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His People’s Writer

Lost Books

Stephanie Butnick
April 20, 2012
(Joanna Neborsky)
(Joanna Neborsky)

“Lost Books” is a weekly series highlighting forgotten books through the prism of Tablet Magazine’s and’s archives. So blow the dust off the cover, and begin!

On the day after Yom HaShaoh, we pay tribute to Karoly Pap, the Hungarian writer whose 1937 novel, Azarel, incensed his Jewish contemporaries—and who, with many of them, died in Bergen-Belsen just five years later. In 2009, Sasha Weiss revisited Pap’s controversial novel, the only one of his books available in English, which tells the story of a young boy torn between his desire to win his father’s approval and distaste for his family’s new brand of reform Jewish observance.

Critics accused Pap, who was born in 1897 and whose father was the chief rabbi of Sopron in Western Hungary, of attacking his own upbringing, but as Weiss explains, he was issuing a wider call for self-scrutiny to the Jews of Hungary:

“What I’ve been criticized for and will yet be criticized for is completely true,” he said in a speech at the time. “The book is ruthless. Yet it was precisely only through this ruthlessness that I could achieve what I wanted, which was for my book to make itself felt all the way down to that depth of the Jewish soul… who could be pained more than I by the fact that the best of my people’s soul is accessible only through ruthless words and writing? I, who am this people’s writer?”

Read Child’s Play, by Sasha Weiss

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.