August 5, 1999
Are we destined always to play the role of history's outsiders? I am reminded of that question after reading the story about Ignatz Bubis, 72, who is president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany (see page 12), a legislative body that represents all of Germany's Jews.
Bubis, who is ailing and finishing out his first seven-year term, has turned deeply pessimistic. In a recent interview granted to the German newsweekly Stern, which made national headlines there, he acknowledged failure in bridging the gap between Jewish and non-Jewish Germans. He was deluding himself, he said, when he thought he might be counted a "German of the Jewish faith." These are, we should all recognize, the words of a man who has "lived a life."
As it happens, I interviewed Bubis in his home in Frankfurt about five or six years ago. He had recently become president of the Central Council and, as such, was spokesman for, and leader of, the 40,000-plus Jews then living in Germany. Today, that population has jumped to more than 80,000.
A short, blocky man, he seemed to me a pragmatist: straight to the point, no patience for fooling himself or others in order to generate favorable public relations. I suspect that that frame of mind, plus great physical strength, had helped him survive close to six years as a teen-ager in several German concentration camps.
When the war ended, he fell back on the one skill he had acquired: survival. That period of the late 1940s is a murky one for many Jews who remained in Germany. To survive with no money and few skills often meant dealing with American soldiers in a currency that consisted largely of black-market cigarettes and German prostitutes. Then, with the acquisition of a little capital, some of the more successful Jews began to take on ownership of the bars that served as the black market's central trading places. From there, the road led as far and wide as ambition and imagination and drive could take a person. In Bubis' case, it involved trading diamonds on consignment and then real estate investments. All of which made him an extremely wealthy (and philanthropically generous) man.
We did what we had to do, Bubis had told me without apology. If I could, would I have done some things differently? I hope so, he ended with a shrug.
The point is he seemed never to gloss over his past. If he was optimistic about the future of Jews in Germany -- and he was during our conversation -- he had earned the right to that view. Once, a television interviewer had asked him how it felt to have been a Jewish slumlord in the early 1960s, someone who had helped push out elderly, poor tenants.
He rounded on the man on national television, I was told by others. Yes, he had owned buildings at that time and had engaged in practices that did not exactly make him feel proud today. But a Jewish slumlord? How dare this interviewer, in Germany of all places, single out Jews when the Frankfurt landscape was dotted with realtors of all faiths, and most of them not Jewish, who engaged in the same dubious practices. He wanted an apology then and there.
Some 20-plus years later, in the mid-1980s, when the Frankfurt State Theater produced a Fassbinder play, "The Jew, The City and Garbage," based very loosely, some said, on Bubis' experiences as a realtor in the city during those earlier days, he along with a segment of the Jewish population in Frankfurt (then numbering about 6,000) would not let the play go forward. Each evening, they entered the theater and climbed on stage with the actors, engaging them, and subsequently the audience, in dialogue. That became the substitute for the play.
When I asked a leader of Frankfurt's Jewish community how she squared her action with her ardent commitment to free speech -- she and her husband had survived the war years in several concentration camps, arrested both because they were Jews and active socialists -- she explained to me that she would not have protested had it been a private theater group mounting a play in a private theater. But a state production of an anti-Semitic play in a state theater in Germany -- unconscionable, she said. It cannot be allowed. I tended to agree with her.
It should be emphasized that these were Jews living in Germany in the late 1980s. Most could not at that time acknowledge they were Germans. Their past made that impossible. Nor did their children have an easy time leaping over their parents' history.
But there was hope and desire that, down the road, perhaps in the next generation, Germans and Jews might come together; that perhaps the Jews might turn aside some of their grief, along with the anger directed against the next generation of Germans. Unstated was the assumption that Germans, in turn, would have learned how to remember the shame of their past. Important also was that they would find ways to assume responsibility for a present and future that was always alert to the great moral failure of a past German state and its assenting public.
In the last decade, much of it during Bubis' tenure in office, some of this seemed to be occurring. The Jewish population in Germany has doubled, largely because of a surge in Russian immigration. Meanwhile, there has been a noticeable move toward philo-Semitism, particularly among the intellectuals and upper-middle classes in Germany's large cities. A Jewish museum has been built in Berlin and, in less than a year, has broken all attendance records. And just a few months ago, the German parliament approved the construction of a national Holocaust monument, also in Berlin.
Many younger Jews, including several who serve on the Jewish Central Council with Bubis, disagree with him and see Germany today as a hospitable place that has some of the sternest laws anywhere prohibiting anti-Semitism.
But somewhat like the situation in the United States, Germany has its own outsiders and marginal men. Unemployed youths and remnants of neo-Nazi groups have recently desecrated Jewish cemeteries and Holocaust memorials. Last week, German vandals toppled six of 16 figures at a Weimar concentration camp memorial that had been installed by Stuart Wolfe, a British artist. Bubis himself has been mocked in Berlin by an anonymous anti-Semite who set loose a live pig in Alexanderplatz square with Bubis painted on one side and a Jewish star on the other.
Weary, depressed, a life of great attainment behind him, Bubis apparently believes that he has failed in his last great undertaking -- making Jews feel at home in Germany. "I want to be buried in Israel," he told Stern.
This is not Germany, and we number far more than 80,000 in America. Our past, while not without anti-Semitism in the first half of this century, was paradise compared to life for Jews in Germany during the Nazi era. But many American Jews have talked to me about their sense of being outsiders. This, despite our acceptance and our influence in what has become a pro-Jewish nation.
Perhaps, the reality leads in a different direction; namely, that there is an advantage to being an outsider: A strength -- even an ironic sense of security -- that comes from feeling separate. It is a way for ethnic Jews (primarily secular) to hold fast to their identity. And for those who are more observant to lend a primacy to their religious sense of self. So I toast Ignatz Bubis for the life he has lived. I hope he survives his despair, if that is what it is, and his thoughts of failure. Wherever he is eventually buried, he will be defined first and foremost as a Jew who survived to triumph in the 20th century. No mean feat. -- Gene Lichtenstein