Putting the past in perspective

Posted By on May 25, 2010

The Orientalist

I miss my parents lately, particularly now that I’ve read The Orientalist, Tom Reiss’ biography of Lev Nussimbaum, a tortured intellectual and prolific writer who lived while the great empires—the Ottoman, the Hapsburg, the Russian—died and totalitarianism took over. Nussimbaum was also known as Essad Bey and Kurban Said; he was a Jewish Orientalist whose greatest talent was self-invention.

Nussimbaum was born five months after my mother, in Baku, Azerbaijan, a city where there were oil fires above ground when he was a child. Baku, in Reiss’ telling, sounds like it came from The Arabian Nights.

My mother, who was quite a party girl, might have known Lev in the ‘20s when both were living in Berlin, a city Reiss captures with extraordinary vividness. Berlin in the Weimar period must have been a delight. If time travel were possible, I’d be there.

Nussimbaum’s is a story of displacement and exile. The book unearths history I had never imagined and helps explain why my parents, like the fascism-prone, Bolshevik-hating Nussimbaum, fled Germany for Italy in the early ‘30s (Italy wasn’t officially anti-Semitic until 1938, the year of the Anschluss, when Germany annexed Austria and Hitler and Mussolini formalized their alliance).

One of the most original works of history I’ve ever read, Reiss’ book—which he developed because he’s the “child of German-speaking Jews trapped in Nazi Europe” (I’m the son of German Jews who got out just in time)—documents a fantastic man negotiating perilous, challenging times. We live in interesting times now, with the world collapsing economically, forcing political accommodations that will be strenuous indeed. But Nussimbaum’s short career—he died, gangrenous and in great pain, in 1942—celebrates a degree of ingenuity and inventiveness rarely called for these days.

It also makes me very happy my parents made it to America, where you can breathe relatively freely. I wish I’d recorded more of their stories.

Also, visit Tom Reiss’s website.


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I'm a veteran critic and business writer who reads and listens and writes about music, books, hotels and travel. I've been in the business for many years and still enjoy it. My pride and joy is my book, Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories. Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/CarloWolff