The modernist influence in children’s literature
Emigration as a perspective for the future
This novel, a “story about Jewish [...] rascals” (p. 9), portrays the experiences of a Zionist youth group who call themselves “The Boys from the Gush.” The Gush bloc symbolizes the absolute feeling of community among a group of equal young people, whose shared goal is emigration to Palestine and the establishment of an equally egalitarian and uniform society there. At the suggestion of the uncle of one of the Gush bloc members, Julle, the boys decide to establish their own Kvutzah group, team on a farm, basically a small agricultural settlement modeled on settlements in Palestine. Kurt, the protagonist, is subsequently sent to a Jewish children’s home by his well-meaning, yet uncomprehending parents. It doesn’t take long before Kurt can no longer endure the infantilizing, sheltering pedagogy practiced there, which seeks to protect the children from any potential misfortune while denying them any kind of autonomy and failing to take them seriously, so he decides to run away. Having managed to reunite with his group, Kurt and his friends spend their time successfully establishing their Kvutzah Lezanim group of clowns, jokers, here with the meaning: rascal. In this process, problems are understood and solved by the youths themselves. Accordingly, an argument about candy stolen from their common property ends with the culprit’s remorse and reintegration into the community. This text openly advocates emigration to its young readers, who were exposed to increasing repression at the time of publication. Zionist children’s literature did not merely want to provide distraction for them, but also a practical perspective for the future.
Author Bernhard Gelbart belonged to the Zionist youth movement himself. He was born in Altona and began working as editor of the young readers’ section at the Hamburger Israelitisches Familienblatt [Hamburg Israelite Family Newspaper] when he was a teenager. He was a talented graphic artist and illustrated his own novel, “Die Jungen vom Gusch,” as well as two other Zionist children’s books. He also was a member of the Zionist Builders (Habonim), whose paper for young adults he co-published.
In both form and plot, this novel is an example for the modernization of Jewish children’s literature in the early 20th century as well as for the social upheavals it was informed by. The author’s illustrations, such as the one featured in this excerpt, feature simple shapes and clear lines and stylistically tend towards caricature, which shows the influence of the “New Objectivity” Neue Sachlichkeit style. The text itself betrays its connection to modernity in several textual references to Erich Kästner’s Emil und die Detektive (1929) translated as Emil and the Detectives. Just like the children in Kästner’s novel, Gelbart’s protagonists are clever city children who speak their own language. In this case, they speak in the sociolect of Jewish youth groups, which includes “camp lingo” such as “Süko” for “Süßkost” sweets (p. 125). In borrowing from Kästner, whose works were publicly destroyed during the 1933 book burnings, the author also includes a subversive reference to a tradition of children’s literature different from the one promoted by the National Socialists. However, the reference to Kästner should not be misunderstood as an apologetic of the tradition of German-Jewish children’s literature. For Gelbart does not attempt to oppose state-sponsored antisemitism with allusions to a shared cultural basis. Instead his attitude was identical to that of most Zionist authors of young adult books: for them, the answer lay in creating a new Jewish identity and orienting future plans towards Palestine. This is evident in the text insofar as the boys obviously consider their stay in Germany a temporary one, and consequently their leisure activities are geared towards their imminent emigration to Palestine.
Thus teaching Zionist values is the novel’s central concern, which becomes evident in the selected text passage. The boys from the Gush bloc all display a strong sense of community and camaraderie. As a group, they are largely independent of adults in their actions. For example, the reader learns that they rented the space for their clubhouse meetings themselves and that no adult has participated in these meetings since then. The group leader, Moshe, is a teenager himself and can be read as the author’s alter ego due to his age and role. The passage describing the group’s visitor, Leo Siegler, illustrates both the new image of the child in Zionist young adult literature and the ideological model of the new Jew yet to be realized.
Siegler’s behavior towards the boys is decidedly anti-authoritarian; he even asks them to call him by his first name. This egalitarian tone between youths and adults is a feature of the youth movement and its innovative image of the child. Moreover, Siegler matches the Zionist ideal of the Jewish man in terms of his appearance, too: the illustration depicts him as an athletic man not wearing a tie or collar who looks like a Chaluz pioneer, meaning a “Jewish laborer from Palestine” (p. 22) according to the text. He is clearly different from the boys’ middle class parents as well as from the traditional Jewish male ideal of the scholar. Thus the character of Leo Siegler foreshadows the pursued ideal of a professional shift which found its practical realization in the hakhsharah movement.
The project discussed in this passage, namely the independent establishment of an agricultural settlement by the boys, is a form of hakhsharah, the preparation and training of young people for farming in Palestine. The activities suggested by the boys hint at the character of their self-training: “lots of hikes” in nature, scouting games, and cooking their own food (p. 23). They are activities aimed at physical training in the outdoors, which were part and parcel of the youth movement program. What was special about the Zionist youth movements was that these activities were embedded in the preparation for emigration. Another aspect of this practical training was learning Hebrew. In Gelbart’s novel, this goal becomes evident in the casual inclusion of Hebrew words in the language of these youths. For example, the overweight boy named Maxi is given the Hebrew nickname “Guf-Baal“ also: ba’al-guf; bearer of a body, the boys call themselves “Chawerim” friends, and they sing Hebrew campfire songs. There is a glossary of Hebrew terms at the end of the novel. One the one hand, this glossary points to the didactic goal of language teaching, on the other hand, it also proves the necessity of such explanations since previous knowledge of Hebrew could apparently not be expected from its target audience.
Life in Germany is portrayed solely as preparation for life in Eretz Israel. One passage in the novel reads: These are not just happy games [...] we want to get used to labor, to modesty, and to communal life – as our Chawerim friends in Eretz Israel lead it. This is, in a nutshell, the purpose of our “Lezanim Kvutzah group of clowns, jokers, here with the meaning: rascal.” We have built ourselves cabins, we sleep on straw, we cook our simple meals ourselves – not only because we enjoy it; – we do this to educate ourselves.” (p. 116)
It is equally evident that the emigration movement described in the novel was a youth phenomenon. The parents’ generation, with the exception of Leo Siegler, apparently is not interested in the establishment of a sovereign Jewish state, let alone in emigrating. In fact, Zionist texts often had to prepare their readers for emigrating without their parents as they were often forced to stay behind. Yet emigration to Palestine hardly was an easy way out for youths either since there was a limited number of visa for children and youths wanting to make aliyah.
The author himself followed the call to emigrate he had formulated in his book, albeit under unexpected circumstances. In 1938, Gelbart lead a Habonim youth group at a training farm in Poland. In October of that year, the group suddenly became subjected to the “Polenaktion,” during which Polish Jews were deported from Germany by force. With war having broken out, both the way home and the way to Palestine seemed cut off to the youths. Gelbart was in charge of a small group of children, whom he took on a two-year odyssey (1939 – 1941) through Poland and Lithuania. Under constant threat by the political vicissitudes of war, he eventually managed to take them to Palestine via Vilnius. He later told the story of his adventurous escape to Palestine in his essay “Homeward Flight,” which was published in an advertisement for the Habonim. In Palestine Gelbart, who had changed his first name to Dan, worked in the Kibbutz Alonim. He married Lotti Bauer, who had also emigrated from Germany, and illustrated the young adult book “משפחת ישראל“ (Mishpacḥat Yisrael, 1958). In Israel he became a well-known graphic artist and caricaturist in the kibbutz movement. His young adult novel “Die Jungen vom Gusch” is a lively document of Zionist hope in a time without hope.
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Hadassah Stichnothe, Dr. phil., wrote her dissertation at the Department for Contemporary German Literature at Eberhard Karls University Tübingen and now teaches at University Bremen. Her PhD-thesis is about novels of initiation in children's literature; her focus of research: children's literature, German-Jewish children's literature, Weimar Republic/ Interwar Period, narratology, children book-apps.
Hadassah Stichnothe, The Boys from the Gush. Transporting Zionist Values in Young Adult Literature (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, May 10, 2017. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-85.en.v1> [June 04, 2023].