Germany Grapples with its Jewish Paradox

Germans are, on the one hand, trying to preserve the memory of the Jews, while on the other hand, demanding recognition of German suffering during WWII

By Eliahu Salpeter

© Reprinted with permission from Haaretz Daily

Two Jewish communities exist side-by-side in Germany. One of them is alive and well and mainly speaks Russian. The second, part of the German culture, is becoming extinct, and the republic is trying to preserve the shadow of this dying community via hundreds of monuments, museums and memorial tablets.

Sixty years after the Holocaust, Germans, especially members of the establishment, still see the existence of a living Jewish community within their boundaries as a statement of their reacceptance into the society of nations. The authorities support the institutions of living Judaism and the monuments of the soon-to-be-extinct Judaism with tens of millions of marks each year. Preserving the memory of the more than 500,000 Jews of the Weimar Republic and the 6 million European Jewish victims of the Holocaust has become part of contemporary German culture. But even now it is obvious that the rift between what was "before" and what developed "after" is irreparable.

At the same time, especially over the past few years, there has been a new consciousness that the Germans also suffered greatly during World War II, and that it is okay to memorialize German victims, if not on the same level as the millions of people they annihilated, then at least in the same breath. "We've spoken a great deal about what happened to the Jews. Now the time has come to talk about what happened to Germans," say the children and grandchildren of victims of the aerial bombings during the war's final years, and of the deportees during the war's first two years. Alongside signs of unease over the Holocaust, there is still a great deal of interest in the Nazi past. Books on the subject, such as Daniel Goldhagen's "Hitler's Willing Executioners," remain on the best-seller list.

Evidently, the unusual phenomenon of stabilizing the share of anti-Semitic opinions and incidents in the past few decades is part of the same paradox. While other Western European countries have their periodic, and significant, ups and downs in anti-Semitism polls, the results of similar surveys in Germany hardly vary when it comes to events in Germany or elsewhere. German experts say there has been no perceptible increase of anti-Semitism, even during the intifada, perhaps because most of the country's Muslim immigrants are from Turkey.

It is still too early to say if the widespread show of interest in German suffering will deprive the far right of one of its rallying cries (as is hoped, for example, by author Gunter Grass), or if it will have the opposite effect - that the far right will exploit it. However, there is no doubt that an interaction is developing between what the Germans did to others and what was done to them as a result. This interaction will shape the image of the new German history in the eyes of its heirs. Within this complex image, the handful of German Jews who survived the Nazi period will also have to find their place. The number of these "submariners," as they are called in Germany, is estimated at about 1,500, nearly all of whom are husbands, wives and children of intermarriages. Dr. Andreas Nachama, former chairman of Berlin's Jewish community, says that it is customary to estimate that for every Jew who succeeded in surviving underground, about 20 German Christians were needed to help conceal his or her Jewish identity. This translates into at least 30,000 righteous persons among the millions in Sodom.

The vast majority of today's Jews in Germany are secular, but nearly all belong to the Orthodox "united community." "The kitchen at home might not be kosher, but they want the rabbi to be very kosher," explains a Jewish activist in Berlin, which houses Germany's largest Jewish community.

Although the central government and the governments of the federal states in Germany provide financial aid to the Jewish institutions (24 million marks, for example, were allocated to the Jewish Museum in Berlin), there are some serious problems with the communities' ongoing budgets. Significant immigration from the former Soviet Union greatly expanded their expenses, not their income. Many of those in need of services are not dues-paying members of the community. For instance, only about a quarter of the Jews registered as Berlin residents pay membership dues to the community.

Conversations held in several cities leave the impression that anti-Semitism is not foremost in the minds of the Jews of Germany despite the December release of a survey conducted on behalf of the American Jewish Committee according to which 20 percent of Germans feel that Jews have "too much influence" in Germany, while 40 percent feel that Jews "exert too much influence on world events." No fewer than 52 percent said that Jews exploit the memory of the Holocaust for their own purposes. And the real picture is apparently even worse: 59 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, "Many people in Germany are afraid to express their true feelings about Jews."

Cilly Kugelmann, a director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, feels that racism in Germany is not higher than in other Western European countries, but the acts perpetrated by racists are more brutal. This is more prevalent in eastern Germany than in western Germany, especially among the "modernization losers" - those who, as a result of the unification of the two Germanys - lost their work and suffered a decline in social status. Dr. Nachama feels that xenophobia harms Jews less than other immigrants, simply because it is hard to tell, on the basis of facial features, that Jews are foreigners.

Prof. Wolfgang Benz, one of the most eminent scholars on anti-Semitism in Berlin, cites some contradictory aspects of latent anti-Semitism in Germany. On the one hand, open expressions of the hatred of Jews impede their advancement in public careers. On the other hand, prejudice against Jews is prevalent mainly along the lines of "they have too much power," but such statements are only voiced behind closed doors, among friends or family.

Both the level of anti-Semitism and the arguments given for it are greatly influenced by one's education level. Among educated classes, for example, reparations are cited ("How much longer are we going to have to pay them?") as is the continued stigma of the Nazis' sins. There is also discontent with the ban against voicing strident criticism of the Jews. One of the results of this is that Israel's actions toward the Palestinians is becoming an alternate target. Among German intellectuals, a sort of psychological transference may be perceived: If the Israelis (read: Jews) "behave toward the Palestinians like Nazis," the former victim becomes the current defendant, which for whatever reason, alleviates the burden of guilt with which the Germans are laden.

The influence of the Catholic church, which in the past was an important source of anti-Semitism, has been greatly curtailed, mostly because the Church's influence in all areas of life has plummeted.

Following a visit to Germany in 2003, one may risk making a few judgments about the Jewish issue: The sensitivity to latent anti-Semitism among the immigrants from the former Soviet Union - who constitute some 80 percent of the Jewish population - is much lower than among the "old-timers." Many of them are accustomed to stronger and more visible expressions. Open expressions of anti-Semitism in Germany appear less frequently than in other Western European countries. The official "fostering" of the memory of the victims of Nazism, and of the Jews in particular, has not declined. This memory is likely to remain an important element in shaping the collective German consciousness for the foreseeable future.

 


 

 

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13 Aug 2007 / 29 Av 5767 0