A Conversation with Tom Reiss
1.) Who was Lev Nussimbaum? What was he really like?
At his height he was a kind of jazz age/Weimar media star, a professional “Orientalist” who liked to play up his exotic childhood, and was part of the café society that included people like Walter Benjamin and also the brilliant Russian exiles, like the Nabokovs and the Pasternaks. It was during the whole “Cabaret” period in Berlin, but it was much much wilder and stranger than it was even presented in that film. But what was amazing to me was that while most Jews in the 20’s and 30’s tried as hard as they could to assimilate, Lev did everything he could to make himself stand out. In the cafes of Berlin and Vienna he was sporting flowing robes and a turban, and the same thing on his book jackets. And he continued this wild career into the Nazi era, at times confusing the Nazis so much that he had Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry writing to defend him against another Nazi agency that wanted to persecute him as a Jew. He then went to Italy where he became close to Mussolini’s inner circle, cultivating a group that pushed a liberal, non-racist form of Fascism. He was either incredibly brave or incredibly suicidal, maybe a bit of both.
2.) In an era when most Jews were trying to run away from fascism, what do you think drove him to work his way back to the heart of fascist Europe, when he had many chances to escape?
In some ways, the world Lev grew up in resembles the one we may be facing now. The global order that had held for many decades was crumbling. It was startling for me to realize how much terrorism was a fact of life when Lev was growing up, even more than it is now. In a city like Baku, under the influence of pre-revolutionary Russia, you had dozens of terrorist groups at work–bombing buildings, kidnapping people. Terrorism was in fact in his own house in a bizarre way, because it would turn out that his mother was secretly using her husband’s money to fund Stalin and the other Bolsheviks. So for the rest of his life, Islam and some of the wilder politics he would get into were his refuge from all that.
All his Orientalist dreams and disguises were ways of making sense of and escaping the violence–the Russian Revolution, the end of the Ottoman Empire, World War I. He came to see Islam as the ultimate Third Way between bloody ideologies like Communism and Nazism, and the bloodless consumer culture of America (symbolized by his father-in-law, a Czech shoe millionaire who became a Hollywood producer). He converted to Islam when he was 18, and to him it was a faith of languorous government and ethnic diversity, represented by a romanticized view of his native Caucasus and even moreso by his time spent in the last gasps of Ottoman Constantinople. It’s bizarre in today’s climate to think of the call to Jihad as an appeal for tolerance and a counterweight to violent extremism, but that is exactly how Lev saw it.
3.) In uncovering the story of a forgotten man, you also uncovered a great deal of forgotten history. What are some of the surprises you found?
Some of the American connections to Hitler and Mussolini are bizarre. For example, Hitler’s first press secretary Putzi Hanfstangl turns out to have been a Harvard man, class of ’04, who played in the college band. In his memoirs, he describes how Hitler would go wild with excitement when Putzi played the football marches and recounted how the hysteria the pep rallies could whip up in the stadium–Fight Harvard! Fight! Fight! Fight! Later Putzi turned against Nazism and helped Roosevelt, but he always claimed that that was where the inspiration for the “Sieg Heil!” chants and the mass Nazi rallies came from–the Harvard-Yale games.
But for me personally, it was fascinating to discover that for almost a whole century before the founding of the State of Israel, there was this strong identification felt by many Jews in Europe for Muslims and the Islamic East in general. Many of the early Zionists felt a deep kinship for their “oriental cousins” the Arabs, who, as Disraeli famously put it, were “merely Jews on horseback.” There was this idea that the return of the Jews–not only to Palestine but to the broader Muslim world in general–would bring on a kind of modern Jewish-Muslim symbiosis. The reason so many German-Jewish synagogues built in the 19th century were “Moorish” in style was because of this dream of pan-oriental unity–this idea of symbiosis. But you also had all these Jewish experts in Arabic translating the Koran and promoting Muslim revival.
I was having lunch with a Pakistani newspaper editor while working on all this and, by way of making a point about liberal, educated Islam in South Asia, he recommended to me the greatest English translation of the Koran, by Muhammad Asad. I believe I gave the man the shock of his American visit when I told him that the great Muslim scholar and statesman he knew as “Muhammad Asad” was in fact born Leopold Weiss and was the son of an Orthodox rabbi who converted to Islam on a trip to Arabia in the 1920s. “If you were to publish that in Pakistan,” the editor said, “about the man whom every educated Pakistani considers the greatest Koran translator, you would start riots.” There are many characters like that that I write about in The Orientalist.
It’s a whole side to Orientalism that people have no understanding of largely because the late Edward Said painted such a powerful version of a different idea in everyone’s minds. In fact, in many ways the Jewish orientalists were every bit as important or more than the French or English orientalists he focused on–and unlike gentile European orientalists, the Jewish orientalists weren’t trying to discover the exotic other in the mysterious East, they were trying to discover themselves.
4.) What drew you to this story?
Many members of my family, of my grandparents’ generation, were German-speaking Jews trapped in Nazi Europe. After college I lived in Germany for a while and wrote some articles about the phenomenon of neo-Nazism, but when I was growing up, I mainly had fantasies about going back in time and outwitting the real Nazis. From the moment I first discovered Lev–when I went to Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1998–it seemed like I had found a character I had been waiting my whole life to meet. He had the temperament and, for a while anyway, the luck to live out that fantasy.
5.) How did you find Lev Nussimbaum in the first place?
I had gone to Baku to write a travel article about the new oil boom on the Caspian Sea. But what really got me interested was what I’d heard about the city itself–like 19th-century Paris dropped into the desert or something, with old casinos, opera houses, elegant mansions, all in a state of gothic decay. Azeris, I discovered, consider their country–which borders Iran and Dagestan–to be part of Europe. And from the moment I got to Baku, I found it somehow deeply poignant what a century of war and revolution had destroyed. The city is half out of the Arabian nights, with medieval walls and minarets, but it also does kind of feel like Paris, perhaps combined with Naples–with very dusty streets.
I basically found Lev because there were no guidebooks to Baku–Azerbaijan was one of only two or three countries in the world at the time that had absolutely no guide in English. So the main book Westerners visiting Baku seemed to read was a 75-year-old novel, called Ali and Nino. I started asking around about the author and found out that no one knew who it was, but everyone seemed to have a passionate opinion. The name on the cover of the book was “Kurban Said”–who was supposedly an Austrian baroness in real life, or maybe an Azeri poet who died in the gulags. By the end of my stay I had to get to the bottom of the mystery.
6.) Tell us about your journey.
In trying to reconstruct Lev’s life I also learned a lot about the worlds he traveled in–fascist intellectuals, European pan-Islamists, and revolutionary terrorists (including Stalin, who lived in Baku when he was young). The most fun part of the book for me was describing some the characters I met–the Austrian Baroness, who would only talk to me in the middle of the night, when she wasn’t working on a rock opera, in her freezing castle, in the middle of winter!… two ancient sisters in Baku, who had spent every summer with their mother in Baden-Baden until WWI and the Russian Revolution, and never went back again; and most crucially, a fierce old Austrian publisher with four passports stamped “Aryan” and Lev’s deathbed notebooks in her closet, which she gave to me. I realized how I was extremely lucky that I had learned fluent German in my 20’s; I don’t think I could really have gotten to know these people if I had had to have an interpreter.
7.) What happened to Lev’s deathbed notebooks?
I don’t know where they will end up. I hope that there will be new interest in his work, and that this last “Kurban Said” book, in many ways the most interesting one–a hybrid novel/memoir–will finally be published. I’ve put the notebooks themselves in a safe deposit box. I don’t know where they should go. Lev has no heirs. And they shouldn’t go back to the Aryanizer of his publisher — which is what the lady in Vienna was. I’m grateful she let me read the notebooks, but at the same time she absolutely couldn’t face the fact of what had become of the Jews who rightfully owned the company, never mind her Jewish authors, “who left without saying a word,” as she put it to me, remembering 1938, “leaving me to take care of their affairs.”
So I hope some museum or library will start a collection of Lev’s manuscripts and will protect them and display them. They are an incredible artifact–in a way they sum up the most important thing about Lev to me, which was the way he responded to the face of evil closing in around him and kept himself alive through writing.
8.) You seem to have resurrected Lev’s life from oblivion. Why do you think you were able to solve the puzzle of his life after it had remained a totally confusing mystery for so long?
I don’t think I’ve solved the puzzle of Lev Nussimbaum–I think that would be impossible, for in some way the man is just a Gordian knot of contradictions–but I do think I have resurrected him from oblivion and also resurrected his legacy from others who wanted to claim it for their own. An old Indian man who helped me on the project insisted that I’d been reincarnated to save Lev’s life, to bring him back from the void. I don’t know about that, but I do think it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime confluences of biographer and subject. I’d come along at exactly the right time–the last possible moment. It was as though all these ancient people–these ancient women, mostly–had been waiting for decades for me to find them, so they could pull out a ragged photo album, a box of love letters not opened since 1952, or a cluster of deathbed notebooks. The widow of one of Lev’s school friends produced a photo album that had survived a concentration camp and an escape through the Pyrenees, and it was filled with candid photos of Lev in his orientalist costume in 1920s Berlin.
Often I arrived just in time to meet someone–if I’d come a year later it would have been too late. In England, I found the woman who’d discovered Ali and Nino in a postwar Berlin bookstall and done the first translation of it into English in the 1960’s. But she was in the hospital, having just had two strokes, and she was unable to communicate with anyone because she’d lost her power of speech. I showed up at the hospital, which was an open ward, like something out of Dickens’ England–where she was driving everyone crazy, howling all the time because she couldn’t express herself… but then I tried talking to her in German. And it turned out that somehow, the strokes had knocked out her English, her main language for almost fifty years, but she hadn’t lost her first language, German. She was shocked that she could answer me that way, and talking to her I found out that she’d changed her identity herself–she’d been a stage dancer in the Third Reich with an entirely different name.
Part of writing this book felt like detective work 101, just following every lead, most of them being dead-ends since I’m dragging up a case that was closed a half a century ago. But every now and then I would have a breakthrough, and it just kept happening.