by Adesua Atamah, Ben Königsfeld, Kathleen Reiswich & Lisa-Marie Richter
Gillian Polack is an Australian writer and medievalist who was born in Melbourne. She has been nominated for numerous awards throughout her career as an author and won the Ditmar Award for Best Achievement and Best Novel respectively in 2010 and 2020. Polack has released nine novels and in this blog post we will talk about the topic of antisemitism in her sixth novel The Time of The Ghosts,which was published in 2017, focusing particularly on the Melusine tales.
The idea of Melusine first appeared in European folklore, where she is depicted as a woman with the characteristics of a fish from the waist down, resembling a mermaid. Although, the Melusine of The Time of the Ghosts does not share this attribute, it is hinted at throughout the novel as Ann, who is a friend of Melusine, gifts her the figurine of a mermaid, as it is believed that if you give a mermaid an image of herself, she becomes a fairy and is young again.
The Melusine tales are told in parts through the duration of the whole novel and do not only follow her personal life for several centuries, but also automatically include the history of Judaism and antisemitism, as Melusine herself is Jewish and experiences discrimination in a Christian dominated historical society.
Antisemitism in the Melusine tales
Antisemitism means hatred targeted against Jews. One of its origins lies in Egypt and the Greeks and Romans spread the hatred by retelling Egyptian stereotypes in short stories. Therefore, the Greek and Roman empire created the roots for European antisemitism. During the Middle Ages Jews were often the scapegoat when misery and disease plagued a society. People in the Middle Ages believed that Jews were bewitched by an unholy power due to making a pact with the devil and this superstitious belief caused many Jews to be wrongly persecuted and thus allowed antisemitism to spread worldwide.
In the first Melusine story, which takes place in Kiev in 1643, it becomes obvious that there is shame in appearing Jewish in public. Melusine emphasizes that some people comment on her appearance by pointing out that she does not look Jewish (cp. p.7). This further illustrates the idea that Jewish features are viewed as undesirable in this Christian society. Further, evidence for antisemitism can be found in the first Melusine tale when non-Jewish peasants “decided that Jews [are] vermin” (p.7). Throughout the tales Melusine feels like an outcast due to her Jewish heritage, but she still tries to fit in by partly giving up her parts of her Jewish identity (cp. P.45). Additionally, this phenomenon can also be found in chapter seven, when Melusine visits a village in Germany where she notices that a lot of Jewish people converted to Christianity. The hatred towards Jewish people reached its peak during the Second World War, when millions of Jews were gruesomely murdered by the Nazi Regime. This horrifying historic era is also mentioned in the Melusine tales, when the reader learns that every Jew in the village is murdered by the Nazis 20 years later (cp.122-143).
In conclusion, the novel does a great job in presenting the deep-rooted hatred Jewish people have faced throughout too many centuries. It illustrates the antisemitism Melusine encountered closely and demonstrates how even small comments, such as saying she does not look Jewish, are hurtful. Gillian Polack’s novels often deal with Judaism and her novel The Wizardry of Jewish Women does the same while also catching your interest with topics such as feminism and family.
- Polack, Gillian. The Time of the Ghosts. Next Chapter, 2021.