1931 - The 35th of May
1931. Over four million Germans are unemployed, and Nazis and Communists are openly fighting in the streets. In response President Paul von Hindenburg uses Article 48 of the Weimar constitution to pass an emergency “dictatorship” decree curtailing freedoms of speech and assembly, and some privacy rights. Peace is temporarily restored.
The Nazis are still gaining power though. The party already holds 107 of the 577 seats in the Reichstag, and in the various Landtags (local elections) being held that year the Nazis consistently come in first or second. Things only get worse when the Creditanstalt Bank in Vienna fails, placing the entire banking system of Germany at risk and forcing the government to implement austerity measures.
Following the collapse, the German Chancellor Bruning and his entire cabinet resign, Nazis and Communists resume their open fighting and Hindenburg finally agrees to meet with Hitler for the first time. In a prophetic interview given to British and American press at the Hotel Kaiserhof in Berlin, Hitler says "It will not be necessary for me to seize power through a coup d'état. It will be mine within a short time, anyway, since every election brings my party closer to an absolute majority."
There is a famous quote by Jan Berry: “When the darkness comes, keep an eye on the light - whatever that is for you - no matter how far away it seems.” That is what I plan on doing. In Europe and Jerusalem, thousands of Jews attend the first siyum of the Daf Yomi Cycle. In the United States: Spinach consumption increases by 33% as a result of Popeye, Ruth Wakefield invents the chocolate chip cookie (originally called “The Toll House Cookie”), and Thomas Edison donates his last breath (held in a test tube) to the Henry Ford museum. In Norway, a royal proclamation is issued claiming Eastern GreenIand in the name of Erik the Red. In Germany, two professors attempt to reach the stratosphere by taking off in an airtight ball attached to a hydrogen balloon. And finally, the story of Conrad’s ride to the south seas on The 35th of May is told by Erich Kastner to children everywhere.
Erich Kästner (1899-1974) was a German author, poet, screenwriter, and satirist, known primarily in Israel for his amazing children’s books. These include: Emil and the Detectives, The flying classroom, The animal congress, and Lottie and Lisa (later adapted into Disney’s The Parent Trap). Kastner was nominated for the Nobel prize in literature four times.
Like many other creative minds, Kästner flourished under the Weimar Republic. He moved to Berlin in 1927, and for the next six years published poems, newspaper columns, articles, and reviews in many of Berlin's important periodicals, and wrote several of his best children’s books. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Kästner chose to remain in Germany and oppose the new regime. This cost him. The Gestapo interrogated Kästner several times. He was expelled from the national writers’ guild and his books were burned. Despite the persecution, Kästner was able to continue making his living as a writer, while living under the Third Reich, but all his work during that period was apolitical.
After the war, Kästner moved to Munich where he became the culture editor of the Neue Zeitung newspaper and the publisher of Pinguin, a magazine for children and young people. He resumed writing, and even managed to produce more children’s novels, but he was writing less and less even as his global reputation as a children’s author grew. In 1992, eighteen years after he passed away, the asteroid 12318 Kästner was named after him.
The 35th of May is Kästner’s only fantasy novel. It tells the story of Conrad, a young boy, who spends every Thursday with his single uncle, Ringelhuth, a pharmacist. Ringelhuth didn’t have a maid so lunch was whatever the boy and the uncle made for themselves, which could be sausage and cream, or cherry cake and English mustard (German mustard is too spicy). One Thursday, on the 35th of May, Conrad and Ringelhuth, meet a black horse, the best roller skater in the world, Negro Caballo. Ringelhuth offers Caballo a cigar, which the horse politely declines. The horse then follows the pair back to Ringelhuth’s house, where he offers to help Conrad with his homework assignment to write an essay about the South Seas. Conrad’s teacher unfairly gave this assignment to the kids who were good at math because he felt they lacked imagination. Caballo agrees with Conrad and uses his connections to open a gate to the South Seas, which can now be accessed from Ringelhuth’s closet, and thus the adventure begins.
The trio spend the next several chapters journeying through several fantastic lands that are on the way to the south seas. These include a land of the lazy (entrance is free and children are at half price) in which chickens lay omelettes directly into the frying pan, and beds and houses are motorized so you never need to get up. There is a fortress in which the generals of the past reenact battles with toy soldiers and compete in the Olympics. In Upside-down land, children run the country and adults are brought in for retraining. Electropolis is a land with a surplus of electricity in which everything is automated, from self-driving cars to moving sidewalks, to factories that produce all the goods the residents need. And the South Seas? For that, I’m going to make you borrow the book from the library.
Kästner is a very famous author in Israel. Most of his books were translated into Hebrew by Elisheva Kaplan (and some later retranslated by Michael Dak), and these became immensely popular during the 50s and 60s. I read the Hebrew translation of this book, and I can definitely see the appeal. The book is optimistic, insanely funny, pokes fun at adults and the modern world, and manages to get in one or two deeper messages about not taking yourself too seriously. This is one of those books I could see myself rereading several times in a row because it is that good. I am looking forward to introducing this to my five year old as soon as he is old enough to read it independently. I strongly recommend adding this book to your library.
The Omer today is splendor in grandeur, and these two attributes can definitely be found in the book, even though they are largely missing from the year (“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” makes its first appearance in a newspaper column, but that’s still not enough to compensate for Nazis). Splendor is found in the many wondrous lands The 35th of May introduces. However, the book goes deeper than that. Kästner was an optimist. He believe in the revitalizing power of children, and felt that each new generation of youth helped renew the world, making it a better place for everyone. This is the grandeur in the book, a profound message wrapped in bright and shiny splendid colors. Our children carry in them the potential to remake the world into a better place. It is up to us as their parents and teachers to help them discover that potential so that they can add their own touch to Hashem’s grand creation. Personally, I’m really looking forward to see what they create.