Karl Emil Franzos (1848-1904)
German writer

  1. Introduction
  2. Family and nationality
  3. Education and career
  4. Jews and Germanisation
  5. Judith Trachtenberg (1890)
  6. Der Pojaz (1905)
  7. Leib Weihnachtskuchen and his Child (1896)


Karl Emil Franzos was a popular German author of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. His works, both reportage and fiction, concentrate on the multi-ethnic corner of eastern Europe, now largely in Ukraine, where the Habsburg and Russian empires met. This area became so closely associated with his name that one critic called it Franzos country. A number of his books were translated into English, and Gladstone is said to have been among his admirers.

The main focus of his writing is the relationships between the different nationalities of the region — Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, Germans and Jews — and his sympathies clearly lie with the oppressed groups, in particular the Ukrainian peasants and shtetl Jews. He insisted that he was free from racial prejudice and that his attacks on particular nationalities were because they oppressed others: “I spoke out against the oppression of the Ukrainians and Poles by the Russians, but where the Poles do the same, as is the case in Galicia, then I speak out against their oppression of the Ukrainians, Jews and Germans.”

He also ‘spoke out’ against the rigid attitudes and practices of orthodox religion, and in this his attacks were directed above all at his fellow Jews: “I stand up for the Jews because they are enslaved, but I attack the slavery the orthodox Jews impose on the liberal members of their faith.”

Family and nationality

Franzos' family came from Spanish Jews who fled the Inquisition to Holland and later settled in Lorraine. Around 1770 his great-grandfather established a factory for one of his sons in East Galicia. This was the time when the Austrian administration insisted on all Jews having ‘proper’ surnames, so that ‘Franzos’ became his grandfather's name, from his French background, even though he regarded himself as German.

Franzos' father was a highly respected doctor in Czortkow (Ukrainian Chortkiv). He regarded himself as German, a term which at the time had mainly linguistic and cultural meaning, there being no state called ‘Germany’. He was steeped in the humanistic ideals of the German Enlightenment as expressed by Kant, Lessing and, especially, Schiller. This brought a certain isolation: for the Poles and Ukrainians he was German, for the Germans a Jew, and for the Jews a renegade, a deutsch. In the first half of the nineteenth century, liberalism and nationalism went hand in hand, and Franzos' father was one of the first Jews to join the student fraternity whose ideal was a German nation state with a liberal constitution. It is ironic that by the time Franzos, who shared his father's ideals, went to university, the German student fraternities had ‘dejudaised’ themselves.

Education and career

Karl Emil Franzos was born in 1848. His father died when he was ten and his mother moved to Czernowitz (Chernivsty). The first languages he spoke were Ukrainian and Polish, learnt from his nurse; his first school was attached to the local Dominican abbey, where the teaching was in Latin and Polish; in Czernowitz he attended the German Gymnasium, graduating with honours in 1867. By now the family was in reduced circumstances and he supported himself by giving lessons, later, as a student, from his writing. He would have liked to study classical philology with the aim of becoming a teacher, but no scholarship was forthcoming. Jews were not eligible for teaching posts, and even though he was non-religious, he refused to convert to advance his career. An additional reason for the refusal of a scholarship was that he did not attempt to conceal his liberal outlook, having, for example, tried to organise a celebration for the liberal poet, Ferdinand Freiligrath.

He studied law, that being a shorter course. When he graduated, he found himself in a similar situation: he did not want to become an advocate, and a position as judge was closed to him as a Jew. Having had a number of pieces published while he was a student, he went into journalism and worked for newspapers and magazines for the rest of his life, at first in Vienna, after 1886 in Berlin. The move was caused as much by the greater opportunities for publishing there as by his ‘Germanic’ tendencies. Indeed, the increasing virulence of anti-semitism in Germany meant that later on he had difficulty placing pieces which were felt to be too pro-Jewish — which was often another way of saying ‘not sufficiently anti-Jewish’. Today Franzos is best known as the man who saved Georg Büchner's works from oblivion, editing them from the already fading manuscripts (which is why Woyzeck first appeared as Wozzeck, giving that title to Alban Berg's opera). He died in 1904.

Jews and Germanisation

Galicia was the most backward, the poorest province of the Habsburg Empire, so that Franzos saw his promotion of Germanisation as part of an attempt to improve conditions there politically and economically as well as culturally and socially. Jews made up some 12% of the population, the largest proportion of any province; two-thirds of the Empire's Jews lived in Galicia. Besides being mostly poor, the shtetl Jews were strict, conservative Hasidim, shutting themselves off as far as possible from their Christian neighbours, who responded in kind. Poor orthodox Jews from the east were a not uncommon sight in Vienna and were probably regarded with even greater hostility by many of the westernised Jews of the city than by the Christian population.

The relations between the Christian and Jewish communities come into sharpest focus in sexual matters — as a young man Franzos fell in love with a Christian girl but renounced her because of the barrier between the two groups. This problem forms the subject of a number of his works, including two of his best novels, Judith Trachtenberg (1890) and Leib Weihnachtskuchen and his Child (1896).

Franzos showed the attitudes of the 19th-century assimilated Jew in their best light. His conviction that Germanisation was the way forward was based on the idealistic strain in German culture and will have looked very different in his day from our post-Holocaust perspective. He believed, following the example of Schiller, that literature should have an ethical purpose, but he managed to express that purpose through a range of vivid characters who still have the power to move the modern reader.

Judith Trachtenberg

Judith Trachtenberg is the beautiful daughter of a wealthy Jew. The upper floor of their house is rented by the Polish district commissioner, whose family treat Judith as an intimate friend. Her father is well aware that this treatment is put on to ensure the favours the commissioner expects from him, such as ignoring arrears of rent. Judith, however, takes it at face value. Similarly she believes the protestations of the young lord of the local estate when he falls in love with her. Count Baranowksi is basically a decent man, but he is weak and gives in to the proposal of a vagabond monk, who performs a fake baptism and marriage. Judith goes through many humiliations, not least of which is the exclusion from her family and community. Even after she has shamed the count into marrying her properly and accepting their son as his heir, her brother will not recognise her. At the end she commits suicide. Her gravestone inscription—“Judith Countess Baranowska, daughter of Nathan ben Manasse, of the tribe of Israel” — asserts her belonging to both communities, but that expresses a future hope rather than a present reality, as the end of the inscription makes clear: “She died in the darkness, but one day dawn will come.”

Der Pojaz

The rigidity with which the eastern Jewish communities shut themselves off from outside influences is the theme of Franzos' most ambitious work, Der Pojaz, completed in 1893, but not published until 1905 after his death.

The hero, Sender Glatteis, is the son of a shnorrer, a vagrant, but is brought up by a poor washerwoman as her own child. His talent for mimicry becomes evident at an early age and brings him the name of the pojaz, (payats: clown). He works as a carter and one evening in Czernowitz he happens to go to the German theatre. It is an event that transforms his life. He is determined to become a ‘proper’ actor. Encouraged by the theatre director, an assimilated Jew himself (probably based on the famous German-Jewish actor Dawison), he decides to learn German. He has to do this in secret; in the Jewish community only those for whose work it is absolutely essential were permitted to learn German; if he were discovered he would be excluded. He bribes the janitor of the local monastery (with schnapps) to let him secretly into the library, which the ignorant monks do not use, and is later helped by a monk who has been sent to that distant outpost as a punishment for suspected heresy. (The blinkered conservatism is on both sides; in his novel Judith Trachtenberg Franzos talks of “the stale air of the ghetto mixing with other, though not purer air heavy with the incense of fanatical belief”). Sender eventually cuts off his sidelocks, the long skirts of his caftan and his ties with the ghetto, and sets out for the city, only to die before he gets there from pneumonia; his weak chest is the result of winter hours spent in the unheated monastery library.

Why this novel, which Franzos regarded as his major work, remained unpublished during his lifetime, is a mystery. It is possible that he thought his critical portrayal of the ghetto might be exploited by anti-semitic elements which were becoming increasingly active in Germany in the 1890s.

Leib Weihnachtskuchen and his Child

In Franzos' last novel, Leib Weihnachtskuchen and his Child, the critical picture of 19th-century Hasidic Judaism is replaced by a sympathetic portrayal of an individual Hasid. The other central male character is Janko Vygoda, a Slav peasant whose parents drink themselves happily to an early grave, leaving their farm under a burden of debt. Janko swears to keep his inheritance intact; his obsessive work to achieve this makes him an outsider among his easy-going neighbours.

The man he holds responsible for his misfortune is the village innkeeper, Leib Weihnachtskuchen. When he discovers the Jew is the opposite of the bloodsucking monster he imagined, the little shenker becomes his only friend. Gradually the Christian Janko falls in love with the Jew's daughter. His determination to marry her is as obsessive as his determination to retain his farm and can only lead to tragedy.

In Leib, a painfully honest man who has a profound, living faith, Franzos has demonstrated his ability to portray sympathetically a person who has the religious belief he himself lacked. His depiction of anti-semitism also goes below the surface. Like his flock, the village priest responds automatically to the word ‘Jew’ with the common prejudices. But that does not stop him respecting Leib for the very qualities he believes Jews cannot by their very nature possess. He is so unaware of the contradiction between his attitude to Jews in general and the way he sees individual Jews, that he can express both views almost in the same sentence. Franzos also uses the institution of the shabbes goy to show that the two communities can live together in harmony when they see and know each other as individuals.