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Jurek Becker (1937–1997)

Author of Jacob the Liar

32+ Works 1,269 Members 17 Reviews 5 Favorited

About the Author

Works by Jurek Becker

Jacob the Liar (1996) 677 copies
Bronstein's Children (1986) 183 copies
Amanda herzlos: Roman (1992) 68 copies
The Boxer (1976) 67 copies
Sleepless Days (1978) 66 copies
Irreführung der Behörden (1973) 48 copies
Aller Welt Freund (1982) 17 copies
The Wall: And Other Stories (2014) 10 copies

Associated Works

Granta 30: New Europe (1990) — Contributor — 146 copies
Granta 6: A Literature for Politics (1990) — Contributor — 41 copies
Jacob the Liar [1974 film] (2015) — Author — 7 copies

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A dark comedy, set in the ghetto of an unnamed Polish city towards the end of World War II, and obviously drawing on Becker's own childhood experience of the Łódź Ghetto. Jakob Heym, an undistinguished man who has spent the last twenty years in a snack-bar serving up potato pancakes in winter and ice-cream in summer, accidentally overhears a news report about the progress of the Red Army towards Poland. He can't keep this to himself in the information-starved ghetto community, but he equally can't admit to the humiliating circumstances in which he overheard it, so on the spur of the moment he is inspired to tell his friend Kowalski, in the strictest confidence, that the has a secret radio receiver. Naturally, the news is all around the ghetto in a matter of hours, people are soon pestering him for more news, and he finds himself gradually led from one lie to another.

We hear a lot about "the information war" these days: that's exactly what's going on here, and what was going on in the DDR at the time Becker wrote the book: the news that Jakob is able to pass on, sketchy and mostly false though it was, gave the Jews in the ghetto the glimmer of hope that help was on its way, which they needed to carry on living and fighting back at least within themselves, even if there was no real way they could resist the Germans.

But this is also a moving and often funny book about human beings and the way they act under pressure. Little acts of bravery, irrational bits of pettiness and generosity, and especially the wonderful description of the long friendship between Jakob and his neighbour Kowalski, who aren't quite sure any more after several decades whether they love or hate each other.
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thorold | 14 other reviews | Mar 31, 2022 |
A lively novel with a very sixties feel to it. Gregor is a student in East Berlin when we first meet him in 1959, bored with his law studies and vainly trying to hawk ideas for stories to editors and TV producers. We follow him through his marriage to his student girlfriend Lola and his breakthrough as a successful screenwriter and novelist, with many misadventures and comic incidents along the way, but the real point of the story seems to be Gregor's increasing discontent with life as the spark of originality he started out with is snuffed out by his growing technical fluency and his chameleon-like ability to adapt his work to what the market wants and what the authorities are prepared to accept. He doesn't exactly wake up in bed and discover that he has turned into a giant cockroach, but the effect is much the same.… (more)
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thorold | Aug 11, 2021 |
This novel is written in a discursive, colloquial style. As in Conrad’s Lord Jim, a garrulous storyteller — perhaps he sits at a table in a tavern — just talks. If you’ve ever tried to write like that, you know what an achievement Becker’s result is.
The title figure is Jakob Heym. One evening, through a comic but frightening misadventure, he hears a bit of news that was only meant for German ears. The next day he uses what he heard to save a fellow ghetto-dweller from a foolhardy act that would have cost him his life. When the fellow doesn’t believe him, Jakob improvises. He knows, he says, because he has a radio — something he and the other Jews are strictly forbidden to own.
The news is about a battle just a hundred miles or so from their town. That means that the Eastern front is moving west. It’s no wonder that his companion doesn’t keep the news to himself. Before long, it has been whispered throughout the ghetto. People Jakob hadn’t previously known sidle up to him, hungry for the next tidbit of information. A young couple begins an affair, a middling old actor draws up a list of twenty roles he’d be suited for, a barber dreams of renovating his shop, or perhaps even changing to another business. There are no more suicides. As one of the characters explains it, “yesterday there was no tomorrow.”
This creates a problem for Jakob. The first bit of news was based on a real radio report. But now he has to invent. But, as he laments, he is no Sholem Aleichem. Nevertheless, he does his best. Finally, when he’s had enough, he entrusts the truth to his best friend, Kowalski. The next morning, Kowalski hangs himself.
Becker creates a moral dilemma — one faced by the original patriarch Jacob in Genesis: when is a lie better than the truth? But he doesn’t moralize. Nor is there a happy end. Yes, the Russians truly are drawing closer. But for the inhabitants of this ghetto in an unnamed Polish city, this means not liberation but hasty deportation to the ovens. Jakob’s lie doesn’t save them from death, but it does give them life in the meantime.
In the course of telling the story of Jakob, Becker creates vivid portraits of many others: Kowalski, Mischa and his fiancée Rosa, Rosa’s father, the mediocre actor, renowned heart specialist Dr. Kirschbaum, the pious Hershel, who refuses to cut his payotim and hides them under a fur hat that causes him to sweat profusely as he works. Perhaps the most poignant is Lina, the little girl overlooked when her family is deported, taken in and hidden by Jakob.
The book is masterfully written. By turns comic and tragic, it is above all a deeply humane book.
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HenrySt123 | 14 other reviews | Jul 19, 2021 |
Jacob the Liar by Jurek Becker
★★★★
Jacob the Liar is the story of life in a Nazi-occupied Jewish ghetto. Protagonist Jacob Heym is sent to the military office and overhears a radio broadcast about a nearby Russian victory. He finds himself in a predicament when he decides to share the good news but lies to cover up where he heard the news by claiming he owns a radio. The news instills hope and curbs the stream of suicides in the ghetto. The subsequent plot centers around Jacob’s struggles to maintain the lie about his radio in an effort to maintain a glimmer of hope in the lives of those surrounding him.

This is a powerful story. The emotional restraint (e.g., the matter of fact way of describing beatings, daily hardships, and death) of the narrator makes the story hit you that much harder.

POSSIBLE SPOILERS:
Hope is a dangerous thing in this story. On the one hand Jacob’s stories give his community a sense of purpose and meaning to continue fighting for survival, yet on the other hand the reader is told up front that the conclusion likely will not be one that deserves hope. What happens to Kowalski when he learns the truth is gut wrenching.
END OF POSSIBLE SPOILERS

I ended up really liking this book despite thinking about halfway through that it was just “okay.” It grew on me throughout the book. It was heartbreaking at times, and uplifting at other times. There are many good WWII books but I found it interesting that the book focused on life in the ghetto rather than life in concentration camps – making the book unique in its own way. I also liked the way the book makes you feel conflicted about ethics of Jacob’s behavior. I found myself thinking a lot about whether the instillation of hope is always a good thing.
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JenPrim | 14 other reviews | Jan 15, 2016 |

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Works
32
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ISBNs
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