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Jean-Richard Bloch, Discovering the Known World, Jerusalem and Berlin (1925-1928)

July 5th, 2010 · 1 Comment · Book Review

By Marylene Delbourg-Delphis @mddelphis

BlochIf you are interested in Jewish studies and read French, here is yet another great book: Jean-Richard Bloch ou A la découverte du monde connu : Jérusalem et Berlin (1925-1928). The book includes two fascinating essays by Jean-Richard Bloch (1884-1947) Le Robinson Juif, written in 1925 and Mitropa (i.e. Europe of the middle), written in 1928, which had only appeared in magazines. In addition, the book presents the personal letters that Bloch wrote to his wife at the time, and contain fantastic, unfiltered background information to both texts (that Bloch had actually planned to publish in a book, but never did).

Initiated by prominent historian Michel Trebitsch (1948-2004), whose preface to Le Robinson Juif is included, the project was carried out by Wolfgang Asholt, Professor at the Osnabrück University, who prefaced Mitropa, and by my sister, Claudine Delphis-Goettmann, Professor at the University of Paris VII, who put together and annotated the correspondence.

Jerusalem and Berlin: two different worlds of the twenties reunited by a common denominator, a then well-known French author. Like many intellectual Jews of the time, he looked for novel cultures – a world without borders, beyond entrenched ideologies, that would enable both Jews and non-Jews to share a common humanist faith in progress and peace. The creation of the University of Jerusalem, for which inauguration* he was invited, sounded to him like “a natural letter of universal naturalization”: “If so many men came over here from all the corners of the world, with so much trust and hope, it’s because today as we have fallen into allotments, particularisms, nationalisms where the mind, the very free mind, is undergoing a balkanization process, eyes eagerly look towards all the pieces of universalism that remain among the peoples, towards everything, wherever in the world, that tells us about unity and restores the big dream of mutual understanding, something that — madly, maybe — humanity keeps on pursuing.” Kfar Yeladim (the village of the children) was yet another sign of a new future to come. In Tel Aviv and in the “mystic Valley of Galilee,” any Jew from any part of the world, regardless of his/her history, beliefs, or political denomination was like Robinson, finding the island where it’s up to each and every one to create a meaningful future.

The Spielberg Jewish Film Archive – Kfar Yeladim (in 1930) – Silent with Hebrew inter-titles.


As he hung out in the bars, theaters and salons of Berlin, Bloch similarly experienced the German youth’s need for pervasive changes poised to destroy the “old gothic cell,” and relegate to the history books the images of tanks that plowed the villages of Mitropa and killed a whole generation of young men. The “neue Sachlichkeit” (the “new reality”) provided an unconventional perspective on the world, and unprecedented beats, “the tempo of a new Berlin,” fully international, resounded in the ebullient street scenes and avant-garde theater stages. “I live in such a whirlwind,” Bloch wrote to his wife as he worked on his play with Karl Heinz Martin and Piscator. He experienced the same joy as he traveled to Leipzig, where he met with his friend Wilhelm Friedmann, who welcomed all the French authors! Then, absolute bliss in Vienna, too. Berlin had spread its modernity throughout Mitropa.

Jerusalem and Berlin: Two complementary utopias, and dozens of friends or common friends whom Jean-Richard Bloch saw or heard about, whether in Palestine or in Mitropa. As he visited the Jewish Library of Jerusalem, he found that the librarian, Bergmann, was a schoolmate of his friend Paul Amann. As you read Bloch’s letters to his wife (and the three hundred plus footnotes that my sister added to tell you who is who!), you experience two phenomenal cultural melting pots, where you often meet the same people or people who know one another, as well as their amazing constructive optimism.

Yet, here and there in these two very modern essays, you can’t help think that clouds were looming – and that the “old reality” never really disappeared. The League of Nations that was to secure the Jews of Palestine and the peace in Europe was to be unable to fulfill the promises of its idealist mandates – “of preventing war through collective security, disarmament, and settling international disputes through negotiation and arbitration.” Jean-Richard Bloch, as most Jews, had to come to the realization that having been French for generations and fought in the WWI by no means equaled to personal security. Bloch emigrated to Russia, and coming back to Paris early 1945, found out that his second daughter, France, had been arrested as a resistant in 1942 and executed in Hamburg in 1943, and that his 86 year-old mother had died in Auschwitz in June 1944.

This book Jean-Richard Bloch ou A la découverte du monde connu : Jérusalem et Berlin (1925-1928) is published by French publisher Honoré Champion (Biblothèque d’Etudes Juives, directed by Daniel Tollet with the collaboration of Catherine Coquio)

More books by my sister related to Jean-Richard Bloch and/or his friends:

Survies d’un Juif européen, Correspondance de Paul Amann avec Romain Rolland et Jean-Richard Bloch (I discussed this book in an earlier post).

Wilhelm Friedmann (1884-1942). Le destin d’un francophile 

Georges Duhamel – Stefan Zweig, Correspondance – L’anthologie oubliée de Leipzig 

(*) You may want to see a short 1925 film on the opening (with Hebrew inter-titles): The Spielberg Jewish Film Archive – Opening of the Hebrew University

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