For the past 15 years — which is to say his entire career — the German novelist Daniel Kehlmann, 37, has not written about Jews. In fact, none of his work — from his first novel, published when he was 22 and still in college, to his fifth, titled “Measuring the World” (2006) and Germany’s best-selling novel in more than two decades — even alluded to Nazis or Hitler.
This was striking. Up until Kehlmann, any serious German writer seemed obligated to write about the Nazis; it was considered morally irresponsible not to. Of course many postwar writers actually lived through the Second World War as youths, giving the period added personal significance. And some, like Nobel laureate Gunter Grass, even volunteered, as a teenager, to fight for Hitler, a fact that cast his recent poem denouncing Israel in unusually harsh relief.
But Kehlmann seemed to be the exception. He clearly aspired to the pantheon of German literary greatness, alluding to Goethe and Schiller and Heine in his work. His intellectual ambition was evident in the historical figures he chose as his subjects: the brilliant 19th-century scientists Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Gauss, for instance, in “Measuring the World.” A large part of Kehlmann’s appeal was that he poked fun at the self-seriousness of these great figures, though still clearly admiring them. But it was also due to the fact that he seemed to move the country out from Hitler’s shadow.
Until now. Kehlmann’s latest work — a play titled “Ghosts in Princeton,” which will get a stage reading this week at the Center for Jewish History, with Kehlmann introducing the play — is set smack in the middle of Hitler’s reign. It focuses on Kurt Godel, one of the 20th-century’s greatest mathematicians, and an Austrian the Nazis incorrectly assumed was Jewish. Godel (1906-1978) was forced to flee Europe and he settled in America, where Albert Einstein, another central character in the play, helped him secure a post at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton.
The fact that Kehlmann’s previous work steered clear of both Nazism and the Holocaust is perhaps surprising given that his father, Michael, born to Austrian Jewish parents who were baptized, was put in a concentration camp. “That didn’t matter at all to the Nazis,” Kehlmann told The Jewish Week, referring to the fact that his father’s parents were not only baptized but also in possession of forged documents to make it seem that they were half-Jewish to begin with.
The reason for the absence of Jewishness and Nazism in Kehlmann’s work so far, he said, was that he didn’t want to do either subject a disservice. Many writers set their work during the Nazi period simply to give it added heft. “I’ve been waiting to find an angle that was original,” he said.
Still, he cautioned, “Ghosts in Princeton” is not centrally about Nazism, the Holocaust or even the nature of evil. Like much of his previous work, the play is about “how people try to put order onto the chaos of the world.” It’s also about the flip side of brilliance — madness.
“It’s a story of madness,” he said, referring to Godel’s lifelong belief in ghosts. “I think that one of the greatest mathematicians believed in ghosts is a remarkable fact. He actually believed he could talk to them. He stopped eating because he thought ghosts were trying to poison [his food]. … It’s a story of madness, but what fascinated me was that he could both be crazy and a great thinker.”
Indeed, the play depicts Godel at the height of his intellectual powers, but at a time when he said he was seeing ghosts. It was the 1930s, when he revolutionized the study of mathematics by suggesting, against the prevailing wisdom, that it shouldn’t rest on logically provable theorems. Certain mathematical facts were inherently true, Godel argued. His ideas influenced Einstein (and Einstein influenced him), as well as game theory and Turing’s theories of computer science.
But Godel’s intellectual achievements meant little to the Nazis. Within a year of Hitler’s takeover of Austria in 1938, Godel was forced to flee. Godel was Christian by birth, and even a more serious believer in God than most of the liberal intellectuals he hung around with. He even went so far as to write a mathematical proof for God’s existence, à la Leibniz.
“He believed in God, and it was the God of Leibniz, not Spinoza,” Kehlmann said, referring to the distinction between the Christian Leibniz’s abstract God who was nonetheless real and separate from nature, and Spinoza’s pantheistic, “God is nature” deity.
But proofs of God notwithstanding, Nazis simply assumed the members of Godel’s intellectual community — the so-called “Vienna Circle,” a group of thinkers at the University of Vienna — were Jewish, though few were. This was especially the case with Godel: “The Nazis just assumed that if you were the most brilliant logician of your time, you must be Jewish,” Kehlmann said.
The play makes several references to Godel’s mistaken Jewish identity, and also includes the infamous murder of Moritz Schlick at the University of Vienna, in 1936. An associate of Godel, Schlick was incorrectly assumed to be Jewish as well. And when a right-wing, crazed student shot him to death, it was viewed as a thinly veiled anti-Semitic attack. Kehlmann, who studied philosophy at the University of Vienna in the mid-1990s, said he’d walk by the steps where Schlick was shot almost every day.
“It fascinated me,” he said, “and when I began to write about Godel, I wanted to touch on the historical side of the story, and how his life connected to the 20th century.”
For Kehlmann, that history is personal, too. Though his mother was Christian, and baptized parents raised his father, Kehlmann openly acknowledges his Jewish ancestry. Many of his father’s cousins, aunt and uncles never converted to Christianity, and died as Jews in death camps. His father was put in a concentration camp at the end of the war, though the precise reason, Kehlmann said, is not entirely clear. It could have been because he had Jewish ancestry, but also because when he was arrested, he was actively associating with anti-fascist resisters.
“Even he himself didn’t know” why he was arrested, Kehlmann said.
Kehlmann points out that his father, Michael Kehlmann — who later became a prominent film and television director in Germany — didn’t try to make himself out to be a hero. In all likelihood, he was imprisoned very late in the war not because he was a real threat — he never engaged in hard-core resistance — but because the Nazis may have planned to release him shortly after his arrest.
Kehlmann grew up hearing these stories from his father, but he was given no formal Jewish education. That’s why he is ambivalent about calling himself “Jewish” — “I was not raised Jewish in anyway,” he said. He says “culturally, yes, I’m Jewish, but religiously, no. … I don’t know actually. I always feel like an imposter. If I call myself Jewish, many people would not believe me, but if I didn’t, they wouldn’t believe me either.”
Not many Germans are aware of his Jewish background, either. When Wenzel Bilger, the director of cultural programs at the Goethe-Institute New York, which is co-sponsoring the staged reading with the Leo Baeck Institute, was asked about Kehlmann’s Jewish background, Bilger said he didn’t know Kehlmann was Jewish. As far as the collaboration with the Leo Baeck Institute, a research organization dedicated to German Jewry, Bilger thought it came about only because of the play’s content: “It’s an interesting play about identity and prejudice,” Bilger said.
Kehlmann is currently teaching a course at New York University, and he is also a cultural export Germany is immensely proud of. He is seen as the leader of the literary pack from the generation of writers coming after Gunter Grass. Ever since Grass revealed in his 2006 memoir that he served in the Nazi SS forces his integrity has consistently been called into question.
Kehlmann, in fact, had published an Op-Ed in The New York Times analyzing Grass’ possible motivations for revealing his SS history at the time he did, when that bombshell initially landed, six years ago. But when asked about the latest Grass affair — the international furor Grass caused when he published a poem asserting that Germany’s past anti-Semitism was stifling criticism of Israel — he was demure. “I don’t want to say much about it because so much has already been said,” Kehlmann explained. But he added: “Of course I don’t approve of the poem, but I also think that he’s been attacked so fiercely that I don’t think I should add to that.”
But in a strange way, the Grass affair seems to prove what Kehlmann has known all along — that even if younger German writers like himself don’t write about Nazis, the country still has a visceral interest in that past. “We can see how extremely present and alive that history still is,” he said, referring to the intense reaction to Grass’ poem. “Even if Germans say it’s time to move on, it’s time to leave that behind, it’s obvious that it’s still so present and that people want to talk about it. And that’s a good thing. There’s no danger that it will be forgotten any time soon.”
“Ghosts in Princeton,” a new play by Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Carol Brown Janeway, will be given a staged reading on Tuesday, May 1, at 6 p.m., at the Center for Jewish History, 15 W. 16th St., (212) 744-6400. $10. Kehlmann will introduce the play, which will be read by actors.