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Trolley cars, Vienna, Austria, 1923.Library of Congress
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Some Notes on My Father’s Cousin, Joseph Roth

Seventy-seven years to the day after the Austrian-Jewish journalist and novelist died, the great chronicler of prewar Europe still has much to tell us

Barbara Probst Solomon
May 27, 2016
Library of Congress
Trolley cars, Vienna, Austria, 1923.Library of Congress

At 19, in 1948 shortly after World War II ended I arrived in Paris as a student from New York. I tried to imagine what the world would have been like without Hitler. Would I have ended up living in my Spanish/French world in Paris? Would I have perhaps lived a bit in Vienna? Would I have learned German instead of French and Spanish? Would I have fallen in love with a dark-eyed, young Jewish intellectual, to whom I would have given my heart, whom I would have adored, whom I wasn’t destined to meet, because he was among the already dead? I ended up knowing a tremendous amount about Hitler and the Nazis. But there was the missing existence that never got lived out. I knew nothing about the European Jews before Hitler—I got myself stuck with Hitler, though Hitler, other than murdering members of my family, of murdering everyone, had nothing to do with what should have been my historic and cultural legacy.

My father was born in Vienna in 1894; his father, Nathan Probst, persuaded my grandmother Clara Roth to the shock of their mutual Jewish families to divorce her first husband and run off to America with her second husband, the feckless Nathan Probst. In a letter my cousin Shlomo Naor wrote while he was in Israel, he mentioned that his mother first knew my father’s cousin, the writer Joseph Roth, in Vienna. He then later met her in Holland and Belgium where he was a journalist. She mentioned to her son Shlomo that Roth was not a very happy or joyful person. She told Shlomo that Roth’s father Nahum suffered from deep depressions.

The half-orphaned Roth was born in Brody and attended the Baron-Hirsh School, which was conducted in German, then a Gymnasium in Lemberg where his mother Maria Grubel’s family lived, then the University of Vienna. Jews in the backward Austro-Hungarian Empire, so filled with wind, dust, and painted guilt, had certain advantages. They were able to travel freely, to rise to positions in the military, and they had all sorts of official responsibilities. Despite the sizzle of anti-Semitism in Viennese society (and what made it eventually turn into a raging fire), culture, including much of the press, was largely in the hands of the Jews. In that flashy askew society studded with dark desperate contradictions, the Emperor Franz Joseph, a liberal conservative, did protect the Jews. And so did the Vienna-based Jewish philanthropies.

Roth the novelist, the author of the masterpiece The Radetsky March, now considered, along with Kafka and Musil, as one of the great writers of the 20th century in the German language, was not a separate being from Roth the brilliant journalist; more to the point, one endeavor, particularly morally, fed into the other. The closer one gets to understanding Roth’s reality the less allegorical his novels seem and the smaller the distance between Roth the novelist and Roth the journalist. The Tale of the 1002nd Night seems on the first reading pure fable: It is chockablock with pashas, princes, pearls, and other Vienna exotica. Some of our expression of fable and allegory comes from our inability to conjure up from this distance in time the world as Roth saw it.

In one of a collection of pieces about the Austrian writer Alexander Roda Roda the following scene is described:

In his Berlin home one encounters a unique society of Arab intellectuals, Zionist leaders, women cabaret dancers and university professors, Austrian socialist leaders and demented Hapsburgs, Baltic counts and Bulgarin Communist. Gathered there was Stefan Zweig, Erich Kästner, Max Pulver, George Grosz, Max Hape, Ernst Toller, Klabund [Alfred Henschke], Heinrich Mann, [Carl] Zuckmayer, and Joseph Roth together with his companion, [Andrea Manga Bell] she was the former mistress of a Dutch Cameroon tribal chief, and Roth’s two stepsons, two small black boys, who rapidly ran through the apartment were dressed in fragments of uniforms belonging to Roda’s youth.

Roth’s life was always more at a tilt, more extreme, less grounded but more far-flung; he was more curious about the world than most of his friends among the Berlin and Vienna intellectuals. He had turned to the exotic Andrea Manga Bell, the daughter of a Hamburg woman of Huguenot descent and a black Cuban musician, after his wife Friedl Reichler, in what was a nightmare repeat of his father’s fate, suffered a schizophrenic breakdown and had to be institutionalized. Friedl’s death was monstrous—she was killed in a Nazi euthanasia program in 1940. Both Friedl and Andrea Manga Bell were part of the new class of “intellectual women”—one worked in the documentary department of the press, the other was a journalist. Roth lived with Andrea Manga Bell from the late 1920s to 1937. Maybe one of the many reasons that Roth was reluctant to travel to the United States was the intense segregation at that time.

Roth’s emphasis in The Wandering Jews on the fluid movement of the Jews inside Europe goes contrary to the American stereotypes—the Hester Street Jews, the German banker, the Hannah Arendt intellectual. The American version of the Jewish experience treated these stereotypes as though they were absolute categories cast in stone. Roth knew perfectly well the German banker might have had relatives in a Polish shtetl, the high-flown highly educated intellectual might have come from a family of tailors. The Jews were geographically and socially criss-crossed as the crazy quilt of European pre-World War II gummy political boundaries, which bore no relation to the ethnic makeup of those regions.

In The Wandering Jews Joseph Roth asks:

What makes a “Western Jew”? Is it that he can prove his ancestors were fortunate enough never to have had to flee from any Western European, not to say, German pogroms, in the Middle Ages or subsequently? Is a Jew from the city of Breslau, long known by its Polish name of Wroclaw, more of a Western Jew than one from Cracow, which is still in Poland today? Is a man a Western Jew if his father has no memories of Posen or Lvov? Almost all Jews were Western before they ever got to Russia or Poland. And all Jews were once “Eastern Jews,’ before a few of them went West. Many of the “Vienna Jews,” “Berlin Jews” etcetera were part of the reverse Diaspora from East to West. Some arrived a generation sooner, some a generation later.


Roth traveled in the 1920s for the Franfurter Zeitung through Europe and Russia; he also served (he didn’t see action) in the Austrian army in the first World War. Overnight the Austro-Hungarian Empire had vanished, overnight the Russian revolution had given a different shape to Eastern Europe. Roth was amazingly prescient—he saw what was happening, and what he thought would happen to Europe did. The Spider’s Web, written in 1923, is about the early rise of Nazism in Germany and its immediate use of anti-Semitism to gain power. Early on Roth warned his older more bourgeois friend Stefan Zweig not to be so trusting of the Germans. He quickly saw that the Soviet Union was a nightmare, not a hope—he was one of the small group of intellectuals who immediately understood the dangers of both Fascism and Stalinism. The first World War is the cataclysmic event: I assume that the character of the theatrical producer Abel Glanz in Hotel Savoy—one of my favorite Roth novels, who comes to the once splendiferous fin de siècle hotel at the soldiers and civilians stumble through Lodz in the wars aftermathwas a gesture of admiration on Roth’s part for the movie director Abel Gance and his sensational pacifist film J’accuse about the horrors of World War I.

Zionism, Communism, socialism, capitalism, modernity, and inflation were in the air, yet the shtetls of Eastern Europe were still in place, so was a peasant class; the wheezy counts and princes of Middle Europe were also vaguely hanging in. In the midst of this dusty chaos and visceral anti-Semitism, the exodus of the Jews from the east—out of optimism, ambition, and necessity—exploded. So did the anti-Semitism in the West. The migrating Jews lacked work papers, they had difficulty with the police, their toehold in these new countries was fragile. Roth describes the conditions in shtetls and in each major capital at the time of this new Diaspora—how the Christians treated them, how Jews who had already settled in the West treated their co-religionist newcomers. Due to the shrinking quota, access to the United States was cut off. The Jews in the 1920s already were in a cul-de-sac, sitting ducks for the Holocaust.

In The Wandering Jews Roth expresses his rage that Jews had to fight in the armies of countries where they were mistreated, in which they had few rights; and worse, where they were put in the shameful positions of murdering their relatives; who because of migration or an unreal, flaky, porous border were on the other side. It was almost as though they were participating in an inchoate civil war with themselves. And the Europeans understood that. If Jews openly made a point of their trauma at killing their co-religionists they were in danger of being considered spies—“enlightened” France had sent Dreyfus to Devil’s Island. Roth felt the Jews were loony to boast of having fought for Germany, Austria, France, or in the Czarist armies, he wrote: They should have felt ashamed. He saw them as a people without a nation. Hitler, too, saw them as a people who had connections everywhere; ironically, his was the paranoid version of an innocent yet frequently buried truth, which Roth fearlessly made explicit—Jews had always survived by having ties with relatives in different countries. Despite this Roth was ambivalent about Israel, he was not a Zionist. He felt the Jews would arrive in Israel as Europeans, with the same nationalistic instinct as Europeans. He wrote ruefully that they would arrive with guns; the Arabs might not like their lot improved by them.

In Roth’s possession when he died was an invitation to the P.E.N. Club. Dorothy Thompson had translated one of his novels and wanted to bring him to New York. That trip never happened. With the eyes of a skeptical Viennese sophisticate he saw the United States as being merely materialistic. With the eyes of an Eastern European Jew, the descendant of rabbis, he writes about the Eastern Jew:

It’s not America that frightens him, it’s the ocean. … What frightens him is disorientation. He is accustomed to turning three times a day towards Misrach, the East. It is more than a religious imperative. It is the deeply felt need to know where he is. To know his location. It is easier to find one’s way and to know God’s way from the certainty of a geographical location. He knows more or less which way Palestine lies.

And with the eyes of a man in love with a half-black woman, he takes note of the position of blacks in America. The photographs of Andrea Manga Bell show her to have been astonishingly beautiful and, like her sons, definitely black. Roth wryly observes that the emigrant Jew has one advantage in America—he is white, not Negro. Did he and Andrea Manga Bell discuss the possibility of coming to America? Of the complication for her and her sons? I don’t have a clue.

I lived on the rue de Vaugirard, where it meets Monsieur le Prince. Paco and I would walk past the Luxembourg gardens, past the Place de l’Odeon, and turn on rue de Tournon to meet Paco’s exiled friends at the same café every afternoon. We passed right by the café Tournon and the Hotel de la Poste, where Joseph Roth lived in the last days of his of exile. In May of 1939, a few days after the suicide of his best friend Ernst Toller, he died of delirium tremens in the Necker Hospital in Paris. In 1948 when I passed by Roth’s hotel I had no idea that my father’s cousin had lived his last days there. It was another time, the time of Sartre, Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir.

Barbara Probst Solomon has just finished her new memoir The Girl in the Green Rowboat and Other Wisps of Memories, about the United States and Europe. She has published seven books of fiction and memoir, and has been a longtime contributor to the Madrid newspaper El Pais. Her work has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harpers, and The New York Review of Books. She holds the Spanish Order of Isabella de Catholica for her contributions to the Spanish culture.