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The Other Fatherland

Zionist Longing for Europe

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In October 1903, shortly before Theodor Herzl’s early death, a Jew from Austria-Hungary, Edmund Eisler, sent the father of modern Zionism a letter. In it, he compared Herzl’s vision of a Jewish State to his own ideas, especially as articulated in his utopian novel Ein Zukunftsbild: Ein romantisches Gemälde, which he had published anonymously nearly twenty years earlier in 1885. Any response Herzl may have penned to Eisler has been lost to history and is not to be found in his archives. Eisler’s utopian work, however, survives, both in Y. Tolkes’s 1954 Hebrew translationFound in Gezel Kressel, ed. by Ḥezyone medinah: yalḳuṭ uṭopiyot Tsiyoniyot//Visions of a State: Anthology of Zionist Utopias, Tel Aviv 1954, 27–98. and in a typed copy of the original German publication that can be found in Nathan M. Gelber’s papers held in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem.The manuscript is held in the Nathan M. Gelber Private Collection at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP), P83-I-154.

Ein Zukunftsbild is short, totaling a mere 95 pages in the German original. In this novel, the reader discovers the germs of ideas that would become recognizable key ideas for the nascent Zionist movement in the decades following its publication. These ideas include not only a return to Palestine, but also a vision for a new societal order that privileges peace, tolerance, and fairer economic systems intended to repair the faults in contemporary European societies. However, to focus on Eisler’s prose as a mere vehicle for proto-Zionist talking points that are articulated in characters’ lengthy monologues misses the literary value of this idiosyncratic text. For the novel contains more than mere ideas.

In Ein Zukunftsbild, Eisler used fiction to imagine a whole world unfolding across a narrative arc. It begins in the aftermath of a pogrom in an unnamed European land. The main character, Abner, founds a movement that advocates for Jewish return to Palestine. Within a decade, he gains sufficient support from a large following of Jews and non-Jewish politicians to lead a large migration back to Palestine, where his followers install him as king and he goes about implementing his vision for a new society.

Edmund Eisler, Ein Zukunftsbild, Nathan M. Gelber Collection, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, P83-I-154
Transcript of Edmund Eislers novel "Ein Zukunftsbild", Nathan M. Gelber Collection, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.
Edmund Eisler, Ein Zukunftsbild, Nathan M. Gelber Collection, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, P83-I-154
Transcript of Edmund Eislers novel "Ein Zukunftsbild", Nathan M. Gelber Collection, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

The name of Eisler’s main figure recalls the biblical Abner: a military commander and liminal figure who finds himself caught between his loyalty to Saul’s family and the emerging Davidic Kingdom. Like his biblical namesake, King Abner exists between two kingdoms. Before he takes leave of his European »fatherland,« Abner speaks with his non-Jewish lover, Agnes. He explains: »In Ruhe und Frieden waeren [sic!] wir vielleicht in einem Saekulum [sic!] oder in einem geringeren Zeitraume ineinander verschmolzen. Liebe vermag vieles.«CAHJP, P83-I-154, 24. Nonetheless, Abner gives up on his dream of fusion – not only with Agnes, but with his European fatherland – with an acknowledgement that anti-Jewish sentiment and violence in Europe makes such hopes futile.

These dreams of Jewish absorption in Europe once again recall Herzl, who came to Zionism by way of his frustration with the inability of European Jews to truly become part of majority society. Indeed, one of Herzl’s most radical ideas was not of a new society in Palestine, but of mass Jewish conversion blessed by the pope himself in order to bring about unquestioned Jewish belonging within European borders.See Theodor Herzl, Briefe und Tagebücher. Zionistisches Tagebuch 1895–1899, eds. by Alex Bein et al., Berlin 1983, 46 f. Thus, to place Ein Zukunftsbild in a common genealogy with Theodor Herzl is not only to see a shared mission, but also a shared initial failure and disappointment.

A reader could be forgiven for expecting a straightforward development from disappointment in dreams of European belonging to the advocacy for, and then creation of, a Jewish State. This expectation is challenged by the actual arc of Eisler’s novel. The novel’s final pages include a moving scene that betrays the surprising ambivalence of King Abner’s commitments. As the king nears his death, he reigns over a peaceful, prosperous kingdom and determines to prepare his son, the prince, for his future role as king by sending him to Europe on a »grand tour« of sorts. While in his father’s (former) homeland, the prince delivers a sealed letter from his father to the reigning king. In it, Abner shares a final request to this »Maechtiger [sic!] Herrscher des Abendlandes«: He asks that the king allow his son to return with some soil from this land, so that in death Abner’s »müdes Haupt« might finally rest »auf der Scholle der Heimat.«CAHJP, P83-I-154, 92 f.

This picture of one king reaching out through his son to another, that he might assert an attachment to a land he does not rule over encapsulates a central, paradoxical thread that weaves its way through Eisler’s entire narrative. On the one hand, the novel emphasizes the necessity of Jewish settlement in Palestine; on the other, it refuses to ignore the attachment and loyalty that the leader of this movement has to his European homeland. Indeed, the novel’s conspicuous silence about the identity of Abner’s homeland appears to deliberately invite the European Jewish reader’s identification with this character, regardless of where that reader may reside, be it Germany, Austria-Hungary, or some other country. This clear ambivalence lends Eisler’s novel a wistfulness that reminds today’s readers that for many Zionists, the dream of a Jewish State often existed in uneasy tension with an unconsummated love affair with Europe.

Joshua Shelly is a PhD candidate in the Carolina-Duke Graduate Program in German Studies in North Carolina in the United States. He is currently researching and writing his dissertation on how German-speaking Jews used literary works to envision and contest a future Jewish State in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries | js674(at)duke.edu

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