February 28, 2020

The Fist of Evil: S.Y. Agnon Confronts Anti-Semitism

S.Y. Agnon

On Nov. 24, 1961, in the shadow of the Adolf Eichmann trial, Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a review of journalist and war correspondent William Shirer’s monumental book “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany.” Appearing in Haaretz’s widely read culture and literature supplement to its Friday Shabbat edition, the title of the review was “The Fist of Evil.” The reviewer was Israeli author S.Y. Agnon who, five years later in 1966, received the Nobel Prize in literature, becoming Israel’s first Nobel laureate.

What prompted Agnon to take time away from his creative writing to pen a review of Shirer’s book? Was it the atmosphere the Eichmann trial created, which, for the first time in the State of Israel’s young history, gave the chance for Holocaust survivors to openly speak and provide testimony on the horrors of the Shoah? Was it Agnon’s opportunity, through Shirer’s book, to offer personal meditations on the Holocaust, a theme he rarely explored in his own writings?

Whatever Agnon’s motive or intentions were in 1961, what’s fascinating yet disturbing is the continued relevance of Agnon’s book review, 59 years later. In a world plagued by a dangerous resurgence of anti-Semitism, Agnon’s musings on Shirer’s book address today’s society as much as they did in 1961.

Agnon opens his review by stating that Shirer’s book “places before our eyes the horrific events that emerged from one small nation, who in the beginning, we dismissed as if they were no big deal.”

From this frightening insight on the world’s tragic misread of the Nazi party, Agnon continues, “This lack of caution on the part of the world is one of the fatal flaws of the world community. … Shirer exposes us to the many gangs of evil people who behaved with unprecedented evil, and to the many world leaders who, in our naïveté, we thought were leading the world with wisdom. Woe unto such wisdom, and woe unto such leadership.”

This sounds hauntingly familiar. Agnon’s reflections send a chilling reminder that politicians who negotiate with tyrannical regimes, or who minimize the impact of hate speech at rallies or on social media, risk making the same fatal errors as many did before World War II. In Agnon’s grim description of the leaders of that generation, “the world was handed over to fools.”

While praising Shirer’s book for its detailed description of Nazi Germany, Agnon was dismayed by Shirer’s minimal discussion of the Nazis’ Final Solution against the Jews. “I am astonished that the author barely touched upon the great calamity that befell the Jewish people,” wrote Agnon. “We, unfortunately, have experience with writers who tell the history of the world, and advertently or inadvertently leave out the Jews.”

As an example, Agnon cites British historian Herbert Albert Laurens Fisher’s “A History of Europe,” in which he never mentioned the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

Despite such precedents, Agnon remained disappointed that Shirer’s lengthy, 1,000-plus-page book made scant mention of the Holocaust. “I wonder how a man like Mr. Shirer, an eyewitness to almost every scene where our troubles originated, did not find it in his heart to discuss in a bit more depth all that befell us at the hands of the Third Reich,” Agnon wrote.

Agnon’s disappointment at Shirer’s near omission of the Holocaust gives us pause for reflection today. In a recent Pew Research Center report titled “What Americans Know About the Holocaust,” 45% of nearly 11,000 Americans surveyed didn’t know the Nazis killed 6 million Jews during World War II. In response to this disturbing statistic, the authors of the Pew report asked an important question: “Are those who underestimate the death toll simply uninformed, or are they Holocaust deniers — people with anti-Semitic views who ‘claim that the Holocaust was invented or exaggerated by Jews as part of a plot to advance Jewish interests?’ ”

While praising William Shirer’s book for its detailed description of Nazi Germany, S.Y. Agnon was dismayed by Shirer’s minimal discussion of the Nazis’ Final Solution against the Jews.

In light of Agnon’s dismay of Shirer’s minimal treatment of the Holocaust, one can pose a deeper version of the Pew report’s question: Which is more disturbing today? Holocaust deniers (whom many people too easily discount as “hatemongers disguised as historians”) or academics, professors and high school teachers who minimize or omit the Holocaust from their books, syllabi or curriculum?

S.Y. Agnon was born Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes in Poland in 1888. He emigrated to the Land of Israel in the early 1900s (where he took his nom de plume, S.Y. Agnon); left in 1913 to live in Berlin; then returned to the Land of Israel in 1924, where he lived the rest of his life. As a Jew who twice left Europe and ultimately escaped the horrors of the Holocaust, Agnon chose to conclude his review of Shirer’s book by recounting some personal experiences from his life in Europe. Here, he turns away from Shirer’s book  and his reflections on world leaders, turning inward to explore the Jewish reaction to anti-Semitism.

“On my way back to Eretz Yisrael towards the end of 1924, I stopped in Vienna to visit Rabbi Tzvi-Peretz Hayot of blessed memory [a renowned rabbi, scholar and Zionist leader]. He invited me to his synagogue and sat me next to him. In his sermon on the evening of Yom Kippur, he predicted all of the awful troubles that would soon befall the Jewish people and the entire world. His descriptions were difficult and gruesome, and as I looked out into the congregation, I saw how displeased they were by his sermon. They looked upon him mockingly for what they felt was his complete misunderstanding of world events. After services, some of the congregants approached the rabbi to complain about his sermon, saying that no amount of Zionist propaganda can justify such words.”

Whatever Agnon’s motive or intentions were in 1961, what’s fascinating yet disturbing is the continued relevance of Agnon’s book review, 59 years later. In a world plagued by a dangerous resurgence of anti-Semitism, Agnon’s musings on Shirer’s book address today’s society as much as they did in 1961.

Agnon turned to Rabbi Hayot and asked him what prompted him to present such a prophecy of doom to his congregation? “I am old, and thus will not live to see any of this,” he answered, “but you will yet see great horrors of the sort that I described in my sermon.”

In relating this experience, Agnon came full circle from earlier in his review when he described Shirer’s book as “concrete illustrations of matters that I wanted to know more about, and on matters that, like all people from my generation, I wanted to ignore.” Alluding to the “it can’t happen here” syndrome that was common among Jews, Agnon remarked that ignoring evil that lurks at our door “is especially a flaw of the Jewish people — a people well versed in such flaws — as we convince ourselves to ignore those who hate and threaten us, and end up being hit and injured by them, sometimes to the point where there is no remedy for the injury.”

This Feb. 17 marks the 50th anniversary of Agnon’s passing. He wrote nine brilliant novels and several volumes of short stories, all of which make for fascinating reading. But as we continue to confront anti-Semitism, this relatively obscure book review by Agnon takes center stage as one of his greatest literary meditations on the Jewish condition — in 1961 and today.


Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center and the rabbi of the Westwood Village Synagogue.