Things in Leoben have been busy, as usual. Between studying for exams and trying to find the time to see newly made friends before going back to the states, the days seem to fly by! It amazes me how I have been able meet new people and create amazing friendships here in Leoben week after week. It will definitely be hard to leave this beautiful town filled with beautiful people when the time comes to do so.
Earlier in the semester when things weren’t quite as crazy, I asked a few fellow students what Austrian books they would recommend for me to read. I love reading and it seemed that this was the perfect opportunity to find something new. To my surprise, not many books were suggested, but one in particular was mentioned a few times: “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka. This surprised me, because I had read the novella in high school and didn’t find it that exciting. I knew it was full of symbolism and historical importance, but for me back then, it was just a book about some lonely guy who turned into a bug and then died (sorry if I just spoiled the book for you). Since it was the only book mentioned multiple times, however, I decided to give it another shot to see if I could draw more from the writing a second time around.
Before diving into the book, I decided to do a little research on Kafka and the novel so that I could better understand where he was coming from and what he was trying to convey. Franz Kafka was born in Prague in the time that it was still part of the Austria-Hungarian empire, so to Austria, he is still one of ‘their’ famous authors. Kafka was born into a working-class Jewish family at a time when anti-Semitism was really beginning to take off in the elite German classes. Being a Jew in a time when anti-Semitism was taking a foothold, Kafka struggled with alienation constantly, something that is very clearly reflected in his novel. The main character, Gregor, wakes up one morning in the form of a bug, not knowing how or why it happened. Hiding in his room most of the day, Gregor finally has to communicate with his family when his boss arrives, wondering why he did not come into work. He obviously can’t communicate with them very well in the form of a bug, and grows frustrated at their misunderstanding and depressed by the disgust they clearly feel toward him. This disgust from his family continues throughout the book, portraying the feeling that the German society felt toward the Jewish population in the early 1900s. Gregor in bug form is even referred to as ‘Ungeziefer,’ which, after looking up what it meant, I found was a derogatory term that the Nazis used to describe the Jews. It vaguely translates to ‘disgusting.’ Kafka’s use of this term strengthens the parallel he felt in the real world with that of Gregor’s in the novel, one of alienation and disgust from the outside world.
Even his sister, who was in charge of taking care of him, doesn’t try to hide her disgust and dismay at having to enter his room to bring him food. I took Gregor’s intense feeling of alienation as a parallel to how the Jews may have felt when their neighbors and old friends suddenly didn’t have the desire to talk with them or interact. The entire family seems to feel like taking care of Gregor is a burden, and something that they have to keep hidden from their friends and neighbors. I could not help but wonder if this is how some families felt who were hiding Jews during World War II. This book was written before the war, but the depiction of Gregor hiding from the outside world has an eerie foreshadowing to the Holocaust.
I am really glad that I decided to reread this book, as it helped me to understand that the feelings of isolation and alienation in the Jewish population developed long before the second world war. It also showed that anti-Semitism was not constrained to Germany and Austria, but reached throughout many places in Western Europe. I have, of course, read many works of literature relating to the Holocaust and anti-Semitism through out my years of schooling, but this was different. Reading it while sitting in the same country that some of the events it so strongly alludes to took place really opens your eyes to the reality of things. The older generation living in this area fully remembers the war and everything that came along with it. Earlier this semester I was able to make a trip to Prague to visit a friend. While out to dinner one night she told me that the older generations don’t say “cheers” because it reminds them of the end of the war when the Soviet and U.S. troops came in and were ‘cheers-ing’ the victory among the rubble and ruin around them. That came quite as a shock to me and really opened my eyes to a side of things I had never thought of before. As terrible as the Holocaust was, and as much as people would like to forget it, one really great thing about these nations is that they acknowledge it happened. There are memorials in almost every major city that serve as a reminder to what happened and why it can never happen again. One that I found particularly good in Kafka’s case is that in Prague, where he once felt so isolated and separated from society, there is now an entire museum in his honor.
Well, that’s it for now!
Until next time.