Theodor Herzl’s seminal 1896 essay Der Judenstaat called for the creation of Jewish state as an answer to the ancient evil of antisemitism; its legacy, Zionism, underpinned the creation of Israel; in Judenstaat, Simone Zelitch’s beautifully told, thoughtful and disturbing alternate history, the Jewish state is created in Saxony, not Palestine, and takes the place of East Germany.
The Judenstaat, whose flag, the Star and Stripes, is a set of
concentration camp uniform strips overlaid with a six-pointed yellow
star, becomes a non-aligned power, sitting uneasily (but usefully)
between the Soviets and the Americans, but dominated by Moscow, with a
kind of austerity that’s informed by a sense of noble mission and a
siege mentality that’s heightened by the memory of the Saxon terrorist
snipers who targeted Jews on the street.
Zelitch’s story opens on the eve of Glasnost, with the Kremlin liberalizing its policies and markets and the Cold War starting to thaw. Judit Klemmer, a historian and film director, labors over a retrospective movie telling the story of the formation of Judenstaat, working in a national museum that is preparing an exhibit for a national celebration of the country’s fiftieth anniversary. As she works at her table, she is haunted by the ghost of her husband, an orphaned Saxon musical conductor who was assassinated by a terrorist sniper in the street as retribution for his collaboration with Judenstaat and his marriage to her, a Jew.
Klemmer is a broken person, her only meaningful interaction with the handsome young Stasi officer who visits her monthly to ask her to accept more state assistance and protection. She refuses him, and goes back to the dorm-room in the old brutalist Soviet block she insists on living in, dutifully visiting her mother, wearing her dead husband’s huge duffel coat every day, hiding in it.
But there is a secret haunting Klemmer: a mysterious visitor has left her with a can of archival film that hints that the origin story of Judenstaat isn’t all that it appears to be, hints that the old sectarian rifts that sent one of the country’s founders into exile were not all they seemed, hints that the story of her husband’s assassination didn’t happen the way she was led to believe.
Klemmer is an unwavering straight-arrow historian, refusing to accept any relativism or nuance in her history: things are true or they are not. Her job, as an historian, is to find the truth, even if it threatens to shatter her and her nation.
As Klemmer ventures into the neighborhoods given over to ultra-orthodox Jews — “black hats” — to unravel the mystery, her confusion only deepens, as she finds that no one is quite whom she believed them to be.
Judenstaat uses the technique of alternate history to offer biting commentary on modern Israel, on the post-Cold War era in which we live, on religion and nationhood. Like Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union (in which the Jewish state is created in Alaska) and Jo Walton’s Farthing (in which the British make uneasy peace with a Europe dominated by an ascendant Third Reich), Zelitch’s story asks more questions than it answers, but asks them from a safe fictional remove that throws a light onto issues that are otherwise obscured by the heat of the day’s politics.