Yascha Mounk’s “Stranger in My Own Country: A Jewish Family in Modern Germany” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26) starts on an ironic note and stays there. Two decades after the end of World War II, when the latest wave of official anti-Semitism swept over Communist-ruled Poland in the 1960s, Mounk’s family sought places of refuge around the world, and his grandfather, Leon, ended up not in Israel or America, but in Germany.
“Leon had once taken the last train out of Warsaw to escape the approach of the Wehrmacht,” the author writes. “Now, with the help of an aging Austrian comrade, he successfully smuggled himself into Germany.”
So it happened that the author was born and raised as Jew in post-war Germany, an experience he shares in the pages of his rich and remarkable memoir. Amid the tectonic upheavals of history that his family endured and survived, one human life seems frail indeed. But, for Mounk, history remains a dream, as James Joyce famously put it, from which he struggles to awaken. “As a German Jew, you don’t have to make a special effort to remember the past,” he explains. “The past, usually in manners most surreal, will find a way of imposing itself on you.”
Here is yet another point of irony. Like many other assimilated Jews in Germany in the era of the Holocaust, Jewishness was imposed upon Mounk by his fellow German citizens. “ never celebrated my bar mitzvah, and feel far more comfortable on a soccer field or at the library than in a synagogue,” he explains. “Even so, as I grew up, I came to feel more and more Jewish – and less and less German.” The reason, he reveals, is not the “dark underbelly of lingering, even resurgent anti-Semitism” in Germany.
“Far from being openly anti-Semitic, most Germans I met were so keen to prove to me that they weren’t anti-Semitic that they treated me with the kind of nervous niceness usually reserved for the mentally handicapped or the terminally ill,” he writes in phrases that obliquely refer to the first victims of Nazi mass murder. “The effect of their pity and their virtue was to leave both of us with the sense that I couldn’t possibly have anything in common with them.”
Mounk concedes that German attitudes toward the Nazis and their Jewish victims were “radically transformed” starting in the 1960s. On the 40th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat and surrender, the president of Germany declared that “the 8th of May was a day of liberation,” because, as he put it, “t liberated us all from the dehumanizing system of National Socialism’s violent rule.” Even so, the tiny numbers of Jews in Germany — measured in the tens of thousands among a German population of 60 million as late as the 1990s — meant that few Germans had any contact with a living Jew: “Each Jew,” the author jokes, “had to be shared out among two thousand Gentiles.” Only with the fall of the Soviet bloc did the Jewish population grow by 200,000 or so.
Yet the taint of anti-Semitism, both historical and contemporary, is shown to reveal itself in subtle ways. In 1993, several of the shops in the small town of Laupheim, where Mounk and his mother then lived, announced the celebration of their 60th anniversaries, an unexplained reference to the year when the Nazis came to power and Jewish shops were “Aryanized” by compulsory transfer to their new German owners. Even when a gesture of reconciliation was made, as when Willy Brandt fell to his knees at the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto in 1970, graffiti could be seen on the streets of Germany: “Brandt an die Wand!” (“Up against the wall, Brandt!”). Mounk himself recalls that when he identified himself as a Jew in a middle-school classroom, the rest of the students broke out in laughter, and he was sent out of the room to sit with a Turkish student while the other students were given Catholic or Protestant religious instruction.
Even the phenomenon of “philo-Semitism” in certain German circles was paradoxical, according to the author. “[T]he very same impulse to draw lessons from Auschwitz can have much more pernicious consequences,” he writes. “The slow descent of the leading members of Germany’s 1960 student movement into violence and terrorism is perhaps the most extreme example.” Once again, the Jews were victimized: “Eventually, the violent fringes of the 1968 movement would invoke the name of Auschwitz to justify lethal attacks on Jews,” he explains. “Identifying fascism with capitalism, capitalism with the Federal Republic, the Federal Republic with the United States, the Untied States with Israel, and Israel with all Jews, they soon came to think of Jews as the true Fascists.”
Mounk’s engaging and provocative book amounts to a kind of intellectual and emotional self-portrait of the author himself and, at the same time, a historical and cultural profile of post-war Germany. “Perhaps Germany really is on the way toward becoming unreflectively, unselfconsciously normal,” he allows. But Mounk, who is now a doctoral candidate at Harvard, has voted with his feet: “[A]s I decided to leave Germany, thoughts about what it would mean to live there as a Jew were at the front of my mind,” he writes. “Today, they remain a good part of the reason why I can’t really imagine ever moving back.”
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book, “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris” (Norton/Liveright) has been selected as one of the Best Books of 2013 by the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Public Library.