We have examined the question of what constitutes a Jewish life; we have discussed the collective and what it takes to take a person out of it. Now we come to a related issue: what can we as individuals say to individual Jews who are taking themselves out of the collective? Do we feel we have a message for them? Do we feel that we have the right - or an obligation - to speak out if we see them leaving - or having left - the Jewish collective? Let us examine the question in relation to the assimilating Jews of the West.
There is no question that many Jews are assimilating. Throughout Jewish history countless Jews have decided, for one reason or another, to try to walk away from their Judaism. The Diaspora has always held temptations to discard Judaism and to try to take on another identity. Many have tried to do this: some have failed, but many have succeeded.
In the pre-modern world, it almost always took a conscious, voluntary act to stop being Jewish. When a person decided to stop calling themselves Jewish, they had to formally announce to the world their decision to change their identity to that of a Moslem or a Christian. A ceremony would be performed to make the situation unequivocal.
In the last two centuries or so, the world has changed radically. The Jew who wants to stop defining him-/herself as Jewish needs to take no such definitive step. It is enough simply to cease doing the things that Jews do and not to identify in any way with the Jewish collective. In the twentieth century it was no longer necessary to convert in order to leave Judaism, though some decided to do so anyway.
Let us consider, for example, Victor Klemperer, the son of a small-town rabbi in Germany. Klemperer converted to Christianity and rose in the ranks of German academia until, in the early 1930s, he filled the post of Professor of French Literature at the University of Dresden in the eastern part of the country. He had fought proudly in the ranks of the German army during World War I and had been decorated for bravery. Married to a German woman, Eva, he was a passionate German patriot and looked forward to a distinguished career as a professor. He saw himself as German in every way and felt no connection to his Jewish ancestry, which he saw as a mere biological accident.
In 1933, however, the event occurred that changed his life along with that of so many millions of others: the Nazis came to power. It did not take long for the distinguished professor's world to start collapsing around him. Everything that was denied to the Jews was also denied to him. He was protected for a while because of his non-Jewish wife and his war-time medals and commendations; but in the final analysis he was considered a Jew.
After the promulgation of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, Klemperer lost his job at the university. From then on, all the small humiliations that were the lot of the Jew ‘exiled’ from German society became his lot too. He lost his rights to visit the library and to travel in the public buses. Some of his possessions - such as his typewriter - were taken from him.
At the end of 1932, the Klemperers had bought a plot of land on the outskirts of Dresden and had started to plan their ideal home. Throughout the first years of the Nazi terror they continued, almost obsessively, with their building plans, perhaps filling a psychological need to continue their daily routine and find refuge in normality; however, they managed to live in the house for only a brief time. They were soon turned out and moved to a special hostel for mixed Jewish families.
More perhaps than the physical hardships and the inconvenience, however, the hardest issue for Victor Klemperer to cope with was the fact that he was seen now as a Jew, a definition that hitherto had been utterly strange to him. We can surmise this for the same reason that we can estimate so many of his reactions to his experiences: he recorded everything. Although it was foolhardy and extremely dangerous for anyone opposed to the Nazis to document their opposition, Klemperer did this relentlessly and obsessively throughout the twelve years of the Nazi regime, until its final downfall in 1945. His diaries were finally published - all sixteen hundred pages of them - in 1995, some thirty-five years after his death in 1960. They allow us a glimpse into the tortured existence of this great German patriot. There is no doubt that he hated the fact that he was now seen as a Jew.
When the Nazis announced their economic boycott on all Jewish shops and businesses in early 1933, for example, Klemperer mentioned a conversation with a number of Jewish friends who, among other things, expressed concern that the economy of Germany would be damaged and that "we, the Jews" would be blamed for it. When Klemperer recorded this conversation he put the words "we the Jews" in quotation marks, which demonstrated his distance from such self-identification.
A similar reaction can be seen a full eight years later when, in September 1941, all German Jews were ordered to wear a yellow badge sewn into the lapel of their clothes - unmistakably identifying them as Jews to the outside world:
I feel myself beaten and I can find no peace...Eva will have to do all the shopping from now on...Why? Because I feel deeply ashamed of myself...
The Klemperers saw many of their neighbors taken away and sent off to labor camps, never to return. They heard the most terrible rumors of the fate of the Jews in the East. They had no illusions: they believed that the Nazis were capable of anything. Many of their friends and neighbors fled to the West or to Palestine, but he and his wife could in no way see themselves joining them. Time after time Klemperer recorded his feelings of absolute loyalty to Germany. He believed the true Germany would rise again: what was happening was an aberration In the wake of the previously-mentioned discussion concerning the German boycott in early 1933, he wrote:
The truth is that I feel more shame than fear, shame for Germany. I have always felt myself to be a German.
In 1945, after twelve years of total humiliation, twelve years in which almost all of his old certainties were destroyed, Klemperer saw Communism take over in the new East German state. He hated the Communists not much less than he hated the Nazis, but he stayed in Dresden, fighting successfully to regain his academic post in the town which he called "the only place where I can live and also die."
He died in 1960 but his name only became well-known in Germany after the publication of his diaries. There are those who see him as proof that Jew and German can successfully live together in the same body. There are those literary critics who proclaimed the publication of the diaries as a significant contribution by a "Jewish writer." One very perceptive critic, however, writing in the publication the Frankfurter Rundshau, reacted very strongly to such a description:
To call Klemperer a Jewish writer is little short of scandalous. There is absolutely nothing in common between his writings and the Jewish faith or culture... It was only the Nazis that made him a Jew, and that was for racial and biological reasons that Klemperer himself regarded as pseudo-scientific rubbish. The acceptance of the definition [of Klemperer as a Jewish writer] will mean, as he himself wrote in his diary, the victory of the insane racism of the Nazis. If he were to know that he was called a "Jewish writer" he would see that as a continuation of his being singled out with the yellow badge.