1914 – The Golem

1914. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir-presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne is assassinated by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip. Blame is placed directly on Serbia. With German backing, Austria-Hungary issues a 48 hour ultimatum. Serbia responds with less than full compliance and asks that the Hague Tribunal arbitrate. Austria-Hungary breaks off diplomatic relations. Serbia mobilizes its army. Austria-Hungary declares war.

The localized dispute grows out of hand very quickly. Russia orders a full mobilization in support of Serbia. The German Empire promptly declares war on Russia, and then invades Belgium with the intention of attacking France, Russia’s ally. As a result, the United Kingdom declares war on Germany, bringing the entire British Empire into the fray. The Great War has begun.

This chain of events, which will result four years later in the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and the restructuring of the world order begins shortly after a much smaller scale destruction is completed; that of Josefov, the Jewish Ghetto in Prague.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Jewish quarter in Prague was a slum. Emancipation meant that the wealthy Jews had long since moved out of the neighborhood, and only the poor remained, most of whom weren’t even Jewish. To deal with the growing eyesore, and also drive out any remaining Jews from Central Prague, the city council decided to completely demolish the ghetto and rebuild it according to a more modern design. The project began in 1893, and by 1914 the destruction was pretty much complete. The only remaining areas of the old neighborhood were the old Jewish cemetery, the Jewish town hall, six synagogues, and the building built on the site where Franz Kafka was born. One of the last books to describe Old Jewish Prague before it was destroyed is Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem, which paints a vivid image of life in the ghetto right before it too disappears along with old world order.

Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932) was the pseudonym of Gustav Meyer, an Austrian author novelist, dramatist, translator and banker. Meyrink has been described as the “most respected German language writer in the field of supernatural fiction.”

Meyrink’s biography is fascinating. Despite his name, he was not Jewish; Meyrink was the illegitimate son of a German Baron and a famous actress. In his early twenties, he actively involved himself with many of the intellectual and occultist movements – kabbalistic, masonic and theosophical – thriving in central Europe at the time. His interests included: Kabbala, freemasonry, yoga, alchemy and Hashish.

Meyrink lived in Prague for over twenty years, and there he received his first job as a bank director. While married to his first wife, Meyrink fought a series of duels with one of the officer corps of Prague after being accused of flirting with the woman who would later become his second wife. Shortly afterwards, he was fired from the bank after rumors surfaced that he was relying on advice from the spirit world to direct the bank’s affairs. Meyrink was then thrown in prison for two and a half months.

As a result, his health and finances were ruined. He left Prague and moved to Bavaria where he started working as a writer and translator, now a financial necessity. His fame and success were permanent secured though when he published The Golem (serial in 1913-14, book in 1915). The book was received very well, promptly sold 200,000 copies, and was adapted into a film the same year it was released. Shortly after his success, according to The Golem’s translator, Mike Mitchell, in 1917, Meyrink was approached by the German government and asked to write a book blaming the Freemasons for starting the Great War. Meyrink, under pressure from the Freemasons, refused.

The Golem is Meyrink’s masterpiece. It is a first person narrative told by gem-engraver, Athanasius Pernath, who lives in the old Jewish quarter of Prague. Pernath lives a very disjointed existence. Some unknown tragedy caused him to lose all his memories, and he frequently experiences troubling dreams and visions. His story begins when an unknown figure brings him a copy of Seffer Ha’ibbur, and asks him to repair the letter “I” on the binding. This mysterious figure, turns out to probably be the Golem of Prague, an artificial man created in the sixteenth century by the Maharal using Kabbala. It exists in a room with no doors and once every 33 years manifests in the Jewish Quarter of Prague to trigger some form of disaster. After this visit, Pernath becomes even more troubled, and his quest for some sort of inner peace results in him getting mixed up in many of the plots and intrigues of those he encounters.

The book is a work of genius. It is part dream-like expressionist melodrama, part horror novel, and also part eerie evocation of the magical city of Prague and its Jewish Ghetto – haunted by shadows of the past. The reader along with the protagonist are in a constant state of uncertainty as Pernath attempts to read meaning into his surroundings even as tantalizing memories from the past, cryptic visions, and also real-world perils and plots are constantly trying to shake his very tenuous grip in reality.

Jewish references are liberally sprinkled throughout the book, and I thoroughly enjoyed them even though they were mostly wrong. However, if you are the kind of person who is irritated by this kind of thing, don’t read the book, as there are going to be too many examples where Jewish concepts are misrepresented. It is clear that Meyrink was familiar with some of the Jewish canon. Examples include, shabbat Hagadol as the first Shabbat of Passover, and Sefer Ha’ibbur being about the impregnation of souls instead of the Jewish lunar year.

Personally, I think all these elements combine together to make The Golem a must read book. Meyrink does an excellent job in capturing the fragile control Pernath, along with the rest of the residents of the ghetto have over their daily lives, and manages to deliver a very clear precise message: “Pick up this book and read it now”!

The Omer today is kingship in courage. In the year 1914, the great kingdoms of the world needed to make some very difficult choices; choices that required an immense amount of courage on the part of kings and soldiers. The decisions whether to back an ally, mobilize an army, or invade a country are not for the faint of heart, and you have to admire those who made them, regardless of whether they ended up being right or wrong. And of course there is the more important courage of those who actually waged the war; courage that was demonstrated in a thousand and one different ways, and resulted in several old kingdoms disappearing and several new countries being created. Courage is needed to fight wars in your country’s name. Without it your country is doomed to fall to those who have the courage to fight for theirs (and thank god for diplomats!)

The Golem

Author: Gustav Meyrink

Translator: Mike Mitchell

Publisher: Ariadne Press

Published: 1995 (first 1914)

Pages: 264

Format reviewed: Digital