Gejza Vámoš - A Case Study of Jewish Assimilation in Inter-war Slovak Literature
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The assimilation of the Jewish minority (as well as the German and Hungarian ones) was widely discussed in Czechoslovakia after 1918. The situation was more pressing in the Slovak part, especially due to a large population of mostly orthodox Jews in Carpathian Ruthenia. Their political, economic, and social emancipation was in the beginning stages compared with other parts of Central Europe. Gejza Vámoš (1901-1956) addressed the forms and conditions of Jewish assimilation in Slovakia in his novel Odlomená haluz (Broken Branch, 1934). Vámoš himself came from a Hungarian-speaking Jewish family and was an eager adherent of assimilation. His novel was set in Upper Hungary (Slovakia) during the last years of the Austro- Hungarian Monarchy, but he dealt with assimilation from the perspective of the contemporary Czechoslovak Republic. He discussed the degree of assimilation in different regions of Central Eastern Europe, and claimed that it was more successful in the southern than in the northern part. He also focused on the differences between Jews in Hungary itself and in Upper Hungary. Vámoš wished to show that the precondition of successful assimilation is for the Jews to forsake their outdated religious and mercantile practices. Jews should be proud of their historical tradition and intellectual heritage, but they should strive to adopt the culture, as well as the (secular) worldview and mentality, of the nation they are in. This general doctrine of assimilation is exemplified by the story of a Jewish boy who unexpectedly changes his identity and, taking his non-Jewish father's name, also accepts his father's worldview. This narrative line contains obvious features of Bildungsroman: a change of attitudes and perceptions, along with the mixing of the races, could lead to a new, united mankind. Vámoš believed in the power of education and the natural sciences. His theory of assimilation encompassed various ideological sources, such as social Darwinism, modern Jewish Messianism, as well as ideas on nation-building (including Masaryk's). Vámoš probably wished to act as a mediator in relations between Slovaks and Jews, and to break with the tradition in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Slovak literature of portraying Jews negatively. Nevertheless, his book - in spite of its vision of a united mankind and its praise of Jewish heritage - contained numerous negative stereotypes of Jews. When excerpts of the novel were published, several lawsuits were brought against Vámoš. The discussion of Broken Branch was centered round several questions: What role would this book play in the contemporary political situation in regard to Judaism? What is the nature of the relation between reality and fiction? What are the limits of artistic freedom? The reaction to the novel showed the political polarization of Slovak society in the 1930s, and contributed indirectly to Vámoš's decision to leave the country in 1939.
KeywordsCentral Eastern Jewish Family Political Polarization Intellectual Heritage Slovak Society
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