Jewish Journal


March 8, 2007

Making sense of today’s Jewish Germany


Synagoge Innenansicht, Stuttgart. Photo by Roland Halbe

Synagoge Innenansicht, Stuttgart. Photo by Roland Halbe

In 1961, as an all-knowing 22-year-old rabbinical student, I was thinking a lot about postwar Germany. I figured (accurately) that before long I would get to visit the country in which I had been born, and I wrote with youthful certainty that while quite evidently there would never again be a Jewish community in Germany, people of my generation would nevertheless have to come to terms with a world in which we would inevitably encounter Germans; we would need to learn how to react to that inescapable reality.

As I have continually revisited Germany since my first visit in 1963, and even lived in Berlin from 1998 to 2000, I learned to be amused at my earlier shortsightedness about European Jewish life.

With the fastest-growing Jewish community in Europe, Germany is both a somewhat comfortable haven for recently arrived Jews from the former Soviet Union, and a rather settled home for those Jews (mostly former displaced persons) who ended up there shortly after the war.

There are still a number of American Jews unwilling to set foot on German soil -- often people who appear totally comfortable with visiting Austria, which is probably an indication that Jews share their fellow Americans' well-known ignorance of history. But many others are traveling to post-communist/reunited Germany, and especially to Berlin, which seems to exude a special kind of allure not unconnected to its history as the capital of the Weimar Republic.

Despite the exaggerated image of German Jews as assimilationist, including those who were pioneers in a vast range of academic endeavors and those who garnered Nobel Prizes, Berlin was also hospitable to many prominent Ostjuden. Marc Chagall went there to study printmaking with the prominent Jewish artist, Hermann Struck, a close friend of Theodore Herzl. Struck lived in the same building as my grandparents, drew my grandfather's death mask (in 1926), and made aliyah to Haifa in the early 1920s. He also nurtured my father's early Zionism. Haim Nachman Bialik and Isaac Bashevis Singer are among the many writers who spent creatively formative time in Berlin. Even Roman Vishniac, revered for his photographs of pre-Holocaust Polish Jewish life, lived and worked in Berlin for some time.

Whether any of these energies can be recaptured in today's Germany remains to be seen. But there are plenty of creative folks trying. The work of American conceptual artist, Arnold Dreyblatt, is complexly informed by his living in Berlin, and has garnered him commissions worldwide. In 1999, I traveled to Magdeburg for the premiere of an opera about Ethel and Julius Rosenberg; the Berlin-based Yale-graduate composer/conductor, Ari Benjamin Meyers -- who was not yet 30 -- assured me that such an opportunity would not be possible in the States.

There's an astounding level of activity suggesting that Germany may yet again become an important Jewish cultural center, even if it's not there yet.

German immigration laws favoring the entry of Jews, as well as the various levels of local and federal government support (of a kind that would be wholly unthinkable to us) have enabled the development of a wide range of community institutions -- from synagogues to museums.

Given historical memories of Jew-counting, there isn't really an accurate census of Jews in Germany, but it appears to be in the range of plus or minus 100,000 and growing (broadly defined, including unaffiliated and intermarried Jews). That's not a whole lot in a country with over 80 million people, but we need to remember that the pre-Holocaust Jewish population was only in the range of 500,000 -- numbers that don't begin to indicate the ways in which Jewish culture interlaced with German life.

The memory of that mutual influence married with the persistence of the Holocaust as a defining part of German history, not just Jewish history, has made for endless inexplicable oddities in the German-Jewish relationship. Perhaps the most publicized institution is Berlin's new Jewish Museum, of which I had the honor of being deputy director; it opened a couple of days before Sept. 11.

The famous building by Daniel Libeskind houses a federally funded institution, and is much larger (and richer) than the Jewish-community-based Centrum Judaicum, yet another Jewish museum, which has the advantage of its historic site -- what's left of the Neue (New) Synagogue, in one of the areas rich in Jewish historic sites.

My grandfather's will divided up the family wealth in conventionally unspecified ways (leading to nasty lawsuits), but made certain that his seat in that grand synagogue would go to my father. When I attempted to reclaim my place, I was told that, like the actual sanctuary itself, the seating plan no longer exists.

There's probably something tiresome about people like me seeking ways of reconnecting with a past that can't possibly be recaptured. But that's not nearly as interesting as the fascination with all things Jewish that has lots of young Germans traveling to Israel, getting advanced degrees in Jewish studies (Judaistik, it's called there), and working in what seems like a wholly disproportionate number of Jewish institutions.

A recent manifestation of that is the exhibition, Heimat und Exil (Homeland and Exile), which opened at the Berlin Jewish Museum in September and will travel to museums in Bonn and Leipzig, into 2008. I have loaned a number of items from my family archive, including the large 48-star American flag that was hanging in our house for my parents' citizenship party in 1943.

It's an excellent, scholarly, and fascinating exhibition, tracking many of the individual experiences in various lands to which German Jews emigrated. But it represents something very unfamiliar to me, since my parents never used the words "heimat" or "exil" to describe their situation. While treasuring whatever memories could be rescued from the pre-Hitler years, they certainly never thought of Germany as their "homeland" -- a word that might best be saved for the U.S.A. or, in the case of my verbrennte Zionist parents, Palestine (as it then was called).

And they certainly didn't feel themselves in exile, either! As was the case with so many immigrants, super-American patriotism was the order of the day -- especially during those early years, which were also war years.

It's in the minds of these thoughtful and well-meaning young German scholars and curators that the Heimat and Exil terminology appears to be so essential -- something they need to believe about us, as they try to have us re-enter their history as something more than just victims. (By the way, the German word for "victim," opfer, is the same as the word for "sacrifice" -- which makes it a bit spooky to sit in shul when there is a German reading of the Torah -- especially the parts about the ancient Temple service.)

I'm not worried about these many bits and pieces of a puzzle that one can never seem to assemble properly. Rather, I am constantly filled with wonder at all the ironies and disconnects, like the ones I discovered during a recent visit in Munich. I was invited to speak at the Haus der Kunst -- the massive exhibition palace that Hitler built in 1937 for the display of "proper German" art -- on the famous program of contemporary art exhibitions at New York's Jewish Museum in the 1960s.

This program was in connection with two exhibitions -- an extraordinary display of black paintings by Rothko, Rauschenberg, Stella, and Reinhardt, and an Allan Kaprow retrospective -- the late "father of 'happenings'."

This visit also provided me with an opportunity to see the impressive new Munich synagogue that opened last Nov. 9 (Kristallnacht anniversary), as well as the partially opened new Jewish community center and the Jewish Museum, opening next March. It's a stunning array of new construction, grouped around a plaza near St. Jakobs Platz (appropriately just called "Jacobsplatz").

The synagogue, designed by German architects Wolfgang Lorch and Rena Wandel-Hoefer, is a powerfully effective building, with an exterior that combines the massiveness of a heavy stone base (meant to suggest the temple -- permanence) with a floating glass upper section (meant to suggest the Tabernacle -- wandering). The simple interior is elegant, luminous and inspiring.

Appropriately, the adjacent community center building makes less of an architectural statement, but includes a variety of beautiful and utilitarian spaces. I was especially impressed by the subtle ways in which security issues are handled so that, unlike most such places, the complex neither looks nor feels like an armed camp.

When the Munich Jewish Museum opens next spring, it will serve as a challenging counterpoint to the Berlin Jewish museums -- entry to each of which suggests storming Fort Knox. In contrast to the nearby synagogue, with its solid Western Wall-like base, the simple four-story museum is totally glazed at ground level, with three floors of entirely neutral black-box gallery spaces. Without the usual architectural ego displays that compromise most museums' utility (Libeskind's notable Berlin building is a prime example), this promises to be an exciting adventure that will significantly add to Munich's already rich museum amenities.

With its fewer than 9,000 Jews, Munich is the home to my favorite index of Jewish life in Germany: Literaturhandlung -- a bookstore and sort of intellectual salon run by the dynamic Rachel Salamander, one of the most interesting forces among today's German Jewry. Just perusing the vast array of books on Jewish topics -- a surprisingly large number of them originally published in German -- impresses the visitor with the extent of interest in all things Jewish.

This isn't just the place to learn about German Jewish history or find the latest Philip Roth novel in its German translation. The number of serious Jewish works written by German scholars -- on literature, sociology, history, and even traditional texts -- is staggering, since they clearly are not aimed only at a Jewish audience. It's yet another contemporary oddity that brings one ever farther away from making sense of whatever it is that's going on in today's Jewish Germany.

Don't even try!

Tom Freudenheim is a retired museum director who writes about art and cultural issues.

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