Jewish Life in Alsace
Claude Vigée is a Jewish poet who was born in northern Alsace in 1921. During the Nazi occupation, he was active in the Jewish resistance in Toulouse. However, he went into exile in the United States. He earned a doctorate and taught Romance languages. He even taught at Brandeis for eleven years. Eventually, he migrated to Israel where he taught at Hebrew University. Oddly enough, he migrated back to France, where he has lived in Paris since 2001.
Vigée combines reflections on Alsace with those of Judaism in his poetry. Like Yvan Goll, he uses the two to capture interesting features of Alsatian identity--the "in betweenness" that is so difficult to grasp. His linguistic sensibilities could only be described as regionally unique.
That language that we still spoke at home was Judeo-Alsatian, a dialect that is much older than the Yiddish, a dialect derived from medieval Rhenish German and mixed with corrupted Hebrew.Vigée has some popularity in France as a writer of regional literature, something remarkable in itself. His works include a novel written in Alsatian dialect. He has actively translated literature from many languages. Most of his poems are in French.
All that changed as country Jews rapidly immigrated to the towns and cities. My parents frequently spoke French, but with servants and clients we "fell back on Alsatian" and, with Jews, we greeted each other with rare vestiges of Judeo-Alsatian. We rarely expressed ourselves in French in a continuous manner; French was mostly the "Sunday language"
At school the dictates of French reigned; German was treated with the same hostility as they were to Alsatian dialect.
High German was taught in the high school like a foreign language. Classical German did not exist naturally. There were only dialects that were called "German".
I have been taking quick glances at Le Parfum et la Cendre, a book that Vigée wrote as a reflection of various aspects of his career and life. They appear as self-interviews, Vigée questioning himself and answering his own difficult questions. I translated a biographical excerpt from the book, something that describes Jewish life in Alsace as he experienced. I don't plan any analysis of Vigée's work in the near future, but I find some of his reflections compelling.
I came from a Jewish Alsatian family of the middle class that was very assimilated. My mothers parents were of modest originsin fact, they were villagers. It is interesting to note how many of these country Jews in Alsace were not concerned with Zionism, especially since their ancestors were profoundly Jewish (as well as the education that they received). They remained naively rural in their customs. As for my fathers family, they left the country milieu in the 1790s. My mothers family came to Bischwiller just after the end of the 18th century and became respectable bourgeoisie after the fall of Napoleon I.
Primitive religious sentiments had disappeared by the time I was a child. They were not replaced by Zionism. However, the members of my family remained conscious of being Jewish. These memories were a bit dull, but they survived in a strange fashion: in the family customs that were different from those of the gentiles around us. We were, I think, Jewish because we were neither Catholic nor Protestant in a milieu that was either Catholic or Protestant. Partially emancipated from the synagogue, we were moreover agnostic and confused ... .
In the small towns certain people filled blue boxes for Keren Kayemeth Le'Israel [note: these boxes were used to collect funds for Jewish settlement in Palestine]. However these donation boxes held no deep ideological significance in our eyes. In my fathers house there were never any blue boxes. We saw them in the homes of other Jews who were less assimilated and who observed the mitzvot [commandments] more scrupulously than we. Every year we were dispatched into the streets of Bischwiller by Rabbi Lehmann (who was himself anti-Zionist) in order to empty these blue boxes. For our efforts people gave us Purim fritters. The life of most of these families was picturesque. For me it was an opportunity to cast an eye at the interior life of Jews where they lived according to the rhythms of ancient times.
In Strasbourg there were groups of intellectuals who were very active in Zionism. At the time, they dominated high society. Before the rabbi, all the officers of the community, all the members of the Consistory, all the prominent members of the society were certainly not Zionists. Such was French Judaism. Up until the Second World War, Jews were slow and hesitant to recognize the historical realities of the Jewish nation in the modern era. French Jews vied with each other in their zeal to assimilate. Zionism risked making a failure out of the process of assimilation and releasing a last rush of Jewish identity among these pale and distant children of Jacob. Behind this fatal desire to believe in assimilation a need for basic self-confidence was disguised, an absence of respect for the spiritual heritage of Israel.
Read part II: E lapin isch e haâs.