December 13, 1797, is the birthday of Heinrich (ne Harry) Heine, one of the greatest German poets, who in his time was no less known for his political writing and journalism, and who is remembered unfavorably by many Jews for his having converted to Christianity. In fact, Heine was profoundly engaged with issues of his Jewish identity both before and after his conversion, which was prompted by the hope it would help him secure a job in academia or the law – a hope that was in vain.
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Harry Heine – he renamed himself Christian Johann Heinrich at the time of his conversion, in 1825 – was born in Duesseldorf, the oldest of the four children of Samson Heine and Peira Geldern Heine. After initial schooling at a Jewish school, he attended Catholic school. Duesseldorf, in western Germany, was under French occupation during the rule of Napoleon, and Heine grew up speaking French and admiring some of the more liberal institutions introduced during French rule, such as the Napoleonic Code.
His family initially planned for Heine to be a businessman under the guidance of his wealthy uncle Salomon; when he showed no aptitude for business, he was sent to study law. But at universities in Bonn, Gottingen and Berlin, in addition to his legal studies, he became exposed to political philosophy and literature. He also experienced anti-Semitism. By age 25, Heine had published his first book of poetry.
It was also in Berlin that Heine became involved in the Society for the Culture and Science of the Jews, the organization started by Leopold Zunz, Moses Moser and Edouard Gans that presumed to acquaint Jews with the culture and heritage of their people while attempting to modernize them so that they would be more palatable to German society. This was shortly after the country was swept by vicious anti-Jewish rioting in 1819 – the “Hep, Hep” riots, in which in some towns, middle-class citizens, students and even university professors enthusiastically participated. In his book “The Pity of It All,” Amos Elon reproduces the list of “Judenuebel” (Jewish failings) drawn up by Zunz in the wake of the pogroms, characteristics like “avarice,” adherence to “senseless customs” and “cowardice” that he hoped could be eliminated.
In his 1820 play “Almansor,” an allegory about the public burning of the Koran in 16th-century Spain, inspired by an 1817 book-burning in Leipzig that had a strong anti-Jewish color to it, Heine wrote the line that is now inscribed on the site of a 1933 Nazi book-immolation in Berlin: “Wherever they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn human beings.”
The truth is that Heine was never especially interested in religion per se, although he became more spiritually minded in his final years of illness. He was sensitive to the sufferings of Jews in Europe, and he was fascinated by Jewish history, but his conversion in 1825 was likely a response to the Prussian decree of 1822 that prohibited Jews from university careers. He himself called his adoption of Protestantism his “ticket of admission into European culture,” and also told the French writer Balzac that, ““I was baptized, but I did not convert.”
Ironically, Heine never did succeed in attaining a university appointment, nor did he work as an attorney. He continued to be dependent on a monthly stipend from his Uncle Salomon, and when Salomon died, he became involved in an ugly dispute with a cousin over the latter’s decision to cut off the payments.
In 1831, Heine moved to Paris, where he spent the rest of his life, reporting for German periodicals about French life and politics, and also commenting on German culture for French audiences. In the wake of the 1840 Damascus Blood Libel affair, he published an unfinished novel he had begun in 1824, “The Rabbi of Bacharach,” which Amos Elon calls “the first fictional attempt by a leading German writer to convey the pathos of the German Jewish condition.”
Heine died in Paris on February 17, 1856, after a lengthy illness. He left behind a vast corpus of poetry, drama, fiction, songs, reportage and criticism. But he also, with his keen, liberal sensibility and imagination, anticipated some of the worst abominations that would come out of his native land some 80 years after his death.