The Pity of It All:
A History of Jews in Germany, 1743-1933
Review by Bonny Fetterman
Among the anecdotes in Amos Elon's
richly-textured history of German Jewry, the most telling is attributed to
Erich Maria Remarque, the exiled author of All Quiet on the Western Front.
Asked whether he missed Germany after his forced departure in the 1930s, he
replied, "Why should I? I'm not Jewish."
In this incisive social history, Elon takes
a fresh look at the deep attachment that German Jews felt for Germany--a
story that he believes has been characterized unfairly. To outsiders, the
infatuation of German Jews with a country that despised and ultimately
rejected them seems incomprehensible. Elon explains: "Their true home, we
now know, was not 'Germany,' but German culture and language. Their true
religion was the bourgeois, Goethean ideal of Bildung (high
Elon opens with the story of the future
philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, who in 1743, at the age of 14, entered
Berlin through a gate reserved for cattle and Jews; he ends the book with
Hannah Arendt's escape from Berlin in 1933. Between these two events, he
calls our attention to two hundred years of German Jewish cultural
achievement that rival the Renaissance. The story of the Jews of Germany, he
argues, should not be judged from the vantage point of hindsight.
"We must see the German Jews in the context
of their time and, at the very least, appreciate their authenticity, the way
they saw themselves and others, often with reason," Elon writes. "For long
periods, they had cause to believe in their ultimate integration, as did
most Jews elsewhere in Western Europe, in the United States, and even in
czarist Russia. It was touch and go almost to the end."
Elon writes about Jews and Jewish converts
to Christianity who were at the forefront of modernity, secularism, science,
and art. "The best among them," he writes, "tended to be indifferent to all
religion and to view both their Jewish and their German heritage with
detached irony." The story unfolds through collective biographies: Rahel
Varnhagen and Henriette Herz, hostesses of Berlin's literary salons; the
poet Heinrich Heine and journalist Ludwig Börne; the painter Max Liebermann
and poet Else Lasker-Schüler; Freud, Marx, and Einstein; literary critic
Walter Benjamin and Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem; political leaders Kurt
Eisner and Walther Rathenau (both assassinated). Aside from a few references
to Buber and Rosenzweig, there is almost no mention of religious Jews or the
modern Jewish denominations born in Germany.
To Elon, the German Jewish experience ended
badly, but that ending was not inevitable, and therein lies the pity. Still,
stories such as the following give us pause: When Victor
Klemperer--professor of linguistics, son of a rabbi, and a reluctant convert
to Christianity--was put under house arrest by the Gestapo, he exclaimed: "I
am German forever, a German 'nationalist'....The Nazis are un-German!"
Despite Elon's admonition to appreciate the history of German Jewry on its
own terms, it is impossible not to see this story through the lens of
hindsight--with both pity and regret.
Reprinted with the permission of "Reform
Judaism" magazine, published by the Union for Reform Judaism
Copyright 2003 by Bonny V. Fetterman
Jews and Jewish Life in Germany
Jews in Berlin