Jorge Luis Borges's Literary Response to Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust

By Kristal, Efraín | The Jewish Quarterly Review, July 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Jorge Luis Borges's Literary Response to Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust


Kristal, Efraín, The Jewish Quarterly Review


Jorge Luis Borges's discovery of Jewish culture began in earnest when he spent five years in Geneva as a teenager with his Argentine family (1914-19); it was a period of considerable personal and intellectual growth.1 His sojourn coincided with the Great War, and the horrors of war from the perspective of concerned bystanders would later inform his response to the Holocaust. One of his great discoveries in Geneva was the poetiy of Walt Whitman, which he first read in German translation when the author of Leaved of G rood was hailed as a poet who addressed the perils of war. Whitman's poems about the American Civil War were given pride of place by the German-language Expressionist poets Borges translated after he was introduced to them by his two best friends in Geneva, his Jewish classmates Maurice Abramowicz and Simon Jichlinski, with whom he made any number of other literary discoveries.2 Most of the poems Borges translated from the German in that period were protests against the senseless destruction of war. As Emir Rodriguez Monegal has pointed out: "Borges could not help but to feel the impact of those poems that violently attacked war and proclaimed the need for all men to unite in a universal brotherhood."3 In his introduction to his own translations, Borges observed: "The war did not create German expressionism, but justified it."4

In Switzerland Borges was exposed to Jewish literature and culture, and among the readings that would have a lasting effect on his literaiy development were works by Heinrich Heine (he remembers dying when he was able to read Heine in the original), Franz Kafka (whom he translated in the 1920s while the author of The Metamorphoob was still alive), Martin Buber, and Gustav Meyerink's Der Gobm (Borges's introduction to Jewish mysticism). In this period he began a translation of Buber's Die Legende deo Baabchem, and his newfound interest in the Kabbalah was consolidated years later when he read the seminal writings of Gershom Scholem.5

This rich, personal, and intellectual encounter with Jewish culture had enduring effects in Borges's literaiy trajectoiy. Fictions and The Aleph, the books that made his fame, abound with Jewish themes. Beyond his wellknown interest in Jewish mysticism, Borges was also interested in Spinoza as a Jewish philosopher, and he wrote a series of stories with Jewish criminals set in a real or an imaginaiy Buenos Aires that would be worthy of a sustained comparison with Isaac Babel's Odeooa Taleo. Borges's enthusiasm for Jewish themes drew condemnation in some Argentine literaiy circles, not surprisingly among anti-Semites sympathetic to the rise of Nazism in Germany. In 1934 the fascist journal Crbol published an article accusing Borges of "maliciously hiding" his Jewish ancestiy. Borges wrote a response in Megáfono, a liberal journal, in which his irony did not belie his unambiguous admiration for Jewish culture. In the response titled "I, a Jew" he laments that he does not have the Jewish ancestors the journal Crbol had accused him of hiding:

Who has not, at one time or another, played with thoughts of his ancestors, with the prehistoiy of his flesh and blood? I have done so many times, and many times it has not displeased me to think of myself as Jewish. It is an idle hypothesis, a frugal and sedentaiy adventure that harms no one, not even the name of Israel, as my Judaism, is wordless, like the songs of Mendelssohn ... I am grateful for the stimulus provided by Crbol, but hope is dimming that I will ever be able to discover my link to the Table of the Breads and the Sea of Bronze; to Heine, Gleizer, and the ten Sefiroth; to Ecclesiastes and Chaplin.6

Borges's statement was courageous, and yet the vehicle for his most poignant responses to fascism and anti-Semitism was not his essays or journalistic pieces but his works of narrative fictions. He wrote three major short stories that address the theme, one of which appears in each of his most significant collections of short stories: "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (Ficciones), a searching statement about the rise of Nazi-Germany; "Deutsches Requiem" (The Ateph), on the legacy of anti-Semitism after the end of the war; and "A Weaiy Man's Utopia" (The Book of Sand), a cautionary tale about the enduring legacy of fascism. …

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