Jewish life in the New Germanys.
A Jew in the New Germany, by Henryk M. Broder (edited by Sander L. Gilman, trans. Broder Translators' Collective). Champaign, Illinois, University of Illinois Press, 2004. xvi, 151 pp. $29.95 US (cloth).
Being Jewish in the New Germany, by Jeffrey M. Peck. Piscataway, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 2004. 215 pp. $24.95 US (cloth).
In 1933, there were over 500,000 Jews in Germany. Twelve years later, there were fewer than 50,000 Jews in Germany, and most of them were not of pre-war German origin. Survivors of the Holocaust who remained in Germany struggled to re-establish their lives, and by the 1970s there was a small but quietly successful Jewish community in West Germany, though few Jews felt completely at home there. After the collapse of communism, tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union altered and reinvigorated German Jewry, and Jewish institutions in Germany have exponentially increased in number and visibility.
As the identity of Jews in Germany has undergone transition since 1945 and 1990, so too has the identity of Germany as a whole. Many times since 1945 one has been able to speak of a "new Germany." In the postwar years, Germans struggled to erect new states on the ashes of the Hitler's Third Reich. In the west, liberal democracy was legitimized through popular participation, while East Germany declared socialism and "antifascism" as the keys to building a new Germany. (In fact, the official organ of the East German communist party was Neues Deutschland--New Germany.) By the 1980s West Germany was a strong liberal democracy with an identity largely based on a successful constitution and post-national, Europeanist aspirations. A new Germany had been created. Then there was 1989 and German reunification. Throughout the 1990s, the so-called Berlin Republic looked to redefine German identity: more self-assured and independent than during the Cold War, but restrained by German history and matured by the achievements of the Bonn Republic.
In recent years, several new books have examined the nature of Jewish life in the various new Germanys. After the Holocaust by Anglo-German scholar Eva Kolinsky chronicles the efforts of Jews who sought to re-establish their lives in Germany after the Holocaust. A Jew in the New Germany is a collection of essays by the noted Jewish journalist Henryk M. Broder, reflecting on the place of a Jew in the Federal Republic of Germany. Finally, in Being Jewish in the New Germany, Jeffrey Peck, a communications scholar now at Georgetown University and formerly at York University, explores what it means to be Jewish in the new Germany that has emerged since German reunification.
In her profoundly researched book After the Holocaust, Eva Kolinsky elucidates the situation of Holocaust survivors in Germany in the years after the demise of the Nazi regime. In doing so, she highlights the difficulties faced by Jews, who were psychologically traumatized and impoverished by the Nazis, and who faced indifference or hostility from non-Jewish Germans who also sought to rebuild their own lives after World War II.
With the liberation of the concentration camps, the vast majority of former prisoners became displaced persons (DPs). They found shelter and respite in displaced persons camps run by the victorious Allies. Many survivors--especially eastern European Jews--had no homes or families to which they could return. The DP camps became their home for the indefinite future. With the help of international relief agencies, Jewish DPs rehabilitated themselves and reconstructed some semblance of an ordinary life in the extraordinary atmosphere of the DP camps. They established schools, theatres, newspapers, and even businesses. Eventually, the Americans allowed Jewish groups to administer all-Jewish camps. It was not long before Jewish survivors of Hitler's camps had achieved a nominal state of normalcy, as Kolinsky vividly relates. However, it was not certain that most Jews in postwar Germany would remain there, and while independent Israel provided a locus of free Jewish immigration after 1948, many survivors did remain in Germany.
In contrast to the eastern Europeans, approximately 15,000 native-German Jews were still living in Germany when the war ended. Most of them had survived thanks to the efforts of their non-Jewish spouses. Life was by no means easy for Jews in Germany, even after the extent of their suffering became public knowledge. They faced indifference or hostility from their neighbours. Complicating matters, they also faced isolation by Jewish groups abroad who concentrated their relief efforts primarily on the DPs and who wished for all Jews to emigrate from Germany as soon as feasible. Though few German Jews were observant, it fell to these survivors to refound Jewish institutions such as synagogues and welfare organizations. Their work provided the basis for enduring Jewish life in Germany and helped rehabilitate those survivors who remained. Despite the urgency of their task and the precariousness of the situation, the two groups of Jews in postwar Germany--German Jews and eastern European Jews--feuded, and unity was elusive. Only in 1950 did a unified Jewish community in Germany emerge under the leadership of the minority German Jews; even then, tensions did not abate for many more years.
After the Holocaust is geared more towards a popular than a scholarly audience. Most chapters in the book are constructed around a handful of illustrative case studies. Kolinsky's intense research with a limited number of archival collections lends itself to this manner of organization. However, the reader often loses sight of the overall situation of the Jews in Germany at any one time. So intense is Kolinsky's focus on Frankfurt, for example, one wonders what was going on elsewhere and whether there were regional differences. Additionally, she frequently lets survivors speak for themselves through extended quotations. In fact, the book is permeated by block quotes. While these passages humanize and personalize the themes presented, their length and sheer number limit the amount of overall analysis presented. Indeed, the master narrative is more oblique rather than apparent. Finally, there is no discrete bibliography or historiographic review, making it hard for all but experts to situate the book in the literature.
It is worth mentioning that Kolinsky's title is ill-chosen, as there is another book entitled After the Holocaust on precisely the same topic (which Kolinsky reviewed in the American Historical Review in 1999). Her subtitle, Jewish Survivors in Germany after 1945, is somewhat misleading as well, since more than half of the book deals with the immediate postwar months--during 1945. Her narrative scarcely goes beyond 1948, and more recent years are relegated to the concluding pages of the final chapter and the epilogue. Additionally, Jewish life in East Germany is not surveyed, again with the exception of a brief mention in the epilogue. For her analysis, Kolinsky also uses a very high estimate of the number of Jews liberated in Germany in 1945, writing "two million survivors had been found and freed inside of Germany, one in ten of them Jews" (p. 71), when it is more likely that only 30,000 to 50,000 Jews were liberated within the borders of old Germany.
Despite its flaws, Kolinsky presents a detailed introduction of the re-establishment of Jewish life in postwar western Germany in its initial phases. With carefully researched case studies and an emphasis on survivors' tales, After the Holocaust is enlightening, and selections from it would be useful as assigned reading for undergraduate students of Jewish history.
Rather than a researched monograph, Henryk Broder's A Jew in the New Germany is a collection of eighteen essays by a Jewish journalist living in Germany. They can best be characterized as social commentary with a sardonic bent. Written for a German audience, most of these essays originally appeared in other edited volumes, others in newspapers and magazines. All have been edited and translated from German (and not always accurately). Among the widely varying issues covered by Broder are German ambivalence in confronting the Nazi era, German responses to Israel, the quality of the German Jewish community's leadership, German officiousness, the German peace movement and the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the aftermath of the revolution of 1989, life in communist East Germany and nostalgia for it, Schindler's List, life in Israel, and the Iraq War of 2001.
Born in Poland and raised largely in Germany, by the late 1970s Broder grew disappointed with the German left and its reaction to terrorism and antisemitism. Broder interpreted the anti-Zionist sentiment of many German intellectuals as latent antisemitism. Children of former Nazis became self-righteous critics of Israel, claiming they had a duty to admonish others, especially Jews. As Sander Gilman wrote in the introduction to A Jew in the New Germany, "A man of the Left, Broder was more attuned than most of his contemporaries to the fine line that connected the anxiety and guilt about the Shoah [Holocaust] with contemporary German anger at Israel for not being made in their image of what a 'good' Jew should be" (p. xiv).
Not every essay deals with Jewish issues, but in "Why I would prefer not to be a Jew--and if I must, then rather not in Germany," Broder excoriates the German mentality of bureaucratism which masks a more latent antisemitism, in his opinion, and the failure of the Jewish community's leadership to oppose it. In "You are still your parents' children," he illustrates how German leftists of the 1970s and 1980s exploited the Holocaust as a moral touchstone for causes dear to their hearts without giving any thought to the actual Holocaust ("Women, students, or gays become the 'Jews of today.'" p. 22). In doing so, they resembled the political right wing, which claimed that persecution of it was the new Jew-baiting. Even worse, young antifascist leftists self-righteously criticized "Jewish" personality traits, including supposed misogyny and clannishness. It did not occur to them that fascists made the same arguments in their parents' time. Yet German leftists, then and now, claim that the political left a priori cannot be antisemitic. Moreover, Israel was routinely accused of being the new Third Reich while Pol Pot's Cambodia and Idi Amin's Uganda were seen as noble anti-imperialist regimes. In 1996 ("The Germanization of the Holocaust") Germans were still using their own troubled history as a pretext for telling others, especially Israel, how to act. Several contributions, including "I love Karstadt," explore Broder's love-hate relationship with German society. Germany is efficient, but at what price? Antiauthoritarian or contrarian behavior is disdained, but politically or culturally insensitive speech gets a free pass, especially if leftists are the ones doing the speaking. In "A Hopeless Enlightenment," he berates German academics who dislike Schindler's List and the Hollywoodization of Holocaust education, tarring them with the brush of anti-Americanism, detail-fetishism, and turf wars. And as he points out in "The Germanization of the Holocaust," by the mid-1990s, Germany was engaged in a mania of Holocaust commemoration as if the Germans had suddenly discovered the importance of the event.
Broder's essays are laden with criticism to the point of screed. From them one could easily gain the impression that educated Germans are culturally and historically insensitive. His Germany is one that seems self-impressed, hypocritical, and restrictive. Given that portrayal, the reader is left wondering about the representativeness of the people and incidents he illustrates. Are these sentiments widely held, or is he really writing about a very narrow circle of leftist intellectuals and cultural elites? Moreover, the age of many of these essays (five before 1989, twelve from the 1990s) begs the question of how things are now.
A Jew in the New Germany tells us very little about the situation of Jews in the new Germany. As interesting as the essays are, they do not provide a cohesive view of Jewish life in contemporary Germany. Some do not deal with Jewish issues at all. Most are an analysis of the Germans' view of Jews rather than an exploration of being Jewish in Germany. Moreover, Broder's ruminations on terrorism, antisemitism, Holocaust memory, and German intellectual life assume a familiarity with German politics and society. As such, A Jew in the New Germany is more directed to astute observers of contemporary Germany than to casual readers and scholars of European Jewry.
Where Broder fails to illuminate the situation of Jews in contemporary Germany, Jeffrey Peck succeeds in Being Jewish in the New Germany. The stated goal of Being Jewish in the New Germany is to address "questions about Jewish identity in Germany from new social, cultural, political, and religious perspectives" (p. x). Moreover, the book is clearly a reaction to pervasive American Jewish sentiments about Germany and Jewish life there. All too often North American Jews still regard Germany as the land of the Nazis, overlooking its democratization, not to mention its strong ties to Israel and blossoming Jewish community.
Since the mid-1990s, Germany has had the third largest Jewish community in Europe and the fastest growing in the world. Over 100,000 Jews are registered with the official Jewish community in Germany, and there are more who are not registered. Berlin, Frankfurt, and Munich have the largest concentrations of Jews, but there are many small communities throughout the country.
Changing Jewish identity is a major theme in Being Jewish in the New Germany. As a result of massive immigration from the former Soviet Union, 85 per cent of the approximately 110,000 Jews in Germany are recent arrivals. They have revitalized the community, but they have a "different outlook on what it means to live in Germany" (p. 42). They are less burdened by the shadow of the Holocaust and the culture of commemoration. They know little, if anything about Jewish observance. In most Jewish communities today in Germany, Russian language and culture predominate, a fact that alienates longtime members of German, Polish, or Israeli origin. On the other hand, many Russians find the German Jewish community bureaucratic and feel separated by class from the German Jews. A more significant issue is their understanding of Jewish identity.
For Jews in pre-1990 Germany, Judaism was a religious affiliation regulated by firm statutes and handed down matrilineally. By contrast, the Soviet government considered "Judaism" to be a nationality and cultural affiliation, handed down patrilineally. Thus, many of those coming to Germany as Jews are not seen as Jews by the community, and they seek alternative and more inclusive definitions of Jewishness. Another complicating factor is the Jewish community's ostensible religious homogeneity. Centrally organized, the official community was predominately Orthodox with some so-called Liberal congregations (equivalent to North American Conservative Judaism). More recently, North American-style Reform Judaism has dramatically arrived in Germany and clashed with the majority Orthodox.
Meanwhile, Jewish culture has become hip in Germany. Thousands of non-Jews are the primary consumers of an invented or reinvented Jewishness that is usually produced by other non-Jews or by foreign Jews. (Such manifestations include Jewish museums, restaurants, and music concerts.) While many scholars regard this as a Disneyfication of the European Jewish experience, Peck welcomes these efforts as part of the creation of a new, mutable Jewish identity for the new Europe and new Jewish community. An interesting component of identity formation is the tie between Turks and Jews in Berlin--two minority peoples in a cosmopolitan metropolis looking to construct a new hyphenated German identity in a country that has traditionally resisted such efforts. The two communities in Berlin support and cooperate with one another. At the same time, many view Germany's unloved Turks as the "new Jews."
It is important to note that Being Jewish in the New Germany is partially about the Jews and the new Germany as opposed to Jews in the new Germany. Peck devotes considerable space to a discussion of the role of the Holocaust in German-Jewish relations. While American Jewish identity has become ever more linked to the Holocaust, the identity of Jews in Germany seems less structured around the Holocaust. In the late 1990s, when Germany was experiencing a passionate debate about whether to build a national Holocaust memorial, the initiator and most fervent proponent of the project was not a Jew: it was a fanatically philosemitic German television journalist. Many Jewish community leaders were ambivalent or opposed to the giant monument.
As Europe develops a post-national identity, antisemitism is, ironically, on the rise. The European Union was forced to convene a conference on the subject. European Jews are organizing themselves on a Europe-wide basis, developing a new European Jewish identity for the New Europe, Peck claims. While the new antisemitism is largely an outgrowth of the Middle East conflict and critique of Israel, Germany and Israel enjoy close ties. In contrast, American Jews look askance upon contemporary Germany. Be that as it may, some American Jewish organizations do have representation in Berlin (namely Chabad and the American Jewish Committee).
Despite Peck's very fine elucidation of the instrumentalization of Jews and Jewish issues in German public life, one is still not quite sure what it is like to be a Jew in Germany on a daily basis, especially in cities and towns other than Berlin. His book is as much about Jews (and the idea of Jews) and the new Germany as it is about the experience of being Jewish in Germany today. Chapters can be read as part of a larger narrative or independently, and the reader may wish to read them selectively or non-sequentially. For both scholars and interested intellectuals, Peck is a good place to begin an acquaintance with the contours of German-Jewish relations in recent years.
University of Tulsa
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|Title Annotation:||After the Holocaust: Jewish Survivors in Germany after 1945; A Jew in the New Germany; Being Jewish in the New Germany|
|Author:||Geller, Jay Howard|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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