Around the Jewish World: Germany’s Obsession with Past Cuts Both Ways for Nation’s Jews

It seems ironic that Berlin is hosting a Jewish cultural festival that coincides with the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogrom that marked the beginning of the end of pre-war Jewish life in Germany.

But then again, maybe not.

As one prominent Berlin journalist says, “We didn’t only lose many people during the Holocaust; we also lost an important culture.”

As if atoning for the past, things Jewish — past and present — are now chic in Germany.

Jewish literary, artistic and musical events dot the cultural landscape here on a regular basis.

So the Jewish Cultural Days, slated for Nov. 10 to 23 and featuring klezmer bands and Jewish authors from around the world, is just the latest in what has become a national trend.

Indeed, for some of Germany’s Jews, the emphasis on Jewish life — rather than Jewish death — is a welcome respite.

For in the very land where Adolf Hitler and his henchmen plotted the destruction of the Jewish people, every day, it seems, is a day of remembrance.

The signs of the nation’s dark past are everywhere:

Memorials small and large pop up across the country — from neighborhood residential streets where a synagogue once stood to a central Berlin plaza. There a tall, stark plaque listing Europe’s concentration camps stands in front of the city’s most-frequented department store.

On television and in the press, there are almost daily documentaries and reports that focus on what is referred to here as the “German past.”

The question of a national memorial to victims of the Holocaust has become a subject of prolonged, nationwide debate.

The success and attention accorded Daniel Goldhagen’s book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust” this year is a prime example.

Indeed, the editors of Der Spiegel, Germany’s equivalent of Newsweek, say one of their highest-circulation issues was the one that featured an interview with the Harvard professor.

Jewish communal officials and analysts alike say they had expected the German focus on the Holocaust to end after 1995, which marked the 50th anniversary of the end of the war and the liberation of Auschwitz.

But they were wrong, as was evidenced by the popularity of Goldhagen and his book.

Explanations for this collective dwelling on the past — which many believe borders on obsession — vary, but one historian describes the phenomenon this way: “The best anti-Semites of yesterday are the best philo-Semites of today.”

Historian Johannes Wachten is a good example of the non-Jewish intellectual fascination with things Jewish.

The deputy director and chief curator of the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt, Wachten says this phenomenon can be attributed in part to a sense of guilt, a lingering question of what one’s parents — and now grandparents — did or did not do during the Nazi regime.

Oliver Viest, the 25-year-old Jewish co-editor of Chuzpe, a student-run magazine in Frankfurt, agrees.

“It’s not only Jews in Germany who have an identity problem; non-Jews have to deal with the German past even more.”

For Wachten and others, there is also a need to “fill in the history” following a lack of education about the war years.

Indeed, education about the Holocaust has shifted dramatically from the immediate postwar years, when educators — and the nation in general — were too close to the war to critically explore Germany’s evil deeds.

Today, in contrast, students study a mandated curriculum, whose success, experts say, varies from school to school and teacher to teacher.

For the Jews here, Germany’s national obsession with its Nazi past is a double- edged sword.

On one hand, it serves as a convincing argument that a Third Reich could never again rise on Germany soil.

Although anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism exist, especially since the unification of Germany has produced a shaky economic situation, most Jews do not fear for their safety.

As Cilly Kugelmann, the education director of the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt, put it: “I’m not saying that all 70 million Germans are not anti-Semitic, but it’s the kind of anti-Semitism with which we can live very well.”

At the same time, this obsession marks the Jews with a special label that many would prefer didn’t exist.

“Every Jew in Germany is a symbol — a symbol of a Holocaust survivor,” Kugelmann says.

“I don’t know when we will have a state of normalcy,” says Kugelmann, 50, who like many in her generation immigrated to Israel and then came back.

Indeed, the deputy editor of Der Spiegel confirms the view that the “public picture of Jews in Germany goes beyond the numbers.”

Joachim Preuss says he was astounded when he read recently that there are only 60,000 Jews in Germany.

In fact, until the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the influx of more than 30,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union, the Jewish community was half that size.

“I didn’t realize the number of Jews was so small,” he says. “The Jews in my mind are an important part of the world and in my thinking.”

As a result of this obsession, Jews of all ages — from community leaders to school-age youngsters — are singled out for special treatment.

Ignatz Bubis, the head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, is often courted by the press, and when he celebrated his 70th birthday earlier this year, the party drew top government officials.

For her part, Berlin university student Sophie Mahlo, says: “I feel like just because I’m Jewish, I’m something special, like a little star.”

Jews often use this special status for both personal and communal gain.

For example, Jewish immigrants, mostly from the former Soviet Union, are given rights not available to other newcomers.

While Jewish communal officials lobbied for these special benefits — including refugee status and welfare benefits — German officials were happy to oblige, welcoming this new influx of Jews as an important step in its atonement for past sins.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl “decided to revitalize the Jewish community depleted by the Holocaust,” explains Olaf Reermann, the Interior Ministry official who heads the immigration division.

The Jews also receive more public money for their synagogues and institutions than other religious communities.

But by and large, most Jews here are striving for a normal life in a country which they know harbors a history that a half-century ago crossed the divide from normal to uncivilized.

It is against this backdrop that one seeks to explore Jewish life here, all the while wondering: How can there be Jewish life in a nation so steeped in Jewish death?

It is a complex question that plagues both Jews and non-Jews.

Many Jews, in fact, are sick of being asked.

“The only problem Jews have living in Germany is that they are always being asked if there’s a problem,” quips journalist Henryk Broder.

For the older generation, most of whom were East European survivors who arrived in the country at Displaced Persons camps, their continued presence in Germany is largely a result of inertia.

Communal leader Bubis, for instance, says he doesn’t “have a reason why I’m living in Germany. But I also don’t have a reason to leave Germany.”

Bubis, a real-estate magnate who, over the years, contemplated living in Israel, Canada and France, represents a generation of Jews who for decades were, as they say here, “sitting on packed suitcases.”

Only in recent years have they developed a comfort level, committing themselves to institutions and synagogues — apparently ready to put away the suitcases.

For their part, the younger generations are wrestling with their future more than their past.

“We are not spending time discussing whether we accept Germany as our home – - that’s a given,” says Filipp Goldscheider, 26, another co-editor of Chuzpe, the student publication in Frankfurt.

Mahlo, in Berlin, agrees. “We want to work toward a new Jewish identity.”

Rabbi Ernst Stein, the only spiritual leader in Berlin, has been trying to help teach Jews here about their heritage and religion.

There is a lack of knowledge, he says, adding that the need for education is particularly urgent given the large numbers of Russian Jews who could ultimately shape the community.

Stein is a German-born Jew who was a retired businessman living in New York when he visited Europe in 1969 and saw the “desolate state” of the postwar West German Jewish communities. He then went to rabbinical school in London and returned to Germany as a rabbi in the mid-70s.

“It’s an academic point” whether Jews should live in Germany, he says.

“History has spoken. There are Jewish communities in Germany and as long as they are here, they should be served.”

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