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Wassermann, Jakob


WASSERMANN, JAKOB (1873–1933), German novelist and essayist. In his autobiography, Mein Weg als Deutscher und Jude (1921; My Life as German and as Jew, 1933), Wassermann reviews his life from his birth in Fuerth, an industrial center of Franconia and the seat of an ancient Jewish community. He had an unhappy childhood and youth and, during his years of penury, found escape from despair in literary visions. In Munich, Wassermann joined the staff of Simplizissimus; from 1898 he lived in Vienna. In time he became friendly with Hugo von *Hofmannsthal, Arthur *Schnitzler, and Thomas *Mann. For his first novel, Die Juden von Zirndorf (1897; The Dark Pilgrimage, 1933), Wassermann utilized personal experiences interwoven with old myths and legends of Franconian Jewry to present a vivid portrait of changing Jewish life in his native province. He won wider recognition with Caspar Hauser oder die Traegheit des Herzens (1908; Caspar Hauser, 1928), the tragic story of a foundling. The unusual individual at odds with society was also the main theme of Das Gaensemaennchen (1915; The Goose Man, 1922), a novel about a musician and composer burdened with guilt and tragedy through his concentration on his art and withdrawal from life.

Wassermann's international vogue dates from Christian Wahnschaffe (2 vols., 1919), a grandiose epic of Europe on the eve of World War i, which became an American best seller under the title The World's Illusion (1920). The novels that followed include Ulrike Woytich (1923; Eng. Gold, 1924), a critical analysis of materialistic greed; Der Fall Mauritius (1928; The Mauritius Case, 1929), which castigated the worship of legalism; Etzel Andergast (1930; Eng. 1932) and its sequel, Joseph Kerkhovens dritte Existenz (1934; Joseph Kerkhoven's Third Existence, 1934), clinical studies set against the political and moral chaos after the German defeat of 1918; and many other less profound, but popular, works. He also wrote biographical sketches of Christopher Columbus (1929) and Hofmannsthal in Hofmannsthal der Freund (1930).

Wassermann was preeminently a gifted storyteller. In his long prose epics he drew characters from various social strata who seek God despite their horrible experiences, and eventually find salvation after perilous adventures.

Wassermann was an articulate exponent of German-Jewish assimilation and an implacable foe of Jewish nationalism. He believed in a Jewish priestly and prophetic mission among the nations, yet held the "Chosen People" idea to be "plainly absurd and immoral." In his view, the Jews were unfitted for common action and had no talent for politics. Reconstituted as a nation in line with Zionist aspirations, they would be an international laughingstock. Wassermann insisted that his own work exemplified the synthesis of Germanism and Judaism which others should follow, but he abhorred apostasy. The triumph of Nazism and the burning of his books in German towns brought Wassermann back to the spiritual ghetto from which he had always fled and to a common destiny with the eastern European Jews with whom he had always denied kinship. Wassermann published a second autobiographical work, Selbstbetrachtungen (1933), but Ahasver, a novel intended to describe the epic history of the Jews, was never completed.


E. Poeschel, in: G. Krojanker (ed.), Juden in der deutschen Literatur (1926), 76–100; A.L. Sell, Das metaphysischrealistische Weltbild Jakob Wassermanns (Thesis, Marburg, 1932); S. Bing, Jakob Wassermann (Ger., 19332); M. Karlweis, Jakob Wassermann (Ger., 1935); J.C. Blankenagel, The Writings of Jakob Wassermann (1942; includes bibliography); W. Voegeli, Jakob Wassermann und die Traegheit des Herzens (1956), includes bibliography; S. Liptzin, Germany's Stepchildren (1944, repr. 1961), 173–83.

[Sol Liptzin]

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