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American, German Perceptions Debated at AJCommittee Forum

March 11, 1997
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A conference sponsored by the American Jewish Committee last week in Berlin became a forum for a wide-ranging discussion on relations among Jews, Germans and Americans half a century after the Holocaust.

Jewish and non-Jewish participants, including prominent diplomats, scholars, politicians and journalists, debated topics ranging from lingering mutual stereotypes to Germany’s reluctance to pay compensation to Holocaust victims in Eastern Europe.

“It was a stimulating exchange that touched on a lot of points,” said Edward Serotta, an American photographer and author whose book on Jewish-German relations, “Jews, Germany and Memory” came out last year.

The conference was held as part of the run-up to the AJCommittee opening an office in Berlin later this year, probably in July. It was co-sponsored by the Central Council of Jews in Germany and by U.S. and German research organizations.

“Jewish interests are wrapped up with the shrinking world,” said Eugene DuBow, who will be the director of the new AJCommittee office. “The continuing development of democracy in Germany is a Jewish interest.”

Central to the conference was a discussion of how Germans and Americans view each other, and how Jews are perceived.

“What’s interesting about the conference is the interaction between German and American cultural memories,” said Gary Smith, director of the Einstein Forum, a research institute in Potsdam, near Berlin. “Decision-makers are not always experts. Cultural memory and cliches are often involved.”

Said Josef Joffe, editorial page editor of Munich’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung: “Both sides look at each other through lenses that are fogged by history and mild paranoia.”

Some American Jews look at Germany convinced that “there’s got to be another Germany” behind the current democratic face of the country, he said.

On the other hand, he said, the German image of American Jews was one of “power tinged with fear and paranoia.”

The complexities within Germany were underscored by recent news events.

On March 1, two days before the conference, police in Munich formed a human barricade between about 5,000 neo-Nazis and thousands more left-wing activists and local citizens.

The neo-Nazis had come from across Germany to protest an exhibition showing that ordinary German soldiers had taken part in Nazi atrocities. Right-wing extremists had clashed with supporters of the exhibit when it opened earlier in the week in Munich.

The exhibition had prompted debate but little open controversy when it was shown in other German cities during the past two years. It was sponsored by billionaire Jan Philipp Reemstra, whose Hamburg-based social Research Institute was a co-sponsor of the AJCommittee conference.

During the conference, Jewish as well as some German participants criticized the German government for not providing compensation payments to some 20,000 individual Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe. Such payments are made to survivors who live in Germany. Germany has provided aid to some welfare organizations in Eastern Europe, but not individuals.

“It is absurd to hear that ailing, 80-year-old survivors in the Baltic countries will get a pension if they come to Germany but won’t get anything if they stay home,” said a member of the opposition Greens Party, which has been active in trying to obtain pensions for eastern European survivors.

Rabbi Andrew Baker, the AJCommittee’s director of European affairs, said that compared with “the sincerity of some in dealing with the German past, you have to raise the anomaly of how East European Holocaust victims are being treated.”

“Compensation leaves out East European survivors,” he said. “This doesn’t negate what Germany does do, but it flies in the face of reality now. There is no urgency in addressing this. It’s unfinished business that is hard to understand.”

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