Before there was “Maus,” there were the “Mouse Folk.” Or, more precisely,
fifty-six years before Art Spiegelman drew Jews as
in his family memoir, Franz Kafka played with the associations between
Jews and mice in the last story he wrote, “Josephine, the Singer, or
the Mouse
which was published in 1924. The “mouse folk” live with danger and
enemies close by, much like the Jews of Central Europe did then. As the
brilliant Kafka scholar Heinz Politzer noted, the character of
Josephine, with her unique manner of singing, seems to evoke Karl Kraus,
the Jewish writer and performer who had, in Kafka’s opinion, a special
way with German-Jewish dialect. (“No one can speak Mauscheln like Kraus,”
he wrote to a friend.)

But the story is written so that such readings require leaps and
stretches, some amount of interpretive acrobatics. (Theodor Adorno once
described Kafka’s work as a set of parables, the key to which has been
stolen.) In the end, we can’t even be certain that “Josephine” is about
animals at all. It’s true that Josephine’s singing, which is really a
sort of whistling, doesn’t seem quite human. On the other hand, the
narrator, who is one of the mouse folk, speaks like an educated person.
How he or she looks goes mostly unaddressed. Perhaps the term mouse in
the title is a metaphor.

“You can read Kafka’s animal stories without realizing that they are not
about human beings,” Walter Benjamin wrote, adding that, when the
recognition suddenly sets in, “you look up in fright and see that you
are far away from the continent of man.” What Benjamin described is what
people call the Kafkaesque, a quality that abounds in the animal
stories, since they are full of another of its key elements—incongruous
responses to monstrous events. A man wakes up to find himself
transformed into a giant vermin and wonders: How am I going to get to
work on time? But if Kafka’s animal studies are a special case, written
in a style entirely his own, they also reflect a larger literary
phenomenon. From Heinrich Heine, in the early nineteenth century, to the
Austrian literatus Felix Salten, on the eve of the Second World War, a
number of German-Jewish authors wrote stories about anthropomorphized
animals. For the most part, their animal figures evoke the plight of
European Jewry without concertedly allegorizing it—though the temptation
to read them as allegories is often strong. In his thoughtful and deeply
researched new study, “Bestiarium Judaicum: Unnatural Histories of the
Jay Geller argues that these writers were engaging, critically but
mostly in an open-ended way, with a network of associations having to do
with the nonhuman animality of Jews. As Geller sees it, the challenge
that these writers set for themselves was to activate the power of these
associations—to engage the associations from within, by using animal
figures themselves—without reinforcing pernicious, and ultimately
deadly, stereotypes.

Geller roams imaginatively through German-language literature,
identifying the possible antecedents of the animal figures in the works
of Heine, Max Brod, and other Jewish writers of the period between about
1800 and 1933, his chronological frame. Some of the writers whose work
he analyzes are, like the science-fiction writer Curt Siodmak, not very
well known today, but most are either semi-famous—like Salten, the
author of “Bambi,” and the satirist Kraus—or outright famous, like Freud
and Kafka. Geller catalogues the key animal associations in the German
imagination—Jews and pigs, Jews and wolves, Jews and dogs, Jews and
apes, Jews and rodents—and discusses their evolution over the centuries,
providing commentary on widely circulated instances of these
stereotypes, from the bestiaries of the Middle Ages to graphic
representations of Jews as animals in Nazi propaganda. He considers how
the animalizing of Jews facilitated the Holocaust, looking, as he does
so, at reflections on “the construction of the Jew-Animal” by Jews who
were in occupied Europe at the time of the Final Solution—Primo Levi,
Jiri Weil, Gertrud Kolmar, among others. There is a notable complexity
in all this: animals are beloved in German culture. As a saying popular
around 1800 had it, the veterinary hospital in Berlin treated dogs like
men, while the regular hospital treated men like dogs. And the
perception that Jews, with their kosher slaughtering rituals, were cruel
to animals was in fact a rallying point among German anti-Semites.

Nonetheless, anti-Semites often likened Jews to animals, as Richard
Wagner does in his essay “Jewishness in Music” (1850), which describes
Jews as parrots who don’t understand the sounds they reproduce. And the
animal figures in Austrian-Jewish literature often embody the pressures
and anxieties that beset Central European Jews. Kafka’s story “A Report
to an Academy,” which was first published in 1917, in the Zionist
magazine The Jew, consists of an ape’s disquisition—at times highly
reflective, at times benighted—on his process of assimilation into human
society. In Salten’s “Bambi,” the deer characters debate whether humans,
who have the guns and the power, will “ever stop persecuting us.” One
early reader thought he could detect the rhythms of Jewishy German, or
jüdeln, in the patter of rabbits in another of Salten’s animal
stories. (For some readers, the phonetic proximity of mauscheln,
another word for jüdeln, to the German term for mouse thickened the
association between Kafka’s mouse folk and the Jews.) But the use of
animals also has a delocalizing effect, making the characters more
relatable than they might be if they had a specific human shape or
heritage. Certainly, it says something that the vermin in Kafka’s
“Metamorphosis” is a strong candidate for the great everyman of Central
European literature, and that Salten’s “Bambi” is probably its most
successful coming-of-age story.

Anthropomorphized animals lend themselves, famously, to the fable,
political and otherwise. Yet Geller rightly insists that the animal
stories of Austrian Jews don’t offer straightforward statements of
political ideology. He offers a scathing critique of the historian Jens
Hanssen and his attempt to read Kafka’s short prose text “Jackels and
Arabs,” from 1917, as a negative response to Zionism. There are echoes
of Salten’s Zionism in “Bambi,” as I have argued
but I wouldn’t call the book—which is more searching, in its sentimental
way, than programmatic—a work of Zionist fiction. In this respect,
Austrian-Jewish animal stories are in synch with Austrian modernism,
which tended to resist ideological commitments—especially after the
First World War, as the critic Marjorie Perloff’s argued in last year’s
“The Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire.”

The collapse of the Empire prompted a new wave of thinking about the
situation of Central European Jews, many of whom, during the reign of
Franz Josef, had belonged to a minority that was aligned with the
official culture of a fraying, multinational system. That had been
complicated enough—now where were they? Some of the Jewish intellectuals
of Central Europe saw their cultural position, and the
self-consciousness that resulted from it, as extraordinary and
exceptional. In their attempts to evoke this position, they seem to have
turned increasingly to nonhuman figures. In a 1921 letter to his friend
Max Brod, Kafka offered what is now probably the most famous description
of the plight of German-Jewish writers in Central Europe: “With their
back legs they stuck fast to the Judaism of their fathers, and with
their front legs they found no new ground.” Around the same time, the
Viennese Jew Franz Blei published “The Great Bestiary of Modern German
Literature,” in which he comically classified many of his contemporaries
as exotic animals. The “female Kafka,” for instance, “is a rarely seen,
wonderful moon-blue mouse, which eats no meat but subsists on bitter
herbs. Its gaze is fascinating, because it has human eyes.”