- Jews, Germans, Memory: Reconstructions of Jewish Life in Germany
The history of modern German Jewry has been well documented and intelligently researched. If there is one stretch of that history, though, that is far from crowded, it is that of Jews in Germany after 1945. One of the handful of fine studies of Jewish life after the collapse of the Thousand Year Reich, by Michael Brenner, is in process of translation.
The present collection of short essays, then, addresses this rather neglected field, and on the whole the contributors acquit themselves creditably. The essay by Michael Brenner, just mentioned, “East European and German Jews in Postwar Germany, 1945–50,” sets the tone of candor adopted by most of his fellow-authors. My only complaint is that it is too short at fifteen pages, though it shares brevity with most of the other papers. Brenner explores the paradox that after the end of the war a massive number of Polish, Russian, and Rumanian Jews, almost 200,000 of them, streamed of all places to Germany. “In 1946–47 there was a mass movement of East European Jews who tried to reach the country whose death machine they had just escaped.” Of course, few of them wanted to remain where they landed, but to get to Palestine or the United States; but (as they put it) sitting on their suitcases, most of them eventually unpacked them and stayed.
Despite the horrors they had shared with the German-Jewish victims of Nazism, these wanderers from Eastern Europe continued to clash, as they had for so long even before Hitler, with their German fellow survivors. They kept to themselves in the camps put up for them by the Allies, they vehemently rejected the German Jews’ acceptance of intermarriage, they could not get along with German Jews even after they had left the camps and settled in some German town. “In Augsburg,” Brenner notes, “the community of thirty-two German Jews refused until the mid-1950s not only to grant the sixty East European Jews suffrage but even to accept them as community members,” [End Page 205] until, bowing to strong external pressure, the community—a pathetic remnant!—retreated from this exclusionist policy.
There is no room for sentimentality or wishful thinking in this essay: “The thesis that the Holocaust eliminated previous differences among Jews belongs to the realm of myth. In the case of Ostjuden and German Jews in postwar Germany we see the emergence of new conflicts, as well as the continuity of traditional ones, between the two groups.” While Brenner drew this conclusion a few years ago, it still holds true today.
The same willingness to look inconvenient facts in the face, to report and analyze them without excessive pathos, characterizes most of the contributors. Frank Stern’s essay on German-Jewish relations in the postwar period notes the persistence of anti-Semitism among a substantial minority (perhaps a third) of German gentiles, and the rise of that dubious phenomenon, “philo-Semitism,” an idealization of Jews and Judaism that German Jews have greeted, justly enough, with skepticism. To them it is “white anti-Semitism.” The uneasiness between the overwhelming majority of gentiles and the tiny minority of Jews in Germany may be lessening a bit with the passage of time, the shift in generations, and the continuing insignificance of Jews in German politics and culture. But there is very little realistic expectation that it will ever completely fade away.
Several papers address the psychological and sociological theme of Jewish identity formation in post-war Germany. Martin Löw-Beer examines the attitudes revealed in small, largely ephemeral Jewish periodicals written by, and largely for, the young generation. They document the dilemmas that most of the writers, and one may assume the readers, faced, rather incongruously living in a country that had launched the Holocaust: whether to emigrate to Israel, the Jews’ true homeland, or to integrate themselves into the new, democratic Germany. The second group, articulate and intelligent, had to defy its parents’ wishes...