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Was B. Traven Jewish?

The mystery of the author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre remains unresolved

Paul Berman
August 30, 2019
(Original photo: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
B. Traven, 1920 (Original photo: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)(Original photo: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
(Original photo: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
B. Traven, 1920 (Original photo: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)(Original photo: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Was B. Traven, the proletarian writer with a much-disputed identity, a German Jew? And not just any German Jew, was his name Moritz Rathenau, and was he the illegitimate son of Emil Rathenau, the creator of the German electrical company and one of the principal industrialists of Germany at the turn of the 20th century? Was he the half-brother of Emil’s legitimate son, Walther Rathenau, the distinguished intellectual and foreign minister of Germany in 1922, whose assassination by anti-Semites marked a step into catastrophe? Was B. Traven someone, then, who ran away not once, but twice—from his origins in the upper pinnacle of the upper bourgeoisie, and from his life in Germany to a new and clandestine existence under a nom de plume in Mexico, as the prolific and mysterious author of The Death Ship, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and the Jungle Novels, among other distinguished works, adored by hippies and anarchists everywhere?

The Mexican magazine Letras Libres figures as one of the principal literary and intellectual journals in the Spanish-speaking world, and, in the May issue, it published an article making that case. I have studied the article up and down. And I can say that, at the very least, the article conforms faithfully to the inspirations and style of what is by now the second literature of B. Traven—not the literature composed by the man himself, whoever he was, but the multiple volumes and essays composed by other people speculating about his identity: a curious and obsessive literature, journalistic, scholarly, and imaginative, sometimes annoying, sometimes tantalizing. And now, for the first time, there is a Jewish claim.

The author is a British banker in Mexico named Timothy Heyman, and he speaks not only for himself but also, as he makes clear, for his wife, who is Traven’s step-daughter, Malú Montes de Oca Luján. Heyman does not claim to possess some previously unknown document or piece of hard evidence. He explains, instead, that it is 50 years now since Traven’s death, and 100 years since he escaped getting executed in Germany, and, on the occasion of those anniversaries, he and his wife have wished to announce publicly their firm belief in a story that was told by a friend of the family, long gone now, who knew Traven intimately.

The friend was Gabriel Figueroa, a well-known cinematographer in Mexico, who heard the story from his cousin, Esperanza López Mateos, who was likewise Traven’s friend (or closer than a friend, according to the gossip) and was his business partner, too—and happened to be, as well, the sister of Adolfo López Mateos, president of Mexico. According to Figueroa, Traven himself told Esperanza López Mateos that he was Moritz Rathenau, the illegitimate son of Emil. And she accepted it.

Heyman reports that, in 1990, Figueroa recounted the story to the French newspaper Libération and, in indication of how seriously he took it, recounted it again in his posthumous memoirs. The story failed to attract attention. Traven’s most thorough biographer is a professor of German studies at Harvard named Karl S. Guthke, who has explained in his B. Traven: The Life Behind the Legends that he knew the story. But Guthke had failed to come across any evidence in its favor. Hs conjecture was that Traven may not even have known his parentage, which might explain why he was able to make up so many stories about his origins without ever accidentally saying anything true, which would have led to some kind of corroboration.

But Heyman in Letras Libres insists that he and his wife do think Gabriel Figueroa’s story is true. Their reasons for thinking so appear to rest on the wife’s childhood memories of Traven, and on her memories of Figueroa as a friend of the family, and on instinct, and not on anything firmer. Heyman remarks that he paid a visit to the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, at the Center for Jewish History, which houses an archive of German Jewry, but he does not say that he discovered anything there. He emphasizes, instead, a secret-cipher logic that appears in all of the literature on Traven’s identity.

Traven was born in in 1882 in Germany, or perhaps in Poland, or perhaps in the immigrant zones of the United States. And, in his young years, he was (it is generally thought) an actor and an anarchist revolutionary in Germany under the name of Ret Marut. He published an anarchist journal called Der Ziegelbrenner, or The Brickburner, which promoted the abrasive philosophical doctrines of Max Stirner. He participated in the Bavarian revolution of 1919, the Munich Council Republic (which, if he was actually a half-Rathenau, would not have pleased Walther or the rest of the Rathenaus).

The revolution was crushed, and he was sentenced to death. He escaped. He survived underground. He continued to publish Der Ziegelbrenner somehow (his ability to publish an anarchist journal during those years in Germany has been cited by a variety of Travenologists as evidence that somebody in a position of power must have lent him support). He made his way to Mexico. And he began his new existence as the mysterious “B. Traven,” an instantly prolific novelist, who dropped hints about all kinds of identities under various names—e.g., an identity as a down-and-out American syndicalist, as in his early novel, Der Wobbly, which came out in English as The Cottonpickers.

But Heyman in Letras Libres argues that, throughout his career, both in his early period in Germany and in his later period as an exile in Mexico, he consistently paid homage anagrammatically to his true identity as Moritz Rathenau. In the name “Ret Marut,” from his early career in Germany, Heyman detects an anagram for Moritz. In the name “Traven” itself, from his later career in Mexico, Heyman detects an anagram for Rathenau, with a few changes of letters. Heyman, in keeping with other commentators on Traven, sees various word games, with the name “Marut” meaning tempest in Sanskrit, which corresponds to the name of the publishing house that Traven and López Mateos founded in Mexico, Ediciones Tempestad, or Tempest Editions. And so forth. Heyman adds in support of these points that his wife, Malú, the step-daughter, recalls from childhood that her step-father did enjoy word games at home.

More impressive is Heyman’s observation that Traven, after he had made his way to Mexico, lived in fear of the German community there, which was infiltrated by Nazis. In Heyman’s interpretation, it was fear that led Traven to spend a good amount of his time in Acapulco and in remote Chiapas (which became the landscape of the Jungle Novels), instead of in Mexico City, where the German expats gathered. And it was fear that accounted for his mania for anonymity—the fear that any German leftist would have felt, and especially a fear that was appropriate to someone from German Jewry’s most prominent family, whose brother had been famously assassinated.

Such is the evidence. Only, it occurs to me that, if Traven was really a Rathenau, whose reasons for fear were political, wouldn’t the reasons have evaporated, once the Nazis were gone? And, in that case, wouldn’t he have explored the possibility of seeking compensation from the German government, given the scale of the Rathenau wealth? Surely a good lawyer could have found something to say on behalf of even an illegitimate black sheep Rathenau with crazy philosophical ideas.

Then, too, if Traven was really a Rathenau, wouldn’t his old comrades in Germany from his days as Ret Marut have suspected something of the sort, and wouldn’t they have stepped forward in later years to comment on how remarkable it was? But there is no indication that Traven explored making a demand for compensation, and no indication that anyone in Germany commented, in retrospect, on the peculiarity of Rathenau connections among the Munich anarchists.

Nor do I see anything to suggest a Jewish soul lurking behind the disguises and pseudonyms. The first of the American writers to look into the mystery was Judy Stone, the sister of I.F. Stone, who, seemingly alone among journalists, had the good fortune to meet Traven and get to know him. This was in Mexico City in 1966, in the last years of his life. She published The Mystery of B. Traven in 1977, in which she explained that Traven’s wife, Rosa Elena Luján, introduced herself as “Mrs. Croves,” and a cantankerous Traven introduced himself as “Hal Croves.” And Hal Croves spoke to her at length about B. Traven in the third person, without exactly denying that Hal Croves and B. Traven were the same person—which is the behavior of a man in love with the mirrors and playfulness of his own mythology.

But Judy Stone also explained that, in the course of researching the man, she looked into Der Ziegelbrenner, from his days as Ret Marut. And she was dismayed to discover that, while Ret Marut was, of course, an anti-racist, his anti-racism conformed to the anti-racist style that we have become accustomed to in our own day. He wrote that, for example, “the people who came closest to me in friendship were mostly Jews, but sadly I have to admit—and I stress the word sadly—I haven’t found any decent people among them.” Which, if I may add, does not sound like the anti-Semitism of a Jewish leftist in rebellion against his plutocratic family. Jewish leftists, when they lapse into anti-Semitism, feel furiously betrayed, they are anguished, etc., but never do they claim to be sad.

Stone quoted a number of passages along those lines, less than friendly to the Jews. She observed that an East German author, in his own study of Traven, had suppressed the passages, and she noted that she herself had come under a bit of pressure to do the same. But she considered the passages significant and published them anyway. She did not mean to suggest that anti-Semitism was a life-long hobbyhorse of his. In conversation with her in Mexico City, Traven expressed a sympathy for the plight of the Jews in the Soviet Union. I would add that his novels, so far as I can remember, never touch on Jewish themes at all. But none of this suggests a Jewish awareness of some kind. Heyman in Letras Libres proposes that Traven was a “non-Jewish Jew,” in the phrase of Isaac Deutscher, but my own suspicion is that, on the contrary, he was merely non-Jewish.

And there is another reason for skepticism. “Forget the man!” Traven told Judy Stone. “What does it matter if he is the son of a Hohenzollern prince or anyone else? Write about his works. Write about how he is against anything which is forced upon human beings, including communism or Bolshevism.” Which is a marvelous remark. It was a tease on Traven’s part, and it was meant to suggest, of course, that maybe he was, in fact, a Hohenzollern—indeed, was the illegitimate son of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Traven’s wife, aka “Mrs. Croves,” insisted on that point. Mrs. Traven told a reporter for Stern magazine in Germany that Traven had confessed to her that he was the kaiser’s son—though she denied later on having said anything of the sort. Mrs. Traven made the same claim to Judy Stone—only to explain, on a later occasion, that Traven was furious at her for saying such things, and she was afraid that her husband might leave her, even if he was elderly, and she hoped that Stone would not write anything about it.

But that is not the half of it. The next American writer to try to penetrate the mystery was Jonah Raskin, who wrote not one, but two books on Traven, and, in the course of doing so, spent most of a year in Mexico, largely in the company of Mrs. Traven, a widow by then, going through Traven’s papers, and trying on his clothes, and typing on his typewriter, and meeting his friends and family. Raskin in those days was, as he has described in Tablet, a semi-aboveground figure in the Weather Underground, and the first of his Traven books, from 1978, was an extravaganza of New Left revolutionary romanticism in the form of a novelized memoir, faintly Kerouacian, dedicated “To Angela” (which the readers in those days could only have taken to mean Angela Davis, who had spent a while underground), called Underground: In Pursuit of B. Traven and Kenny Love—with “Kenny Love” being a stand-in for Abbie Hoffman, the Yippie leader, who, like everyone else, was on the lam. Underground attends to Raskin’s doings with Kenny Love a bit more than to his efforts to discover the identity of B. Traven.

But, even so, the book conjures the Mexican scene and the Lancondón jungle, where Raskin went to live for a while. And he introduces us to Mrs. Traven, whom we meet in fuller detail in the second book, this one entirely devoted to the search for Traven’s identity, called My Search for B. Traven, from 1980—a gossipy book, juicy with rumors about the upper bohemia of Mexico City. Traven himself does not come off so well in this second book, not in regard to the Jews, anyway. Raskin met an old European Jewish lady in Mexico (though she seems to have denied being Jewish) who remembered Ret Marut and his propaganda in Germany. “He was an anti-Semite,” she told him. “He blamed the Jewish journalists for starting the war, then he blamed the Jewish bankers for trying to stop the revolution in Russia.”

The picture of Mrs. Traven is likewise not so attractive. Mrs. Traven seems to have been unhinged on the topic of Kaiser Wilhelm. She was a woman who, in Raskin’s estimation, “fabricated stories about her husband,” always in the hope of demonstrating an aristocratic grandeur. And, by extension, all of this—in the book by Judy Stone, and in the two books by Jonah Raskin—does not confer a large degree of credibility on the decision by Mrs. Traven’s son-in-law, Timothy Heyman, to announce on behalf of the step-daughter and himself that, instead of being a Hohenzollern, B. Traven was a Rathenau. Actually, the step-daughter herself does not look so great in the second of Raskin’s books, nattering on about Jewish power in the United States.

So what are we to conclude? I think we should conclude that Traven was a man whose creative powers were sufficiently lavic that, 50 years after his death, puff clouds of ash are still rumbling up from the source. Traven’s comment to Judy Stone—“What does it matter if he is the son of a Hohenzollern prince or anyone else? Write about his works”—is, of course, entirely reasonable, or would be so, under normal circumstances. But it is just that, when someone hints that maybe he is, in fact, a Hohenzollern, and his family goes on, many years later, about the Rathenaus, it can be hard to write about the works.

The works do have virtues. The spiky Max Stirner aggressiveness in his early books is not to my taste. But I used to love the Jungle Novels, all six of them, and I suspect that, if I had the opportunity to read them again, I would still find something to like. They are classics of the anarchist imagination, in a Teutonic Chiapas version. My favorite among his books was always his short novel The Bridge in the Jungle, which is still another tale of the Lancandón jungle and oppressed Indians and greedy oil companies—a tender book, sentimental and indignant at the same time. I read it more than 40 years ago and still remember a few lines. But nothing in those writings is as loopy as the author’s bio.


To read more of Paul Berman’s political and cultural criticism for Tablet, click here.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.