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.

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).” 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 …

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