Alex Aronson lives on
The Statesman (Kolkata) Sunday Supplement “8th Day”
4 November 2012
Martin Kämpchen recalls the life and times of this German Jew, born a century ago, who found refuge in Tagore’s Santiniketan from the Holocaust raging in Europe and remained in awe of the poet
ALEX Aronson was born in Breslau, then a part of Germany, on 30 October 1912. A German Jew, he found refuge from the Holocaust raging in Europe by opting to leave and settle in Santiniketan. He wrote to Rabindranath Tagore from London, explaining his situation and a few weeks later, Tagore sent an invitation suggesting that he get in touch with Amiya Chakravarty and CF Andrews, who stayed in London at the time. This is how Aronson was able to travel to Santiniketan, where he stayed from November 1937 to 1944, that is until after the poet’s death. He taught English and, most importantly, established the huge archive of news clippings on Rabindranath’s European trips at Rabindra-Bhavan, Santiniketan.
Santiniketan provided Aronson a “shelter from chaos and disintegration”, as he would later write, from the political and social turmoil of Europe as well as India. It created for him the ideal setting for concentrated and creative work as a teacher, researcher and academic writer. The “unreality” of life in Santiniketan made him sometimes almost forget the hardships that his people had to bear in Europe. He launched into his teaching, preparing his students for the BA examination of Calcutta University. They affectionately called him “Aron-da”.
However, the discrepancy between his relative comfort at Santiniketan and the brutality and insanity of the World War had, for Aronson, been a cause for anguish and self-doubt until his last years. In his letters and in his autobiography, he never tired of expressing his gratitude to the Santiniketan community for the warmth and affection he received; in one of his early letters to me, he wrote emphatically, “The hospitality I received there goes beyond all praise. It is something I shall never forget and for which I shall be forever grateful.”
Aronson showed his appreciation and gratitude by becoming one of the most prolific writers to emerge from Santiniketan at that time. He read voraciously, tried to understand the Eastern mind by studying Indian philosophy and art, played the piano and enjoyed listening to music with Satyajit Ray, then an art student, whom he befriended. He began to write book reviews and articles for Santiniketan’s official journals, the Visva-Bharati Quarterly and Visva-Bharati News.
Yet, Aronson remained very much European in mentality. He did not learn Bengali because he was still too preoccupied with learning good English. He felt his future was more with English literature and “in the company of Shakespeare and Mozart” – not “in what appeared to me the chaotic East with its intellectual muddle, its contradictory mythologies… its alien and many-headed gods and luscious goddesses”, as he wrote in his autobiography, Brief Chronicles of the Time (Writers Workshop, 1990).
On Tagore, Aronson wrote, “I recall how deeply impressed I was by his voice, his physical appearance, the utter simplicity of his arguments which were less literary than human. I listened without interrupting him. I was, naturally, much too intimidated to contradict or to argue. That first interview lasted half an hour. By the time I left his room, darkness had fallen. I was as if intoxicated by the warmth of his voice, the shape of his hands, the sensuous perfection of his face.” (Brief Chronicles…)
When Tagore asked him to put some order into the vast amount of newspaper clippings that had been collected during his foreign tours, and into the many files of correspondence, he realised that here was a virgin field for some original research. During the course of many months of hard, single-minded work, Aronson classified these newspaper articles and letters and thus laid the basis for the present archive at Rabindra-Bhavan. Delighted with this “wealth of information”, he wrote a book on the Western responses to Tagore based on these newspaper clippings.
Rabindranath through Western Eyes (Kitabistan, Allahabad 1943) became an iconic book that is mentioned and quoted till today. It is important because perhaps for the first time Tagore’s impact outside India, that is, his international side of which India is so proud, was seen in a totally unromantic, unsentimental, critically sober manner. Aronson viewed the poet’s noble message against the backdrop of the post-World War I scenario, the political forces of Fascism and Communism. In a way, it was also the first time a modern approach to literary history was being applied to Tagore. The author drew in social and political factors that influenced the popular reaction to Tagore. So soon after the poet’s death, the “establishment” of Santiniketan was clearly not prepared for this. It reckoned that Aronson was out to criticise Tagore.
Amiya Chakravarty did contribute the preface to the book, but while a preface is normally meant to win sympathy for the book and projects its merits, Chakravarty criticised Aronson’s book to such an extent that towards the end, he had to give a twist to his text, “The introductory criticisms, paradoxically enough, must be accepted as evidence of this writer’s appreciation of Dr Aronson’s book.” Paradoxical indeed!
In a long and stinging review in Visva-Bharati’s home journal, the Visva-Bharati Quarterly (November 1943), Amal Home rejected the book outright. I quote, “Who could ever believe that the West’s appraisal of the Poet has been affected by international political rivalries?” And then, with downright cynicism, “(Aronson) has only served us with an amazing and otherwise entertaining anthology of fatuous gossips and speculations…”
Well, research in India and in Europe over the last few decades has long established and analysed the link between Tagore’s literary impact and the socio-political situation of the time.
Kalidas Nag, himself a student and co- traveller of the poet, however, was more balanced and farsighted. He wrote, “(Aronson) was the first to demonstrate the value of current periodicals in Tagore criticism”, something others sneered at, thinking that only the sophisticated pronouncements of literary critics and literati should be considered. And Nag concluded warmly, “We gladly recommend his thoughtful book to all…” (Modern Review, May 1943).
If Aronson felt hurt, he never showed it. In a letter to me, he explained, “(The book) I wanted to write (was) not about Tagore (…) but about the West: its reaction to a great poet who had come to them from the East, the Western response to India at that time (…) That such a response (…) was coloured by social, political and religious prejudices opened my eyes to possibilities of reappraisal which shocked some Indians but was accepted enthusiastically by the younger generation.” (Letter of 30 April 1989.)
Later, Santiniketan turned a new page. Aronson was awarded the Desikottama (the Dlitt of Visva-Bharati) in 1993 and the then vice-chancellor Professor Sabyasachi Bhattacharya even suggested around that time that I prepare a new, annotated edition of Rabindranath through Western Eyes.
After this book, Aronson wrote or edited four more, which also emerged from his interest in and concern with Rabindranath and his time. He wrote a book on Romain Rolland who, for Aronson, must have been a model thinker leading a model life (The Story of a Conscience, 1944). Since Aronson knew French and lived, like Rolland, in the context of Euro-Indian cultural dialogue, he was predestined to write on this sagacious and faithful friend of Tagore.
Jointly with Krishna Kripalani, Aronson edited Rolland and Tagore, a collection of letters and essays they wrote to and about each other. Another fruit of Aronson’s archival work was a collection of letters to Tagore by well-known writers, scholars and public figures from Europe and America. These unpublished until 2000 when Visva-Bharati brought them out under the title, “Dear Mr Tagore”.
Finally, Aronson’s study, Europe looks at India. A Study in Cultural Relations (1946) opened his horizon beyond Tagore. It is an early academic study on the cultural relations between Europe and India before the theme became popular with the coinage of the term “Orientalism” in the 1970s. Aronson’s knowledge of several European languages served him well. To my knowledge, this is the first book dealing with the European cultural response to India in a comprehensive manner.
With the outbreak of World War II, Aronson, a German, suddenly became an “enemy alien” for the British colonial rulers of India, even though he, a Jew and refugee from Nazi Germany, could not be suspected of working against the British. Aronson was sent to an internment camp, first at Fort William in Kolkata, later to Ahmednagar. Two months later he was able to return to Santiniketan. But only due to Tagore’s repeated intervention did Aronson remain free. These traumatic experiences certainly contributed to his yearning to return home. Where was home? His parents had migrated to Israel. So, after a two-year interlude in Dhaka, Aronson joined his parents and within time became a much-loved, admired professor of English Literature in Tel-Aviv and then Haifa.
He continued to write, now preferably on Shakespeare. He never married. Listening to Western classical music became his deepest love. He preferred a solitary life away from political or social activism, but he reached out to the world, and especially to India, with the help of a vast and dedicated correspondence.
I knew Aronson for the last six and a half years of his life. British Tagore scholar William Radice introduced me to the Israeli scholar by letter. My first letter to Aronson is dated 8 April 1989, sent from Santiniketan to Haifa. At that time I was involved in preparing my book Rabindranath Tagore and Germany: A Documentation (Kolkata, 1991) and desperate to discuss it with a person knowledgeable on the subject. I saw myself in the footsteps of Aronson’s Rabindranath through Western Eyes. Yet, I had realised that there was a wealth of new information at the Rabindra-Bhavan archive and in the archives in Germany that Aronson could not have seen and evaluated. Aronson replied at once, generously offering a long commentary on my letter, which led me to revise certain judgments I had made on Tagore’s reception in Germany.
This initiated a correspondence which soon became intense and intimate. Until his death on 10 December 1995, I received no less than 73 letters, many of these running into several pages. I could rarely measure up to the flow of letters pouring into Santiniketan or Boppard, my German hometown. I sent him my books and essays, which he read immediately and discussed them in his letters. He did not just generously praise and encourage me, he also showed me where improvement was possible and necessary. This was the time when, after many years of preparation, I was able to publish a spate of books on Tagore in Germany, a book of Rabindranath’s aphorisms in my translation, then my book with 50 translated poems, further my Tagore biography and, in Kolkata, the documentation mentioned above. Imagine my situation: I was working from Santiniketan where nobody knew German and was able to read and judge my translations and writings. Germany was far away, besides Tagore was for many a poet of a bygone era. I had no discriminating readers of my writing. Here, Aronson fulfilled a most urgent need as a senior guide whose authority I could trust.
In July 1990, we met for the first time. We had already switched to addressing each other by the first name, but we still wrote in English, although our mother tongue was German. The reason may escape an Indian reader. Germany is the country that murdered six million Jews during World War II. Aronson escaped the Holocaust at Santiniketan. Although I was born after the war, the stigma is on my generation as well and will not be erased for many generations to come.
Later Aronson confessed to me that for years he had avoided reading or speaking in German because that was the language spoken by the murderers of his people. When we met in Stuttgart, we crossed an emotional barrier. We spoke in German and, henceforth, corresponded with each other in German. He generously wrote soon after our meeting, “I just want to tell you how greatly I enjoyed our talk in Stuttgart. It’s good to find one’s expectations fulfilled – and you are, indeed, the kind of person I thought you were. I rarely felt so much at home with a relative stranger as I felt with you.”
We immediately began planning a visit to Israel. On behalf of the Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan, I also invited him to Kolkata for Tagore’s 50th death anniversary programme in 1991. But Aronson could not be lured back to India. Old age and the burden of travel were one reason. Another reason was that he was unwilling to face the sad fact that most of the friends and associates he knew in Kolkata and Santiniketan had died. In 1980, he had indeed visited Kolkata but that remained the only return to India. But twice I visited Israel, in 1992 and 1993, and stayed with him in his flat on Mount Carmel above the city of Haifa. The second time, in 1993, I went with a special mission. The vice-chancellor of Visva-Bharati requested me to deliver the insignia of the Desikottama that had been conferred on him that year. It was a lovely celebration at his flat in Haifa.
During those visits and in his letters, Aronson demonstrated an unshakable loyalty. He was genuinely grateful to have gained another friend in his old age. Friendship became a recurring term in our letters. He supported me in my work in the villages around Santiniketan, always telling me how important it was even though I may get no or little appreciation. He believed in the genuineness of my life, and I know that only because of this support was I able to maintain it.