Joseph Roth at a railroad station, France, 1926. (Leo Baeck Institute, New York)

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Roth, Joseph

(1894–1939), novelist, short-story writer, and journalist. Born in Brody (in Austrian Galicia) and raised without a father, Joseph Roth volunteered during World War I and in 1917 was sent as a reporter to the Galician front. This experience had an enormous impact on him. In 1918, he returned to Vienna and began working as a journalist for leftist newspapers such as Arbeiterzeitung and Der Neue Freie Tag. In 1920, he moved to Berlin, where he contributed to the Neue Berliner Zeitung,Berliner Börsen-Courier, and the Vorwärts, among others. From 1923 to 1932 Roth was a feuilletonist for the liberal Frankfurter Zeitung, as well as its foreign correspondent in France, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, Albania, Italy, and Poland. Beginning in 1923, he published novels as well.

Roth married Friederike Reichler in 1922; in 1927 she had a mental breakdown and Roth led a nomadic life, staying in hotels. From the time of his first trip to Paris in 1925, however, he had been attracted to France, and in 1933 he finally settled there. When Hitler came to power, Roth ceased publishing in Germany and called for a struggle against the Third Reich. In Paris, he emphasized that he did not consider himself an emigrant but a citizen of free Austria. He adopted extremely conservative positions (with publications in Österreichische Post as well as Christlicher Ständestaat, among others), and believed that only the Habsburg emperor or the pope could oppose Hitler. In this period he sympathized with Catholicism, and though he sometimes claimed to have been baptized, his words likely were a manifestation of his mythomania. Despite mental and physical problems, which he drowned in alcohol, he attempted to save as many Jews as possible.

Roth sympathized with East European Jews, though for many years he did not acknowledge that it was his own background. The narrator in his collection of essays Juden auf Wanderschaft (Wandering Jews; 1927) warmly describes the world of the shtetl, with its seemingly eternal spiritual values and moral integrity, contrasted with the loss of Jewish identity associated with assimilation in the West. Roth also uses Jewish themes in his extensive collection titled Antichrist, (1934): in addition to writing pessimistic essays about culture, technological progress, and industrialization, he also exposes the bestiality of Nazism.

From 1923 through 1929, Roth’s novels adhered to the principles of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement. Notable among them are Hotel Savoy (1924), Die Rebellion (1924), Die Flucht ohne Ende (Flight without End; 1927), Zipper und sein Vater (Zipper and His Father; 1928), and Rechts und Links (Right and Left; 1929). These works take up such issues as the return from war; revolution; and the impossibility of defining oneself in a postwar reality. He gained acclaim with the novels Hiob. Roman eines einfachen Mannes (Job: The Story of a Simple Man; 1930) as well as Radetzkymarsch (The Radetzky March; 1932), a requiem for the Habsburg monarchy.

Beginning with Hiob, the world of East European Jews was a vital source of inspiration for Roth. In addition, realism, or at times biblical legend, became his stylistic convention. In Hiob, the writer uses the biblical model of Job to tell the story of the family of a melamed (teacher) in a heder in the Volhynia region, stricken by numerous misfortunes. The novel presents a colorful fresco of the pious, simple life in the East European shtetl and also focuses on problems connected with emigration to America. His best novel, Radetzkymarsch, as well as Die Kapuzinergruft (The Capuchins’ Crypt; 1939; published in English as The Emperor’s Tomb), which is weaker than the former text, deals with a central problem for Roth, that of the fall of Austria, beginning with World War I, and continuing until the Anschluss. In these books, Jewish characters play a secondary role, embodying a loyal element of the Habsburg monarchy along with representatives of other groups. East European Jewish society is depicted in the novels Tarabas, ein Gast auf dieser Erde (Tarabas, A Guest on Earth; 1934) and Das falsche Gewicht. Die Geschichte eines Eichmeisters (The False Weight: The Story of a Gauger; 1937; published in English as Weights and Measures). In Tarabas, Roth draws a sharp conflict, set in an unspecified Slavic state in the first years after the war, in which Jews are the primary victims of debauched, lawless soldiers and a peasantry moved by false piety, nevertheless ending in the protagonist’s penance and forgiveness. In Das falsche Gewicht, an Austro-Hungarian bureaucrat arrives at a Galician shtetl in order to teach a lesson to petty cheats, who are forced by poverty to stray from the letter of the law. The author’s sympathy here (as elsewhere) is with small-town Jewish society.

Suggested Reading

David Bronsen, Joseph Roth: Eine Biographie (Cologne, 1972); Helen Chambers, ed., Co-existent Contradictions: Joseph Roth in Retrospect; Papers of the 1989 Joseph Roth Symposium at Leeds University to Commemorate the 50th Anniversary of His Death (Riverside, Calif., 1991); Michael Kessler and Fritz Hackert, eds., Joseph Roth: Interpretation, Rezeption, Kritik (Tübingen, 1990); Heinz Lunzer and Victoria Lunzer-Talos, Joseph Roth 1894–1939. Ein Katalog zur Ausstellung im Jüdischen Museum der Stadt Wien (Vienna, 1994); Heinz Lunzer and Victoria Lunzer-Talos, Joseph Roth. Leben und Werk in Bildern (Cologne, 1994); Claudio Magris, Lontano da dove: Joseph Roth e la tradizione ebraico-orientale (Torino, 1971); Joseph Roth, Werke, ed. Fritz Hackert and Klaus Westermann, 6 vols. (Cologne, 1989–1991).



Translated from Polish by Karen Auerbach