An Exceptional Book of Historic Interest

Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947 is a fascinating book exploring the infinite variety of humanity expressed through Jewish lives around the world. It upends Jewish stereotypes and arouses sheer wonder.

The book reads as if from the pen of a novelist, taking us into the personal lives and imagined thought processes of the many fascinating Jewish geniuses in the arts, music, science and politics during the period of 1857-1947.

Norman Lebrecht is primarily a London-based journalist whose passion is music. He grew up in a traditional Jewish home and had an early Yeshiva education in Israel. His writing reminds me of a Talmudic-stream of consciousness style, in the way he brings together disparate elements when focusing on a theme, even personal connections, those of his own or his family or acquaintances that may reflect on the theme. It would be more fitting to name this book “Truth is Stranger than Fiction.” Lebrecht always gives us the back story of the characters’ intimate lives as it may have been revealed in diaries or letters. The book recounts the lives of Marx, Freud, Einstein, Kafka, Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and many Hollywood producers, directors, artists, musicians, and other creatives you have probably never heard of but who have nevertheless left their mark on this world. There are vignettes about who researched and produced the first contraceptive pill, who pioneered the science of blood transfusions, the discovery of DNA, and who first tested, on himself, radiography for cancer treatment, all in brief vignettes.

I found the stories and characters of the last chapters – from 1905 – even more astounding than the first several chapters, as these later chapters are centred on personalities caught up in the recent history of our times.

Chapter 12, Four Murders, 1933, recounts forgotten political assassinations, including the mystery of who murdered  Victor Arlozorov on a beach in Tel Aviv in June 1933.

Chapter 13, Cities of Refuge, 1938 documents Nazi persecution of Jews and the efforts of Jews and non-Jews who went out of their way with rescue efforts, some I had heard of, some I had not: A Chinese Consul General in Vienna, Dr. Feng-Shan Ho, a young London Rabbi, Solomon Schonfeld, a German Jewish businessman, Wilfrid Israel, head of a Jewish owned department store in Berlin, who was close to Churchill, a young London stockbroker, Nicholas Winton, as well as Joseph Stalin’s treatment of Jewish refugees, sending them back to Germany or the Gulag. And also recounts the exodus of Hungarian Jews and four excellent scientists to the US including Leo Szilard, who with Albert Einstein, Fermi and other scientists were directly instrumental in inspiring Roosevelt to address the atomic bomb’s creation before Germany could get there.

Chapter 14, Black Days, 1942, documents the lives of Jews fortunate enough to emigrate to America, Israel and China during those dark times.

Chapter 15, New York, New York, 1947, documents how the Chabad Rabbi and his entourage were whisked out of the Warsaw ghetto with the help of secret Nazi operatives and the subsequent development of the movement in Brooklyn that has by now established 4000 Chabad houses in 80 countries, renewing Jewish life and maintaining its customs worldwide. Lebrecht even sheds new light on the postwar McCarthy communist investigations and Stalin’s postwar terror against Jews, his manipulated murder of Mikhoels – Director of the National Yiddish State Theatre in Moscow – and show trials and executions of Yiddish poets and Jewish doctors just weeks before Stalin died.

This book is fascinating when you realize that Norman Lebrecht writes based on his reading “everything,” including voluminous personal diaries and letters. This was brought home to me when I read Lebrecht’s densely annotated book on Gustav Mahler, the composer, Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World.

Lebrecht is also the author of the novel, The Song of Names which riffs on the music industry as it plays out in a Jewish family living in pre-war London. You may have seen the recent movie of the same name that was based on this book. The book gives a rich tapestry of the life of a Jewish businessman engaged in the “music business”, and his family in prewar London.

Genius and Anxiety is a beautiful companion book to Amos Elon’s book published in 2002, The Pity of It All: A Portrait of Jews In Germany, 1743–1933. I read Elon’s book several years ago. It brought me into German and European politics and culture such that I could finally see hear and smell what it might have been like to live in those times. Lebrecht’s Genius and Anxiety is another work that has left an indelible mark in my mind and remains in my library.