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Samuel Beckett, the Resistance, and the Jews

October 28, 2011

The latest issue of the Forward has a fascinating article about Samuel Beckett and the Jews.  Here are a few quotes from the article, which is well worth reading in its entirety:

Like his mentor, James Joyce, Beckett was unusually philo-Semitic among European modernist writers, and he joined the Résistanc e… soon after Joyce’s Jewish friend and amanuensis, Paul Léon, was arrested in Paris (Léon would later be murdered in Auschwitz)….Taking us from wartime to the early part of the author’s great achievements, Cambridge University Press has just published The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 2, 1941–1956 following the first volume in 2009. This adds to insight gleaned from Samuel Beckett’s German Diaries 1936–1937, released in June by Continuum…. Together, these books underline how profound Beckett’s ties were with the Jewish people. Some literary studies have suggested how, as Irish writers in self-imposed exile, Beckett and Joyce identified intellectually with Jews as people of the Diaspora. Moreover, “otherness,” a sense of apartness and singularity, was a motivating force in both writers’ work, as explored in such studies as Marilyn Reizbaum’s James Joyce’s Judaic Other (1999) from Stanford University Press. Yet Beckett’s attraction to Jewishness was more than just metaphoric otherness — it was inspired by family unity.

Beckett’s beloved Aunt Cissie married a Jewish art dealer, William Abraham Sinclair, known as “Boss.” Following Boss’s death, in 1937, his brother Harry Sinclair sued a Dublin writer, Oliver St. John Gogarty, for libel after passages in a book referred to him and Boss as “Two Jews in Sackville Street” and to their grandfather as an “old usurer.” Beckett, quiet and retiring by nature, made a special trip to Dublin from Paris, where he was by then based, to testify on behalf of the plaintiffs. Beckett was fond of Sinclair, and writes to a friend about Boss, “His last words to me were an apology for his poor company.” Beckett added in a letter to a friend, condemning St. John Gogarty and idle bystanders alike, “There are limits to scurrility, & to cynical laissez-faire.”

This moral statement marks an emotional turning point in Beckett’s life. He took a strong public stance, contrary to his own withdrawn and diffident nature, soon after his first exposure, in 1936, to Nazi Germany. Writing from Hamburg to a friend, he noted: “All the lavatory men say ‘Heil Hitler.’” …

Beckett was drawn to Germany’s Jews, such as the eminent Polish-born art historian Rosa Schapire, who would escape to England in 1939. With typical prescience, Beckett wrote to Irish poet Thomas McGreevy in 1937 that the Nazi “campaign against ‘Art-Bolschevism’ is only just beginning.” To see the paintings of the once acclaimed German-Jewish modernist painter Max Liebermann, Beckett had to obtain permission to visit the Museum of Hamburg basement where they were then hidden from view….

In 1938 he wrote to a friend and fellow philo-Semite, Arland Ussher, author of The Magic People: an Irishman Appraises the Jews (1951). The book likens Ireland to Israel for having a “sense of some special destiny, which enables her to bear her discomfitures with fatalism and secret pride” and praises Jews for holding firm to the belief that “tachlis (purpose) and not tragedy… is the meaning of life.” Beckett informed Ussher of a lunch in a London restaurant with a group that included the “green-foaming” Irish doctor, Edward Morrison, whose “rather anti-Semitic” comments made Beckett flee….

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 28, 2011 4:09 pm


    Was Con Leventhal possibly a fellow student of Becketts in Trinity jewish? He lived at least for a while in Paris I think his wife was McCarthy,

    Re Joyce the latest biography refers to the influence on Joyce while he was in Trieste of a student of his a Jewish businessman Ettore Schmitz. His wife’s long hair gave Joyce the image for Anna Livia Plurabelle. Schmitz presented Joyce with flowers after reading ‘The Dead’.


  2. October 28, 2011 7:33 pm

    Just one more reason for me to love Beckett.

  3. October 29, 2011 11:23 pm

    Durrushistory: according to this article Leventhal was indeed Jewish. See the paragraph beginning “Two other bright Jewish children entered Trinity together … Abraham Jacob Leventhal, known affectionately to his friends as Con.”

    KJP Garcia: I agree.

  4. October 30, 2011 5:32 am

    A fantastic article brimming with erudition


  5. October 30, 2011 7:07 am

    I was reflecting again on the Eoin O’Brien article to which you refer. He mentions the influx of Jews from Lithuania to Dublin in the 19th century. Cork also had a large Jewish community who settled in the Albert Road area which was known locally as ‘Jewtown’. Gerald Goldberg 1912-2003 from this community became a prominent lawyer and in 1977 the Lord Mayor of Cork.

    O’Brien also mentions dentistry as an occupation of choice and in this regard in a relatively remote area Bantry in west Cork Dr Birkhann practiced in the early to mid 20th century, the family I think eventually emigrated to Israel.



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