recreation of the 1953 workers’ uprising against communist domination in East Berlin and how it was mercilessly crushed.
“The Wandering Jew” is as profound a meditation of the human condition and man’s fate as anything written by Andre Malraux, but a lot easier – and far funnier – to read. Heym’s fantastic, amazingly compelling account of the bureaucratic and political maneuverings and compromises that created the Biblical Book of Samuel in “The King David Report” is as mesmerizing a voyage of literary discovery as any by Borges himself. Heym did not go totally unappreciated: Anyone who has felt a chord in their being echo on the receiving end of the words of Brecht or Weill will resonate to his too. Critic D. J. Enright, writing in the “New York Review of Books,” regarded him as the master of “the German genius” in literature. Enright hailed “The Wandering Jew,” arguably Heym’s greatest and certainly his most loved work, as filled with “beer and onions, bums and breasts, metaphysics and damnation, slapstick and horror … a brilliant theological fantasy.”
Born Helmut Fleig (or Hellmuth Fleigel, Mitteleuropa Jewish identities were always fluid in the first half of the 20th century: To survive they had to be), Heym survived the greatest horrors of the 20th century head-on and paid a fearsome price for doing so. His businessman father committed suicide under Nazi persecution in 1935. His mother and the rest of his family were murdered in the Shoah. Fleeing to America, he became a U.S. citizen, he served with distinction in the U.S. Army fighting to free Western Europe in 1944-45. His 1948 war novel “The Crusaders” is one of the greatest works of that era and of far greater quality and stature than the over-rated, bloated melodramas of James Jones or the ludicrous and elephantine Norman Mailer.
Disgusted at the rise of Senator Joe McCarthy, Heym renounced his war medals and U.S. passport in the 1950s and was eagerly welcomed by Communist East Germany. Within a few years he was a banned and muzzled writer. He simply continued to write and sent all his works out of East Germany to be published where they proved huge international bestsellers. At first, he survived by making his ritual obeisance to Stalin: It did not last. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, he was the most trenchant literary dissident writing anywhere in the communist world. Then, after communism collapsed, in the 1994 German federal elections, he won a Bundestag seat – fittingly enough, in Berlin – on a neocommunist platform.
As the oldest member of the parliament, he became the official “father of the Bundestag,” an irony he relished. He proved adept at infuriating Chancellor Kohl. He was once again in his element. Even Heym’s death was eerily appropriate for such an extraordinary life. He flew out to Jerusalem, the home of his two most fabled characters, Ahasverus, the Wandering Jew and Ethan from “The King David Report,” for the naming of a street after 19th century romantic poet Heinrich Heine, the greatest of all Jewish contributors to German culture.
To the last, Heym was controversial, combative and unrepentant. He was a hemorrhoid up the anus: A concept that came naturally to the very Germanic and direct sense of abusive humor in which he reveled. (It is a minor literary tragedy that such a man never visited Ireland: the cross-fertilization of outrageous dissident cultures would have reached critical mass). Controversy had swirled in Israel over naming a street in the Holy City for Heine – a Jew who converted to Christianity and only renounced it on his deathbed. To Heym, of course, this was an irrelevance. He acclaimed Heine, not so much as a German or a Jew and certainly not as a Christian, but as a left-winger. He then went down to visit the Dead Sea, a location that would have figured prominently for both Ahasverus and Ethan, and died there, peacefully and suddenly, three days later.
Or is he really dead? After all in the ancient myth, the Wandering Jew never can really die, and Heym’s Ahasverus never does, even when he is beaten to death under religious judicial decree by the humorless hypocrite and clod Paul von Eitzen in the less than inviting environment of 16th century Reformation Germany. And sure enough, when Eitzen dies, his soul claimed by the fallen angel Lucifer in his guise as Lichttraeger decades later, Ahasverus returns to see justice finally done.
How can one avoid the speculation that the indestructible Heym was his own Ahasverus, and that he chose to fake his own death back at the Dead Sea before reappearing no doubt this time as the merciless scourge of Palestinian hatred and Israeli self-righteousness alike? Ahasverus, after all, returned to Jerusalem to reclaim the cobbler’s shop from which he witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion. Or maybe, like Ahasverus, Heym just felt it was time to go home.
In a century in which Germany destroyed its Jews and the world then reviled Germany, he was both an unapologetic German and Jew. He defied communism fearlessly as long as it held any power and threatened any innocents. But as soon as it had collapsed, he embraced it anew as a lance to tilt against capitalism. He outlived Nazism, saw it dead and buried in the smoking ruins of Germany’s Year Zero -1945. Four and a half decades later he outlived Communism too. Reaganism and the triumph of the West left him cold. He never took either of them seriously.
Stefan Heym spent his life at war with the 20th century, and in the end it was the 20th century that lost. Like George Orwell and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, he was one of the giants, sui generis, unique. I certainly will not wish him Rest in Peace: It is the last thing he would have wanted.