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September 09, 1966 - Image 36

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1966-09-09

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Malamud's 'The Fixer': Great Novel, Superb Condemnation of Czarist Cruelty

There -is no longer any doubt
about it. "The Fixer" by Bernard
Malamud must be rated not only
among the very best novels of our
time but as, perhaps, the very
best story published in at least a


Review after review of Mala-
tincd's newest work hails him as
the master of the narrative art.
And his new story, published by
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has
stirred so much interest that it is
Certain to serve as a weapon
against tyranny and bigotry.
Malamud himself told an inter-
viewer for the Saturday Review
(Haskel Frankel) that he intended
his story as a myth, not intending
it to be the story of Mendel Beiliss;
that it is a condemnation of in-
justice; that he had studied case
histories. including the Dreyfus
Case, for details. Nevertheless, his
character, Yakov Bok, the fixer,
is so close to Beiliss', the details
are so akin to what had hapen-
ed in Russia in 1911, that it is dif-
ficult to divorce "The Fixer" from
the Beiliss affair.

Malamud's story appeared
about the same time as Maurice
Samuel's "Blood Accusation"
(published by Knopf jointly
with the Jewish Publication So-
ciety), which is an historic re-
view of the Beiliss case. In many
respects it is amazing how close-
ly the two are tied in, how well
they described the real murder-
ers and the fact that Czar Nicho-
las II had taken a personal in-
terest in that dramatic event, in-
sisting that a Jew be made the
goat in a ritual murder charge.
The.appearance of the two books
simultaneously is an amazing co-
4ncidence. Two eminent writers de-
voted themselves to study of the
ease: Both had read all available
newspaper clippings and other
data. Samuel had a research staff
gathering data and he learned
Russian to be able personally to
provide all the factual details for
his history. Malamud said he had
worked nearly three years on the
story, reading up on the details.
In Milwaukee, on the occasion'
of the appearance of the Samuel
history of the Beiliss case, the Mil-
waukee Journal reprinted the story
from its issue of Oct. 8, 1913, con-
taining a special report from Kiev
by Mary Boyle O'Reilly, its staff
correspondent, who showed that
Nicholas was the guilty instigator
of the case against an innocent
Jew. The Wisconsin Jewish Chro-
nicle, published by former De-
troiter Irving Rhodes, reprinted
that story with facsimile heads and
Beiliss' photograph showing him
as "The Dreyfus of the Russian
Ghetto," as he was portrayed in
Harper's Magazine. It was a serv-
ice exposing an ancient and an
atrocious libel.
If it were not for the fact that
anti-Semites even today resort
to the ritual murder libel, these
books the Samuel history and
the Malamud narrative — might
not be as vital. But anti-Semitic
leaflets resorting to the ritual
murder charge were distributed
in Flint only two years ago and
the charge has been repeated in
the Ukraine. Therefore the ex-
poses serve the purposes intend-
ed and whether or not Malamud
would link Yakov Bok with
Beiliss his task has been accom-
plished; he has effectively con-
demned injustice.

of the evil and cruel role of Nicho-
las II but also the attitudes of his
predecessors, Nicholas I and Alex-
ander I, who officially repudiated
the ritual murder charge. In the
story, as Yakov ruminates, as he
fights against the efforts to have
him either 'confess or commit sui-
cide—thereby eliminating himself
as an instrument against the anti-
Semitic campaign—he reviews his-
tory, he refers to declarations by
several Popes who condemned the
blood accusation.

"The Fixer" is a simple man
who became religious. He left
his small village environment
when his wife, who could not
bear the children he craved for,
left him and was unfaithful. His
father-in-law pleaded with him
not to go to Kiev where Jews
were not permitted to establish
residence. But he had begun to
teach himself Russian and he
studied a grammar. He read
Spinoza. He became an unbe-
liever. He took the chance. He
landed in Kiev. He saved the life
of a Russian wealthy owner of
of brick plant and was given a
good job. His new boss was an
anti-Semite but Yakov did not
reveal to him his Jewishness. He
was loyal in his work. He re-
jected the love-making of his
boss' daughter when he found
her in a menstrual state. When
a 12-year-old boy was found
murdered and the Russians
sought to pin guilt on Jews, he
was uncovered, he became the
innocent sufferer and the en-
durance against cruelties during
his two years in prison reveal an
unlettered Jew who rose to great
heights as a symbol of justice-
Malamud had gone to many
sources, and especially to the
plight of Alfred Dreyfus. He read
up in the manner in which Drey-
fus was tortured in an effort to
crush him; how his oppressors had
hoped he would escape and would
be shot in the attempt, thus clos-
ing the case with the Jew as the
guilty traitor. It was hoped he
would commit suicide. But Drey-
fus had to live to prove his inno-
This is the case also of Yakov
Bok, He knew what was hoped for


He had acquired a New Testa-
ment and he found the referenc-
es to blood in the Jesus story as
a refutation of the unfounded
charge that Jews tolerated use
of blood. The Jewish laws
against the use of blood are re-
viewed. The reveries of Yakov
become arguments against the
false accusers.

He was provided with a tatter-
ed Old Testament and soon that,
too, was taken from him. There
was an attempt to poison him, and
he demanded food to share with
other prisoners. For a time that
was granted. Then came the chains-
to-the-wall, and even the right to
sweep his cell and to walk about
were denied. But he lived on. And
because he lived to face trial, even
though the Malamud story ends
without indicating freedom for the
sufferer—one surmises that only
a guilty verdict faced the lonely
man— he emerges the victor.
That's the purpose of the powerful
story in which a Jew subjected to
cruelty defies the forces of bigotry,
the Czar himself.
Yakov has many debates in his
mind, with the Czar with whom he
argues over the inconsistency of
the ruler's position, with the prose-
cutor, with his tormentors.
One of the prisoners, before he
is placed in solitary, reveals him-
self as a friend of the Jews—hav-
ing worked for the Jews—and he
later is shot by a prison Warden.
The investigating justice who want-
ed to expose the true murderers of
the Christian boy was found hang-
ing: every attempt was made to
crush the emergence of the true

As in the Beiliss story, it is evi-
dent that not all Russians, only
officialdom and the misled masses,
desired to condemn an innocent
man and to direct an atrocious ac-
cusation at all Jews. There was
trickery. The accusers, attempting

to extort a confession, spoke of
of our people shiver in every
only Hasidim as requiring Christ-
weather"; that "they shoot with
ian blood for matzot. What Mala- popguns and run from the
mud did was to expose the entire noise."
crime of anti-Semitism, in his skill-
And as Yakov ruminated anew, as
fully woven tale about a victim of he determined to live to expose the
intolerance and hatred.
lie, he thought to himself: "They're
Yakov Bok at the outset had afraid of the trial, the fixer thought
hoped that the only charge bitterly, after the warden had left.
against him would be for the Maybe people are asking when it
only crime he had committed— will begin. Maybe this has them
living in Kiev, without identify- worried. If I live, sooner or later
ing himself as Jew, and breaking they'll have to bring me to trial. If
the law by living where Jews not Nicholas the Second, then
were not permitted to reside. Nicholas the Third will."
At least he begins to believe that
But when, after two years, he
was shown the indictment in his the news about his incarceration
prison cell, he knew at once that which was to be a secret is leak-
the true murderess, the Christ- ing out, that people are beginning
ian boy's mother and her fellow to take an interest. He had been
criminals who were threatened prevented from making any con-
with exposure of their thefts by tacts and the friendly investigating
the boy, was being shielded be- justice was murdered. His assist-
cause the Russian officials want- ant was sent to Siberia. Only of-
ed a Jew as a scapegoat in the ficialdom was building up a case.
ritual murder case the Czar and But Russia began to stir and Yak-
his cohorts wanted to concoct. In ov began to become aware of it.

the trickery, reference to the
ritual murder accusation was re-
moved from the indictment, but
there was no doubt that it would
come up, and the warden im-
plied it.
A new indictment came with the
ritual murder charge. It was

brought by Yakov's estranged wife
Raisl. Where his signature was
requested Yakov wrote "Every
word is a lie." And he said to
himself that he will yet be tried
for the Crucifixion.
The visit with his wife was ar-
ranged in another effort to extort
a confession from him. Meanwhile
the "barren" wife brought him the
news that she had given birth to
a son, fathered by another man,
and in his ,compassion Yakov legi-
timatizes the boy by slipping a
note to his wife in Yiddish for the
presentation to the rabbi of their
town. By asserting fatherhood he
performs a mitzva, removing a
stigma from his wife.

When a Jewish lawyer came
to see him, finally, after nearly
three years of jail suffering had
passed, it was the first indica-
tion that he was not forgotten.
But the lawyer, informing him
about Christians who were com-
ing to his aid, said that "some

On the way to the court, dur-
ing a procession watched by
people who lined the streets,
many ignorant Russians cursing
him, some Jews giving him
courage, Yakov again dreamed,
in his imagination, that he had
a discourse with the Czar, that
he took a gun and shot him to
avenge the many wrongs. Then:
"One thing I've learned, he
thought, there's no such thing
as an unpolitical man, especially
a Jew. You can't be one with-
out the other, that's clear
Thus we have a drama about an
innocent victim in an historic case,
suffering from a vile accusation
which was supported officially by

an emperor.
The will to live for the sake of
truth and justice makes a hero of
a martyr. The role of Yakov Bok
is one of Malamud's great crea-
tions. Even though he seeks a wider
field, taking in all injustices,
whether against Jews or Negroes,
Malamud neverthelsss has exposed
the crime of the Beiliss case and
of the ritual murder charge. "The
Fixer" is a great novel and a
superb social document. P. S.

36—Friday, September 9, 1966


A New Year's gift that
will be remembered all year .. .
A subscripton to

Samuel's book has already been
reviewed in these columns. Mala-
mud's deserves widest attention.
Not only has the eminent novelist
indicated the bigotry that was ram-
pant, the lack of fairness in the
Russian prosecuting procedures,
but he has also presented the anti-
Semitic case and has uncovered
all the ills of the distorted minds
that seek to make the Jew the
scapegoat for every evil.
Malamud presents the argu-
ments of the anti-Semites. He
quotes them at length, giving them
a platform for all their venom.
Then come the exposes and in
them are contained the basic data,
the historic 'facts, the revelations

by the Russian tyrants, but he had
to live. He was placed in chains
and his agonies will cause the
reader to shudder as they are des-
cribed in the masterful work, "The
Fixer". But he had to live. The un-
political fixer of things who was
willing to live a poor life, from
hand to mouth, became a political
force in the Russian drama.

The Jewish News

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