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A German Requiem

Two Millennia of German Jewish History

Jewish Museum, Berlin
a permanent exhibition at the Jewish Museum, Berlin. The scholarly catalog is still in preparation.

1.

What can bring them back, those days when Germany was Europe’s (at times even the world’s) leading center of innovation? In science, in the arts, in industry, theater, film, music, and even in aviation many of the leading lights were not only German but Jews who went on to win Nobel prizes at a rate greatly disproportionate to their numbers. There was rarely a confluence of cultures and ethnic traditions that proved so richly creative at its peak but so deadly at its end. The American writer Frederic Grunfeld, in Prophets Without Honor: Freud, Kafka, Einstein and their World, later claimed that had the end not been so awful we would today hail the Weimar period as a “golden age second only to the Italian Renaissance.”

Before Hitler rose to power, other Europeans often admired, envied, or ridiculed Germans; only the Jews seemed to have actually loved them. The links and the tensions between Jews and Germans were sometimes described as stemming from an alleged “family resemblance.” Heinrich Heine spoke of Europe’s two “ethical peoples”; together they would yet give birth to a new messianic age. He went so far as to claim that the ancient Hebrews had been “the Germans of the Orient”! Gordon A. Craig spoke of the “striking resemblance” between nineteenth-century Germans and Jews, evidenced by their industry, thrift, and common proclivity for abstract speculation. A common respect for the written word, he wrote, “has made the Jews the People of the Book and the Germans das Volk der Dichter und Denker (the people of poets and thinkers).”1 After the catastrophe there was speculation about whether or not there had been a real “dialogue” or even “symbiosis” between Jews and Germans. Much of the argument was tedious. Dialogue is possible only between individuals; peoples or ethnic groups usually only scream at one another. “Symbiosis,” a term borrowed from botany, was even more dubious. In many instances of “symbiosis,” one life form is unable to exist without the other. (Nobody has ever spoken of a Jewish–French or Jewish–American symbiosis.)

Jews outside Germany, in Austria or Eastern Europe, were equally enthusiastic Germanophiles. In the nineteenth century, two thirds of the world’s Jews spoke German or Yiddish (a medieval, Middle High German dialect) and looked up to Germany as the epitome of culture and progress. In Germany itself, the overriding desire of Jews was to be complete Germans. This was finally allowed only in 1870, but only partly; they were allowed full citizenship only in 1918. Jews were proverbial Bildungsbürger. Through no fault of their own, their true home, we now know, was not “Germany” but German culture and language. They contributed to it lavishly and even after they were chased out they often were better guardians of that language and that culture than were many of those who remained behind. In literature alone, with the possible exception of Marcel Proust in France, there were no parallels elsewhere in Europe to the likes of Heine, Börne, Kafka, Werfel, Zweig, Wolfskehl, Broch, or Kraus; in the sciences, to Willstätter, Haber, Ehrlich, Einstein, or Freud; in music, to Mendelssohn, Mahler, or Schönberg. Many intermarried and not a few converted to Christianity, in most cases for purely pragmatic reasons, much like talented and ambitious young people today learn to speak English (with considerably more difficulty).

As political activists, they were prominent mainly on the liberal and radical left. The main direction of their intellectual efforts—almost as a rule—was a vain, desperate attempt to civilize German patriotism, to base citizenship not on blood but on law, to separate church and state, and to help establish what would today be called an open multicultural civic society. It was tragically ironic that during World War I—“Europe’s seminal catastrophe,” as George Kennan put it, without which the Nazis might never have risen to power—this goal was temporarily cast aside; Jewish intellectuals were as jingoistic as most others. Martin Buber’s reaction to the outbreak of that war was as ecstatic as Adolf Hitler’s (or for that matter as Max Weber’s). For Buber the war was a liberating, quasi-redemptive communal experience; “Incipit vita nuova,” he exclaimed, borrowing the words Dante used upon first setting eyes on his beloved Beatrice. It is difficult to imagine a more repellent comparison. Later, during the Weimar Republic, which was undermined by too many bitterly frustrated monarchists, no group was more staunchly republican than the German Jews. The leftist satirist Kurt Tucholsky was criticized after the war for having offended too many nationalist taboos, particularly in his criticism of the Prussian military, thereby abetting anti-Semitism. Franz Werfel even castigated himself in exile for his “insolence…. We stoked the inferno in which humanity is now roasting.” All he or Tucholsky had was a voice and they used it well. There would not have been fewer Nazis if they had never lived.

2.

To commemorate the achievements, culture, and life style of German Jews not only during the Weimar period but during the almost two millennia of the Jewish presence on German soil is the formidable task the new Jewish Museum in Berlin has set itself. Located at the heart of the city where the Holocaust was conceived and administered, it opened to the public on September 8 with great fanfare and mixed reviews in the press. It was not the first Jewish museum in the city. The last had opened quietly in January 1933, only one week before Hitler’s rise to power (a “real museum with pictures and copper engravings and handicrafts… very well arranged,” according to the Berliner Tageblatt of January 24, 1933). There were few visitors. We will probably never know if its opening at that moment was an act of defiance or of naiveté. Karl Schwartz, the director, later wrote that from the very first day, one felt “the breath of death moving through its halls.”

To judge by the extraordinary official fuss occasioned by the new museum, the stirring speeches, the vast coverage in the press and television, the crowds streaming in from the first day on, the museum opening was clearly one of the biggest official German events since reunification. Public interest in it was comparable only to the recent opening of the new, rebuilt and redecorated Reichstag. Even while it was still empty, close to 400,000 people paid an entrance fee of eight deutschmarks to walk through the museum’s sloping grades, twisting corridors, and tilting floors, designed to slightly dizzy visitors. Many were said to have been emotionally overwhelmed by the bare, grim space. “It was not architecture, it was catharsis,” Henryk Broder wrote in Der Spiegel. To others, the empty shell seemed a masterpiece of sculptural architecture. Quoting the museologist Michael Cullin, Broder added that it acted upon visitors like a “Holy Grail,” “like an arm raised high out of a tomb, a scream of accusation.”

The museum may yet regret having earlier opened the building to the public. Some are already saying that it was more moving empty than it is now with many of the original grim hollows obliterated by dividing walls, lofts, additional stairs, decorative pillars, boxes and gadgets and shiny vitrines stuffed full with manuscripts, books, posters, paintings, sculptures, and assorted objects, from gilded Torah ark curtains and eighteenth-century teacups to rusty circumcision knives and even the reading glasses Moses Mendelssohn peered through when writing Phaidon. If it had been left empty, the building might have served as an abstract Holocaust memorial. Berlin already has dozens of minor memorials to the Holocaust but a large-scale monument, although much discussed, has never been built, mostly out of lack of interest, funds, or even need. Michael Naumann, until last year federal minister of culture, warned early on that it would be “difficult” though not impossible to house a museum in the new building. His prediction has been proven entirely correct.

Had it not been for the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, the avalanche of articles, reviews, and TV and radio documentaries on Jews occasioned by the inauguration might still be continuing. For all its drawbacks, the new museum will undoubtedly help to recall, as Naumann noted a few days before the opening, what too many Germans, especially of the old generation, wanted to forget. The museum has been criticized for overcrowding the limited space, for its haphazard, confused chronology and its often disorienting array of objects—all flaws that could eventually be mitigated. It has also been praised by German critics as the “greatest Jewish museum in Europe,” a cultural institution of “world importance,” and a major event in the history of modern Germany.

The gala opening on September 8 was in effect a state ceremony, fully timed to have a political effect. It was attended by 850 carefully chosen guests from among the German political elite, headed by President Johannes Rau and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, ministers as well as foreign ambassadors, leading bankers and industrialists, prominent professors, artists, and other cultural figures, scions of ancient Prussian aristocratic families and powerful or super-rich foreign guests, mostly Jews and nearly all from the United States.

The gala opened with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, playing Gustav Mahler’s Seventh Symphony—chosen by the organizers for its “joyful and optimistic” finale. The first violinist used a Guarneri that had once been the property of the Jewish violin-ist Alma Rosè, who was gassed at Auschwitz on April 4, 1944. The inaugural ended with a gala dinner. The names, titles, and occupations of the invited guests and even where and with whom they were seated filled two full pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Never before, according to “protocol insiders” cited by the Berliner Zeitung, had the guest list of an offi-cial dinner been assembled with so much calculation. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described the gala dinner as the new “Berlin Republic” holding its first “Vollversammlung” (constituent assembly). It was somehow supposed to show that the reunited Germany deserved to be treated as a normal country, fully entitled to take its place among other nations fighting for human rights and combating racism. A nostalgic, perhaps wishful, and, in a republic, slightly bizarre note was introduced by the newspaper’s style of identifying certain guests; for example, S.H. Herr Konstantin Graf von Lambsdorf of Wessling & Berenberg-Gossler and I.H. his wife or S.H. Herr Andreas Count von Hardenberg, Senior Adviser of Chase Manhattan Bank AG, as though the Kaiser were still on his throne and the First and the Second World Wars and Hitler had never happened. With so much hyperbole, so many undoubtedly sincere expressions of guilt and regret, and of admiration for all things Jewish, one could not help feeling that fifty years after the Holocaust, the new republic was, in effect, beatifying the German Jews. A legend, cited by Jacob Burckhardt in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, came to mind, “one of those stories which are true and not true, everywhere and nowhere.” Citizens of Siena, writes Burckhardt, wished to properly reward a man who had rendered the city an immense service. Daily they took counsel how to recompense him. Finally, they concluded that no reward in their power was great enough. At last one of them rose and said: “Let us kill him and then worship him as our patron saint.”

3.

That the museum has opened at all, after so many delays, quarrels, lack of money, and difficulties, is largely the achievement of one man, an American corporate executive of German-Jewish origin, the former Princeton professor Michael Blumenthal, who had been secretary of the treasury under Carter. With such credentials, Blumenthal was the ideal man to impose his will on a slow, unimaginative city administration reluctant, as one former mayor once put it, to turn Berlin into the “capital of remorse.” For half a century, the city had been a somewhat provincial backwater, with the Western sector isolated from the rest of the Federal Republic and artificially kept afloat by subsidies from Bonn. Shortly after Blumenthal’s arrival, Gary Smith, head of the Berlin American Academy, said that Blumenthal was “the most powerful man in Berlin.” The museum, previously with no budget, staff, or guiding concept, suddenly had all three. Another man might have been discouraged from trying to fit a museum into such a Procrustian bed as its building. Blumenthal, one heard, had many quarrels with the architect Daniel Libeskind, an American Jew who was born in Poland, but in the end he convinced the central government to finance the museum as a federal institution. He supplemented public funds with millions he raised, in the American manner, from banks and corporations (some of which had employed slave labor during the war) and from prestige-seeking millionaires. The plaques in the entrance hall naming contributors, still a rarity in Germany, list more than a dozen corporate benefactors, including Daimler-Benz, Lufthansa, and the Alfred Krupp von Bohlen Foundation named for the “Cannon King,” a convicted war criminal found guilty in 1947 of mistreating some 80,000 slave laborers. His father Gustav had financed Hitler’s election campaign in 1933.

The architectural shell was designed by Libeskind on the plan of a “deconstructed” star of David. Museums are usually built to accommodate the plans of curators. Libeskind had complete freedom to design the building as he wanted and curators had to adapt their needs to his unusual architecture. Libeskind did not clarify his project by saying he had been inspired by Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street and Arnold Schönberg’s unfinished opera Moses and Aaron, which he hoped to “conclude architecturally.” The structure is full of irregular shapes and odd angles that leave relatively few spaces for exhibits, many of them awkward. Several huge symbolic “voids” are meant to symbolize the “emptiness” that resulted from the expulsion and ultimate slaughter of German Jews. These “voids” push through the entire structure from the basement to the roof and consume more space. Some 3,900 objects, installations, pictures, and electronic and educational aides have been jammed into what remains. For visitors, the space is a bewildering maze of crammed nooks and corners and overhead platforms and dividing walls. In order to gain more exhibition space, Blumenthal’s staff added intermediate stories, lofts, and staircases leading to them.

The exhibition is hortatory and didactic but in a spirit of reconciliation and emphasizes the fact that despite everything almost 100,000 Jews live in Germany today. Its main purpose is to show that Jews were not newcomers but had lived—and had often thrived—in the German lands since ancient times, a tribe like other German tribes, Saxons, Prussians, or Bavarians. The fact is, of course, that they were there before there were “Saxons,” “Prussians,” and “Bavarians.” During the Weimar years, there was no such thing as “Jewish life.” There were, as Gordon Craig once put it, “half a million individual Jews who were busily building their own lives” and like most other Germans “pursuing points of view along many different and independent lines.”

One of the highlights of the exhibition, never seen before, comes from the Vatican library: it is the text of a fourth-century decree by the Roman emperor Constantine instructing the Cologne magistrate on relations with the rabbi and chairman of the local synagogue. The German government and the museum went to great lengths to secure this document, which the Apostolic Library in Rome agreed to release on loan after a personal plea from the German federal president Johannes Rau. Other exhibits, like Mendelssohn’s spectacles or recipes for matzo balls, are merely cute. But a curious scarcity of historical tension is characteristic throughout—tensions between German Jews and Gentiles and tensions within German Jewish communities. Here and there are references to the “old hatreds” but there is hardly an attempt to dramatize those hatreds, let alone explain how and why a minority of less than one percent aroused so much resentment and envy as well as a fascination bordering on the pornographic. Was it religious prejudice, envy, or race hatred? “Race” became an issue only toward the end of the nineteenth century. In a museum such as this you expect more enlightenment on such questions.

Germany, after all, was the only Western European country where as late as the nineteenth century there had been no fewer than three waves of pogroms, in 1819, 1830, and 1848, and another outburst between 1873 and 1875 comparable to the wave of anti-Semitism in France twenty-five years later during the Dreyfus affair. I did not find a trace of these in the entire exhibition. Karl Marx is nowhere mentioned. Could it be that he was ignored because he was an anti-Semite or because, in the curators’ view, Marx had been a mere Betriebsunfall—an accident on the work site—in Jewish history? To this day this is what some Germans claim was Hitler’s place in German history. In this museum intended mainly for Germans, there is hardly any emphasis on the terrible passivity of Germans after 1933, on the terrible tendency to look away while half a million Jews were disenfranchised. At a time when dissent was still possible—there was an organized protest against the euthanasia program, for example—this lack of protest seems all the more striking.

Nor are Jewish arguments among themselves, or tensions, of which there were so many, dealt with, including bitter debates over Zionism and the tensions between native German Jews and Ostjuden, immigrants from Eastern Europe (barbaric “half-Asia” in the words of a famous nineteenth-century German-Jewish writer named Karl-Emile Franzos). The continuing tragedy and not infrequent despair of socially integrated, assimilated, and enlightened German Jews is overlooked. It could have been exemplified, among many others, by Berthold Auerbach, the famed best-selling author of the Black Forest Village Tale, which patriots read lovingly. At the height of the anti-Semitic wave of the late 1870s Auerbach—a personal friend of the empress and of the dukes of Württemberg and Baden—came home from a rowdy session of the Prussian parliament full of anti-Semitic outbursts, and in despair noted in his diary: “I have lived and worked in vain.”

Fifty years later, in 1921, the even more popular Jakob Wassermann (in his day he ranked with Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann) published a cri de coeur:

Vain to adjure the “nation of poets and thinkers” in the name of its poets and thinkers. Every prejudice that one thought had perished breeds a thousand new ones, like a carcass produces worms…. Vain to act in exemplary fashion. Vain to seek obscurity. They say he hides his bad conscience…. Vain to live and die for them. They say he did it for profit…. He is a Jew.2

Thomas Mann—more than a little glib—wrote to convince Wassermann that the enormous success of Wassermann’s novels was proof enough that serious prejudice did not exist. The truth was that Mann himself—and his wife—carefully withheld from their children the truth about their mother’s Jewish origins. They discovered it only as grown-ups.

4.

The new museum, according to Blumenthal, was not intended to be another Holocaust museum. The large basement, however, which has been left as Libeskind designed it, is just that. The basement is bisected by two long corridors or axes leading to a so-called Memory Void and a Holocaust Tower. We enter and leave the museum here and this is undoubtedly an appropriate historical frame for listening to Einstein’s pleasant recorded voice and viewing charming family portraits and other remnants of German Jewish life upstairs in the museum. Whether tilted floors designed to physically simulate “exile” by making you feel physically slightly out of balance is the right way to do this is another question. On the one hand Libeskind seems to believe that his architecture achieves nothing less than the evocation of sensations akin to those felt by deportees to concentration camps. On the other hand he seems so unsure that his building will reflect his intended message that he feels compelled to tell you, wherever you turn, what you are supposed to feel and where and what you must remember or reflect.

I was distressed to hear a German friend say this didactic tyranny is exactly what the German visitor expects, even wants. At one point along the so-called Continuity Axis, one of the wall labels states: “Architect Daniel Libeskind summons us to reflect: on the Holocaust and on the men and women who were able to escape, on continuity and on the survival of mankind.” Another label on the bare wall says, “You are approaching the Memory Void, a place for thought and contemplation. It is architect Daniel Libeskind’s way of recognizing that the destruction of the Jews has left an absence, a void, in German and European history.” In this “Memory Void,” the floor of a high cathedral-shaped hollow space, meant to convey a powerful sense of nothingness, is lined with a noisy installation by the Israeli artist Menashe Kadishmann, a mass of loose round metal slabs with holes for eyes, mouths, and noses. We are supposed to step on these faces and, presumably, in the metallic clatter on the stone floor hear the victims’ voices and remember them.

The trouble with such installations is that the nearer they come to simulating reality, the greater the danger of their becoming kitsch. The same is true of Libeskind’s “Holocaust Tower.” This too is very high, an angular-shaped rounded space with a small opening at the top through which a dim light emerges. The trick here is that as you enter, a heavy door slams shut behind. You may be alone—usually you are not—and perhaps you are slightly cold (there is no central heating in this room). But otherwise you are the same museum visitor who entered the tower and you may even be glad to have escaped the crowds outside; but you have been informed by the architect that this is what the victims may have felt as they were deported and found themselves in a concentration camp. “Inside here we are cut off from every-day life. We can hear sounds and see light but we cannot reach the outside world. So it was for those confined before and during the deportation.”

  1. 1

    Gordon Craig, The Germans (Putnam, 1982), p. 42.

  2. 2

    Jakob Wassermann, Mein Weg als Deutscher und Jude (Berlin: Fischer, 1921).

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