Our Opinion: Germans and Jews struggle with past

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NEW YORK >> By the end of World War II in 1945, the flourishing German-Jewish community that once numbered 550,000 before Hitler came to power was virtually nonexistent. In Berlin, barely 8,000 survived, some married to non-Jews, others in hiding, while much of the rest of the country monstrously fulfilled Hitler's genocidal goal of being "Judenfrei."

Most German Jews who survived the war in exile decided to remain abroad; however, a small number returned to Germany. Approximately 250,000 displaced persons, Eastern European Jewish Holocaust survivors, joined these German Jews. The overwhelming majority of the displaced persons ultimately immigrated to Israel when it became independent in 1948. However, 10,000 to 15,000 Jews decided to resettle in Germany, primarily German Jews who established organizations that were willing to help build a new democratic Germany, though they knew that they weren't truly accepted by the people.

From the 1950s to the late '60s the West German Jewish community kept a low profile. Most of the Jews were older people, since few young adults chose to remain in Germany. Many of those who did married non-Jews.

While much of the older generation of Germans was still in denial about the horrors the Hitler era had wrought, by 1961, when the Eichmann trial was televised on German television, greater attention finally began to be paid by the German public to Nazi crimes, as well as some acknowledgement of the unconscionable suffering the Nazis had imposed on European Jewry. But it remained for the 1968 student movement to bring to a head the intergenerational conflict about confronting the sins of the past, with the children accusing the parents for the active or passive roles they played during the Nazi era.

New documentary

In a new documentary film, "Germans and Jews," directed by a German, Janina Quint, and produced by an American Jew, Tal Recanati — two good friends — the intricate relationship between the two groups, from years of silence about the Holocaust to confronting its history directly, is explored through a set of interviews and some striking archival photos. The German interviewees are reflective, introspective and caring, and among the equally thoughtful, self-aware Jews, all of them living in Germany, there are some who arrived after the war, others who were born and raised in post-war Germany, and still others who immigrated from Russia and Israel. They provide a wide range of perceptive reactions to what it means to be either a German or a Jew in contemporary Germany.

The Germans talk about how in the 1980s, West Germany finally opened up officially to its past, though public consciousness didn't change as quickly as the official declarations. Still, West Germany built innumerable monuments and museums to memorialize Holocaust victims, including Stolpersteine — small, cobblestone-sized memorials for individual victims of Nazism — and, in the heart of Berlin, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The schools taught in depth about the crimes of the Nazis, and almost all students have either visited a concentration camp or a Holocaust memorial or museum.

East Germany was different story. Most of the small number of Jews who settled in postwar East Germany did so because they had been on the political left before the Nazi seizure of power and wished to build an antifascist, socialist Germany. The state was antagonistic to both Zionism and religion and its educational system did not deal with the Holocaust, and the state also offered no reparations to the Holocaust's victims. The emphasis was on the socialist struggle against fascism, and questions of responsibility and guilt for the destruction of the Jews were left untouched.

The film, however, centers on Germans and Jews in a post-1990 reunified Germany, which is now one of the most democratic countries in the world and clearly has struggled to make amends for its past sins. The German interviewees speak of their unease and guilt about their country's history. Many Germans, who have little contact with the 200,000 Jews who nominally live in Germany, often see them through the circumscribed lens of either the Holocaust or Israel, with their individuality reduced.

The Jewish Interviewees, with the exception of a rabbi who runs the Berlin Chabad and is committed to promoting love for Judaism, are secular. Some have come to Berlin for the economic opportunities; others have found a home as musicians in bohemian Berlin.

Germans and Jews

Both Germans and Jews struggle with their identities, but the Jews who appear in the film have begun to feel at home in a more tolerant and humane Germany. This has occurred despite threats from far right neo-Nazis and skinheads, combined with a far left that often blurs anti-Israel sentiments with anti-Semitism, and attacks from a growing young Muslim population. We also see young German-born Jews, who assert without ambivalence that they are now both Germans and Jews.

A retired professor of German history at Columbia, Fritz Stern, who had emigrated with his family from Germany in 1938, concludes the film with a ringing affirmation of a Germany that for the first time in its modern history produced "successful democratic institutions and an extraordinary leadership."

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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