German, Jewish, And Divided

Incredibly, the house is still standing. An unassuming building on a leafy street in northern Frankfurt, my father's childhood home holds me transfixed. From this spot he left for New York in 1936, at 18, having decided that Germany was no place for a young Jew with ambition. My grandparents, Moritz and Ella Werner, escaped two years later, when Kristallnacht, or the Night of Shattered Glass, made clear once and for all that Germany's Jews lived here in peril of their lives. Much of the rest of the family, aunts and uncles and cousins, died in the camps or committed suicide.

An American child of privilege, I'm working in Dad's hometown for a few months. I stammer my German with a good accent; I inherited blue eyes from Mom's Lutheran German family; my name is neutral; I can pass. But in this country, far more than in the States, I'm aware of being a half-breed, a demographic fluke. It's like carrying around a strange secret. And a question: Am I German? Am I Jewish? Can one be both?

For Germany's 70,000 Jews, that question still has no answer, and the survivor's secret remains deeply troubling. In the mere half-century since the Holocaust, the Germans have yet to come to grips with their guilt, and the Jews continue to work through their pain. The powerful nation of 82 million in which they live is so protective of their presence that a police car idles in front of every synagogue on Sabbath morning. But the tiny community of German Jews is still seeking an identity.

"We don't have hyphenation here," says Martin Bauer, editor-in-chief of the paperback division of publisher Fischer Verlag. "In the U.S., one can be Irish-American or African-American or Polish-American. Not in Germany."

A dreadful irony of the Holocaust was that Germany's Jews were among the most assimilated and patriotic in the world when Hitler came to power. They had entered the middle class in disproportionate numbers and dominated whole slices of the German economy, from banking to publishing. In 1914, Jews made up only 5% of Berlin's population but paid a third of its taxes. And although Jews could not become military officers, 100,000 fought for the fatherland in World War I.

STRAINED SILENCE. The Final Solution came not only as a betrayal but also as a complete surprise to many of Germany's 600,000 Jews. They refused to emigrate because they simply didn't believe the Germans would exterminate so many loyal citizens. My father's Uncle Julius, for example, a wholesale jeweler, had a good life in Frankfurt, with a big house and one of the city's first chauffeured cars. At 58, he wasn't about to start over in another country in 1934. And he didn't think Hitler would last.

So his wife and two grown sons made secret preparations for the family to emigrate to Holland, where they thought they would be safe. They informed Julius at the last minute and literally dragged him along. Julius died a natural death three years later in Amsterdam. But his wife, sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren were deported to Sobibor, near Auschwitz, and killed.

There's no appropriate reaction to such stories, no correct thing to say, either for surviving German Jews or for the descendants of the perpetrators. Overcoming the strained silence has so far proven nearly impossible. "Most Germans really want a dialogue," says Wolfgang Benz, director of the Center for Anti-Semitism Research at Berlin's Technical University. "They want the Jews to release them--they ask for reconciliation. But you can't begin with reconciliation." What the Jews demand is reassurance that Germans keep the Holocaust in their uppermost consciousness. Non-Jews become frustrated when their efforts are deemed insufficient.

Hence the popularity of Harvard University Professor Daniel J. Goldhagen's 1996 book, Hitler's Willing Executioners, which accused Germans of a special brand of anti-Semitism that made the Final Solution possible here and nowhere else. Many Germans embraced the thesis, made the book a best-seller, and adulated Goldhagen as a hero. It was as if Germany wished to take a one-time charge of intense guilt and be forgiven.

That desire, while understandable, is at odds with what Germany's Jews want and need. Non-Jewish Germans build memorials and museums, hold name-readings, and make regular official statements of sorrow. But the Jews don't feel all this adds up to true remembrance.

They have a point. At the entrance to the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen outside Berlin, right under the sign reading Arbeit Macht Frei ("Work Will Make You Free"), a peddler sells sausages and cola from a cart. And after last month's election in the eastern state of Sachsen-Anhalt, where the racist German People's Union won a frightening 12.7% of the votes, Peter Hintze, secretary general of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union, publicly lamented that Germans had voted extremist for the first time. German Jews were stunned. By omitting the words "since Hitler," Hintze reinforced the Jews' fear that the Holocaust has vanished from public memory.

Of course, all German schoolchildren learn about it. Still, "Germans don't discuss this at the kitchen table," says Thomas Sandberg, the son of a Buchenwald survivor and a Berlin freelance photographer whose clients include BUSINESS WEEK.

Yet there are signs that relations between Germany and its Jews eventually will normalize. For one thing, Germans under 20, separated by a full generation from the war, find it easier to keep the past alive. Many are what W. Michael Blumenthal, former U.S. Treasury Secretary and director of the new Berlin Jewish Museum, calls "philo-Semites." At a Passover seder in April, I met several young non-Jewish Germans who wanted to celebrate the ancient feast of freedom--a particularly moving holiday in Germany. And Berlin's hippest neighborhood centers around the old Jewish quarter and 19th century synagogue in Oranienburgerstrasse, where besides hanging out and looking cool, kids listen to commemorative name-readings of murdered Berlin Jews near the old Jewish cemetery.

CONFUSION. But mutually healing questions and answers between Germans and Jews have yet to be articulated. Blumenthal, author of The Invisible Wall: Germans and Jews, thinks it could be another half-century before they are. And it's hard to say whether German Jews can ever enjoy the casual ethnicity that American Jews take for granted.


That's one Great Divide that German Jews contend with. Others are more private. Photographer Sandberg and I have lunch in Berlin and compare family histories. He, too, has a non-Jewish mother and was raised without religious education. Yet Sandberg, like me, taught himself enough Hebrew to pray for deceased ancestors and participate in high holiday services. Neither of us would be admitted as citizens of Israel. But our families were halved in the Holocaust, and the only religion we observe is Judaism. We both wish our fathers had talked more, sooner, about our Jewishness. But we both understand why they didn't.

I ask Sandberg whether his wife is Jewish. "No," he says. "My wife is German." I say: "Did you hear yourself just now?" When he listens to the echo of his words, we stare at each other for a long time. Even among German Jews themselves, there is still no vocabulary to express the confusion and isolation that are our inheritance.