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Around the Jewish World Germany’s Past and Future Reflected in Honor for German Jewish Journalist

October 17, 2003
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When Martin and Clare Cramer and their son Erwin were deported from Augsburg, Germany, in 1942, they left behind a slip of paper with a poem on it.

“The song is finished,” begins Martin Cramer’s five-line poem, found on a table by the family’s cook. “True, the melodies still ring softly in the house. But it is over. The song is finished.”

Martin, Clare and Erwin never returned.

Now, 61 years later, Martin and Clare’s other son, renowned journalist Ernst Cramer — who had left Germany shortly before World War II began — has returned from his home in Berlin to the town of his birth to accept the distinction of honorary citizen of Augsburg.

Actually, notes Cramer, 90, it should be the restoration of his Augsburg citizenship.

The award, presented Oct. 15, honored Cramer’s commitment to building Germany’s relations with Israel and the United States, his support for German reunification and his promotion of the peaceful resolution of international conflicts.

For Cramer — a journalist, publisher and director of his publishing company’s charitable foundation in Berlin — the award recognizes a lifetime of achievements.

Cramer still insists he has done nothing to deserve such an honor. But, he told JTA in an interview in his Berlin office, he agreed to accept it to “memorialize what happened during the Nazi years, and to memorialize the exodus of the Jewish population and killing of many others, especially my parents and brother.”

Cramer is a well-known public figure in Germany. At his 90th birthday party last January, the guest list was a measure of his renown as some 200 people from the fields of media, culture and politics turned up, including U.S. Ambassador Daniel Coats, Israeli Ambassador Shimon Stein and former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

A soft-spoken, slim man with salt-and-pepper hair, Cramer holds no punches as a writer, public speaker or pundit.

During the Iraq war, he unapologetically backed the U.S. and British campaign to remove Saddam Hussein from power — an unpopular view in Germany.

He has not shied away from other positions, even when his fellow citizens — or his co-religionists — disagree with him. He recently sparred with Israeli visitors to Germany over some Israeli policies, he said in a recent interview.

“As a Jew, I want the Jewish state to behave better than its neighbors,” he explained.

Cramer also is an outspoken opponent of xenophobia, defending the right of civil servants in Germany to wear Islamic head scarves.

“Tolerance must remain part of our heritage,” he says.

Cramer comes from a family of outspoken intellectuals: His father was a founder of the Augsburg Literary Society, together with Bertolt Brecht.

The Cramers were a typical German Jewish family: Not very religious, they attended synagogue on major holidays and identified strongly as Germans. Only with Hitler’s arrival did the question of German identity versus Jewish identity come into play, Cramer says.

By that time, his family — like many other Jews — were trying to leave the country. Only Ernst and his late sister, Helene, managed to emigrate, both to the United States.

But not before he found himself in the Buchenwald concentration camp, temporarily incarcerated along with other Jewish men after the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938. Cramer was released on condition that he emigrate.

Cramer arrived in the United States just before the outbreak of World War II, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1943.

Ultimately, Cramer returned to Buchenwald as a solider in the U.S. Army, visiting the camp just after its liberation, in February 1945.

Cramer saw corpses “piled like wood, and people were dying in front of us” after eating U.S. Army rations, which were too rich for the emaciated Jews.

After the war, Cramer was asked to stay on in Germany to assist the military government. After helping run a German-language newspaper, Die Neue Zeitung, he returned to the United States to work for United Press International, which then sent him back to Germany.

In 1958, Axel Springer, publisher of Die Welt and other German newspapers, hired the young journalist. Cramer has been with the company ever since.

With an energy that belies his age, Cramer still makes his way every day to his office at the Axel Springer Company, just west of where the Berlin Wall once stood.

Jewish life is blossoming again in Germany. Immigration from the former Soviet Union has helped triple the number of Germany’s Jews in the last 12 years, to more than 100,000.

Augsburg, the city of Cramer’s youth, reflects this trend: Of the 1,200 Jews there in 1933, about half were murdered in the Holocaust. By 1990, there were only about 150 Jews left in the city.

But today the Jewish population has grown to 1,500, most of them new immigrants, according to Renate Bay, spokeswoman for the Bavarian State Association of Jewish Communities.

Cramer says most non-Jews in Germany “have fully accepted the fact that Jewish life should be in Germany,” and “want to come to grips with that history and feel this is part of their history.”

“There are more books about Jews and this period written in Germany than in any other country, even Israel,” he said. “The number of dissertations on Judaism and Israel-related subjects is tremendous.”

But, he points out, “no one has ever answered the question of why people behaved as they did, and why so many looked away.”

The question haunts Cramer, who still holds onto his U.S. passport, even though his German citizenship was returned to him decades ago.

Though he will remain in Berlin with his wife, Marianne, Cramer is grateful that his Augsburg citizenship was returned to him.

But for Cramer, the words of his father’s poem still reverberate in Augsburg’s narrow streets and cobblestone plazas. He read the poem aloud at the ceremony: His citizenship was returned to him, but the song is still lost forever.

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