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Shelly Kupferberg on the murder of her Jewish ancestor

In her novel, Shelly Kupferberg tells the story of her great-granduncle Isidor Geller, who was arrested and murdered in Vienna in 1938.

The author Shelly Kupferberg has written an impressive novel about the story of her great-granduncle in Vienna.

Heike Steinweg / © Diogenes-Verlag

During the Nazi era, Julius Streicher not only achieved notoriety as the founder and editor of the anti-Semitic hate newspaper Der Stürmer. He was also a maniacal collector of priceless books stolen by expelled or murdered Jews. In the so-called “Streicher-Library” there was also a small booklet on the art of French courtesy and etiquette, a “manuel de bon ton”, which had once belonged to the Jewish commercial councilor Isidor Geller from Vienna.

The book begins with the sentence “Politeness is to the mind what grace is to the face”. It comes from Voltaire, with whom Streicher certainly had nothing to do, but who was Isidor Geller’s faithful spiritual companion. Geller came from a poor background, was born in Lemberg in 1890 and had won everything in his life: money, prestige, women.

Until the Nazis murdered him – he had not believed that man could be a beast to man. A distant descendant of Geller tried to find out how this came about. The author, who was born in Tel Aviv in 1974 and now lives in Berlin, tells of her search for clues and the tragic path of her life in her novel “Isidor – A Jewish Life”.

beaten to death

The story of this subtle bon vivant is one in six million. The murderers made no distinction between the simple craftsman from the Galician shtetl and the millionaire from the best Viennese circles. At least Isidor Geller, unlike a poor Jew in the East, had the means and opportunities to flee in time.

Why did her great-granduncle, who was blessed with happiness in life, misjudge the signs of the times, why did he even want to suppress them? These are the questions that Shelly Kupferberg can’t get out of her head and that pushed her to write this novel. Because she knows that after Hitler seized power, Geller had to suspect what was in store for him. In 1908 he came to Vienna. Anti-Semitism was rampant back then. In 1938 his employees denounced him. He was arrested and beaten to death.

In her novel, Shelly Kupferberg follows Isidor Geller’s meandering path through time. Meticulously, in a melancholically sad, sometimes astonishingly distant tone, she traces the fate of her great-granduncle. But the book is ultimately dedicated to all those who fell victim to the annihilation mania. Geller is certainly not exemplary, but the dazzling focal points of his life, which was rich in two senses, make him a well-known figure in contemporary history at the time.

Glamorous dolce vita

Kupferberg’s research in private and public archives brought to light life documents and letters from which both the life and the picture of an epoch could be presented in fragments. It traces Geller’s glorious dolce vita in Vienna during the imperial era and shows his unconditional desire to belong to the top ten thousand.

His involvement in everyday political life is also discussed, which nevertheless did not open his eyes. And she tells of his unshakeable sense of family and his commitment to less privileged relatives. Kupferberg succeeds in writing a sensitively written biography from this time of terror. The fact that she comes from journalism is noticeable in the novel in a pleasant way.

Shelly Kupferberg’s great merit lies in making history understandable in a new way with «Isidor». In looking at the fate of the individual, the unthinkable becomes staggeringly comprehensible.

Shelly Kupferberg: Isidor – A Jewish Life. Novel. Diogenes-Verlag, Zurich 2022. 250 pages, CHF 33.90.

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