The cruelty of memory manifests itself in remembering what is dispelled in forgetfulness.
This statement by Naguib Mahfouz expresses something that I believe is very important for the relationship between Germans and Jews, since, with respect to each other, both are dealing with the problem of the past. Certain matters require the generosity of forgetfulness, and others demand the honesty of remembrance. From my point of view this is the difficulty with postwar German generations, although I have never had any personal experience of xenophobia or anti-Semitism in Germany. A recent statement by a well-known Berlin politician about “the Jew Barenboim” was made in a context that had nothing to do with Judaism, and I interpret it as a sign of his misunderstanding of Judaism.*
It is true that Judaism is not easily explained: it is part religion, part tradition, part nation, and partly an immensely various people. It is hard to deal with, as much for the Jews themselves as for everyone else, and especially for a country like Germany, which has such a horrible common history with the Jews. Sadly, after spending years in Germany, I have a deeper and deeper impression that this part of German history has not been assimilated or understood by many Germans. Such ignorance could lead to a new anti-Semitism, or to philo-Semitism, which would be as wrong as anti-Semitism.
I don’t believe in collective guilt, especially not after so many generations have passed, and therefore I have no problem living and working in Germany. But at the same time I expect every German not to forget this part of his country’s history, and to be especially careful in considering it. Each German will be able to do this, however, only if he has an understanding of his own self and the past that helped to form it; for if you suppress an important element of yourself, you are constrained in your dealings with others.
Such thoughts lead to the question of German identity and to the general question of what an identity consists of. Is there really only one identity for a person or for a people? The Jewish tradition has two distinct tendencies: the more fundamental one, represented by the philosophers and poets and scholars who were interested only in Jewish issues and in the Jewish Weltanschauung; and the other tendency associated with great figures such as Spinoza or Einstein, and to a certain extent also Heinrich Heine, and which applied the traditions of Jewish thinking to other cultures, including German culture, and to other issues. It is not difficult to see how a double identity developed among Jews.
In my opinion it is impossible for anyone at the beginning of the twenty-first century to believably claim a single identity. One difficulty of our times is that people restrict their concerns to ever smaller details, and that they often have little sense of how things are intermingled with one another, and together form…
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