The Ways of Survival

Jakob Littners Aufzeichnungen aus einem Erdloch

by Wolfgang Koeppen
Jüdischer Verlag, 150 pp., 28.00 DM

A Feast in the Garden

by George Konrád, translated by Imre Goldstein
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 394 pp., $23.95

Television images of orthodox Jews being pushed into German police vans are hard to watch without cringing. No doubt the Jews, who had come this spring from all over the world to protest in Hamburg against the plan to build a department store on the site of a former Jewish cemetery, were well aware of this. It was part of the show, so to speak. But with the instinctive cringe comes a sense of déjà vu. I am not talking so much about what plenty of people saw in Germany fifty years ago as about the tired symbolism of the occasion: West German consumerism dancing on the skeletons of the past; the good life as the quickest route to collective amnesia—the great cliché of the West German Wirtschaftswunder.

Like all clichés, it contains some truth. It is also an image that appeals to moralists who distrust the good life anyway, even when they take it for granted. This includes quite a few young Germans, who, for understandable reasons, cringe easily when it comes to Jewish matters. Cringe is perhaps not quite the right word. Many Germans, especially of the socalled 1968 generation, Hitler’s children, are betroffen, which is to be in a state of speechless embarrassment. One way out of this state is to confess. Not only does confession relieve the pressure of guilt, but it can lift the confessor to a higher moral plane, to the point, almost, of being able to identify with the victims of his sins.

If West German consumerism was reflected in such things as the Fresswelle, literally the wave of gluttony, and the Sex Welle, which speaks for itself, betroffenheit has resulted of late in a wave of interest in Jewish matters, especially in Berlin, and most especially among young people. The sections on Judaica in German bookshops are expanding all the time. In one average week of watching German television, I saw a program on historical Jewish communities in Europe, two programs on aspects of the Holocaust, a report on Jews returning to Germany, and several documentaries about Jewish artists and intellectuals. The biggest exhibition in Berlin this year was on the history of Jewish culture, accompanied by a festival of old Yiddish films.

Jewish and Israeli writers sell more books in Germany than anywhere else in Europe. The opinions of Amos Oz or George Konrád are as avidly sought after by the German press as those of Günter Grass, if not more so. Konrád won last year’s German Peace Prize, Oz has won it this year. It is as though German public opinion needs the moral approval or castigation of famous Jews before it can make up its mind about anything, especially about the state of being German.

The German fascination for things Jewish is, I believe, only partly to be explained by residual feelings of guilt. It also has an element of nostalgia. It is, perhaps, the intellectual equivalent of the vulgar taste for rabbis carved of wood …

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