A hubbub of activity: Jewish musicians of Rohatyn, where Tokarczuk’s epic begins. Image: © Historic Images/Alamy Stock Photo

The rise and fall of a Messiah: Olga Tokarczuk’s epic novel of Jewish life in Poland

The Nobel prize winner sets the historical record straight
November 4, 2021

On the moonless night of 12th October 1942, a group of Jews fled their homes in the village of Karolówka (now Karolivka) in western Ukraine. They were heading in the opposite direction to most of their Jewish neighbours, many of whom would perish at the hands of the occupying Nazis. Their destination was a vast gypsum underground cave 300 miles away, 50 feet below the earth and wheat fields. Somehow, 37 or perhaps 38 of Karolówka’s Jewish population survived there for almost two years, only emerging in April 1944, when a trusted source threw a bottle into one of the caves. Inside it bore the message: “Germans gone.”

“It is in fact thanks to the pansophy of the internet,” writes Nobel prize-winning author Olga Tokarczuk in the source notes to The Books of Jacob, her extraordinary 1,000-page novel originally published in her native Poland in 2014, “that I happened upon the trail of the ‘miracle’ of the Karolówka cave.” She adds that “this trail also led me to conclude, firstly, that so many things remain quietly connected, and secondly, that history is the unceasing attempt to understand what is it that has happened alongside all that might have happened as well or instead.” 

This “miracle” of survival is described at the very end of the seven component “books” comprising Tokarczuk’s magnum opus. A huge task mixing scholarship and imagination, it tells the story of the real-life 18th-century mystic Jacob Frank. Frank’s sect appeared during the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and criss-crossed the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires. The people who thrive and wane within these pages yearn for “the world to come”: a new life that will deliver them from poverty, desperation, pogroms and persecution. In  Jacob they find a revolutionary, self-styled Messiah.

 Jacob was born to a Jewish family in Karolówka (then in Podolia, eastern Poland) in 1726. His father followed the Sephardic rabbi and Kabbalist Sabbatai Tzvi, who had proclaimed himself the Jewish Messiah in 1666, shortly before being forced to convert to Islam by the Ottoman sultanate in Constantinople (to which he had moved from Smyrna, now Izmir). As a young man, Jacob was a merchant who often travelled to what is modern-day Turkey and Greece. On these journeys he made connections with underground “Sabbatean” movements in Smyrna and Salonica. He resurfaced in Poland in 1755, when he publicly denounced the Talmud. Jacob’s appearances, in which he would experience trance-like “revelations,” attracted members of a like-minded cult immersed in Jewish mystical literature. Four years later, he led the conversion of his followers to Catholicism—the prelude to revealing himself as Tzvi’s successor as the third, or true, Messiah.

In Tokarczuk’s telling this epic of myth and history is a celebration of cultural diversity, a plea for tolerance and—notwithstanding its impeccably researched historical setting—a contemporary story of borders, refugees and migration. Despite the novel’s great length, the world she has recreated is wrenching to leave. 

Born in Sulechów, western Poland, in 1962, Tokarczuk trained as a psychologist at the University of Warsaw, where she also practised as a therapist. She published a book of poetry in 1989 but it was only with the publication of her novel Primeval in 1996 that she gained critical acclaim. In 2008, her novel Flights won the Nike Award, Poland’s foremost literary prize; she received another Nike for The Books of Jacob in 2015.

“Despite the novel’s great length, the world Tokarczuk has recreated is wrenching to leave”

In 2018 she was awarded the Nobel, the first Polish woman prose writer to achieve that distinction. Announcing its decision, the committee cited “a narrative imagination that with encyclopaedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.” Specifically naming The Books of Jacob, the committee commented that it “gives us a remarkably rich panorama of an almost neglected chapter in European history.”

The Nobel came at a time of a whirlwind of global interest in Tokarczuk. In 2018 she, along with her American translator Jennifer Croft, won the International Booker Prize for Flights. A novel, a memoir, a compendium of curiosities, Flights is also a work of anthropology, history and philosophy. The unnamed narrator, a Polish author persistently on the move, journeys across the globe encountering the accoutrements of modern travel—airports, railway stations, hotel rooms—and incorporates them into a meditation on the living and the dead. 

Flights is as wayward and quixotic as all truly meaningful voyages are. Tokarczuk herself did not leave Poland until 1990, at the age of 28, when Soviet-era restrictions were lifted. Travel can be a means of self-discovery or of escape: from memories as well as mortality. The delusion that to be endlessly mobile is to cheat death is explored in The Books of Jacob: as many of the sometimes travelling, sometimes fleeing sect discover when their number is diminished by plague; more generally Jacob and his band are variously banished, imprisoned, exiled, reprieved and exiled again, from Lwów to Warsaw, Vienna to Offenbach am Main.

In 2019, Tokarczuk’s 2009 novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (newly translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) put its author on the International Booker shortlist for the second year in succession. Set in contemporary times, Drive Your Plow is a forensic crime story touched with magical realism that has a redoubtable older heroine at its centre. In a Polish village, a number of men are found ritually murdered. It falls to Janina, a teacher, mystic and vegetarian who publicly abhors her community’s aggressive masculinity, to track the killer’s trail through the forest. The novel had already been made into the 2017 film Spoor, directed by acclaimed Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland. One journalist for the increasingly controlled official news agency described it as “a deeply anti-Christian film.” 

Tokarczuk’s feminism, activism and her status as a public intellectual has for some time now grated with the ruling authoritarians of Poland’s Law and Justice party. And with its depiction and indeed celebration of a culturally diverse Poland, The Books of Jacob is very much part of the nationalists’ problem with her.

The novel opens in October 1752, in Rohatyn, now in Ukraine, but then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which had been established in 1569 by the Union of Lüblin and lasted until Austrian imperial rule was imposed in 1772. The day is dense with fog. “Did not the world emerge from such a fog?” ponders Father Chmielowski, the querulous vicar forane of Rohatyn, with its small clay houses, market square, parish church, Dominican monastery, synagogue and orthodox churches. It is a small settlement, a hubbub of activity, trade and subsistence living: “It would be hard to say, based on their rags, whether this is a Jewish poverty, or Eastern Orthodox, or Catholic. Poverty is non-denominational, and has no national identity.” Here, as throughout the book, olfactory life streams from the page, whether fragrant or putrid—mud, manure, spices, honeyed vodka.

A wedding is due to take place at the home of Rabbi Elisha Shorr, whose daughter Hayah is rumoured to be a prophetess. Shorr and his circle will host Jacob Frank on his return to Poland; he and the next two generations of his family will play a crucial part in Jacob’s advancement, downfall and rehabilitation. There is a premonition of bad luck at the wedding: the ancient grandmother Yente is—apparently—dying. (Croft uses the Yiddish Yente, rather than Tokarczuk’s “Jenta,” as she does for all the Jewish names in the book, perhaps to help the reader distinguish them from others and from the main characters’ former selves, once they convert to Catholicism and assume Polish names.)

Yente is the bedrock of the novel: she is its beginning and end, its silent witness. To extend her seemingly fading life until the wedding is over, Shorr attaches an amulet to her with a scrap of paper inside which is written in Hebrew: hamtana (“waiting”). Unseen by the rabbi, Yente swallows the paper, and so the reader’s expectation is set: the world is now waiting for this imminent Messiah. Yente, who in the novel miraculously never dies but rather lives on through the centuries, all-knowing and in a state of suspended animation, will eventually be interred in the cave near Karolówka. 

Jacob and his followers embrace a previously unimaginable melding of Judaism and Catholicism, which the leader claimed was essential to receive the new world. In Book III, “The Book of the Road,” Tokarczuk describes the decision-making process: “At around noon the idea seems shameful. By the afternoon, it’s up for discussion. By evening it’s been assimilated, and late at night it’s perfectly obvious that everything’s exactly as  Jacob says.” The retaining of certain Jewish customs, habits and dress through the conversion, sanctioned by the Catholic Church with the support of sponsors from the Polish nobility, meant that these converts, or “neophytes” as they were referred to, would never be fully either Jew or Christian, or accepted as such. The swift rise and spread of Hasidism among Jews in this part of Poland from the 1740s onwards is perhaps one reason why the Church was so eager to encourage—and thereby control—these somewhat unconventional converts.

article body image ERGPKN Jacob Frank - 18th-century Jewish religious leader who claimed to be the reincarnation of the self-proclaimed messiah Sabbatai

“Nothing more than an egotistical, if charismatic, cult leader”: Jacob Frank. Image © Lebrecht Music & Arts/Alamy Stock Photo 

The riddle of  Jacob himself remains unsolved. He is viewed through the prism of others’ reactions and reflections, and most especially through the Resztki or “scraps” of meetings, teachings and observations unofficially recorded by fussy, anxious Rabbi Nahman (Polish: Nachman) of Busk, one of Jacob’s most loyal followers.

Cleverly, Tokarczuk does not cast authorial judgment on Jacob: recounting his actions alone is at times enough for him to come across as nothing more than an egotistical, if charismatic, cult leader. He encourages adultery, orgies, corporal punishment and humiliation, prostitution, child abuse and incest—it is even implied that Jacob sleeps with his own daughter Eva, who, despite several male claimants to the role, succeeded Jacob on his death in 1791. To ensure the group’s survival, Jacob depended on a core of staunch supporters and financial donors: women, strongly portrayed here, serve the role of helpmeets and bed companions, whether they like it or not. 

Jacob’s personal perversion is shown by a predilection for infant-like breastfeeding, in which he is indulged even on his deathbed. Here and in other ways, Tokarczuk’s training in psychology—she has stated that “reading Freud was my first step to becoming a writer”—may have helped her understand and construct this character and keep him fascinating, if vaguely repellent, right to the end.

“Huge credit must be given to Croft, whose magnificent, lively translation is also a work of pure scholarship”

More generally, the battle the reader may have with the vast cast cropping up in the first two books of the seven eventually proves its worth, because of the increasing familiarity with them. Every tic and trick intensifies as the years pass, and the characters weave in and out of the stories: Katarzyna Kossakówska, a larger-than-life aristocrat who is a generous benefactor to the Frankists, so long as they don’t exceed their position; her cousin Moliwda, emotionally attracted to the sect despite his nobility; Asher Rubin, a humane doctor first of Rohatyn then Vienna; the Frankist Thomas von Schönfeld, who is Jacob’s younger cousin (formerly Moshe Dubrushka, who ends up under a French guillotine in the aftermath of the revolution); the debt-ridden Bishop Soltyk, one of many corrupt churchmen; Father Chmielowski, whom Tokarczuk describes in her afterword as “the first Polish encyclopaedist” and whose own book New Athens features almost as a character in its own right. Chmielowski’s correspondence with the elderly Baroque poet Elbieta Druzbacka is one of the book’s most tender aspects—both figures are real and their friendship, Tokarczuk explains in her afterword, “could certainly have happened.” 

But the dangerously friendless life of the sect and the unhealthy nature of its alliance with the Church and the ruling class is another big theme—underscored most deeply in the chilling account of a religious disputation held under Dembowski, the bishop of Kamieniec Podolski in 1757. Then the Frankists (or Contra-Talmudists, as they were known) succeeded in overturning in court the rabbis’ accusations against them: for transgressing the true Jewish faith by following the mystical Zohar text and not the Talmud, by not observing Shabbat, practising adultery and so on. Most sensationally, the Frankists accuse the Talmudists of the notoriously antisemitic blood libel.

The result of the court finding in favour of the Contra-Talmudists was that all copies of the Talmud throughout Podolia were ordered to be burned (a total of around 10,000 books); this was collective punishment for challenging the state-backed converts. This passage serves as a haunting premonition of what occurred under the Nazis just under two centuries later. “People gaze into the flames and find they like this theatre of destruction, and a free-floating anger mounts within them, although they don’t know whom to turn it on—but their outrage more or less automatically makes them hostile to the owners of these ruined books.”

The rise and fall of Jacob is as spasmodically splendid and brief as that of the comet observed as a portent in Book III. His survival is always tenuous, tolerated with suspicion over the sect’s immorality. In February 1760, Jacob was arrested and put on trial for heresy. Convicted, 13 years imprisonment in the monastery at Czstochowa in southern Poland followed. The incarceration takes its toll on Jacob’s health; but he ascends again, briefly, to mingle with Enlightenment thinkers and the aristocracy of Austria, for good measure pimping his daughter out to the Holy Roman Emperor. 

Huge credit must be given to Croft, whose magnificent, lively translation is also a work of pure scholarship: the multiple voices, styles, landscapes and inventories she renders into English bring this lost world vividly to life. Each book is divided into passages with picaresque headings interspersed with maps and drawings based on contemporary illustrations. As a reading experience, aspects of Tolstoy’s War and Peace are an obvious comparison; but so too is The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald’s epic in miniature of German Romanticism, and Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy: all immersive works in which the act of turning the pages is akin to surrender. 

There had been a Jewish community in Rohatyn, the beating heart of The Books of Jacob, for 700 years—until it was almost completely wiped out in June 1943, when the village was “cleansed” over a period of three days. The systematic horrors of the Holocaust meant that were few miracles like that of the cave at Karolówka. These places may be Ukraine today, but amid the fluid borders of Europe they remain part of Poland’s story. The nationalist regime’s recent push for laws that forbid Poles from admitting, still less interrogating, their own role in crimes largely committed in occupied Poland makes it harder than it would otherwise be to grapple with exactly what happened and why. Tokarczuk’s determination in this tremendous work to recast and restore to Poland’s past its vanished Jewish culture has never been more necessary.