Katherine Christine Monteclar Woolbright Jews and Western Culture: Midterm Project December 5, 2012

A Critical Analysis of Oskar Panizza’s “The Operated Jew”

In 1893, a German physician and writer, Oskar Panizza, published a satirical short story, “The Operated Jew,” a viciously antisemitic tale of a turn-of-the century Jew, Itzig Faitel Stern, who attempts to alter his inner and outer nature through extensive medical operations and cosmetic transformations to convert himself into an “Aryan Christian.”1 This piece has gained Oskar Panizza notoriety and has led some to describe him as a man who was “trained as a psychiatrist, buried as a psychotic, and in the interim a poet, essayist, dramatist, short story writer and syphilitic.”2 In order to fully understand the intention and significance of “The Operated Jew,” one must delve into the biography of the author as well as the historical context of the piece.

Leopold Hermann Oskar Panizza was born on November 12, 1853 in Bad Kissingen, Bavaria to a Catholic father and Protestant mother.3 After the death of his father in 1855, his mother, an “energetic, strong-willed, with an almost masculine

Steven Ascheim, “(Con)Fusions of Identity — Germans and Jews,” In Times of Crisis: Essays on European Culture, Germans and Jews (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001), 70.
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Jay Geller, The Other Jewish Question: Identifying the Jew and Making Sense of Modernity (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011), 243.
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Peter D.G. Brown, Oskar Panizza: Life ans Works (New York: Peter Lang Inc., 1983), 11-12.

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Katherine Christine Monteclar Woolbright Jews and Western Culture: Midterm Project December 5, 2012

intelligence”4 woman, raised him and his siblings as a protestant despite the objection of the Catholic diocese in Bad Kissingen.5 Due to the pressure from and fear of the diocese, his mother saw no other alternative but to leave Bad Kissingen with the children and bring them to a family in Prussia, where they were well hidden from Catholic investigators, while she fought and failed for right to practice her religion in Bad Kissingen and then later in Munich.6 This religious friction and hardship brought about by religion in his earlier life, some say, has led to his utter aversion towards the authoritarian dogma of religion.7 Furthermore, based on his biography, it is clear that Panizza didn’t fit into “proper” German society.8 By the time he began university studies for medicine in Munich in 1877, he had not been able to complete the Gymnasium, had wandered from job to job, and was highly sensitive towards constraint.9 Another fact worth mentioning about Oskar Panizza is that he considered himself as someone who “comes from a genetically tainted family”10 with his uncle who suffered from “religious madness,” his aunt being described as “mentally strange and somewhat retarded” and his

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Horst Stobbe, In memoriam Oskar Panizza (Munich: H. Stobbe, 1926), 9. Brown, 12. Ibid. Stobbe, 12. Jack Zipes, “Oskar Panizza: The Operated German as Operated Jew,” New German Critique 21 (Autumn, 1980), 49. Ibid. Stobbe, 9.

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Katherine Christine Monteclar Woolbright Jews and Western Culture: Midterm Project December 5, 2012

younger sister who battled with fits of depression at a very early stage.11 Due to this, Panizza anticipated his own mental demise and succumbed to his paranoia in 1904 which, ironically, brought him to clinic for the insane in Munich, where he first started working after he received his doctor of medicine degree in 1880.12 His aversion to religion combined with the pervasive antisemitism within the German intellectual community of the late 19th century led him to conclude that the the Jewish “race” was decidedly ugly, decrepit and inferior to the Teutonic race.13 He posits, however, that the Jewish mind is so much better developed albeit primarily in the mercenary direction.14 It is within this framework and cultural background that Oskar Panizza wrote the most famous of his antisemitic works, “The Operated Jew.”

“Der operirte Jud” or “The Operated Jew” is one of ten novellas included in the collection entitled “Visionen,” where Panizza approached and explored sensational topics such as hermaphrodism, genocide, prostitution, cannibalism, lesbianism, church desecration and insanity.15 Little has been known with regards to the the exact

circumstances or time at which this text was written, what is known, however is that

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Ibid. Zipes, 49. Oskar Panizza, “Luther und die Ehe. Eine Verteidigung gegen Verleumdung,” Die Gesellschaft (1893), 277. Ibid. Brown, 30.

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Katherine Christine Monteclar Woolbright Jews and Western Culture: Midterm Project December 5, 2012

Oskar Panizza wrote “The Operated Jew” sometime in 1893 in Munich, at a time where he was still in possession of his mind but had already manifested clear signs of mental disturbance and was deeply perturbed about various social, cultural and political developments in Germany.16 The opinions with regards to his intentions in writing this text, however, diverge significantly, with one side claiming that he attempted to expose the sickness of German society through his writing 17 and the other asserting that this was a manifestation of his virulent antisemitism.18 I would argue, however, that although it is apparent that Oskar Panizza actively critiques German society in writing this text, saying that this was the primary purpose of this text would be misleading because although the conscious critique of German society is present to an extent, the pervasiveness of the malicious and perversive thought of antisemitism is nothing less than ubiquitous throughout the text. “The Operated Jew” has been called one of the most repulsive and insightful narratives on German anti-semitism 19 due to his caricatural, stereotypical portrayal of Itzig Faitel Stern as an ugly, malformed and clumsy human specimen who is generally offensive from his gait to his speech and who wants nothing but to get rid and overcome

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Zipes, 52. Kurt Tucholsky, “Oskar Panizza,” Gesammelte Werke 1 (1960), 696-7. Zipes, 48. Ibid, 47.

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Katherine Christine Monteclar Woolbright Jews and Western Culture: Midterm Project December 5, 2012

his “Jewishness” through his abundance of money and intelligence. Thus, he had an orthopedic surgeon fracture his bones and set them to grow back in a more esthetically pleasing form, had his hair straightened and dyed blonde, had professional actors teach him to walk gracefully and to speak Hochdeutsch, had a transfusion of Aryan blood, converted to Protestantism and changed his name to Siegfried Freudenstern. Despite all these major changes, however, Itzig still couldn’t get over his Jewishness for when he got drunk on champagne on his wedding night, he began to talk and act like the lascivious Jew he has always been. Panizza’s message, in the very basic sense, is the simplistic truism of “once a Jew, always a Jew.”20 He posits that people may superficially change how they look or act, but they would never be capable of “true” change for who they are will always shine through. This is similar to Kafka’s claim in the “A Report to the Academy,” the difference however is that Kafka’s text was a critique of outsiders forcing others to change while Panizza’s text is not only a critique of the inauthenticity of trying to change who you are but also a critique of assimilation. Although, in both, the main characters did not succeed in fully changing themselves, it is apparent that reasoning behind the two texts are completely different. In Kafka’s text, the ape didn’t fully change because he wanted to retain some of his “primitive” qualities while in Panizza’s text, Itzig didn’t fully change even when he rid himself of Judaism by converting to Protestantism,

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Brown, 137.

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Katherine Christine Monteclar Woolbright Jews and Western Culture: Midterm Project December 5, 2012

he is still Jewish as Judaism for Panizza, is not only a mere religion but something that is genetic. This undertone is especially important in identifying the intentions and leanings of the writer. “The Operated Jew” is filled with striking ambivalences which only reveals the writer’s extreme hatred and fear of Jews. This prejudice is also present in Panizza’s other works such as “Der Goldregen” and “Prolegomena zum Preisausschreiben: Verbesserung unserer Rasse.”21 Although not as sophisticated in writing style and thought as Robert Wagner or Friedrich Nietzsche, Oskar Panizza’s text is historically and culturally significant because this is one of the first times where antisemitism is given a medical element. Considering his background as a physician, a fervent agent of socialization, the medical perspective that he gave highlighted the more “scientific” form of racism that became characteristic of the modern era and paved the way for the rise of the study of eugenics. Indeed, Panizza helped contribute to this new dimension of antisemitism, so much so that there were attempts to revive him as a cultural hero during the Third Reich.22

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Zipes, 53. Oskar Panizza, Deutsche Thesen gegen den Papst un seine Dunkelmänner (Berlin, 1940).

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