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Thomas Mann on the "Jewish Question" (1921)

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Another time during my childhood I was quite close to a boy by the name of Feher, Hungarian by birth, a racial type pronounced to the point of ugliness, with a flat nose and the premature shadow of a mustache. His father owned a small tailor shop near the waterfront; and as my parents' house was only a little above that neighborhood, Franz Feher and I often walked home together. With his slurring foreign speech, which may have been more interesting to me than our waterfront German, he would tell me about Hungarian circus troupes – not like Schumann's which recently had played at Reuter's inn – but very small wandering troupes, whose members, beasts and humans, could form a pyramid to salute the public at the end of the performance. I can assure you the story was amusing. Also, Feher was himself willing to take on certain errands and business transactions I could not have carried out myself, For only thirty pfennigs that I handed him, he purchased, in a small seamen's shop, a genuine, if modest, single-bladed pocketknife – the first I ever owned . But the most attractive fact about the Fehers was that they actually put on plays at home. Parents, children and their friends – probably "Israelites" too –were busy rehearsing Der Freischütz, which they intended to perform as a play. And as I had seen the opera, I was burning with the desire to take part in this extraordinary entertainment as one of the marksmen – for one thing, because the important roles had already been assigned, but also because I pined to stand with a rifle the way the choristers of the Municipal Theatre did, butt-end grounded and the hand of the outstretched arm grasping the upper part of the barrel. True, these extras were to appear in their everyday suits, for old Feher could only make costumes for the leading characters. But I could put up with that so long as I got a gun I could pose with. I no longer know, or else I never found out, whether the performance took place at all. At any rate I had no part in it. Probably, despite the passionate longing, the shyness of the little upper-class boy and social prejudice prevented me from going to the house of the Jewish tailor down by the waterfront.

Then later, in the fourth grade of the Gymnasium, I could often be seen in the schoolyard with another boy – the son of a kosher butcher and the jolliest fellow on earth, without the slightest hint of the melancholy traces history has stamped on that people, which were obvious enough in Carlebach and Feher, and which had probably unconsciously attracted me – the jolliest fellow, I tell you, engaging, genial and without deceit. He was slender, in fact thin; so that only his lips were full – and there were the small lines of someone prone to smile radiating from the outer corners of his almond-shaped eyes. He has remained alive in my memory because he was my first example of a Jew who enjoys himself – a type I was to meet often. In fact, I tend to believe that nowadays good humor is more frequent as a basic trait among Jews than it is among pure Europeans. This is a matter of racial freshness and of an enviable capacity for enjoying life which may well compensate these people for some continuing external disadvantages. The slightly senescent math teacher consistently addressed my good-humored friend as "the student Lissauer," even though that was not his name. It was Gosslar – and I shall not forget the radiantly forbearing smile with which Gosslar let the weakness of the aged Christian pass and did not object to being caned "Lissauer" twice a week. "If the student Lissauer has the result," screeched the old man, "he should let us know." And Gosslar, with incredible swiftness – really inconceivable to my own weak understanding – had the result ready. He was a first-rate arithmetician, the quickest and most reliable I ever knew. His mental disposition, which fitted the general clarity and mirth of his make-up, did not by any means exclude an appreciation for lesser activities, even as dreamy and irregular a one as the versifying I indulged in. For the awkward pomposity of the ballads that I stealthily submitted to him in well-founded confidence – one of them, opening with the words "Deep down in the dark dungeon of Rome," dealt with Paetus and Arria – Gosslar showed an intelligent and unbiased, if slightly ironical sympathy such as I could not expect anywhere among my fellow captives at the Klinkerhof, let alone from the men in charge of that school.

And that is generally the way it was from then on. Can I help it? Touching on Goethe's relations to Jewry, Riemer said: "The educated among them were on the whole more civil and more persevering in their admiration than many of his own religion. Generally speaking, Jews show more obliging attentiveness and pleasing sympathy than people of German stock do; and their quick comprehension, penetration and their particular wit make them a more sensitive public than, alas, is to be found among the pure-blooded Germans who are sometimes a bit slow and have difficulty comprehending." I am very sorry, but this is precisely my own experience. And what artist, or writer, of some importance does not share it? I do not forget that there is a lot to be said on the other side. Over the rears grave conflicts between me and Jews have occurred, and probably had to occur. Bad blood was bred on both sides. The most malicious portraits of me originated with Jews, and the cleverest, most venomous negation of my existence reached me from those quarters. But was it not also a Jew who called the day of Goethe's death the nativity of German freedom? Yet what Riemer wrote has remained true, proving itself in large and small issues and in my own case as well. Jews "discovered" me. Jews published my work and gave it publicity. Jews produced my impossible play. Buddenbrooks was, after all, badly received at first but it was a Jew, the poor S. Lublinski, who prophesied in a leftist-liberal paper: "This book will grow with time and be read for generations." And whenever I go out into the world visiting cities, I am almost without exception – not only in Vienna and Berlin – received by Jews, put up by them, fed and spoiled.

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