Around the Jewish World: Successful German Refugee Finds Himself Back in Berlin

The life of W. Michael Blumenthal reads as the American success story par excellence.

A Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany in 1939 and a survivor of the Shanghai ghetto during the wartime Japanese occupation, he arrived in San Francisco in 1947 as a 21-year old with $65 in his pocket.

Within the next three decades, he earned a doctorate in economics from Princeton University, became chairman and CEO of two Fortune 100 companies, served as special trade ambassador under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and was named secretary of the Treasury by President Carter.

Having achieved success and distinction in business and public service, Blumenthal’s thoughts returned to a personal and historic question that has haunted scholars and laymen for more than 50 years: How could the patriotic devotion and apparently successful assimilation of Jews in “cultured” Germany end in the Holocaust?

To seek an answer, Blumenthal began to explore the lives of his ancestors in Germany, from the 17th century to his own father’s death eight years ago.

The result of his investigation is a fascinating book, “The Invisible Wall: Germans and Jews, A Personal Exploration.” The book, just published by Counterpoint in Washington, D.C., is deeply personal — while simultaneously examining universal issues.

Now, at age 72, 59 years after he left Berlin as an outcast, Blumenthal’s career has taken another turn, this time back to his old hometown.

Last December, he accepted a “temporary” job as acting chairman of the board and chief executive of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, destined to be the largest institution of its kind in Europe.

In a phone interview from his home in Princeton, N.J., Blumenthal discussed his own life, his book, and his recent appointment to direct the not-yet-completed controversial Berlin museum.

Readers of his book will encounter a remarkable gallery of forebears, whose combined history encapsulates the centuries-long “unrequited love of German Jews for their native country.”

Included are Jost Liebman, who rose from itinerant peddler to court jeweler to become a member of Brandenburg’s nobility; the celebrated opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer; a leading literary critic during the interwar Weimar Republic and Blumenthal’s own father, a decorated soldier in the Kaiser’s elite guard who was later arrested during Kristallnacht and imprisoned in Buchenwald.

In writing the book, Blumenthal said, he was confronted by the overriding question of how Hitler and the Holocaust could happen in Germany, which its devoted Jews loved and considered the most hospitable country for their people in Europe.

There are no easy, and perhaps no final, answers, but Blumenthal points to at least two factors:

First, a double Jewish self-delusion, which wrongly equated the beloved German “Kultur” with true liberal thinking, and which did not admit that the “invisible wall” separating Jews and Germans was never really torn down.

Second, Jewish emancipation in Germany was instituted from above by the country’s rulers, for their own, mainly economic, purposes. This emancipation was never ratified through a popular process, as in the Western democracies, with the result that when the Nazis struck, there was no effective counter- force to stand up for the Jews.

However, Blumenthal disagrees with the thesis of Harvard University’s Daniel Goldhagen that the German people had been driven for hundreds of years by an “eliminationist” Jew-hatred that welcomed the Final Solution.

“There is no evidence to support the argument that most Germans knew of the (Holocaust) killings, and there is nothing in German history to show that they would have approved of it, if they had,” writes Blumenthal. “Annihilating Jewish influence was one thing; annihilating them physically was another.”

In the final paragraph of his 464-page book, Blumenthal cites a relative of his grandmother’s generation, who wrote after Hitler came to power that perhaps the only compensation for this misfortune has been “to rediscover ourselves as Jews” and “to renew the long buried roots of our history.”

Blumenthal himself has experienced part of this rediscovery.

“When I came to the United States from Shanghai after the war, the last thing I wanted was to look back,” he said, believing at the time that “the problems of the past were history.”

During his rise in the business world and government, he paid little attention to his Jewishness, but in researching the book, he rediscovered “a sense of tradition and destiny,” he said.

Now, as director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, he is re-examining some of these issues once again.

The leadership of the huge edifice in the heart of Berlin, designed in the shape of a broken Star of David, has been riven by political and artistic controversies.

Blumenthal predicts that the museum will not open until the year 2000. He is committed to remaining at the post until then, and his most important task will be to define the museum’s mission.

“It will serve as a pedagogic tool for young Germans, commemorating not just Hitler’s victims, but the contributions of German Jews over the centuries,” Blumenthal said.

Another assignment may be in the offing.

Blumenthal’s name is frequently mentioned as possible chairman of a planned U.S. presidential commission to examine the fate of property and assets taken from Holocaust victims during World War II.

The House Banking Committee took the first step toward establishing that commission last week.

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