Jakov Lind
Jakov Lind


West London Synagogue Cemetery, Hoop Lane, London, Feb 17, 2007

By Anthony Rudolf

When I was in my twenties and thirties, I was a hero worshipper. Now I am in my sixties, I am still a hero worshipper, with this difference, the heroes are mostly dead. I am talking now about personal heroes whom one has had the privilege to meet, such as the Hungarian-born poet and psychotherapeutic pioneer, Eugene Heimler, buried a few yards from this prayer hall. Jakov Lind, until the other day, was almost my last living personal hero, survived only by Claude Vigée, poet and member of the French Jewish resistance, and Claude Lanzmann, film director and member of the Gaullist Resistance, and the novelist Aharon Appelfeld. Among the already dead are the Hebrew poet Dan Pagis, Primo Levi and Piotr Rawicz. Survivors all.

What is this all about? Forty years ago, in difficult personal circumstances, I found my way to Rabbi Albert Friedlander and Rabbi Michael Goulston, who are both buried in this cemetery. Evelyn Friedlander is with us here today. Innocent and self-centred, callow but well intentioned, I found myself in a world not only of books, not only of writers, and sometimes great writers, but a world of writers who had lived extraordinary lives. There was, and why not, an element of vicariousness, even frisson, in my ongoing fascination with the lived lives of the literary heroes, many of whom I met as a result of my personal and professional association with Michael and Albert. I experienced these feelings for two reasons: one), the awesome glamour – in the proper sense of the word – cast by survivors of the camps and, in Jakov’s case, the dragnet: surely these people were immortal and this condition would rub off onto me; two), if my friends and I had been a few years older and born in some other country, this destiny – survivor or victim – was ours. What would we have done? What would we have been?

Accompanied by the American poet Howard Schwartz, I first visited Jakov in the early 1970s, when he lived in Hanover Terrace, Saint Johns Wood. At that point, I had read only one of his two or three indisputable masterpieces, Soul of Wood. He was a bad boy like Rawicz and Kosinski, not a good boy like Levi and Appelfeld. He was a coyote, a trickster. He enjoyed hashish and the rest. A wicked smile played around his mouth, while witty aphorisms and deep insights tripped off his lips. He emanated inner strength – and an electric intelligence that we all wanted to emulate. I was hooked and remained hooked and never lost touch with him. Among many points of contact were his memories – written and spoken – of our mutual friend Piotr Rawicz, which found their way into my book about Rawicz. It was co-dedicated to Jakov and I posted the second edition to him only a few days before he died. The dedication in the first edition contained the traditional Yiddish greeting: for Jakov: Zay gezunt! Biz hundert un tsvantsik! Be healthy, may you live till 120! Well, he made it two thirds of the way, plus two or three days. My dedication of the second edition is headed ‘Seven Thoughts for Piotr Rawicz and Jakov Lind’. The seventh thought comes from the Yom Kippur liturgy: “Whatever we forget is remembered somewhere”. Undoubtedly, as Borges and Beckett in famous texts insist, memory necessarily involves forgetting or we would be overwhelmed and remember nothing. But Jakov did a wonderful job in recollecting the essentials, not only as transmuted into fiction and plays but also, more or less straightforwardly, in the fascinating and sophisticated autobiographies he wrote in English, four volumes in all.

So, where does the story begin? Jakov was born in 1927 in Vienna into an assimilated Jewish family. After the Anschluss in 1938, his parents sent him on a children’s transport to Holland. There he joined one of many Zionist farms or training centres across Europe, in preparation for kibbutz life in the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine. As we know from his autobiographies, the tough-minded teenager, determined not to be deported, went underground. He survived the war in Germany as a Dutch merchant seaman on a barge. He told me that it was safer for a Jew to be in Germany in the mouth of the beast than in Holland, between the teeth. He even survived a physical examination when he checked into a hospital for venereal disease. “What, that too?”, said the male nurse with a laugh? Piotr Rawicz’s great novel, Blood from the Sky, with its “Tale of the tool”, was, I think, written before Piotr met Jakov, but there are fascinating parallels between the lives of the two men. It is not surprising that they got on so well together. After the war, Lind went to Palestine but he only lasted five years, having had one child with his first wife. He returned to Vienna, but finally settled in London in 1954. Here he lived for the rest of his life, with regular visits to New York and Majorca, where he had a house. His second marriage to Faith Henry produced two children.

Jakov Lind was a great writer but he was never a particularly popular one in this country. One of his main publishers, Tom Maschler of Jonathan Cape, told me that his books never made a profit but that it was an honour to publish him. Years later, my Menard Press published one of his volumes of short fictions, The Stove, which contains the marvellous ‘Story of Lilith and Eve’. This volume, too, did not make a profit but yes, it was an honour for me to publish him too. Let me briefly try to characterise Jakov as a writer. He surveys his times with savage laughter and surreal vision and displays both a caustic irony and a tragic sense of the human condition during what he called “the agony of our pre-Messianic times”. This is not the place to discuss the painful and possibly mistaken decision to write in English but we can say with confidence that he wrote his three finest books in German: the stories in Soul of Wood and the two novels, Ergo and Landscape in Concrete. These are astonishing and highly original imaginings of dimensions of evil including sadistic cruelty, of the condition of being a victim and the madness abroad which constitutes the virtual victory of Hitler if we fail to translate survival into freedom. The dark humour of Soul of Wood recalls Piotr Rawicz’s Blood from the Sky, while the mythic apocalyptic world of Landscape in Concrete recalls Kosinski’s The Painted Bird. Edward Timms reminds us that there are echoes of the good soldier Schweik in the main character, Gauthier Bachmann. One could add that the exploration of morality, madness and war has affinities with Catch Twenty Two. In Ergo, the philosophical satirist moves even further from realism than Rawicz and even more towards allegory than Kosinski.

Across the road from us, at the Hoop Lane crematorium, nearly seventy years ago, Stefan Zweig eulogised “an important Jew who died in exile”, as Auden called Freud in that beautiful elegy which ends: “Sad is Eros, builder of cities, / And weeping anarchic Aphrodite. Today, we bid farewell to another ornament of the magnificent and lost world of Jewish Central Europe, another man whose death makes Eros is sad, and causes Aphrodite to weep. In the 1970s, Lind began writing in his latest language, English. His style, his thought and what Kafka called “the world history of his soul” could all be studied profitably “against” those of fellow central European writers such as Joseph Roth, Canetti and Kafka on the one hand, and Hebrew writers originating from that world, including Appelfeld and Pagis, on the other. It is a mystery that he is not discussed in the same breath as Günther Grass and Thomas Bernhard, and it is a scandal that he is virtually out of print in English.

Let me conclude by hoping that his out of print books will be reissued and that forums like Jewish Book Week and the Austrian Institute will celebrate the life and work of one of the best and most distinctive European, Austrian and Jewish writers of his time. But although he will be outlived by his books (and perhaps by his paintings), today we are saying farewell to the mortal man who wrote them: father, grandfather, brother, lover, wit, friend and – thanks to all his great human qualities as well as the precious gift of luck – survivor of the Shoah. He was one of the great witnesses. Another great witness, Paul Celan, asked “Who shall bear witness for the witness?” The answer is, all those who loved him and, beyond him, loved his work.