Research Unit Politics

The Non-Jewish Jew in face of catastrophe:

the case of Otto Heller (1897–1945)

This research project is an intellectual-political biography of the communist theoretician and journalist Otto Heller (1897–1945), focusing on his confrontation with the so-called Jewish question, in times of catastrophe for humanity, for European Jewry, and for him personally.

Heller was an exemplary »non-Jewish Jew«, according to the definition of that prototype by the Polish-British writer and historian, Isaac Deutscher: A »Jewish heretic who transcends Jewry«, but exactly for that reason, »belongs to a Jewish tradition«. Raised up in fin-de-siècle Vienna, and later active in the nationally tensed region of Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, the Jewish and national questions were woven into Heller's life. As a prominent Communist journalist in Weimar Berlin in the late twenties, he experienced the Stalinization and de-Judaization of the Communist movement. In the thirties, he became the leading Marxist theoretician on the Jewish issues in the German speaking sphere. From Nazi Germany he went into exile to Moscow, from which he had to escape again, out of fear of the purges. In the following years he took part in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, in the Résistance in occupied France and the International Underground in Auschwitz. Death found him in a concentration camp in Austria, only a few weeks before the liberation.

The study addresses the following questions: How did Heller become a typical »non-Jewish Jew«, and how was he later transformed into an exceptionally Jewish »non-Jewish Jew«, expertizing on the so-called Jewish question? What could be learned from Heller's case on the impact of this tragic historical catastrophe on the existential position of the »non-Jewish-Jew«?