The Pass­port as Home: Com­fort in Rootlessness

  • Review
By – August 9, 2021

Accord­ing to Andrei Markovits, there is a cer­tain per­son­al­i­ty char­ac­ter­is­tic in Vien­na that they call Schmäh, a mix­ture of charm and guile.” Guile can be best under­stood as a ver­sion of the Yid­dish term chutz­pah. Markovits pos­sess­es these char­ac­ter­is­tics in abun­dance as this enter­tain­ing mem­oir will make clear to the reader.

Markovits (Andy to his friends) is a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan who holds mul­ti­ple chairs in Com­par­a­tive Pol­i­tics, Ger­man Stud­ies, Polit­i­cal Sci­ence, Ger­man­ic Lan­guages and Lit­er­a­ture, and Soci­ol­o­gy. He has writ­ten about left-wing move­ments in Ger­many, anti­semitism, Euro­pean foot­ball (i.e., soc­cer), and ani­mal res­cue net­works. As his range of titles and sub­jects indi­cates, he is not a dry-as-dust aca­d­e­m­ic nor a nar­row spe­cial­ist. He is also a Dead­head (a fol­low­er of the pro­to-psy­che­del­ic rock band The Grate­ful Dead), and above all, as he him­self defines him­self, he is a root­less cos­mopoli­tan and proud of it.

How he came to occu­py this anom­alous but cher­ished social posi­tion is the main sub­ject of the book, and its strongest chap­ters are the ear­ly ones recount­ing his family’s his­to­ry and his ear­ly edu­ca­tion. His par­ents were Hun­gar­i­an Jews who wound up in the shift­ing bor­ders of inter­war Europe as res­i­dents of Timisoara, Roma­nia. There, they suf­fered pri­va­tions dur­ing the Sec­ond World War but man­aged to escape the fate of most of their Hun­gar­i­an rel­a­tives in Hitler’s death camps.

Andy was born in 1948 and lived the first decade of his life in what came close to being a bour­geois envi­ron­ment in Com­mu­nist-dom­i­nat­ed, but mul­ti­cul­tur­al, Roma­nia. His father was a bank offi­cial, and the fam­i­ly was com­fort­able, if not espe­cial­ly well-off (they shared their small apart­ment with Sovi­et offi­cers). Fol­low­ing his mother’s ear­ly death, Andy and his father were allowed to depart from Roma­nia and land­ed near­ly pen­ni­less in Vien­na, pre­sum­ably as a way sta­tion to Israel. But they set­tled in Vien­na for nine years, where Andy blos­somed as a stu­dent in an exclu­sive gym­na­si­um and began his life-long love of Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture. That love (and his father’s respect for Anglo-Amer­i­can social and polit­i­cal val­ues) led to them spend­ing sum­mers in New York and then even­tu­al­ly to Andy’s attend­ing Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, where he land­ed in the fate­ful school year of 1967 – 1968 and went on to receive three degrees.

While spend­ing most of his aca­d­e­m­ic career focused on Europe, Andy became thor­ough­ly Amer­i­can­ized, speak­ing, by his own esti­ma­tion, an accent­less ver­sion of U.S. Eng­lish. He also became cul­tur­al­ly an Amer­i­can Jew, through the influ­ence of a grad­u­ate school friend (a Cana­di­an-born Ortho­dox Jew no less), some­thing dif­fer­ent from his assim­i­lat­ed Euro­pean upbring­ing In Europe. Read­ers inter­est­ed in the com­par­a­tive cul­tures of Euro­pean and Amer­i­can Jew­ry will find this sec­tion of the book most engag­ing. Andy’s progress through Amer­i­can acad­e­mia and the estab­lish­ment of his pro­duc­tive, schol­ar­ly resumé might be of less inter­est to gen­er­al read­ers, but it is here that Andy demon­strates the chutz­pah that per­mit­ted him to gain admis­sion to the Cen­ter for Euro­pean Stud­ies at Har­vard, from which he launched his wide-rang­ing stud­ies and became a semi-celebri­ty in Ger­many. His speak­ing a charm­ing Vien­nese-accent­ed Ger­man helped a great deal.

The great Jew­ish his­to­ri­an Salo Baron defined the lachry­mose school of Jew­ish his­to­ri­og­ra­phy,” that long litany of suf­fer­ing and per­se­cu­tion that for many defines Jew­ish life and his­to­ry. Andy Markovits’s mem­oir is the anti­dote to that school: a sun­ny, opti­mistic, and uplift­ing read. It doesn’t gloss over the sad­ness of post-War Europe, but it shows how that lost world could pro­duce a vital future and how a state­less, root­less per­son could nonethe­less turn that con­di­tion into a ful­filled life.

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

Discussion Questions