- [ Editor’s note: The writer of this very thoughtful piece contacted me as a result of my article on the book I Sleep in Hitler’s Room.
- I am very grateful that she did, and hope readers will read this piece carefully. It is a real eye opener.
- Aliana Brodmann is a bilingual writer, translator and journalist in English and German. She is the daughter of Jewish Holocaust survivors from Poland. Her publications include: seven books, numerous articles and human interest stories in German and American newspapers and magazines. She was President of the PEN Centre of German Writers Abroad, the former German Exile PEN Centre, from 2003-2005.
- Her new book of short stories in German SCHANDE- eine Liebe in Deutschland
- (transl: DISGRACE – a love affair in Germany) is in progress.
JEWS IN GERMANY – AN UNCOMFORTABLE EXISTENCE
by Aliana Brodmann
Whenever I tell people abroad that I was born in Germany, or worse yet, that my parents- Jewish Holocaust survivors- never emigrated after World War II, the reaction is surprise and often outrage. How could they? How can they? The idea that people would voluntarily live among those who had murdered their families and robbed and abused them is inconceivable to others, particularly non-Jews and those who had emigrated under duress and with enormous sacrifices. The prevailing opinion is that Jews would only live in Germany because reparations of astronomic proportions were being paid to them or because they might be enjoying some other kind of extraordinary benefits, which compensate them for the unpalatable co-existence with their killers. Nobody seems to understand that most Post World War II Jews, particularly the Holocaust survivors, were emotionally too damaged to have been capable of any kind of coherent thought, not to speak of an ability to make sensible decisions about their lives. The Nazi persecution remained too much of an inescapable part of their daily existence. In addition they later suffered age-related impairments. Their descendents carry the multifaceted burden of their tragic legacy.
Medieval Gate leading into the city of Frankfurt
photo by Rhonda Spivak
Today two types of Jews live in Germany: those who were displaced or happened to find themselves there by the end of World War II and who had stayed for lack of opportunity or ability to leave, and those who built careers because they were Jews, in the media and in politics by conveying an amicable co-existence with Germans and thereby contributing to the desired image of a New Germany in which Jews appear to be living as equals alongside their German neighbors. These Jews call themselves proud Germans of Jewish faith, for which they are officially rewarded by German institutions with honors, grand gestures and decorations, while privately old attitudes and prejudices continued to prevail among the German public. In other words: both Jews and non-Jews are engaged in a strange sort of masquerade.
In discussing this self-representation, which is surely one of the strangest Jewish/ German phenomena, with a German non-Jewish journalist in New York recently, she protested: “What do you mean? I know many Jews in Berlin who consider themselves utterly German.”
Nobody seems to ponder, how and in what way Jews could possibly begin to imagine what it might feel like to be German, nor what kind of Germans specifically they think they are. But more importantly my colleague in New York didn’t even realize that her objection exactly confirmed my observation. It was only when I replied: “But that exactly is my point, since you for instance still see these so-called Germans as Jews,” that she fell silent and reproachfully so, as though I had deliberately trapped her.
My family, in any event, did not belong to this group, but rather to the first one, living a resolutely Jewish and pitifully deprived existence. We had little to do with the outside world and had only when absolutely necessary the most strained and uncomfortable exchanges with our German neighbors, who avoided us whenever they could. In the 50’s when I was growing up, one lived with a leaden silence that hung heavy and mercilessly above us, creating tension and fear of what would happen if it ever broke open. There was also a kind of stench that permeated the environment, incorporating the smell of burning coal in the winter-time that periodically threatened to suffocate you.
By what means my parents lived I could not understand, though it was obvious to me that they didn’t belong there and that they had endured something devastating beyond words that had ravaged their lives. This haunting mystery constantly preoccupied my mind and my imagination. I lived out my desperate lack of knowledge along with the sparse information I was able to extract from strange fantasies and terrible nightmares. My parents refused to talk about their painful past, which they must have felt too horrible for a child to know about. Of course, as we know today, that they simply lacked the language to communicate what they had endured. They felt, as most survivors, besmirched by what they had experienced and, contrary to today, nobody even wanted to know or hear anything about the Holocaust in Germany or any place else. The Germans kept silent for their own reasons.
I knew that there were these two groups living in this reeking ashen world: Germans and Jews. I also knew that our incredible sadness had something to do with them, that it was too devastating for my parents to talk about and that they, the Germans, pretended to have no clue as to what it had to do with them. There was an unwritten law that neither my parents, nor they could be asked about this disquieting circumstance. A horrible, huge thing that nobody wanted to talk about seemed to be stuck in everybody’s throat like some kind of indigestible obstruction, which everybody maneuvered around uncomfortably, accusing each other with highly charged silence. Despite this bizarre choreography, however, it became quite clear even to me with time, that the Germans had done something indescribably horrendous to us and that our fault lay in getting on their nerves by confronting them with it by our mere existence.
I was somehow made to understand, that we were guests, and that if one was a guest, one had to swallow whatever one was served, and even feign appreciation despite feeling like having to throw up. Because of my susceptibility to vomiting my mother introduced Princess Margaret to me as an example of exquisite refinement for having proven herself by eating live vermin with exemplary dignity as a guest in Africa. This was to convince me to work through the unappetizing muck I was served daily with just as much discipline. My mother couldn’t tell me, though, whether the princess hadn’t actually thrown up unbeknownst later somewhere in the jungle. She insisted that, no matter what, a lady, particularly a princess, wouldn’t be caught dead throwing up ever in any public place. That was why I usually threw up in private. Often I didn’t make it to the toilet in time, which was why I usually preferred to stay at home. In any event, I always felt sick. One lived with chronic nausea.
I eventually understood that my presence constituted a provocation to the Germans. I could tell by their looks of annoyance, particularly when I wore my chain with the Star of David around my neck or indicated may jewishness in some other equally provocative manner.
There were very precise distinctions as to what was German and what unGerman. And we were distinctly unGerman. This continued after World War II, when Germans resented that food and clothing be given to the refugees that had been displaced to Germany by force. They became particularly angry, when those tortured and robbed by the Nazis started asking to be reimbursed for their losses. Even those returning to Germany after the War, if they weren’t already despised for being Jewish, were taunted traitors, who had sunned themselves abroad while Germany suffered the War. The differentiation between them and us, German and unGerman had continued seamlessly.
No wonder, that decidedly ultra German authors like Thomas Mann, who returned from exile after the capitulation, were accused of an unGerman sentiment because of his critique of the Nazis. Any critical view of Germany, then as today, was and is considered unGerman, with a particular concern being Germany’s reputation abroad, which Thomas Mann was accused of having damaged. Actually the height of insolence: to rob, pillage, rape and kill, while demanding that one’s good reputation be preserved. There were only few and far between, who saw those returning emigrants as representatives of the true Germany, who had upheld Germany’s honorable name abroad and would be able to bring about a spiritual renewal at home. The majority of Germans confronted them with animosity. The playwright Berthold Brecht and the German Chancellor Willy Brandt are examples of those who had to bear the hostility Germans encountered upon their return from exile.
At some point I understood that Germans hadn’t accidentally killed Jews or had done so to comply with orders and under the threat of death, but on purpose and often menacingly for sheer sadistic pleasure. This I found extremely troubling because I had imagined deliberate killers to look visibly villainous, not oatmeal-colored and almost invisible as our neighbors in contrast to us Jews, who despite all efforts not to draw attention, always did.
Later I learnt, and with great emphasis, that not all Germans had killed. That some of them had even had Jewish friends. Only when they were asked about these friends, they never knew what had happened to them or where they had gone. Of course I wondered, what kind of friendships these might have been. After my initial relief to know that not all Germans hadbeen killers I realized that knowing this, one had to look really closely to see, who of them had blood on their hands and who didn’t. Also troubling new questions came up which were extraordinarily uncomfortable, such as: who exactly had done the killings, where, and how and why?
But there had also been – as we all know now – and what I of course had known all along- incredible looting. Everything belonging to Jews had been up for grabs. I knew about this because they had stolen my parents’ houses and everything in it. Even Jewish shops and entire businesses were officially confiscated from Jews. That, I figured, must have been extremely advantageous. Talking about the looting and stealing was especially taboo. Stealing couldn’t be explained away quite as easily as the destruction of people who had been declared a danger to Germany and unworthy of living. Stealing didn’t fit into the Nazi ideology of the Master Race. This was why the killing of undesirables eventually became a legitimate admission and an acceptable point of departure, not, however, any kind of reference to: when, where, how and everything else.
Some time ago I read that at a social gathering the late author, Primo Levi, had been asked by the wife of a German diplomat, where he had learned to speak German so fluently. When he responded truthfully: “In Auschwitz”, she had turned away with disgust, as though he had personally offended her. This incident reminded me of many experiences where I had caused irritation because of my honesty and naïveté. Jewish life experiences are considered insults, if not provocations to Germans.
A publisher of some of my books told me, that as a young girl after the War, she had been forced by the Americans to view documentary films about the concentration camps. I initially thought that she was expressing her outrage over the Nazi atrocities against the Jews. Only gradually did I realize that she had considered it offensive to be shown what her people had done to my parents and grandparents. The realization that she had considered the film and not the atrocities offensive explains the attitude of Germans to their crimes.
A high official in the German Foreign Service once remarked to me: “What is Germany actually being accused of (regarding the Holocaust)? After all, it is only because of our extraordinary abilities, our work ethics and discipline that we were able to perfectly execute what others have endeavored or are still endeavoring, isn’t it?”
Since I had long ago given up the habit of talking and therefore taken to writing, I didn’t respond, which gave him the opportunity to quickly conclude: ” Therefore one could really only accuse us of having extraordinary abilities, work ethics and discipline.”
In other words: not of robbing, killing, torturing or raping.
This attitude explains, why according to a German writer:”Most Germans have on a very basic level not understood, what they have actually done to the Jews.” It is no coincidence that no acceptable design for a Holocaust memorial in Berlin was generated for years, despite decades of effort. The vast compilation of ludicrous designs with even more ridiculous inscriptions for this memorial is symbolic of Germany’s evasiveness regarding her past.
The Germans simply haven’t understood what they did to us because they still don’t accept us as equals, human beings entitled to equal respect. And we are, among other things, speechless and unable to comprehend this gravely offensive mindset, which is infused with centuries of prejudices transmitted though Christian religions, folklore, literature, the arts and finally Hitler’s cunning propaganda.
For some of us the damage we have suffered manifests itself in a variation of the Stockholm Syndrome that presents as pathological submissiveness to Germans and shaming complicity. And not only those of us directly ravaged by the Holocaust, but even Jews around the world as renowned as Danny Goldhagen and Steven Spielberg, who were quoted as having said they considered their German honors to be the most significant ones they have received. Henry Kissinger described himself as touched to tears when he was made honorary citizen in his German hometown, which he had fled with his parents as a child. Even the late Jehudi Menuhin had shortly before his death allowed himself to utter statements, which could have well used some prior contemplation. These fellow Jews have all been unable to realize that the honors bestowed upon them were merely a ruse to generate prominent Jewish voices outside of Germany to hail Germany’s present day new image. It is still more important for Germany to have a clean reputation than to actually be clean, which is nowadays still best accomplished by positive Jewish voices abroad. Not only is Germany’s image in Germany is being promoted by display-Jews, but also Germany’s image in the world. While the sensationally talented Germans are slyly pursuing their interests the deeply disturbed Jews laud the non-existent emperor’s new clothes.
The gaping absence of wholesome Jewish life in current day Germany becomes apparent, where one generally looks for signs of life and continuity: in the condition of children and the state of their literature. The utter nonexistence of even just one story among all the children’s books on the market in Germany today which might refer to one live Jewish child in the country, speaks for itself. The fact that in stark contrast to this absence there are mountains of books about dead Jews must be contemplated.
The owner of a well-known children’s bookstore in Munich talked to me about the strange behavior of her customers who come into her store in the winter time to purchase Chanukah calendars, which she carries along with her Advent calendars for Christmas. She had noticed that the customers buying the Chanukah calendars take them to the cash register almost secretively, “as though they don’t want to be seen purchasing them”. She had given a perfect example of what it feels like to live as a Jew in Germany today: trying publicly to forever conform in quiet negation of one’s true identity, many Jews live two identities.
The most poignant testament to this impaired existence is a slim volume published by Kiepenheuer & Witsch with quotations by Jewish children. It is the only reference on the German book market that Jewish children exist there. In reading the quotations of these children I found that their fears, reservations and wishes in the 90’s were dreadfully similar to my own 40 years ago in the Germany of post World War II: their discomfort over notknowing whether their neighbors knew that they were Jewish; what they might do if they knew; all their associated insecurities together with their enormous fear about the general animosity towards foreigners.
The editor of a prominent children’s book publishing house said to me:” Stories about Jews don’t sell. They belong to the ” problem books like books about abuse etc.”
Ten years ago I surmised: “Normalcy will have arrived in Germany when Jews will no longer be integrated into literature because of their Jewish issues but as human beings, when they are called by their names like everyone else. Not: So-and-so the Jew, but Moritz Schwarz, the grocer, journalist or teacher.” Accordingly, we must still be light-years away from any kind of normalcy.
We are a people so impaired by our abuse from the Germans, that under the kindest of conditions it would take generations upon generations until we had regained our confidence and our dignity. Only this can explain the satirical novel by Michael Degen, Blondi, where a Jew is so desperate to be part of society that he doesn’t mind turning into Hitler’s dog. Our pain, our despair and our speechlessness are – as they were in the Thirties – their ticket to further digressions. Today there are again beatings of Jews in the streets of Germany with the police often unable to find the perpetrators, there are anti-Semitic declarations in public, which are being explained away as new unencumbered opinions, since of course they couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the old anti-Semitism due to the length of time that has passed since the 30’s. Nobody addresses the fact that after 1945 the same politicians, teachers, physicians and clerks remained in their positions and thereby promulgated their Nazi ideologies and contaminated the next generations. Nobody seems to believe that behavioral patterns, assumptions and beliefs within families and in the immediate environment influence the thoughts and actions of generations, particularly if nothing is being done to change these deeply ingrained patterns and with them the lack of German empathy for the Jewish soul.
In fact, the majority of Germans today want it to be understood, that they have no relationship to the past of their families or the history of their country. Or to quote the author Martin Walser, who voiced the collective German sentiment. When being honored with the venerable German Peace Prize for Literature he said that he: “chooses to look away whenever faced with the Holocaust,” starting an inflammatory public dialogue, which has been playing itself out ever since. A highly offensive statement to us Jews, still suffering the pain of the Nazi persecution, but also because we are a people defined by our collective memory, ever aware of how much our past is part of our present life. This too distinguishes us from the Germans: our awareness of how much the past is part of the present.
One worries, with what other kind of perceptional difficulties Germans are plagued and what else they choose to selectively include or exclude from their lives? We Jews in any event live with an ever present consciousness about our past, beginning with Abraham. We have a burning desire to know our individual family histories. We are aware that our individual as well as our collective history tells us, who we are and thereby gives us a sense of our possibilities in the world. We are taught that to claim the accomplishments of our predecessors, we must also bear the responsibility of any failings. We know that by looking away one becomes guilty.
No civilized human being turns away from a suffering person, but offers to ease the pain, particularly when he or she knows that this pain was inflicted by his or her parents or others in their immediate environment. To explain away a basic humanitarian responsibility by claiming: I was born later, this is none of my business, it all doesn’t concern me, is not only immoral and uncivilized. Today’s Germans, in fact, project a public image of commitment to humanitarian concerns of fighting diseases and human rights transgressions in the world. Hardly anyone would openly state that turning away from a person suffering AIDS or cancer is appropriate because they didn’t cause it. The call to turning away from Jewish suffering is grossly anti-Semitic. As it is to demand life threatening conditions that would be considered unreasonable for any other country as appropriate for Israel, the land of the Jews and only democracy in the Near East.
This reality is finally hitting home even to the German display-Jews, who had in their psychological confusion, their painfully established blind- and deafness tried to integrate themselves into the new Germany, but can now no longer keep up with the charade. To swallow the shame of having to witness Germans openly vocalizing in public forums what they had hitherto only dared to whisper among themselves is difficult to digest even for the most resistant Jewish stomachs such as Charlotte Knobloch’s, the former head of the Central Council of Jews.
A gaping absence in this public dialog are voices from all those Jewish institutions that claim to “ fight anti-Semitism” while living off their membership’s generous support. As in the past, the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee and others were complicitly silent when a recent public debate on circumcision ensued in Germany and escalated into condemnation of this religious ceremony practiced by Jews for over 4000 years as a human rights violation. Hannah Arendt might be turning in her grave.
Within this context it is obvious that the Peace Prize award to the Jewish author Fritz Stern was intended to temporarily placate the uproar against the disgrace of awarding it to Martin Walser the preceding year, regardless of how deserving Stern was of this honor.
This year’s bestowment of the Adorno Prize on the Jewish-American scholar Judith Butler, an extreme critic of Israel, can only mean that Germany is now also positioning itself to legitimize it’s increased distancing from the land of the Jews, which it had hitherto only begrudgingly supported to maintain appearances.
Copyright Aliana Brodmann 2000, 2012